A Debate on Natural Rights
from Hutchinson's “A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman”

 E Pluribus Unum



Thomas Hutchinson, who served as the royal governor of Massachusetts through much of the most critical period leading up to the revolution (1771-4), was despised by the American patriots of his day but is today recognized as a sincere loyalist caught in a difficult situation.

Born in Boston, Hutchinson graduated from Harvard before serving first in his father's counting house and then in a series of governmental positions including a stint as Chief Justice of Massachusetts between 1761 and 1769. Although in his role as governor Hutchinson counseled the British government against placing such strong strictures on the colonies, he fully and faithfully enforced such measures as the Stamp Act. In return, he inspired the wrath of many of his fellow colonists and his home was attacked by a mob and burned.  Here is how he described the event in a letter:

Messages soon came one after another to the house where I was to inform me the mob were coming in Pursuit of me and I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o'clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors. Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the Partition walls and altho that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola or lanthern and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat and all my trees &c broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. Besides my Plate and family Pictures household furniture of every kind my own my children and servants apparel they carried off about £900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything whatsoever except a part of the kitchen furniture not leaving a single book or paper in it and have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for 30 years together besides a great number of Publick papers in my custody. The evening being warm I had undressed me and slipt on a thin camlet surtout over my wastcoat, the next morning the weather being changed I had not cloaths enough in my possession to defend me from the cold and was obliged to borrow from my host. Many articles of cloathing and good part of my Plate have since been picked up in different quarters of the town but the Furniture in general was cut to pieces before it was thrown out of the house and most of the beds cut open and the feathers thrown out of the windows. The next evening I intended with my children to Milton but meeting two or three small Parties of the Ruffians who I suppose had concealed themselves in the country and my coachman hearing one of them say there he is, my daughters were terrified and said they should never be safe and I was forced to shelter them that night at the castle. (See Hutchinson's letter to Richard Jackson under the title The Boston Riot of 26 August 1765 at A Web of English History: The Age of George III: American Affairs 1760-1783

Despite his increasing unpopularity, Hutchinson continued to believe that revolution could be averted if only people would listen to reason.  Bernard Bailyn presents a sympathetic portrait of his plight in his book, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson.

All his conscientious plans for the governorship had failed; his efforts to mobilize the political system to support the government; his strenuous, at times frantic, appeals to England to devise . . . a judicious and comprehensive colonial policy, sensitive both to the fears and desires of the people and to the needs of government, and to enforce the law and order before it took a massive military effort to do so; and finally, his struggle to persuade the great moderate majority of the population of the sheer irrationality and self-destructive nihilism of the extremists' claims and demands. And not only had he failed in all of this, but, in his effort to inject rationality into an increasingly irrational situation, he -- he, and not the enemies of order -- had been rebuked by the government itself."

Earlier in his life, Hutchinson had enjoyed a reputation for being able to offer the kind of clear explanations that could win the confidence of his listeners.  "According to a traditional anecdote, juries would, after listening to his associates speak, see Hutchinson rise and would remark 'now we shall hear something which we can understand.'" We can gain some insight into Hutchinson's belief that he could use of reason to restore order to the unsettled colonies by reading the text of his uncompleted and never-published manuscript, "“A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman.”  Hutchinson hoped that by describing a reasonable conversation between an "American" Englishman and a "European" Englishman, he could provide a calm demonstration of the weakness of the American claims.  Some claim, however, that Hutchinson never completed the piece because he found it difficult to find logical responses to American claims to rights based on natural law.

Thus, this "conversation" also serves as a model of the debate between American and British interpretations of the "natural law" argument.

The text below is taken from Thomas Hutchinson's “A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman,”1768, edited by Bernard Bailyn and published in an Offprint from Perspectives in American History, Volume IX, 1975, 390-4. Note: the asterisks indicate ellipses in my transcription of the text.


I cannot think that the people under any government can be obliged to submit to what is in its nature unjust. (Let us reassume the argument from which we digressed.) All government is or ought to have been instituted for the {good} {sake}of the people. There are certain natural rights which as men we are entitled to and which we can never be supposed to give up to any authority whatsoever. There are certain fundamental principles of the English constitution, and to any act contrary to those fundamentals the people are not obliged to submit. I think every man has a natural right to dispose of his own property. It is a fundamental of the English constitution, a part of Magna Charta, that all supplies be made by the Commons, in other words by the people. The very term [“] give and grant [“] must intend that it comes from the owner. These fundamentals set bounds to Parliamentary power, and the great oracle of the English law, Lord Coke, says in his Reports that acts made against the fundamental principles of the constitution are void. If void, certainly there is no obligation to submit to them. Nay, by the constitution it may well be questioned whether the Parliament of England can be considered as the Parliament for the colonies. We know the sense the Parliament itself has had of itself. In a statute of 1 of King James the First a Parliament is said to be when all the whole body of the realm and every particular member thereof either in person or by representation upon their own free election are by the laws of the realm deemed to be personally present in Parliament. You have not given me a sufficient response on these points, bit if you had been able to do it I have a farther argument. Admitting the power, which I never shall do, yet it has not been thought equitable to exercise it for more than a century past, and there is no more pretence from equity now than there has been in any former time.



I am willing to consider every point as fully as you please and we will now take them in the order you have advanced them {and no longer ramble from one thing to another. I agree with you that government is to be considered as instituted for the sake of the people, but that every individual has a right to judge when the acts of government are just and unjust and to submit or not submit accordingly I can’t so readily concede. Only think a little and you must be convinced that this is a doctrine repugnant to {the very idea of} government. In a state of nature {no one man has a right to} I am in no case subject to the controul {the actions}of any other person except to address or repel a wrong done or intended to be done him. {In a} {By entering into} [a] state of government I subject myself to a power constituted over a society of which I become a member. It is immaterial in whom this power is lodged. Such power must be lodged somewhere or there is no government. You say accordingly, he is free, as far, such submission must be intended only in matters that are just. I say, this is no submission at all, for if every man is at liberty to judge what is just and what is unjust and submit or not submit accordingly, he is free, as far as he pleases, from that power to which he professes himself to be a subject, which is a contradiction in terms. Just the same may be said of those natural rights which you say every man retains notwithstanding his being in a state of government. If I am at liberty to judge what is my natural right, which I have thus reserved, and what not, I may exempt myself from every act of government, for every act lays me under some restraint which I have a natural right to be free from. But pray tell me {what are those} {which of our}natural rights in a state of government must be supposed to be reserved? ***



. . . I am willing to carry my principles of submission as far as the great Mr. Locke did his {and no farther. He says,} “The supreme power cannot take from any man part of his property without his own consent .” ***



I reverence Mr. Locke as much as you can. I think I have advanced nothing which is not supported by his authority.

See Also:

A biographical profile of Thomas Hutchinson at The Interactive Statehouse site, Massachusetts

Thomas Hutchinson at the American Revolution Homepage (opening the page starts a music file)

An account of Thomas Hutchinson in Our Country, by Benson J. Lossing published in 1877 as "A Household History for All Readers" and available online at the Public Bookshelf.

Thomas Hutchinson entry from the online version of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica

The Historians, 1607–1783: Thomas Hutchinson, from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I. available online at Bartleby.com

Letters from Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson re: the Gaspee Affair

The Account of the Currency Reform contained in Thomas Hutchinson's The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay

The Boston Riot of 26 August 1765 at A Web of English History: The Age of George III: American Affairs 1760-1783, a letter from Hutchinson offering own account of the attack on his home.

The story of the burning of Hutchinson's home is told in "The Hutchinson Mob," Chapter III of section three of Grandfather's Chair, Nathaniel Hawthorne's history stories for children.

Related Resources on This Site:

What is Rhetoric? Dialogue and Debate in the Writing of the Revolution

A Rhetoric of Rights:

The Arguments Used in the "American Conversation" in the Era of the Revolution
A Step-by-Step Guide to Constructing Quick Analyses of Revolutionary-Era Texts

Investigating the History of Slavery in Early America:

A Guide to Critical Reading
Evaluate the Reasoning
Evaluate the Reliability of Evidence
Finding Your Own Answers

Texts that Illustrate Typical Arguments and Techniques:

Excerpts from John Adams' "A Dissertation on the Canon Feudal Law": An Illustration of Arguments Used by American Patriots in the Rhetoric of the Revolution

Excerpt from Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull's Fast-Day Proclamation of 1775

A Debate on Natural Rights from Hutchinson's “A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman”

Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774 at The Founders Constitution

Orations on the Boston Massacre

The Rights of the Colonists: The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, by Samuel Adams, November 20, 1772


Return to:

A Rhetoric of Rights: Natural Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

A Rhetoric of Rights: Core Arguments Used in the American Conversation in the Era of the Revolution



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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.