Tuesday, October 6, 2015
October 6, 2015: Before the Revolution: Governor Hutchinson
[October 7th marks the 250th anniversary of the convening of the Stamp Act Congress, one of the most significant moments in pre-Revolutionary American history. So this week I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy three such pre-Revolution moments, including the Congress itself on Wednesday. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the best scholars of this period, past and present!]
On two complex and crucial ways to analyze a tragic pre-Revolutionary figure.
One of the AmericanStudies books that most altered and expanded my vision of the field as I began my college work was Bernard Bailyn’s seminal The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1976). Hutchinson was the last civilian royal governor of Massachusetts, serving during the tumultuous pre-Revolutionary years of 1769 to 1774. Even before his gubernatorial term, Hutchinson had come to represent the worst excesses of English leadership to many colonists, as reflected by the ransacking of his home during the 1765 Stamp Act protests (when Hutchinson was the colony’s Lieutenant Governor). As the governor in power during such crucial events as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre, and one who argued in writing during these years that the colonists could never have the same rights as English citizens in the home country, Hutchinson became even more fully tied to images and narratives of the worst of English rule. By the time of his 1774 replacement by General Thomas Gage and his subsequent forced exile to England, those links had become complete and permanent.
Bailyn’s Ordeal doesn’t necessarily challenge those narratives, although it adds a great deal of individual and communal history to the picture. Yet there’s another way to frame Hutchinson’s identity, and it’s the same one for which I argued in this post on Revolutionary-era Loyalists: that he represents another side to the American experience and community in this period. There’s a reason why I called Hutchinson’s removal to England an exile, and it’s that his entire life to that point had been spent in the Boston area: from his 1711 birth in the North End to his time at Harvard College, his service as a Boston selectman to his election to the state assembly (known then as the General Court), and up through those controversial terms as Lieutenant Governor and Governor. It’s far simpler to view the incipient Revolution through images of Massachusetts Minutemen standing their ground against advancing English Redcoats, soldiers (like Governor Gage) freshly arrived from England to oppose these locals. But Hutchinson was both a representative of English rule and as local as they come, forcing a far more nuanced engagement with Massachusetts and America in the Revolutionary era.
He was also, of course, a person. That might seem like the most banal of observations, but it’s far from easy to remember the humanity beneath historical figures and events. One American text that asks us to do just that when it comes to the pre-Revolutionary protests and conflicts is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s darkly ambiguous short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831). Hawthorne’s story follows Robin, a young country lad on his first journey to the big city of Boston, as he experiences one long and uncertain night that happens to coincide with an impending riot quite similar to the Stamp Act protests. In the story’s culminating moment (SPOILER alert), Robin finally finds the titular elderly kinsman for whom he has been looking throughout the tale, but in a particularly ironic way: Robin is seeking a position from his formerly powerful relative, but discovers that it is upon Major Molineux that the angry mob has focused its rage. Hawthorne dedicates a long paragraph to describing the tarred and feathered old man, “in those circumstances of overwhelming humiliation,” and concludes the passage thusly: “On they went, in counterfeited pomp, in senseless uproar, in frenzied merriment, trampling all on an old man’s heart.” Whether Hawthorne intends to indict the entire Revolution in this passage is as uncertain as the rest of his ambiguous story—but at the very least, he reminds us that the targets of Revolutionary wrath were often individual men, as human and American as the rest of us.
Next pre-Revolutionary post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Pre-Revolution moments you’d highlight?