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The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson

June 2024
38min read


The paradoxical and find tragic story of America’s most prominent Loyalist—a man caught between king and country— is the subject of a new book by Professor Bernard Bailyn of Harvard, who won both the Pulitizer and Bankcroft awards in 1868 for an earlier work on the American Revulotion. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinsion has just been published by Harvard University Press. Our article is made up of excerpts from the first two chapters subtle and fascinating study.


On the night of August 26, 1765, a mob, more violent i han any yet seen in America, more violent indeed than any that would be seen in the entire course of the Revolution, attacked the Boston mansion of Thomas Hutchinson, chief justice and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Hardly giving Hutchinson and his family time to flee from the supper table into the streets, the rioters smashed in the doors with axes, swarmed through the rooms, ripped off wainscotting and hangings, splintered the furniture, beat down the inner walls, tore up the garden, and carried off into the night, besides £900 sterling in cash, all the plate, decorations, and clothes that had sunived, and destroyed or scattered in the mud all of Hutchinson’s books and papers, including the manuscript of Volume I of his History of the Colony and Province of Massachussets-Bay and the collection of historical papers that he had been gathering for years as the basis for a public archive. I lie determination of the mob was as remarkable as its savagery: “they worked for three hours at the cupola before they could get it down,” (îovernor Francis Bernard reported; only the heavy brickwork construction of the walls prevented their raxing the building completely, “though they worked at it till daylight. The next day the streets were found scattered with money, plate, gold rings, etc. which had been dropped in carrying oM.” Hutchinson was convinced that he himself would have been killed if he had not given in to his daughter’s frantic pleading and (led. He estimated the loss of property at ©2,218 sterling.

People of all political persuasions, everywhere in the colonies, were shocked at such “savageness unknown in a civilized country.” Hutchinson appeared in court the next day without his robes, and as the young lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., who would later pursue him like a fury, reported, the chief justice, “with tears starting from his eyes and a countenance which strongly told the inward anguish of his soul,” addressed the court. He apologized for his appearance: he had no other clothes but what he wore, he said, and some of that was borrowed. His family was equally destitute, and their distress was “infinitely more insupportable than what I feel for myself.”

Sensible that I am innocent, that all charges against nitarc false, I cannot help feeling—and though I am not obliged to give an answer to all the questions that may be put me by every lawless person, yet I call GOD to witness (and I would not for a thousand worlds call my Maker to witness to a falsehood)—I say, I call my Maker to witness that I never, in New England or Old, in Great Britain or America, neither directly nor indirectly, was aiding, assisting, or supporting, or in the least promoting or encouraging what is commonly called the S TAMP A CT . but on the contrary, did all in my power, and strove as much as in me lay. to prevent it. This is not declared through timidity, for I have nothing to fear. They can only take away my life, which is of but little value when deprived of all its comforts, all that is dear to me, and nothing surrounding me but the most piercing distress.

I hope the eyes of the people will be opened, that they will see how easy it is for some designing, wicked men to spread false reports, raise suspicions and jealousies in the minds of the populace and enrage them against the innocent. Dut if [they are] guilty, this is not the way to proceed. The laws of our country arc open to punish those who have oRended. This destroying all peace and order of the community— all will feel its effects . And I hope all will see how easily the people may be deluded, enflamed, and carried away with madness against an innocent man.

I pray GOD give us Better hearts!

What had caused the riot? Resistance to the Stamp Act had genet ally been violent; and individuals, especially the would-be stamp distributors, had commonly been attacked. Hut no one in America had been as deliberately and savagely assaulted as Hutchinson, though he had not been appointed a stamp master and though, as he said, he had opposed the Stamp Act. What was the meaning and what would be the ultimate effect of the attack?

On July fourth, 1776, almost eleven stormy years after the sack of his mansion, Thomas Hutchinson, by now the exiled Loyalist governor of Massachusetts, was awarded an honorary doctorate of civil laws by Oxford University. “Probably no distinction which Hutchinson ever attained was more valued by him,” his nineteenth-century biographer wrote; certainly none so fittingly symbolizes the tragedy of his life. For he was honored as an American- the most distinguished as well as the most loyal colonialborn official of his time. Provincial assemblyman, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, councillor, lieutenant governor, chief justice, governor, he had gone through the entire course of public offices and of official honors, and he was in addition America’s most accomplished historian. But to the people who on the day of Hutchinson’s award proclaimed their nation’s independence, he was one of the most hated men on earth—more hated than Lord North, more hated than George in (both of whom, it was believed, he had secretly influenced), and more feared than the sinister Earl of Bute.

“Vile hypocrite! Traitor!” I wrote a Boston citizen, und finally, bursting with indignation, “Oh the villain!” “The distrust and the animosity that Thomas Hntchinson inspired… are morbid, pathological, paranoiac.…”

The distrust and the animosity Thomas Hutchinson inspired surpass any ordinary bounds. The reactions he stirred are morbid, pathological, paranoiac in their intensity.

John Adams was transfixed by him: for fifteen years suspicion, fear, and hatred of Hutchinson were ruling passions. He first recorded his suspicions of Hutchinson in 1760, when he was twenty-five. Five years later he poured out the first of a series of rhetorical cascades against Hutchinson’s “very ambitious and avaricious disposition,” condemned his taking “four of the most important offices in the province into his own hands,” and spoke with bitter ness of his secret network of officeholding kin who together created the “amazing ascendency of one family, foundation sufficient on which to erect a tyranny.” Hutchinson, he said, had not only “monopolized almost all the power of the government to himself and his family” but “has been endeavoring to procure more, both on this side and the other side of the Atlantic.” He was a “courtier,” Adams said, slyly manipulating “the passions and prejudices, the follies and vices of great men in order to obtain their smiles, esteem, and patronage and consequently their favors and preferments”; he was a dissembler, a man of a thousand disguises, hungry for power, for office, and for gain: from him “the liberties of this country [have] more to fear … than from any other man, nay from all other men in the world.” A decade later Adams’ hatred of Hutchinson had become obsessive: “the mazy windings of Hutchinson’s heart and the serpentine wiles of his head,” he wrote, were primary sources of the Anglo-American conflict.

Adams’ opinions, in this case as in so many others, were extreme, but in differing degrees they were widely shared. Josiah Quincy, Jr., convinced “that all the measures against America were planned and pushed on by Bernard and Hutchinson,” went to England in the winter of 1774, with the support of the provincial leadership, in large part to counteract the malevolent influence of Hutchinson and other Tories on administration policy. Samuel Adams, whose political life was formed in struggles with Hutchinson, denied that Hutchinson had true greatness even in evil,for while he was as mad with ambition and lust for power as Caesar, he lacked the c:ourage and intrepidity needed to reduce a free people to slavery. And Mercy Otis Warren in her histoiy of the Revolution devoted page after page to the pernicious influence of that “dark, intriguing, insinuating, haughty, and ambitious” man—so diligent a student of “the intricacies of Machiavellian policy,” so subtle a solicitor of popular support, so hypocritical in his sanctity and ruthless in his lust for power—and to the fatal consequences of “his pernicious administration.”

A “tool of tyrants,” a “damn’d arch traitor ” Hutchinson was hissed in absentia at the official dinner to welcome his successor, General Gage, and when later the Revolutionary mob found his portrait in his house in suburban Milton, they stabbed it with bayonets and tore out one of the eyes. The judicious Franklin spoke of Hutchinson’s duplicity and in 1772 decided that he would have to be destroyed politically if the British Empire were to be preserved.

His official patrons distrusted him. Governor Thomas Pownall, who in 1757 recommended Hutchinson’s appointment to the lieutenant governorship in a letter of elaborate praise—“He has (and deserves, I will pawn my credit and honor upon it) universally the best character of any man in this continent, both as to his head and heart”—left Massachusetts three years later enraged at the conduct of his associate. Both Sir Francis Bernard, who succeeded Pownall as governor in 1760 and who served as Hutchinson’s personal agent in London in 1769-1771, and Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies during the same years, who appointed Hutchinson to the governorship, disapproved of his conduct at several points. F.ven Hillsborough’s benign successor, Lord Dartmouth, the soul of Christian charity, who was extremely well disposed to Hutchinson and eventually became a friend of his, came to believe that Hutchinson had blundered badly as governor and in a bizarre episode attempted, at great cost to his official dignity as secretary of state, to correct what he considered to be Hutchinson’s most costly error. And no less an authority than Lord North, according to the contemporary annalist George Chalmers, believed that Hutchinson, through his indiscretions, had personally precipitated the outbreak of the Revolution.

Thus the great men of the day; but what of more ordinary opinion? One of the most remarkable documents of the age survives to testify. Through the decade that followed the Stamp Act a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr, unknown to history except for a passing involvement with the Sons of Liberty, carefully collected the leading Boston newspapers as they were published and preserved them for posterity in four huge volumes. Not only collected them but, “at my shop amidst my business &c., when I had not leisure to be exact,” annotated them, elaborately, with pungent personal comments on the news of the day and with cross-references in his own pagination, backward and forward to documents supporting or refuting the charges printed in the newspaper columns. And more than that: Dorr bound into the volumes the most important pamphlets of the time and then in conclusion indexed it all, volume by volume, with analytical categories that reveal as clearly as any document of the time the compelling concerns of an ordinary man.

Hutchinson is among the first of these concerns. Dorr’s index and commentaries catalogue Hutchinson’s errors, correct his misstatements, and warn at every turn of his evil intentions. A columnist’s claim that the colonies “had no rights of our own” is identified by Dorr in the margin as “Hutchinsonian doctrine.” When Hutchinson’s zeal is praised, Dorr scribbles, “no compliment to him; quite the reverse, as coming from such an infamous ministry or their tools.” He footnotes a vague newspaper reference to government advisors known to be “supple eno’ to bow the knee of servility to the tool of a tool of an haughty Thane,” with the explanation “Hutchinson (governor) is a tool to Lord Hillsborough, Lord Hillsborough a tool to Bute, and the Earl of Bute a tool of the Devil!” Dorr will hear nothing of Hutchinson’s professed desire to promote the prosperity of his country: “words,” he scribbles in the margin, “are but wind; actions speak louder.” He jubilantly records a report that “Governor Hutchinson attempted to cut his throat”; explodes in the margins when the hated name appears—“vile hypocrite! and slanderer,” “arch fiend,” “traitor!”—; and at one point writes simply, in smoldering indignation, “Oh the villain!”

There were some, of course, who disagreed. Hulchinson’s protégé, in-law, and colleague Peter Oliver, in his “Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion,” wrote a lyric apostrophe to Hutchinson’s virtues, which he summarized as “an acumen of genius united with a solidity of judgment and great regularity of manners”—qualities, he pointed out, that nature only sparingly confers. Some who knew Hutchinson only by reputation were amazed when they actually met him. The Bostonians, William Eden wrote in 1774, shortly after Hutchinson arrived in England, “thought Hutchinson a tyrant—I met him on Thursday last, at the Attorney General’s—they might as well have taken a lamb for a tiger.” But these were minority opinions. The feeling was widespread among well-informed Americans that Thomas Hutchinson had betrayed his country; that for sordid, selfish reasons he had accepted and abetted —even stimulated—oppressive measures against the colonies; that he had supported them even in the face of a threat of armed resistance; and that in this sense his personal actions lay at the heart of the Revolution. So it was said, again and again. Was it true?


It is hard to imagine a man less disposed by background or heritage to betray his countrymen than Thomas Hutchinson. His family had helped to found New England, and they had prospered with its growth. Until Thomas only one of the family had been famous: the notorious seventeenth-century Anne, who had refused to adjust her singular convictions to the will of the community, for which she had been banished, to die in exile. But the family’s main interest had never been hers. The Hutchinsons had been tradesmen in London before the Puritan migration; in New England they became merchants and remained merchants, with remarkable consistency, generation after generation. In the course of a century and a half they produced, in the stem line of the family, not a single physician, not a single lawyer, and not a single teacher or minister. The entire clan devoted itself to developing its property and the network of trade, based on kinship lines at every point, that Anne’s brothers and nephews had created in the midseventeenth century. They prospered solidly but not greatly. Their enterprises were careful, not grand. They were accumulators, down-to-earth, unromantic middlemen, whose, solid, petit-bourgeois characteristics became steadily more concentrated in the passage of years until in Thomas, in the fifth generation, they reached an apparently absolute and perfect form.

He was born in Boston in 1711. His father, Colonel Thomas Hutchinson, had risen somewhat, though not greatly, beyond the level of his two prosperous merchantshipowner relatives, Elisha and Eliakim. The colonel served on the provincial Council for over twenty years, donated the building for a Latin grammar school (which his son would attend), and improved into provincial magnificence the imposing town house bequeathed to him by a widowed aunt. The colonel’s marriage fitted perfectly the pattern of his classically bourgeois existence. His wife, Sarah Foster, ten years his senior, was the daughter of John Foster, the Boston merchant to whom he had been apprenticed in trade, of status identical to the Hutchinson family’s, who engaged in the same kinds of trade as they did and to whom, by force of the remarkable endogamy that characterizes the family history, Colonel Thomas became triply related by other marriages between the two families.

Colonel Thomas set the pattern for young Thomas’ life. He was industrious, charitable, unaffected, unworldly, and clannish. A strait-laced, pious provincial, he read the Scriptures to his family mornings and evenings and devoted himself to trade and to the welfare of his kin and community. For over thirty years, his son later recorded, Colonel Thomas “kept a table on Saturdays with a salt fish or bacalao [codfish] dinner.” To this unpretentious feast he regularly invited only four close friends, all of them merchants, two of them relatives; only “now and then,” his son recalled, was a clergyman added to the group.

For young Thomas, the future governor, there was no break in the continuity of family and community life. He entered Harvard at the age of twelve, where he developed not so much the intellectual interests that later became important to him as his ability and resources in trade. At the time he entered college, he recalled a half century later, his father undertook his proper education by presenting him with “two or three quintals of fish.” From this humble capital he managed to build, by “adventuring to sea” through his college years, a fund of £4-500 sterling, which, combined with an inheritance from his father, became a fortune, by provincial standards, by the time of the Revolution: in cash fifteen times his original capital, and in real estate eight houses, including the Boston mansion he had inherited, two wharves and a variety of lots and shop properties in Boston, and in suburban Milton a country house universally admired for its simple beauty and splendid setting and a hundred acres of choice land.

Additional property in cash and real estate came to him through his marriage, which served for him as it had for his father to reinforce the family’s dominant characteristics. The Sanfords of Rhode Island had been related to the Hutchinsons by marriage and in business for four generations; as early as the 1640’s the two families had worked together to build the first important New England commercial network, the Hutchinsons controlling the primary London-Boston link and the marketing to the west, the Sanford in-laws handling the secondary routes to the south and, through cousins in Barbados, the links to the West Indies and the Wine Islands. Margaret Sanford, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of New England merchants, was seventeen in 1734, when Hutchinson married her. At their marriage, the governor of Massachusetts wrote in a businesslike letter of introduction for their honeymoon trip, the couple could claim a joint fortune of £5-6,000 sterling; Thomas, he said, was “a young gentleman of exact virtue [and] of good natural sense,” a bit too modest, perhaps, but a successful merchant and universally esteemed.


Four years later, at the age of twenty-six, Hutchinson entered politics. He was never thereafter out of it, and he maintained an altogether consistent policy in defense of what, until the great issues of the 1760’s intervened, were widely considered to be the basic interests of the colony. As representative of Boston to the Massachusetts House from 1737 to 1749 (with the exception of a single year) and a councillor for the succeeding seventeen years, he distinguished himself by his effective defense of a hard-money policy and by his equally determined defense of the territorial integrity of Massachusetts and of its chartered rights. So convinced was the community of Hutchinson’s “disinterestedness and integrity,” Pownall reported in 1757, that even those who most sharply disagreed with him continued to respect him, even to revere him. In the end Hutchinson’s views on the money question prevailed, in part because of the shrewd use that Massachusetts, led by Hutchinson, was able to make of the specie it received from the English government as repayment for its contribution to the war against France; and in part because when in 1741 the issue developed into a crisis that threatened violence, Governor Jonathan Belcher had seized the initiative and stamped out the incipient rebellion by force. There was no limit, Belcher wrote Hutchinson in a portentous letter of 1741, to what political fanatics would do; they would even defy Parliament, for the common people were told by their leaders that they were out of the reach of the government of England, and the Assembly was made to think they were as big as the Parliament of Great Britain. “They are grown so brassy and hardy as to be now combining in a body to raise a rebellion. … I have this day sent the sheriff and his officers to apprehend some of the heads of the conspirators, so you see we are becoming ripe for a smarter sort of government.”

In 1740 Hutchinson was sent by the colony to England to plead the case of certain Massachusetts landowners whose property had fallen to New Hampshire in a Crown ruling on the colony’s boundary, and he negotiated repeatedly, almost annually, with the border Indians in the interest of his native colony, managed the province’s lottery, supervised the financing of the Louisbourg expedition of 1745, dealt with other colonies on joint military efforts, and adjudicated boundary disputes with Connecticut and Rhode Island.

It is hard to see what more he could have done to serve his countrymen or how, as a leader of the establishment in trade and politics, he could have been more enlightened.

Yet in the end his services were forgotten and he was cursed as a traitor in the land of his birth—cursed not merely by the wild men, the alarmists, the political paranoids, and the professional agitators, but by some of the most stable, sensible people of the time, many of whom knew him personally. There was, they said, some deep flaw in his character, some perversion of personality, some profound “malignancy of heart,” that had turned his patriotism into treason and led him to sacrifice the general good for the most sordid, selfish gain.

What do we know of the personality of Thomas Hutchinson, his character, his style and sensibility? Surprisingly little. Of all the people who worked with him, struggled against him, cursed and denounced him, not one left a sketch of his character or even of his appearance more detailed or perceptive than James Otis’ remark that he was “a tall, slender, fair-complexioned, fair-spoken, ‘very good gentleman.’ ” John Adams, who wrote voluminously about him and was capable, beyond any other American of the eighteenth century, of casting a character, left polemics but no account of his person. Only one authentic portrait of Hutchinson exists, painted in London when Hutchinson was thirty. It is superficial but incidentally revealing. It shows a person dressed in utmost simplicity, slim in form, with a narrow face and undistinguished features. The lips are full but slightly compressed and pursed. There is a wisp of a smile, but no real attempt at expression. The overall effect is that of constraint, simplicity, and an almost total lack of emphasis, flair, or style.

It is not much to go on, but it is suggestive. For his prose conveys the same qualities. He wrote easily, abundantly, and logically. But the style is not only unaffected and unadorned in the extreme, devoid of images, figures of speech, thin even in adjectives, but so lacking in emphasis, so unpunctuated, so still , as to seem at times inarticulate. The same could be said of almost every expression of Hutchinson’s personality. He was by instinct political, not philosophical; inductive, not deductive; he sought to succeed in the world he knew, not transform it. At least as to his own career, he once wrote, he felt himself to be what he called “a quietist, being convinced that what is, is best.” So he counselled a too-stubborn political ally to “strive to be more of a willow and less of an oak. We don’t live in Plato’s Commonwealth, and when we can’t have perfection we ought to comply with the measure that is least remote from it.” He was circumspect in everything he did. Caution, control, and prudence were the guiding principles of his life. “My temper,” he wrote in a characteristic understatement, “does not incline to enthusiasm.” Everyone recognized it. You are, Governor Bernard wrote Hutchinson in 1769 after handing over to him the colony’s government, “a much prudenter man than I ever pretended to be,” and, he added, with more of a double meaning than he might have admitted, you “will take care of yourself.” Hutchinson knew that his administration would be very burdensome and very precarious, but that, he said, would only “excite in me the more caution and circumspection.” He tried never to overextend himself—“I don’t love to promise too much”—and “never chose to give an opinion suddenly” on a matter of importance.

He rarely wrote an important letter only once. Drafts, notes, and revisions of letters abound in his papers; in them one can trace successive alterations and excisions that soften the edge of his original thought. Richard Jackson was one of his most intimate correspondents; he was the only person, in England at least, to whom, for a brief period, Hutchinson expressed his more or less unqualified opinions. Yet in 1762, when affairs were in fact placid in Massachusetts, he carefully removed from a letter to Jackson the sentence “We have violent parties in our little mock Parliament, and sometimes the public interest gives way to private piques and prejudices, as well as with you.” Whole letters on important topics are drafted, redrafted, and then if the sentiment is found still to be injudicious, or likely to be thought so, left in draft and filed away with the notation “not sent.”

In all ways he was cautious and temperate. He permitted himself no ostentation in clothes. A laced coat, he said, was “too gay for me”; he preferred “a grave, genteel waistcoat,” for, he wrote, he “would not be singular.” As governor he had hoped to make do with his father’s old carriage, but his friends told him his station required a more fashionable one. He agreed, then wrote his agents in England to get him one—secondhand, at a substantial saving: “it can’t be too plain if neat and light,” he wrote. None of this was senseless penny-pinching or dour prudery, and he was no misanthrope. He had no objection to stage plays, banned by the General Court of Massachusetts; he collected statuary (in cheap reproductions); and he hung in his hall a variety of paintings and fashionable prints, among them Hogarth’s “Marriage àla Mode” series, in “rich frames and glass.”

In religion too he was rational, circumspect, and cool. He honored his family’s traditional commitment to the Congregational Church, joining at the age of twenty-four the so-called New Brick Church of his college tutor and brother-in-law, the Reverend William Welsteed, to which he remained faithful, in formal terms at least, until he left America in 1774 and in which he baptized his children. He was closer in spirit, however, to his lifelong friend, the tolerant, rationalist, nondoctrinaire Reverend Andrew Eliot, and to the Episcopal preacher Henry Caner, whose Anglican church he frequently attended, than he was to Welsteed or his Calvinist successor, Ebenezer Pemberton. For he despised the fanaticism of the Puritans, either in its ancestral form, laced as it was with those fine-spun doctrinal subtleties that led men to torture each other in passionate self-righteousness, or in its more modern, more pietistic form, whose crankish adherents “scarce ever settled an account with anybody without a lawsuit.” The career of his great-great-grandmother Anne fascinated and chilled him. Her sincere religious passion, he felt, was in itself no more humane than the destructive fervor of her enemies.

A true religious life to Hutchinson meant simply the worship of God and rectitude. He judged the practice of religion by its results in human terms: “The longer I live the less stress I lay upon the modes and forms in religion, and do not love a good man the less because he and I are not just of the same way of thinking.” He did not think that integrity and virtue ultimately depended on a belief in the supernatural; such a belief, he felt, as often bred stupid superstition and cruel bigotry as it did decency, tolerance, and justice in human dealings.

Deeply bred—locked tight—in the culture of an intensely Protestant, mercantile province of the British world and heir to its establishment, he felt no elemental discontent, no romantic aspirations. He sought no conquests in a larger world but steady gains in the one he knew. Like his ancestors before him, he was an accumulator, a slow, relentless acquisitor, and he remained such even after his formal retirement from business in the early 1760’s. But though the desire for gain was an essential part of his nature, he was never crudely avaricious—he was too intelligent and too much a neo-Puritan ascetic for that. His lifelong search for profits, like his quest for power and influence and status, was never ruthless and never flamboyant, and it was deeply conservative in that it presumed the structure of life as it was. Like so many ambitious and modestly creative people, he needed a stable world within which to work, a hierarchy to ascend, and a formal, external calibration by which to measure where he was.

His correspondence radiates respect for status and an instinct for small passages through the complexities of the world. So he wrote the son of an earl who sought his daughter Peggy’s hand that such a marriage would do “the greatest honor to me and my family,” but “it cannot be approved of by the noble family to which you belong. In my station, restrained from respect to My Lord Fitzwilliam, I should think it my duty to do all in my power to discourage any of his sons from so unequal a match with any person in the province, and I should certainly be highly criminal if I should countenance and encourage a match with my own daughter.” So too he declined a baronetcy, when it was offered to him in 1774, for prudential reasons, but then- prudence within prudence—he “thought it not amiss, however, to ask His Lordship, [that], if I should be reproached with being slighted in England, whether I might say that I [had] had the offer of such a mark of honor.” To which His Lordship, he reported, immediately replied (and one can picture the patronizing smile), “‘Most certainly.’” Just so, a decade earlier, in sending Richard Jackson copies of Volume i of his History to distribute where they might do the most good, he specified certain particularly important recipients and then instructed Jackson to present a halfdozen other copies “where you think they may be acceptable, as high up as may be in character for me, and order the binding according to the quality of the person.”

Sensitively attuned to a world of status, bland, constrained, realistic, unromantic, ambitious, and acquisitive, he was, for all his hatred of religious zeal, the Puritan manqué. For he retained the self-discipline and seriousness of the colony’s stern founders and something of their asceticism; but he lacked their passion, their transcendent vision, and above all their inner certainty.

For he was never fully confident of his abilities, and weaknesses of health, to some extent perhaps hereditary, added to his uncertainties. Never very robust, in April, 1767, well before the major crisis of his career had developed, he suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown—he was, as he put it, “paralytic” for six or seven weeks—and only gradually regained his health. He was never thereafter free of worry, about himself as well as about the world. Night after night as governor he lay awake struggling to find the proper path for the authority he represented, worrying whether he had the wisdom and the physical and psychic strength to guide the colony to peace. Repeatedly, in the ordeals of the seventies, his energy ebbed, his spirits flagged, and he hovered at the edge of collapse.

His refuge in the increasing turmoil of his life remained what it had always been, his family. He was deeply affectionate with those closest to him and profoundly involved with their lives. However convenient and inevitable his marriage to Margaret Sanford may have been, it proved to be a relationship of intense intimacy. They spent in all eighteen years together, and she bore him twelve children. Such was his attachment to her, he later wrote, “that she appeared in body and mind something more than human.” Her death after childbirth in 1754 was the worst thing that ever happened to Hutchinson, worse even than the political catastrophe that later overwhelmed him. “From the first of her danger I never left my house,” he recalled in later years, “and seldom her chamber.” Her final words, ” ‘best of husbands,’ ” uttered “with her dying voice and eyes fixed on me,” tore him to pieces; he could never forget that agony. Her death, he wrote, was the loss of more than half his soul.

The family group—five children had survived infancy- was extraordinarily close; the force of cohesion that bound them fits no ordinary description. It was not merely that they lived together harmoniously until the older children married; not merely that as adults they gathered to watch together the ship carrying one of them overseas until it passed over the horizon; nor that their family letters over a period of almost fifty years express continuing affection, intimacy, and trust. More than that: they could not bear to break away and sought to keep the group intact, to tighten the bonds, even in the centrifuge of marriage.

At the height of the family’s prosperity, in the early i77o’s, the extent of endogamy, already visible in the Foster connection in the previous generation, had become a public phenomenon. For the fact was undeniable that by successive intermarriages the Hutchinsons had become a large and tight-knit tribe with an extraordinary accumulation of high offices.

The genealogy is important. Three family groups—the Sanfords, the Hutchinsons, and the Olivers—were involved. Margaret Sanford, Thomas Hutchinson’s wife (distantly related to him by birth), was the second of three sisters. The older sister, Mary, married Andrew Oliver, who became secretary of Massachusetts when Hutchinson became lieutenant governor, and lieutenant governor when Hutchinson became governor. But that is only the start of the relationships between the Oliver and Hutchinson families. In the year of Hutchinson’s accession to the governorship and Oliver’s to the lieutenant governorship, their children—Hutchinson’s eldest son, Thomas, Jr., and Oliver’s daughter Sarah—married. But these two were already related in their own generation, for in the previous year, 1770, another Hutchinson child, Sarah, had married an Oliver, Dr. Peter Oliver, Jr., Andrew’s nephew. And then to conclude the series, the families were related yet again in 1772, when a third Hutchinson child, Elisha, married Mary Oliver Watson, Peter Oliver, Sr.’s, granddaughter. And political relationships kept pace with the development of kinship ties. Andrew Oliver’s brother Peter—brother, that is, of the lieutenant governor and father-in-law of one of the governor’s children—had been associate justice of the superior court since 1756 and became chief justice when Hutchinson resigned that post to assume the governorship. Thus all of the three Hutchinson children who married, married Olivers, and they did so during the first three years of Hutchinson’s governorship. And thus, too, three brothers and brothers-in-law occupied simultaneously in the 177° s the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, and the chief justiceship of Massachusetts. No one but a Hutchinson or an Oliver had been lieutenant governor of Massachusetts after 1758 or chief justice after 1760.

What explanation there might be for such extraordinary inbreeding is a question that eludes the historian’s grasp as it did contemporaries’. But its effects cannot be doubted. It created a family situation of maximum reinforcement for Hutchinson, upon which he relied heavily in the great ordeal he faced. But at the same time it helped isolate him from the community at large and intensified his clashes with other, competing family groups, which, like the Otises and the Adamses, reacted bitterly to the exclusiveness of Hutchinson’s family ties. More important, it resulted in an immediate environment of thoroughly like-minded people who would support him in his views without criticism or serious discussion. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated, for nothing in Hutchinson’s own range of sensibilities disposed him to understand or equipped him to deal with the new currents that were moving Anglo-American politics in the 1760’s.

Somehow, in ways he did not understand, the world had greatly changed. While in formal terms he had reached a point of eminence close to his highest aspirations, he had also become the target of a political opposition more passionate, less rational, and less manageable than anything he had known before. From time to time, even in the years before the Stamp Act, it occurred to him that he was in the midst of a revolution that would destroy the British Empire and the structure of public life as he had known it. But he dismissed such fears as irrational and hence groundless. The colonists, he confidently informed alarmists in the late fifties, “must be stark blind if they could not see that an independence upon Great Britain must prove their ruin, and therefore they would not aim at it for centuries to come.” But the problem of what seemed to be irrational opposition to constituted authority would not disappear, nor would the personal animosity that accounted for the destruction of his property. The political opposition was in its essential characteristics new, and Hutchinson was to be its victim.

Until 1757 Hutchinson had been one of those establishment figures who knew how to find their way successfully through the paths of factional intrigue. As a young man he had had Governor Belcher’s favor, and in 1740 Hutchinson had gravitated to Belcher’s successor, the ambitious and well-connected English lawyer William Shirley. For almost two decades thereafter Hutchinson had remained a leader of Governor Shirley’s unusually stable political coalition.

Governor Thomas Pownall, who succeeded Shirley as governor in 1757, elevated Hutchinson to the lieutenant governorship, but he was a man with whom Hutchinson would struggle, directly or indirectly, for the rest of his life.

Pownall’s administration was a brief interlude between the long, late-colonial era of William Shirley, which had nourished the young Thomas Hutchinson’s success in trade and politics, and the disastrous decade of Sir Francis Bernard, in which Hutchinson’s failure began; but though brief it was a critical interlude. For in these years Hutchinson’s devotion to the welfare of the empire and his identification of America’s well-being with the strength of Great Britain had become an intense commitment. At the same time his differences with the momentarily triumphant opposition forces, with which Pownall had allied himself, had become charged with more than ordinary political meaning. They were of course his rivals in quite traditional factional contests for the control of public offices. But beyond that he had been shocked by their pursuit of private gain at the expense of the general welfare, which he took to mean the welfare of the pan-Atlantic polity that had protected the infant colonies for a century and a half, and he distrusted the glib libertarianism by which they justified their resistance to appeals for wartime sacrifices.


The new governor, Francis Bernard, was the ideal type of the patronage appointee in the first British Empire. A well-educated barrister whose only administrative or political office in England had been the recordershipof the town of Boston in Lincolnshire, he had practiced law until the financial needs of his ten children drove him to seek more lucrative employment in the colonies. Through the patronage of his wife’s influential uncle, Viscount Barrington, he was appointed to the governorship of New Jersey in 1758 and then, feeling socially and culturally isolated there and seeking a better-paying position, managed to have himself transferred, at the age of fifty, to Massachusetts. He was a decent man who had simple, uncomplicated desires: peace and quiet, the respect of those he ruled, some comradeship in literary matters, appointments for his six sons, and a substantial income—from salary, from fees, and from lucrative investments. As far as he knew, the prospects in Massachusetts were excellent. “I am assured,” he wrote shortly before he arrived in Boston, “that I may depend upon a quiet and easy administration.” True, he had heard from Pownall the discouraging news (along with accounts of investment opportunities in northern New England land) that the total income of the Massachusetts governor, from salary and “all advantages and contingencies,” was only £1,200 sterling; but he thought he could live more cheaply in Boston than in many other places, and in addition he would have far better opportunities for educating and providing jobs for his children there than he had had in Perth Amboy. Moreover, in Boston, “perhaps the most polished and scientific town in America,” he was sure he would find the “refined conversation and the amusements that arise from letters, arts, and sciences … many very conversable men, tolerable music, and other amusements to which I had bid adieu not without regret.” Finally, he had heard that the Massachusetts governor had (in the fortress to which he would repeatedly flee in the years to come) “a very pretty place to retire to, a pleasant apartment in Castle William, which stands in an island about three miles from the town at the entrance of the Bay.”


He was thus a well-disposed and ordinary man, with ordinary desires, but he was no politician and he was innocent of the arts of governance. “Open in his behavior,” Hutchinson wrote of him, “regardless of mere forms, and inattentive to the fashionable arts of engaging mankind,” he was destined by his manner alone to offend the sensibilities of the proud Bostonians. But it was not simply a question of manner and sensibilities. He was determined to get every penny to which his office entitled him. It was this mainly that led him to his fatal decision to appoint Hutchinson to the vacant chief justiceship; and it was this—well before the Stamp Act raised fundamental questions of principle—that first pitched Hutchinson into open conflict with the opposition merchants and populist politicians.

Hutchinson had not sought the chief justiceship, which fell vacant when the incumbent, Stephen Sewall, died five weeks after Bernard arrived in Boston, nor had he attempted to solicit Bernard’s patronage or to forge a political alliance with him. But if Hutchinson did not seek Bernard’s support, Bernard had reason to seek his. Though the Assembly quickly granted the new governor a substantial salary and then went beyond that to give him the gift of Mount Desert Island, off the southeast coast of Maine, he quickly discovered the difficulty of maintaining the “quiet and easy” administration he had expected. The province, he found, was “divided into parties so nearly equal that it would have been madness for me to have put myself at the head of either of them.” In this situation “management and intrigue,” he wrote to Barrington, were required to preserve the force of government and at the same time convey at least “the appearance” of respect for the colonists’ cherished liberties, “of which they formed high and sometimes unconstitutional ideas.”

The appointment of the new chief justice was crucial to the success of this delicate balance. For it was the superior court in the end that would largely determine whether the interest of the state would be sustained in general, and in particular whether the trade regulations would be enforced and whether therefore the governor would receive his statutory third of the income from forfeited goods.

Bernard knew that Governor Shirley had promised the next court vacancy to the venerable Barnstable lawyer James Otis, Sr., then speaker of the House and, in Shirley’s time, a political colleague of Hutchinson’s. But word reached Bernard that Otis’ appointment at this juncture would be inadvisable, perhaps because his brilliant but unstable son James, Jr., was leading the family into doubtful political alliances and was reluctant to use his office as deputy advocate-general of the vice-admiralty court to prosecute violations of the navigation laws. Hutchinson’s commitment to maintaining close ties between England and America, on the other hand, was beyond question, as was his reputation with all parties for integrity, industry, judiciousness, and devotion to public service.

The day after Sewall died, “several gentlemen” (Bernard said they were “the best men in the government”) told Hutchinson they were proposing him for the vacancy. He was pleasantly surprised, but he immediately expressed what he called “a diffidence of my own abilities,” for he was no lawyer and he was not at all certain “that it would be advisable for me to undertake so great a trust.” He repeated these same doubts “of my abilities to give the country satisfaction” when young James Otis called on him to seek his support for the elder Otis’ appointment; and while he did not promise the Otises his help and said merely that the whole question was new to him and that he would have to think about it, he went out of his way to praise the elder Otis and to register his own lack of enthusiasm for the appointment. His passivity persisted even though most of the judiciary assured him of their support. When, after a month, Bernard finally broached the subject to him, explaining that “the major voices seemed to be in my favor,” Hutchinson replied that while recognizing the importance of the position, he knew “the peculiar disadvantages I should be under” in following so distinguished a jurist as Sewall. And when some weeks later Bernard told him that he had definitely decided to appoint him and indicated that even if he refused he would not turn to Otis, Hutchinson “still expressed my doubts of the expedience of it. …”

Bernard was well aware of the problems: years later he would apologize to Lord Mansfield for having appointed a chief justice “not… bred to the law”; but he knew that the essential qualifications were as much political and intellectual as strictly legal, and he could count on Hutchinson’s diligence in perfecting his knowledge of the law. So Hutchinson, still concerned about his lack of technical qualifications and having refused to solicit actively for the appointment but always eager for advancement, prestige, and a major public role, accepted. His appointment was announced on November 13, and on December 30, 1760, his commission was issued.

The general transformation of Hutchinson’s reputation proceeded gradually in the months and years that followed his appointment to the chief justiceship, but John Adams and James Otis, Jr., who would ultimately shape opinion most powerfully, reached immediate conclusions. The i y6o’s were years in which the Massachusetts bar reached a high point of professionalization; its practitioners were exceptionally conscious of their craft and proud of their skills—and none more so than the twenty-five-year-old apprentice John Adams. Adams never forgot the outrage he felt at this elevation of a layman to the chief justiceship, so thwarting, insulting, and humiliating to his excruciatingly sensitive self-esteem. An appointment so unmerited, so perverse, and so unjust to those like himself who were sacrificing their lives to the law could only be the result of dangerous secret forces whose power would no doubt otherwise be felt and that would otherwise block the aspirations of powerless but honest and able new men.

Otis helped to substantiate these fears and to publicize this affront to the dignity of “old practitioners at the bar.” Like Adams, Otis too registered shock that the new chief justice was “bred a merchant,” but that was not the main burden of his response. Nor was it simply the rage of wounded pride at his family’s humiliation, though that explains his pronouncement, when Hutchinson’s name was first discussed, that neither he nor his father would ever give up their claim to the appointment, and his public threat “with oaths,” as Bernard later testified, that ” ‘if his father was not appointed judge, he would set the whole province in a flame, though he perished in the attempt’ ” —a remark that circulated widely through the province. Otis was an extraordinarily perceptive intellectual, and while he tore and dove and raged in half-lunatic indignation, he was capable, as perhaps no one else of the time, of seeing the deep issues and of relating them to practical and personal politics.

The issue, Otis insisted, was not merely the engrossing of political offices but the relationship among these offices. Plural officeholding was nothing new—it was as common in New England as it was in old England—nor was the doctrine of the separation of powers in its modern form yet felt to impose limits on officeholding. But Otis, moving ahead of the leading ideas of his time, thinking in his curious and impressive way in terms of circularities, logical contradictions, and the inner flows of forces within institutions, tore into Hutchinson not merely for greedily accumulating a plurality of “lucrative places” but for occupying positions that were incompatible with each other. Hutchinson, Otis pointed out, was a dominant figure in the executive by virtue of being lieutenant governor, in the legislature as a councillor (“I have long thought it… a great grievance that the chief justice should have a seat in the Council and consequently so great a share of influence in making those very laws he is appointed to execute upon the lives and property of the people”), and in the judiciary as chief justice. “Mixed monarchy,” Otis agreed, was, as everyone knew, the most perfect form of government, but —what everyone did not know—fundamental to it was the separation of legislative and executive powers, and without this, free government would dissolve. Montesquieu was right: “when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates (or nearly so) there can be no liberty because (just and great) apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate (or junto) should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Within a few months of Hutchinson’s appointment to the high bench Otis’ attacks, cast in these terms and publicized again and again, became a blistering indictment.

The case of the writs of assistance—to support customs officers in searching for contraband—came before the superior court almost as soon as Hutchinson took his seat on the bench. The episode not only served to fuse Adams’ resentment at unmerited professional advancement with Otis’ fear of monopolized power, but it brought all of this into conjunction with the hostilities of a significant part of the merchant community for whom strict enforcement of trade regulations was a novel threat.

Hutchinson was especially well informed on the problems of these general search warrants, and he was as much concerned to limit their use to the strict letter of the law as anyone in the colony. It had been he, in fact, in 1757, who had prevented the governor from issuing general warrants on his own authority, and as a result the power to grant these potentially dangerous instruments had been confined to the superior court acting as a court of exchequer. He knew of the warrants’ unquestioned legality in England and of their common use there, and he knew, too, that they had been issued before in Massachusetts without provoking public controversy.

But if the positive law was clear (and the doubts it raised were quickly settled by queries to England), the higher law of “natural equity” was not, and it was to this that Otis, who formally represented the merchant opposition, in the end directed his plea. It was the moral basis of the law, not the literal provisions, that primarily concerned him. “This writ,” he charged, in words that John Adams, an eager attendant at the trial, recorded on the spot, “is against the fundamental principles of law. The privilege of house. A man who is quiet is as secure in his house as a prince in his castle,” and no act of Parliament can contravene this privilege. “An act [of Parliament] against the constitution is void, an act against natural equity is void. … The executive courts must pass such acts into disuse”—precedents to the contrary notwithstanding, Adams later recalled him saying, for “ ALL PRECEDENTS ARE UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE LAW .”

The principles of law? Who was to say what they were? Yet it was Otis’ extravagant transjuridical claim that entered American awareness, not Hutchinson’s scrupulous regard for the law as it existed. Fifty-six years later John Adams—as romantic in old age as he had been in youth- caught the inner, quasi-mythological meaning of the event in his famous description of the scene: near the fire were seated five judges, with Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson at their head as chief justice, all in their new fresh robes of scarlet English cloth, in their broad bands, and immense judicial wigs [and against them James Otis,] a flame of fire! With the promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research … a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all before him. … Every man of an [immense] crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up arms against writs of assistance. … Then and there the child Independence was born.

Hutchinson had strongly disapproved of the Stamp Act from the time he first heard of it. He had said so many times—informally in conversation and letters and formally in a treatise he sent to Richard Jackson in July, 1764, with instructions to circulate it where it might do the most good. In this characteristically bland and densely written essay, which was well received in administration circles in England and which was probably drawn on later in the parliamentary debates on repeal, Hutchinson had summarized his views in four forceful arguments against the projected stamp tax: first, that the Crown and Parliament had long ago conceded to the colonies the power to make their own laws and to tax themselves by their own representatives; second, that Americans were in no sense represented in Parliament and hence that the justification for parliamentary taxation based on presumptive representation was invalid; third, that the colonies owed no debt to the English government for their settlement and development- the colonies had been founded and sustained by private enterprise, at times in the face of state opposition; and finally, that economic arguments in favor of the act were fallacious, since England’s natural profit from the colonies, which would be endangered by taxation, was greater than any prospective tax yield.

These were hardheaded arguments—all matters of historical fact or irrefutable logic. They contained no challenge to English authority as such and indulged in no speculative distinctions in Parliament’s power. For Parliament’s ultimate control, Hutchinson believed, was the price of American freedom, and that control must remain paramount, he concluded—in words that a decade later would toll through the continent, the death knell of his political ambition—even if it became necessary for that body to abridge “what are generally called natural rights. … The rights of parts and individuals must be given up when the safety of the whole shall depend on it …it is no more than is reasonable … in return for the protection received against foreign enemies.” It was better, he said, “to submit to some abridgment of our rights than to break off our connection.”

The Massachusetts legislature undertook to prepare a petition to Parliament protesting the proposed stamp tax. The lead was taken by the “heads of the popular party” in the House, Hutchinson explained, who drafted a document that stated the colony’s objections to the stamp duties in passionate and highly theoretical terms, grounded in principles of natural rights and in constitutional guarantees. The Council, over which Hutchinson as lieutenant governor presided, rejected this “informal and incautiously expressed” draft, and a joint committee of the two Houses was formed to frame an acceptable document. Hutchinson was chosen chairman of this committee, and he led it in rejecting two new versions, “both very exceptionable.” “Ten days were spent in this manner,” Hutchinson confided to Jackson, “which I thought time not ill spent as I had the more opportunity of showing them the imprudence of every measure which looked like opposition to the determinations of Parliament.” He explained to them the folly of pressing principles merely because they seemed grand and glittering and somehow pure; he stated the need for calm and compromise; and he expounded the value of supporting existing structures because they were the basis of civil order. But the conferees resisted and in draft after draft confronted him with demands that the theory of the matter, the principles at stake, the commitments that were involved, should be clearly stated. But Hutchinson kept control, of himself and of the situations, and waited, patiently and skillfully, for precisely the right moment to resolve the controversy. He found it when his opponents were altogether “perplexed and tired” and about to resolve wearily on yet another unacceptable proposal; he then “drew a petition to the House of Commons, not just such as I would have chosen if I had been the sole judge but such as I thought the best I could hope for being accepted,” and he pressed this version through. In this way the effort of the “popular party” to draw Massachusetts into “an ample and full declaration of the exclusive right of the people to tax themselves” had been defeated. The address as adopted, Hutchinson explained with some pride, assumed that American control of its own taxation was an indulgence which the colonists prayed the continuance of—”a matter of favor,” he wrote in his History , “and not a claim of right.”

Thus Hutchinson, and prudence, prevailed—but only briefly, and for the last time, and at great cost. Two developments quickly turned his victory into a dangerous defeat. Reports from the other colonies began to come in. Their petitions—especially New York’s—appeared to be “so high,” Hutchinson wrote, “that the heroes of liberty among us were ashamed of their own conduct,” and they would have reversed their action if it had not been too late. Second, news soon arrived that the Stamp Act had in fact passed despite all the agitation against it in America and that in passing it Parliament had made no distinctions whatever among the various petitions filed against it; no purpose at all had been served by the prudence Hutchinson had imposed on the House. The reaction in Boston was immediate and severe. It was instantly concluded, he reported, “that if all the colonies had shown …firmness and asserted their rights, the act would never have passed,” and therefore if some one person had deliberately destroyed that unanimity, his aim could only have been secretly to promote, not defeat, the Stamp Act, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. And so it was that Hutchinson, as he later realized, because he had been “the promoter, of the [Massachusetts petition], was charged with treachery and … [with] betraying his country.”

So the charge originated; and it stuck, as passions rose in the months between the passage of the Stamp Act and the date of its legal inception, and seemed in fact more and more persuasive. Everything served to confirm the suspicions of Hutchinson’s duplicity that had first been generated by his prudent refusal to defy Parliament’s power in principle. When the stamp master for Massachusetts was announced, he proved to be none other than Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, fellow councillor, and protégé, the colony’s secretary, Andrew Oliver: by this appointment alone Hutchinson’s secret motives seemed to be revealed. Vituperative squibs began to appear in the newspapers. Rumors (lies, Hutchinson said, that shocked him) circulated that he had written secretly to England to encourage the promoters of the act and that copies of those letters had been returned confidentially from London and were available in Boston to be read. Otis swore he knew for a fact that the whole idea of a stamp act had been hatched by Hutchinson and Bernard and that he could point to the very house in Boston- indeed, the very room—in which the act itself had been conceived. Hutchinson fought back. He explained his views again and again, but the only effect this had, he confessed, was to confirm “the groundless suspicions of my having promoted the act.”

By the summer of 1765 suspicious episodes throughout the entire span of Hutchinson’s long career were being recalled in public prints. He still commanded the respect of informed people; he was still a natural as well as a legal leader of his native society. Yet something crucial in all of his activities had been missing—some recognition that security is not all nor prudence necessarily the wisest guide to action, some understanding that in the end law to be effective must reflect human sensibilities, and authority must deserve the respect it would command. Gradually the law he represented had begun to seem arbitrary, his honors to seem undeserved, and the government he led to become distant and insensitive to the needs of the governed.

As his prominence had grown so too had his vulnerability. In the scorching heat of the Stamp Act resistance he became a marked man, and explanations were demanded. On August 14 crowds directed by well-known opposition leaders turned to Hutchinson for the first time, surrounding his mansion and demanding that he “declare to them I had never wrote to England in favor of the Stamp Act.” Since, the leaders said, they respected Hutchinson’s private character, they would accept his personal assurance that he did not favor the act. He knew he had nothing to hide, but should he concede to such intimidation? Was he responsible to a mob? Surely he was “not obliged to give an answer to all the questions that may be put me by every lawless person.” Fortunately an unnamed “grave, elderly tradesman” who was a noted town-meeting speaker intervened and “challenged every one of them to say I had ever done them the least wrong [and] charged them with ingratitude in insulting a gentleman who had been serving his country all his days.” Somehow the speaker convinced the crowd that Hutchinson was not likely to have done anything deliberately to hurt his country and got them to move off. The day closed for Hutchinson with a fervent prayer for “a greater share of fortitude and discretion here than I have ever yet been master of.” Twelve days later the “hellish fury” of August 26 descended on him, his family, and his property in “the most barbarous outrage which ever was committed in America.”


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