written by, Chester G. Osborne
Long Island Forum- July 1971
IN SUFFOLK County and New York State politics of the mid-1880's, one of the most influential and paradoxically one of the most obscure figures was a village (or hamlet) postmaster and tavern keeper named Benjamin T. Hutchinson, (1808-1877).
Around 1834, Hutchinson bought a house and farm in Middle Island which had formerly been the property of Benjamin Brewster, a grandson of Rev. Nathaniel Brewster, and during the following years the dwelling served variously as a local post office, country store, stage coach stop, tavern, voting place, and with Hutchinson's ascendancy as a politician, the office of the Town Clerk of Brookhaven Town.
Aleaflet put out by the Bayles Insurance Agency of Middle Island points out that the post office in that place "has the distinction of being the oldest in Brookhaven Town" and that it dates from 1796. Centrally located, it was an ideal spot for the picking up and passing on of news of all sorts, from local stories to political gossip and maneuverings at state level; it was a vantage point from which Hutchinson did more than just listen to the news; he maintained a lively correspondence with many officials and wielded an increasingly strong influence, to the benefit apparently of everyone but himself.
How many of his letters are still in existence is not known, but a number were found in the papers of his long-time friend and ally, Egbert Tangier Smith of the Manor of St. George at Mastic. An 1847 letter to Smith gives some background on the beginnings of Hutchinson's career as Clerk; M. Homan Esqr. was Mordicai Homan, who had been in that office for forty years:
"Middle Island NY
M. Homan Esqr. declines serving any longer as Town Clerk and he and several others have stated a preference for me and my location as most central in the Town, and I have consented to serve if it be the wish of the better part of the people without any jockeying about it, and if it be the people's, choice (separate from any extraneous anti-republican doctrines and jockeyings) to have some other person serve them, I shall willingly acquiesce; thus far I consider it just & honorable to say to friend or foe, and thinking you might not know of M H's declining I take the liberty to inform you that you may do as seemeth best in your sight
16 feby 1847
P.S. I am in favor of good temperance in all things and consequently was sorry to see last March Cold-water made the Principal qualification to the injury of freedom of opinion & destruction of truth & Honest republicanism and hope the repetition may be avoided-
B. T. H."
Hutchinson served as Town Clerk from 1848 to 1850. Another letter tells of his nomination for a similar post at County level,he was elected and served as Clerk of Suffolk County from 1850 to 1852. He writes with eloquent and sometimes flamboyant Prose, the last few phrases may seem incongruous, as if borrowed from a Marriage pronouncement, but it is no pun to say that the writer was sincere and "wedded to his work".
"To Egbert T. Smith, Esqr
I feel truly thankful for the kindness shown to me last Tues. eve, by yourself particularly, and the majority of the Convention, and should the people see proper to sanction the nomination, my best abilities shall be given to endeavor to discharge the important duties to which I should be called, with gratitude to friends, and justice and kindness to all, and with this expression of my sincere thanks you will please consider me to be
Very respectfully yours, B. T. Hutchinson.
5 Oct- 1849
Let me mingle my congratulations with yours, at the happily effected Union of the Democracy of Suffolk, for Union alone can lead to Peace, prosperity and the welfare of our Country, and I trust the past late experiences will make all more dearly prize the blessing of union-the source of our strength, the sweetener of our joys, and our comforter in distress-
B. T. H.
Hutchinson's career included a post as Inspector of Schools, 1835 and for some years after, and he returned to the office of Town Clerk from 1860 to 1877. Meetings of the "Democratic Republicans" were held at his home, with the artist William S. Mount, Egbert Smith and other committeemen attending. But he scrupulously avoided any conflict between "politicking" and duty.
"You know when we get through office duties we can be free to converse on other useful things" he wrote from his Suffolk County office on August 6, 1850. And he knew his job. In Book A 4 the Brookhaven Town Records there is a credit from Osborn Shaw, Town Historian: 'During 1848 and 1849 and from 1860 to 1877, Benjamin T Hutchinson . . . added many notes to the Records, explaining some of the entries…"
A brief letter of September 1850 shows the range of his influence and offers Egbert T. Smith some shrewd advice:
Try to get good delegates both ways. Probably as a result of it, Smith was elected to the State Assembly for the next term. L. H. Davis was Lester H. Davis, who was to be Suffolk County Treasurer, 1855-1857. Town elections were held for many years at his home in Coram.
B. R. Platt was Bradford R Platt of Huntington; he ran the newspaper Long Is-lander. C. A. Floyd was Charles Albert Floyd, born in Smithtown in 1791, died in Commack, Feb. 20, 1873. He was County Clerk 1820-21; District Attorney, 1830; a member of the State Assembly, 1836 and 1838; elected as a Democrat to the Twenty- Seventh Congress and served March 4, 1841 to March 3, 1843; County Judge 1843 - 1865, and during some of the same years was Supervisor of Huntington. The Democrat was another local newspaper.
Suffolk C H
23rd Sept 1850
I learnt yesterday from L. H. Davis that the primary meetings would be at his house on Wedneday afternoon next-to choose Delegates to Dist. & County Conventions-I knew nothing of the Dist. one until I got the Democrat Saturday p.m. & L.H.D. says he did not get the paper until in the eve and had written some notices for Wednesday.
B. R. Platt writes to me that he will do all he can for you -C. A. Floyd writes that 'You must be provided for' so that I do not know of any proposed change from our former wishes try to get good delegates both ways-
B. T. Hutchinson"
Devoted and honest, Hutchinson was not one to use his influence and prestige to faten his own pocketbook, and after a lifetime of public service he remained a relatively poor man. Indeed, there were times when he found himself losing money at the job: "I think the office was fifty dollars damage to me last year," he complained in an undated letter to Smith
"And this year would you believe it they with Capt. Carman to help them seek to lessen it & allow no commission . . . for my day when we meet 8/-June meeting 1 day 8/ Expenses & collaterals of the day 6/6 leaving me as pay 1/6 for which I wrote 1 day before, that day, 1 day after, 6 nights, went twice an South Side (i.e., business on the south shore) once on North side-been hindered 4 days at home &c &c study law and records in nights and noons to give information to Town officers & others for public good, and 16 pence the pay. Let it be something or nothing, I say, & it should be so for I refuse the 18 pence, for a girl can make more than that in one eve . . . "
And there are these entries in the "Brookhaven Town Records from 1856 to 1886"' quoted not only for what they reveal about Hutchinson, but also for what they show of the scope of the Clerk's position-
"Trustee Meeting, March 5th. 1861 . . . Resolved unanimously that for the extra services rendered the Town by Benjamin T Hutchinson . . . in putting the Military Roll and Assessment into one Book and in Alphabetical order with residences-going to Riverhead" head three times and searching Records to aid Assessors in correcting errors by which many taxes, had been formerly lost-searching Records and copying items and laws in aid of settlement of Boundary with Islip-
Searching records and accounts and making copies of accts. for last 12 years of the Docks, Railways, Shores, Islands, Bays &c showing the arrearages due. and enabling a just settlement of the Rents with all parties-Indexing the last Book of Records-and taking means by which $116 of arrearage Taxes have been collected we tender him in behalf of the Town . . . the sum of Thirty Dollars . . , "
The next month the Trustees admitted that the sum was "insufficient" and directed that another "Twenty Dollars be allowed him for services so freely rendered, and so greatly beneficial to the Town . . .
There are other entries of a similar nature, and finally, "Trustee Meeting, at Coram, Tuesday, March 28th 1882 ... whereas Benjamin T. Hutchinson late of the Town of Brookhaven, in Suffolk County, deceased was indebted to said Town in the sum of Two Hundred Dollars or there-abouts, and the Said Town . . . was indebted to said Benjamin T. Hutchinson for Services by him rendered to said Town to nearly the same amount . . . that said Board of Trustees . . . does hereby release and forever discharge the Estate of said Benjamin T. Hutchinson from the said indebtedness . . . "