Academic journal article Early American Studies

On the Margins: The Mediating Function of Footnotes in Thomas Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts-Bay

Academic journal article Early American Studies

On the Margins: The Mediating Function of Footnotes in Thomas Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts-Bay

Article excerpt

Fettered Loyalism," "The Losers," "Dissent and the Alternative That Was Lost" - these are all phrases that modern scholars have used to characterize the Loyalist historians of the American Revolution, pointing to the exclusion of the Loyalists from the process of nation building and from the narratives that have been constructed about that process in both the United States and Britain. By this account, the Loyalist historians themselves laid the basis for their exclusion from American historical consciousness in their failure to provide a coherent counter-narrative of the American Revolution that could offset the nationalist accounts produced by the Revolutionary historians. This failure was in turn emblematic of the deficiencies and tensions in Loyalist ideology. Paralyzed by their conservative ideology and their dual loyalties to America and Britain, the Loyalist historians found themselves unable to adapt to the social forces unleashed by the Revolution and the new political order it created, and they were, as a result, defeated in both the Revolution itself and the battle for historical recognition after the Revolution - or so the conventional narrative of Loyalist history goes.1

No figure seems to embody the image of the Loyalists of the American Revolution as "losers" better than Thomas Hutchinson, the historian and last civilian royal governor of Massachusetts. The more he tried to mediate between his loyalty to his native Massachusetts and his desire to uphold British authority, the more he inflamed revolutionary hostility to British policies, only to become himself an object of infamy among the Revolutionaries. Finally exiled from his beloved Massachusetts to spend the rest of his life as an alien in the English nation whose authority he had tried to uphold, Hutchinson has seemed for modern scholars to epitomize the tragic fate of the many Loyalists marginalized by their attachment to an outmoded imperial structure at a time when the modern nation- state appeared to be in the process of supplanting earlier imperial forms.2

Yet Hutchinson's work as a historian suggests that the Loyalist historians were more versatile and in tune with the prevailing intellectual currents of their time than the image of them as losers has assumed. Hutchinson published the first volume of his History of Massachusetts-Bay in 1764, following with a second volume in 1767 and a third that was published posthumously in 1828. More successful as a historian than as a politician, Hutchinson received wide praise from contemporaries and later scholars alike for the research and impartiality of his history. Yet Hutchinson's history has received little sustained attention from modern scholars, who have treated it alternately as either a dry compilation of facts or merely a reflection of his conservative political ideology.3 Though his history did indeed reflect his political concerns, it was also a serious intellectual enterprise that grappled with the same issues that engaged the leading Enlightenment historians of his time - namely, how to integrate their ideal of philosophical history with the classical tradition of exemplary history and the research and techniques of critical source analysis that derived from the antiquarian tradition of scholarship. Thus, the apparent colorlessness and incoherence of Hutchinson's history were actually the product of his effort to negotiate between both his colonial and imperial loyalties and conflicting definitions of history as a discipline.

Such conflicts had become more pronounced by the eighteenth century, as the simultaneous rise of philosophical history and the growing importance of critical scholarship not only came into conflict with one another, but also challenged the primacy of the classical tradition of exemplary history.4 History had in this tradition been seen as distinct from, and indeed opposed to, antiquarian scholarship. Considered the province of men of affairs like Hutchinson, history was supposed to be "philosophy teaching by example," whose purpose was to provide readers with moral lessons of conduct to imitate or avoid. …

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