J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 04, 2021

John Adams on Hutchinson’s Death

John Adams was caustic about a lot of people, including sometime political allies. But his longest and deepest hatred appears to have been for Thomas Hutchinson.

Adams’s early legal and political career coincided with Hutchinson’s rise to being chief justice and then governor of Massachusetts, on top of his long tenure as lieutenant governor.

He came to see Hutchinson as the province’s arch-villain, even worse than Francis Bernard and other officials sent from Britain because he was betraying his own society.

Adams’s enmity colored how he recalled events later in life, such as the “writs of assistance” case and his work defending sailors for the murder of Lt. Henry Panton. He even blamed Hutchinson for helping to break up his friendship with Jonathan Sewall.

As early as the day after Boston’s first anti-Stamp Act protest, Adams wrote that Hutchinson had a “very ambitious and avaricious Disposition.” In 1772 he accused the governor of playing on “the Passions and Prejudices, the Follies and Vices of great Men in order to obtain their Smiles, Esteem and Patronage.” After the war arrived, Adams blamed the “mazy Windings of Hutchinsons Heart, and the serpentine Wiles of his Head.”

That enmity lasted into Hutchinson’s life as a pensioned exile in London. On 24 Mar 1780 Adams, then an American diplomat in Paris, wrote with undisguised pleasure about the supposed signs of the former governor’s downfall:
from several late Paragraphs in the Papers, and from Mr. [Charles James] Fox’s severe Observations in the House of Commons upon Governor Hutchinson, calling him in Substance, “The Firebrand” that lighted up all the Fire between the two Countries, it seems pretty clear, that it is in Contemplation to take away all these Salaries and Pensions.
That didn’t happen.

Hutchinson passed away on 3 June, as I related yesterday. Two weeks later, Adams passed on the news to the Congress:
Governor Hutchinson is dead. Whether the late popular Insurrections [the Gordon Riots], or whether the Resolutions of Congress of the eighteenth of March respecting their Finances, by suddenly extinguishing the last Rays of his hopes, put a sudden End to his life, or whether it was owing to any other Cause, I know not. He was born to be the Cause and the Victim of popular Fury, Outrage and Conflagrations.
Adams didn’t list the likelihood that Hutchinson died because he was in his late sixties and in poor health. Indeed, on that same 17 June Adams expressed no doubt about the cause in a private letter to his wife: “Governor Hutchinson fell down dead at the first appearance of Mobs.”

In fact, Elisha Hutchinson’s account makes clear that his father “conversed well and freely upon the riot in London,” and wasn’t greatly concerned about it. But that wasn’t the story John Adams wanted to believe.

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