The Hutch

I’m continuing on with Crucible of War.  I’ve reached the summer of 1758 and the siege of Louisbourg, but I want to head back and point out something from 1754.

The Albany Congress, a gathering in upstate New York of delegates from the northern colonies and representatives of the Mohawk.  Its purpose was to achieve a treaty between Britain and the Mohawk, and to establish a basis for intercolonial cooperation in the war that everyone knew was coming with France for control of the Ohio Valley.  It’s famous in American history because of the proposal put forth by a Pennsylvania delegate, one Benjamin Franklin, in conjunction with Massachusetts governor William Shirley, to create a political union of the British colonies.  The Albany Plan of Union would have created a national legislature to which each colony elected representatives, with executive power vested in a President-General appointed by the Crown.  In its support Franklin created America’s first political cartoon.

From Crucible of War’s chapter on the Albany Congress:

Of all those present at the congress, perhaps the least self-interested delegate was the leading commissioner from Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson.  Hutchinson was, in his way, as remarkable as Franklin: a gifted historian, Hutchinson was also rich, talented, as clearly marked for advancement in the administration of the empire as any American provincial could be.  He had been only slightly less precocious in politics than in trade, a calling at which he had made a small fortune even before he graduated from Harvard at age sixteen.

Moreover he, like Franklin, was hardly indifferent to the prospect of taking a leading role in such a union himself.  Thus Hutchinson worked closely with Franklin in creating the Albany Plan, but less to promote his own immediate interests than to forward those of his governor and his province.  For Hutchinson also knew that the Bay Colony had borne the brunt of the fighting and the expense of King George’s War [the War of the Austrian Succession], and he wished to see the obligations of any future conflict shared more equitably among the provinces.

Crucible of War, then, here singles Thomas Hutchinson out as being—through a combination of his natural talents and his attitude of service to Massachusetts—the most praiseworthy individual present at Albany.  I find this remarkable for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, because he gets that assessment in competition with Benjamin Franklin—and not just with any old Ben Franklin, but the Ben Franklin of the Albany Congress. This is Franklin venturing out of Pennsylvania into national and imperial politics for the first time; it is Franklin as the guiding force behind the first ever initiative to unite the British colonies under a common domestic government.  It is, in short, the moment Ben Franklin became the United States’s first Founding Father.

Secondly, it’s because in American historiography, Hutchinson is irredeemably a villain—possibly he is the single great villain of the American Revolution (though that might be Sir Banastre Tarleton).  And his specific villainy is that his support of the Intolerable Acts is viewed as him siding with Great Britain and against the people of Boston.  Even Lord North, the British prime minister from 1770 to 1781, blamed him for increasing tensions between Parliament and the people of Massachusetts.  But his description here firmly fixes him as a Massachusettsian (totes a word), and a loyal and devoted one at that; and by extension, an American, insofar as such a thing as an American could have been said to have existed in 1754.  Yet find me the adaptation of Johnny Tremain that presents Hutchinson, who was born and lived his entire life in Boston, as speaking with an American rather than a British accent.

It is, of course, all a matter of context and perspective.  Nowadays we might conclude that, when he had to choose, Hutchinson saw himself as more British than Massachusettsian, and so sided with Great Britain against Massachusetts.  But maybe he didn’t see a conflict between the two.

In 1754, he partnered closely with Benjamin Franklin on the drafting of the earliest direct precursor to the United States Constitution.  Because the influence of the Plan of Union is so clearly visible in the Constitution, and because the Plan is so closely associated with Franklin, we tend to see it as an early signal of a growing colonial maturity and nascent American national identity, and therefore as a signpost that the colonists were getting ready not to need British government anymore.  But it’s important to remember that for the proponents of the Albany Plan, including Hutchinson and William Shirley and very definitely Ben Franklin, one of its great benefits is that they expected it to bring the colonies more closely under British control, which they thought would only be to the colonies’ benefit.

Twenty years later, Benjamin Franklin had changed his mind.  Could it be that Thomas Hutchinson simply never did?

I

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