The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“It seems to be of no consequence to the prerogative whether the currency of a colony be silver or paper, but the royal instructions from time to time forpreventing a depreciating currency, caused meerly by a gracious regard to the interest of the people, had generally engaged what was called the country party in opposition to them and in favor of paper. It was the case at this time.”

Summary Overview

The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts- Bay is a scholarly review of the then-contemporary history of the colony, providing a rationale for maintaining a levelheaded approach in the face of growing discontent with the British government. The three-volume publication included a thorough discussion on efforts to initiate currency reform in the colonies, demonstrating, in Hutchinson’s view, that throughout contemporary colonial history the English government had worked in concert with the colonial government for the best interests of the people. These volumes provided an illustration of Thomas Hutchinson’s conservative views on the colonists’ increasing desire to challenge British rule.

Defining Moment

The early eighteenth century may be described as a period of increased discontent in the colonies. Beginning with the Great Awakening, the American colonies began to shift both culturally and politically away from Great Britain. The push toward autonomy in both worship and government would lead the colonies closer and closer to a break with the British Crown, and divide colonists into two camps: the patriots and the loyalists.

In the early 1700s, a number of Protestant leaders in England and Scotland began to develop an interest in adding more energy and fervor into their sermons, rather than going through the motions of the tradition-bound Church of England. It did not take long before these “revivalist” attitudes filtered into the American colonies. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Presbyterians launched a series of revivals designed to reignite religious passions among parishioners. Soon, Baptists and Congregationalists in New England did the same. During this “Great Awakening,” the faithful were asked not only to adhere to their respective church traditions, but to embrace them with zeal.

The Great Awakening had strong implications for colonial government as well. After all, in New England—as in Great Britain—church leaders were often political leaders as well. With church, government, and everyday life in Great Britain and the colonies intertwined, it was only a matter of time before the people began to show greater degrees of political interest, including questions about the necessity of English rule in New England. If the colonists could govern their own spiritual lives, then surely they could govern their colonies as well. It is widely believed that the Great Awakening helped foment the sense of independence that led the colonists to rise up against Great Britain.

Hutchinson’s political career spanned this evolutionary period. Despite growing pressure in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson remained loyal to the Crown. His pragmatic leadership as speaker of the house and eventually as governor endeared him both to England and to his constituents before the tumult of the latter half of the eighteenth century. However, the Great Awakening had inspired the colonists to start questioning the need for English leadership. Hutchinson’s response came in the form of a comprehensive, three-volume history of the New England colonies. The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay presents its information in scholarly fashion but also praises the British-colonial government’s role throughout that history.

The revolutionary and idealistic fervor that had taken root in the Massachusetts Bay Colony ran counter to Hutchinson’s conservative and intellectual approach to leadership. Appreciated for his loyalty to the Crown on behalf of the colonists prior to the introduction of this zealous element, Hutchinson was eventually viewed as an obstructionist by many of his constituents, whose desire for independence was growing rapidly.

Biography

During his tenure as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson was either highly appreciated or extremely reviled by those he served in America. He started out his political career advocating for his fellow colonists. He even supported the Albany Plan of Union among the New England colonies. However, he was a staunch loyalist to the King of England during a time when colonists’ discontent with Great Britain was growing.

Hutchinson was born in 1711 in Boston, Massachusetts, a descendant of Anne Hutchinson, who in 1638 was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her opposition to Puritan hierarchical leadership and her claim to have received a direct revelation from God. At the age of fifteen, Hutchinson graduated from Harvard and entered a career as a merchant, taking a job at his father’s business while he continued to feed his intellectual pursuits. Within ten years, Hutchinson had become so wealthy and successful that he had the partial ownership of a ship. During the same period, he married Margaret Sanford, with whom he had twelve children, five of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1737, Hutchinson was elected to the Boston Board of Selectmen. He was also elected again to the Massachusetts General Court, where he served for the better part of twelve years, including three years as speaker of the house. As speaker, Hutchinson helped defeat a push to create a paper currency over the English standard, silver, a move that would mark the decline of his popularity in the colonies. Between 1750 and 1766, Hutchinson continued to grow as a political leader, serving as a member of the Governor’s Council, a judge of probate, and justice of Common Pleas for Suffolk County (where Boston was and continues to be located). In 1758, he became lieutenant governor. Two years later, he was chief justice for the colony. In 1769, he became acting governor and finally, in 1771, Hutchinson was elevated to the post of governor.

During his political career, Hutchinson became one of the most controversial people in Massachusetts. He famously advocated a switch from paper money to British silver, a position he based on the effective use of silver throughout the colony’s history. However, his success in this matter was seen as a blow to the colony’s poor, who did not have easy access to such currency. Many also feared that it tied the colony too close to Great Britain.

Hutchinson strode a fine line, seeking a calm and even-handed approach to providing a degree of home rule to the colonies without seceding outright from the British. His loyalty to the Crown would cause great backlash against him after the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, which imposed a tax on all printed materials, such as legal documents, newspapers, and pamphlets. The Stamp Act was introduced in Parliament without the input of the colonists, causing strong protests and even violent demonstrations in some parts of the colonies.

Hutchinson was opposed to the Act in principle, but considered it his duty to carry out the laws put forth by Parliament. A rumor shot through the colony that Hutchinson had encouraged the Stamp Act. He was targeted by violent mobs that destroyed his home and most of his belongings. He returned to England in 1774, taking a role in British government. He would continue to seek peace between the ever-dividing gulf between king and colonies, but his efforts would prove unsuccessful. Hutchinson died in 1780 in London, having retired from public service to live with his family.

Document Analysis

Hutchinson’s History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay provides an in-depth analysis of the British colonies’ history through the beginning of the eighteenth century. Hutchinson’s tome discusses the many ways in which the British and colonial governments worked either with or against each other to develop and protect their interests in America. In the above excerpt, Hutchinson recalls the events and political processes by which currency reform was instituted during the late 1740s.

During the late seventeenth century, the people living in the American colonies were disparate in terms of how business was performed. In the cities, merchants like Hutchinson were able to receive currency in the form of silver coins for their services. However, in outlying areas, British sterling was far more difficult to obtain. More popular was the bartering system: trading crops like tobacco and corn as well as animal pelts for goods and services. Massachusetts saw the need for some form of consistently valued currency and introduced a common paper currency to that end. This type of money would initially be used to pay soldiers stationed in remote locations, but soon colonists would find uses for it elsewhere.

In the early eighteenth century, paper currency was offered to farmers and other landowners. Through this “land bank” approach, those owners could use the paper to pay their debts and build their holdings. Government officials bristled at the idea, particularly in light of the fact that the currency held questionable value. Fearing inflation in the colonial economy, Parliament and the colonial government introduced the Currency Reform Act, which stated that paper money would no longer be allowed in the colony, and that any such currency in circulation would have to be removed from Massachusetts Bay’s economic system within a brief deadline.

Hutchinson, who wrote his account in the third person narrative, was at the time speaker of the General Court in Boston. Although his position as speaker prevented him from legally signing the petition, he was strongly in favor of such an action. He begins his review in History by identifying the main issue he and his colleagues saw: bills of credit (the aforementioned paper currency), which he describes as a source of considerable inequity.

Hutchinson had railed against bills of credit during the 1740s, observing that, although that currency offered people in debt an opportunity to pay what they owed, it would in fact do greater harm to the economy by causing inflation. Interestingly, the most glaring example Hutchinson and his legislative colleagues found was not from the land banks but from the Massachusetts governor himself, William Shirley. Shirley had been tasked with raising troops to help the British capture the French fort in Louisburg (what is now Nova Scotia) during King George’s War in 1745. Shirley paid for his side of the campaign through the use of nineteen bills of credit. The disparity between the paper currency used by Shirley and the used by the British led to a nearly crippling inflation that severely impacted the colonies’ poorest residents.

In his historical review, Hutchinson argues that the Currency Reform Act would help offset that painful economic condition by removing paper currency from circulation. Here, Hutchinson’s loyalty to the king is evident, as he notes that the British government would purchase the bills at an exchange rate of twelve pounds of paper to one pound sterling. This policy would eliminate about 198,000 pounds of what he estimated to be 2.2 million pounds in paper currency owed to debtors. The proposal called for the remainder to be removed either through exchanges for Spanish silver currency or through taxation in the year 1749.

Hutchinson cites the fact that the proposal found great favor among legislators and other leaders. However, he acknowledges that there would be those in government and among the populace who would oppose removing paper currency from circulation. He even points to Governor Shirley, whom he writes “approved of it as founded in justice and tending to promote the real interest of the province.” Then again, Hutchinson recalled, the governor also saw the people’s attachment to the currency, Shirley included. Based on this attitude, Governor Shirley opposed the measure.

Overall, the General Court embraced the Currency Reform Act, particularly in light of its direct approach to a severe problem. The speaker and his legislative colleagues believed that the act was simply the best solution available. There were those within the General Court, however, who were reluctant to completely do away with the paper currency. They offered counter-proposals. This included reducing the value of the paper currency to a fixed level that guaranteed it would remain stable. Others, Hutchinson recalled, demanded a more gradual phasing out of the currency instead of its immediate elimination.

According to The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, however, the currency was having a direct impact on both the colonial and English economies. The colonists, Hutchinson observes, were already far too dependent on the currency as it was. Any gradual reduction in value or phase-out, he argues, would further hinder residents’ ability to pay off their debts. In other cases, some people would continue to use paper currency while others did not. Debt, he said, would therefore simply disrupt the establishment of economic stability.

A major factor that weighed heavily on the minds of the legislators reviewing the Currency Reform Act was the trade deficit paper currency created with Great Britain. Bills of credit and other forms of paper currency were not uniform in each colony; their values compared to both British sterling and other forms of currency typically varied from colony to colony. Adding to the issue was the fact that currency values also varied based on the type of transaction involved; a bill of credit issued in private transactions might be differently valued from colonial government expenditures. Such fluctuations in value made transactions with British companies extremely difficult.

Hutchinson’s account of the 1749 Currency Reform Act provides an illustration of his tempered approach to the growing tensions between the colonists and the British government. Hutchinson, during his tenure as speaker—and in hindsight as he wrote The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay—clearly detected the increasing defiance among certain colonial parties against British rule. After all, Hutchinson and the General Court were merely carrying out the details of a mandate that was passed by Parliament earlier to outlaw paper currency. Hutchinson recalled in History that his fellow representative William Douglas had tempered his approach amid the cries of his constituents.

Douglas, like Hutchinson, was staunchly opposed to the use of paper currency. In his account, Hutchinson describes Douglas as the “oracle of the anti-paper party” prior to the Currency Reform Act’s legislative development. Hutchinson recalls that Douglas was known for his conviction, willing to stand alone if necessary in the face of opposing views on an issue. However, on this issue, Hutchinson describes Douglas as bending in the face of not just political opposition, but outright “rancor” from his constituents if the measure passed as introduced. In fact, Douglas (according to Hutchinson) saw a potential backlash from his political allies as well as his constituents. Douglas therefore advocated for the gradual approach, whereby paper currency would be phased out in stages rather than in immediate fashion, even though he had in the past consistently railed against the fraudulent activity the currency fomented.

Although he acknowledged the animosity the proposed currency elimination policy would generate, Hutchinson maintained an even-handed, intellectual perspective on the issue at hand. He also knew that among his fellow legislators were many parties who had previously used bills of credit in land ownership transactions. Hutchinson therefore allowed for considerable debate on this bill as it rested in committee. In fact, the special committee charged with reviewing the Currency Reform Act spent weeks debating it, as each legislator was given the ability to speak on the matter. Ultimately, Hutchinson commented, these opposing forces succeeded, and the bill was defeated in committee.

Hutchinson gives an in-depth account of the process by which this legislation in Massachusetts was considered. Interestingly, he goes to great lengths to include the fact that opponents to the bill and/or its provisions were given considerable leeway to express themselves. He recalls that, although the rules of the General Court typically did not allow for the reintroduction of rejected legislation (until the following legislative session), the rules, as they pertained to this particular issue, were not to be applied in an unnecessarily rigid manner.

His flexibility on the General Court rules and procedures are reflective of two important aspects of his political leadership during the pre-Revolutionary period. First, Hutchinson showed great respect not only for his colleagues but for their motivations as well. In History, Hutchinson recalls a story of how two legislators came to him before the full General Court took up the bill. He identifies them as “strong opposers” of the legislation, but also recognizes the fact that these two individuals were likely under intense pressure from their peers and constituents to speak to him. Hutchinson observes that, although they remained opposed to a number of provisions in the bill, they were also in agreement that the land bank schemes and other fraudulent activity reportedly associated with paper currency and bills of credit were major issues. These legislators ultimately convinced Hutchinson to allow for the bill to be reintroduced and given further debate.

Second, Hutchinson was expected to perform his duties as required by his king, an aspect of his job with which Hutchinson was in full agreement. He acknowledged that, as speaker, he was not acting under the mandate of the colonists but rather the rule of British law. As stated earlier, Parliament had already passed the proclamation that, going forward, the use of paper currency was prohibited. The colonial government, ultimately, did not have much say in the matter. He states that it was no concern to him whether a colony should use paper- or silver-based currency, as long as a stable monetary system was involved. However, he also makes it clear that Parliament deemed silver to be the standard for the British colonies. It was therefore incumbent upon Hutchinson and his legislative colleagues to enact laws that eliminated paper in favor of silver.

In light of these two important aspects of Hutchinson’s leadership as speaker, the bill was reintroduced. This time, debate was much shorter, due in large part to the fact that several of the bill’s previous opponents had, as promised, changed their opinions on the overall merits of the legislation (yet still maintaining that they found a number of the bill’s provisions to be disagreeable). The Currency Reform Act of 1749 was quickly passed by the General Court and signed into law by the governor.

In History, Hutchinson next describes the public response as somewhat tempered. After all, the Currency Reform Act was passed with the expectation that the British government would use the new standard to reimburse the colony for its role in the Siege of Louisburg. However, Hutchinson would soon feel a backlash from those colonists with increasingly anti-British sentiments. Hutchinson writes in his account that the public outcry developed after the British government sent its reimbursement for the Louisburg campaign.

The main reason for this opposition was the fact that Hutchinson’s bill would, over the long term, establish a system by which Great Britain, rather than colonial banks, would be the primary distributors of money in the colonies. Opponents argued that the new law further hampered the ability of colonists to pay each other in commercial transactions as well as to conduct business with Great Britain.

Hutchinson, in his book, responded to this criticism by writing that the Massachusetts colony, by adopting the measure, benefited greatly when compared to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, all of which refused to enact the change. Hutchinson pointed to the fact that by simply making the switch from paper to silver, Massachusetts would see increased international trade with such groups as the West India Company.

Hutchinson also retrospectively chides the parties who claimed that the Currency Reform Act, by eliminating paper currency and replacing it with silver, had made life more challenging for the poor. These less affluent colonists asserted that silver was much more difficult to obtain than paper, leaving them with few financial options. However, Hutchinson argues that, over time, “it was as easy for a frugal industrious person to obtain silver, as it had been to obtain paper”. Later, he writes, when a group of colonists from towns outside of Boston descended upon the colonial capitol to protest the silver issue, they were ridiculed by Bostonians, who had already discovered the ease by which silver was acquired.

An issue that would arise repeatedly in the aftermath of the passage of the Currency Reform Act was one that was a familiar driver for rebelling colonists: taxation. In order to pay for the transition from paper to silver currency, Hutchinson writes, a tax on those transactions was necessary. Furthermore, Hutchinson argues, the tax would make it possible for the government to issue credit, replacing the private credit offered by banks. The result, Hutchinson writes, was a more reliable and efficient credit system.

Regardless of what he sees as a program designed to help make lives easier for the colonists, Hutchinson acknowledges in History that there was backlash. The new law, including the tax provisions, eventually generated the ire of those who had become disenchanted with British rule. Hutchinson and his colleagues were targeted by opponents outside of the General Court. Protests and demonstrations against the Currency Reform Act became increasingly violent. The Massachusetts colonial government cracked down on the colonists by passing a law allowing for severe punishment for such activity. The government’s efforts to quell the demonstrations and violence only exacerbated the backlash against the government’s leaders, including Hutchinson.

Throughout his account of the Currency Reform Act of 1749 in The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, Hutchinson maintains a conservative and pragmatic perspective on the subject. Hutchinson demonstrates his loyalty to the British government, insisting that Parliament’s actions on currency reform were for the good of the colonists, particularly in light of the frequency of land bank schemes. He acknowledges the fact that there would be public criticism of the measure, but he points to the practical approach he believes the General Court took to replacing the unstable paper currency with silver.

Nevertheless, the first Currency Reform Act would tarnish Hutchinson’s popularity with his constituents. Although he ascended to the role of governor, he would be seen by the growing anti-British contingent as a loyalist rather than a pragmatic leader. He seemingly validated those perceptions when, in 1765, he did not join in the violent backlash that occurred after the Stamp Act was imposed. False rumors were spread about Hutchinson’s involvement in the passage of the Stamp Act, which led a mob to break into his home, destroy his belongings, and scatter the manuscript of his third installment of The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay in the streets. With his reputation marred by the fervent pro-independence movement, Hutchinson would not regain the colonists’ trust. In 1774 he returned to England, continuing unsuccessfully to seek a peace between American colonists and the British.

Essential Themes

Hutchinson was both an intellectual and a conservative. These two qualities served him well in his political career in the British colonies. The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay provides a number of illustrations of these qualities. His review of the events surrounding the first Currency Reform Act of 1749, in particular, is demonstrative of the fact that these two qualities were beneficial to his leadership but detrimental to his long-term success in Massachusetts.

The problems that arose as a result of the widespread use of paper currency rather than British sterling were legitimate, contributing to financial schemes such as those found in the practice of land banking. Hutchinson, having been handed Parliament’s response to this issue, agreed with his peers in Great Britain that silver offered a more stable basis for financial transactions. He and his colleagues in the General Court therefore crafted what he saw as the most optimal vehicle for the removal of paper currency from circulation. In History, Hutchinson carefully and thoughtfully describes how the final version of the Currency Reform Act was passed for the sake of economic stability and prosperity in the colony.

As stated earlier, Hutchinson was not one to embrace the more radical anti-British sentiments that permeated colonial society after the Great Awakening. It was this pre-Revolutionary fervor that motivated many colonists to speak out against the Currency Reform Act. Hutchinson, however, kept his ideologies grounded and focused on the creation of effective policy. Based on his accounts in History, Hutchinson found himself at odds with the passionate antisilver parties, ultimately securing the bill’s passage and placing himself in the sights of growing colonial discontent.

Although he possessed a keen intellect and political prowess, Hutchinson was unable to reconcile the expanding rift between the British Crown and the colonists. In part, this was due to his loyalty to the British government he served—he makes it clear in History that he agreed with Parliament that currency reform was for the benefit of the colonies. He also agreed that when demonstrations against the Currency Reform Act became violent, it was right to apply the rule of law. This loyalty to the Crown was rewarded with the furthering of his political career. However, it was returned with venom by his constituents. Even after he arrived in England, he attempted to find common ground in the dispute. Passion and zeal on both sides undermined his efforts to do so, however.

Bibliography
  • Bassett, John Spencer. “The Historians, 1607–1783: Thomas Hutchinson”. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes. Bartleby.com, 2000. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “The First Great Awakening.” National Humanities Center. Dept. of History, University of Delaware, 2008. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • Hutchinson, Thomas. “Massachusetts-Bay: A Colony of Loyal Britons? The Governor’s View: 1760–63.” The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, From 1749–74, Comprising a Detailed Narrative of the Origin and Early Stages of the American Revolution. Ed. John Hutchinson. National Humanities Center. Dept. of History, University of Delaware, 2009. Web. 29 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap, 1992. Print.
  • ---. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge: Belknap, 1976. Print.
  • Newton, Michael E. Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution. Phoenix: Eleftheria, 2011. Print.
  • Shaw, Peter. “Their Kinsman, Thomas Hutchinson; Hawthorne, the Boston Patriots, and His Majesty’s Royal Governor”. Early American Literature 11.2 (1 Sep. 1976). Print.
  • Walmsley, Andrew. Thomas Hutchinson and the Origins of the American Revolution. New York: New York UP. 2000. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf. 1991. Print.

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