Book Review: The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson

The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson, by Bernard Bailyn

This book won the National Book Award in history, and it is easy to understand why.  Of course, it should be stated at the outset that I am a fan of Bailyn’s history [1], and this book is a clear indication of why this is the case.  Bailyn’s belief was that the problem presented by the loyalists was one where they represented a view of history that ultimately was supported by no one after the fact.  Loyal to both England and their American colonies, they were left as poor and provincial exiles without a country when the United States declared its independence, and later British historians of the Revolution often disregarded their prescient warnings because it would make the English look bad, leaving their writings unexplored and unexamined except for those who wanted to see in the antidemocratic views of these able officeholders a relevant view to later generations where the Anglo-Saxon identity was being swamped by foreign elements.  In writing a book where Hutchinson is viewed sympathetically and taken seriously, the author demonstrates that the American Revolution is far enough in the past that loyalty and patriotism no longer burn as hot concerning the ablest of the loyalists of Massachusetts as was the case in the past.

This book is certainly a long one at more than 400 pages, and it progresses thoughtfully through Hutchinson’s life and (as far as historiography is concerned) his afterlife.  After a preface in which Bailyn provides thanks and appreciations, the chapter itself is divided into none chapters with various supplementary material also worthy of interest.  First, Bailyn begins with a look at the young Thomas Hutchinson as an example of a successful and upwardly mobile provincial bourgeois gentleman (1).  After that, the author examines how he became as early as 1765 the face of opposition to revolutionary elements in Massachusetts and beyond (2).  His time as Lt. Governor of Massachusetts as a defender of law and order, liberty and empire is then viewed sympathetically (3).  Following this the author looks at the revolutionary fury that fell upon Massachusetts in the 1770s which Hutchinson was powerless to stop (4) and his time as a captive of the rising movement for rebellion that destroyed his property and that threatened his family (5).  His failure as governor and replacement in the face of independence is viewed (6), as is his place as a scape-goat of imperial failures where sought to return to England to defend his reputation without success (7).  The book then turns to a more tragic look at Hutchinson’s exile (8) and the death of himself and many of his family members as the British war effort failed (9).  The epilogue of the book reflects on the tensions faced by Hutchinson and other exiles whose loyalties left them unable to fully appreciate the cultured life of the English elite, show the family tree of the Hutchinson family, look at the historiography of loyalism, and give some notes on the Hutchinson manuscripts as a whole.

As might be expected, this particular book showcases Bailyn’s conspicuous strengths as a historian.  For one, he takes on obscure and often unpopular subjects in colonial history, seeking to find niches where something important has been neglected in much of the relevant historiography.  Then, he makes himself fully aware of the writings by and about the subject he is writing about, in this case the second-to-last royalist governor of Massachusetts.  He shows himself evenhanded in his approach, pointing out the ability of Hutchinson without rancor and with fairness and justice, and also pointing out why he failed to persuade either his revolutionary rivals in Massachusetts or the royalist establishment in England as to his course of action, and how his discretion and characteristic restraint earned him a reputation as someone who was duplicitous and treacherous.  These elements of knowing the holes in a large-scale knowledge of an aspect of colonial history, his ability at working with sources on both sides of the Atlantic, his essential fairmindedness as a historian, and his gorgeous prose and ability to have empathy for characters whose treatment has been the most negative are shown here to great effect, making it little wonder that the work should attract the praise of other readers and critics.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Atlantic History: Concept And Contours | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Voyagers To The West | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Origins And Ideologies Of The American Revolution: Part One | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Origins And Ideologies Of The American Revolution: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

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