Chapter 3, The Defence of the Charter

From: Boston By Henry Cabot Lodge

Published by Longmans, Green, and Co, New York. 1902

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THE DEFENCE OF THE CHARTER.

WINTHROP’S death was an event very memorable in New England, and it seems, as has been said, to make a natural division between the period of settlement and the period of growth and progress under the charter When he came with his ships and his people to Boston harbour he looked upon wooded hills, unbroken save by the little plantations of Maverick and Blackstone. When he died, the house in which he closed his eyes stood in a thriving town, which had risen up in the wilderness in twenty years by the energy and determination of those Puritan Englishmen who had followed him and upheld his hands. Edward Johnson in his “Wonder-working Providence” gives a description of Boston at the time of Winthrop’s death which brings home to us more vividly than anything else the work which had been done : — “The chiefe Edifice of this City-like Towne is crowded on the Sea-bankes, and wharfed out with great industry and cost, the buildings beautifull and large, some fairely set forth with Brick Tile, Stone, and Slate, and orderly placed with comly streets, whose continuall iiilargement presages some sumptuous City. . . But now behold the admirable Acts of Christ: at this his peoples landing, the hideous Thickets in this place were such. that Wolfe’s and Beares nurst up their young from the eyes of all beholders, in those very places where the streets are full of Girles and Boys sporting up and downe, with a continued concourse of people. Good store of Shipping is here yearly built, and some very faire ones : both Tar and Mastes the Countrey affords from its own soile; also store of Victuall both for their owne and Forreiners ships, who resort hither for that end; this Town is the very Mart of the Land; French, Portugalls, and Dutch come hither for Traffique.”

The fouiiclations of the future city had been well laid, and so had those of the Church and State, during the period when Winthrop had guided and formulated the policy of Massachusetts. The work which was then begun under his wise leadership moved forward in things spiritual and political as well as in material affairs without break or change. That which most concerns us during the ten years after Winthrop's death, when John Endieott held the reins of government, is the culinina— tion of the struggle between the stern theocracy which had been established with so much care and the spirit of toleration and liberal thought which was rising up from the free schools and the democratic commonwealth. Reference has already been made to the persecution of the Baptists, which was carried on for some years after Winthrop’s death, and which resulted in failure. These Baptists, however, were much less difficult to deal with and much better able to win toleration than the people called Quakers, who succeeded them, and before whom the Puritan system of repression in reality broke down, although the fact of its defeat was not realized until the appearance of outside political forces made it painfully evident to all men.

This is not the place to enter into a detailed history of the Quaker persecution. It has been the fashion in these days to represent the case as if all the wrong were on one side, and all human sympathy should be with the Quakers. It seldom happens in any quarrel that all the wrong is on one side. Life would be much simpler if such were the case. In this instance wrong was largely on one side, but not entirely so. The Quakers, whom the world has known for the past two centuries as quiet, law-abiding, and benevolent citizens, were very different from those who came and set themselves up against the authorities of Massachusetts. These early agitators, apart from their religious doctrines, and considered solely from the secular standpoint, were offensive and disorderly persons, as unlike the seraphic beings of modern poetry and history as can well be imagined. Their cause was righteous, no doubt, but they were not by any means. Men and women who raised disturbances in the streets, went about without clothes, smearing their bodies with black, who denounced the civil magistrates and. the law, who broke into the midst of peaceful congregations, and indulged in every sort of indecent performance, would in these days of enlightened liberality be placed in jail for disorderly and indecent conduct; and the present generation would feel that they had been treated with absolute justice as law-breakers and disturbers of the peace.

If the Puritans had treated the Quakers solely from the secular standpoint, made them keep order, and inflicted upon them nothing more than the usual punishments for infraction of the law, it would be very difficult to say that they had acted otherwise than as sensible men. Unfortunately, they could never keep matters of conscience and opinion separate from overt acts; and that which offended the Puritan most was the fact that the “Ranters,” as they called them, were not only disorderly persons but people who held religious views at variance with those of the State. Feeling in this way, the Puritan authorities undertook to suppress the Quakers as religious fanatics instead of simply punishing them as disturbers of the peace. Even Roger Williams, the conventional champion of soul-liberty and of freedom of conscience, declared himself in favour of due and moderate restraint and punishment of the Quakers; and if the Puritans had kept themselves to this, all would have been well. Unluckily they went much further. They undertook to extirpate them; and they adopted in so doing the repression to which they were accustomed, and used methods which were neither better nor worse in Massachusett•s than the methods of punishment then in vogue everywhere. They imprisoned the Quakers, whipped them at the cart-tail from town to town, and banished them from the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth under pain of death, a system which on the whole had thus far proved fairly effective. This time, however, they were dealing with men and women so crazed by religious feeling that they were ready to meet even the last penalty in order to establish their faith. The Quakers came back from exile to find that the Puritans, whatever their faults, were men of their word. Between 1659 and 1661 three men and one woman were executed on Boston Oommon, where it is believed they still lie buried. It was with great difficulty that a majority of the magistrates could be obtained to carry out the threat that had been made ; and it may be doubted whether the policy would have prevailed if it had not been for the unbending will of stern old Governor Endicott, who in his earlier days had cut the cross from the English flag as a symbol of idolatry. The victory in appearance rested with the magistrates, but in reality the Puritan system of a single church had broken down. Public opinion was so strongly excited by the execution of the Quakers that the policy it embodied could never again have been carried out thoroughly. It was the last victory of the theocratic system of the founders, and is of profound interest because it shows that system carried out to its logical conclusion, and failing in the end in the presence of the modern forces which were being generated by free schools and a free government.

Even if the natural growth of public opinion, however, had not brought to an end the attempt to stifle religious differences by force, events in England would have done the work. New England had rejoiced at the rule of the great Protector, and had thriven under it undisturbed; but Massachusetts had allowed even him to understand that she felt herself to be independent, and she made no acknowledgment of his son and successor. Yet at the very time, when the colony seemed most secure in its independence and most prosperous in its material welfare, when the Puritan theocracy, as it believed, was crushing heresy by the infliction of the last punishment which man can impose, changes were occurring in England which were to turn the people of the Bay Colony from the work of putting down those whom they esteemed heretics to a long and hopeless struggle to preserve the liberties which they had gained under their dearly-cherished charter. In 1660, Charles II. came back to his father’s throne; and the ship that brought the news of the Restoration to Boston brought also the two regicides, Goffe and Whalley, fleeing from the wrath to come. Within a year the “Colonels,” as they were called, who had been on their arrival the honoured guests of the State, were hiding in remote places with a price upon their heads, and Massachusetts heard that her former governor, Sir Henry Vane, and her great preacher, Hugh Peter, had died upon the scaffold. It was evident that this was a government which, unlike that of Richard Cromwell, could not be passed over without some acknowledgment; and they therefore sent what they called a “congratulatory and lowly script,” acknowledging Charles, and asking for his protection.

Charles returned a gracious although vague reply to the address of the colony; but despite the fair words, signs were not wanting to anxious observers in Massachusetts that the home Government was planning to take a much more effective control of their affairs than they either liked or expected. The Navigation Act of Cromwell, which had never been enforced against them under the Protectorate, was recommended by the Convention Parliament to be made more stringent and was put into active operation. Twelve privy councillors were also appointed to be a commission touching the settlement of New England. Thi.s was in May, 1661; and while the Government in England. was thus gradually turning its attention to the Puritan colonies, the General Court of Massachusetts at the same time was appointing a committee of twelve to take into consideration the present condition of affairs. This corninittee made a report in June, which set forth the rights of the colony under the charter, and secondly the duties of allegiance which the colonists owed the king. The clauses in this report "concerning our liberties" were very definite and very broad, while those concerning allegiance were vague, and did not extend very far, a distinction not likely to escape observant and hostile eyes. Having thus set forth their own ideas of their rights and duties much as if they were entering a caveat, the Massachusetts Government, in August, 1661, proclaimed the king in Boston, fifteen months after his accession, - a delay which certainly did not indicate an over-hasty loyalty. The news which came to them, however, convinced them that more active steps should be taken to defend their rights in England than the reports of committees or tardy proclamations of the existence of the reigning king; and after much deliberation Mr. Bradstreet and Mr. Norton left the colony in February, 1662, as agents of the colony, to represent its interests in London. Yet at this very time, when agents were being sent with no little anxiety, the colony continued to exercise one of the highest attributes of independent sovereignty, by continuing the coinage of money. Their deeds were by no means so submissive as their words. Nevertheless, the agents were well received in England, and returned with a letter from the king, dated June 28, 1662. This letter was more gracious and liberal than the colonists ought to have expected; for Charles told the Massachusetts Government that their address had been very acceptable; that he received the colony into his gracious protection, confirmed their charter, and was ready to renew it; and that he pardoned all subjects for offences against him, except persons attainted for high treason, - the exception referring to fugitive regicides.

After such concessions and such apparent liberality, the king on his side demanded certain things which seemed very grievous to the Puritans of Massachusetts, who had been carrying on for so long an independent government. Charles directed that the oath of allegiance should be observed, and that the administration of justice should be in his name; and as a feature of the charter was freedom of conscience, he charged that they should extend that freedom to all members of the Episcopal Church. He also directed that all freeholders of good character and orthodox in religion, though of different persuasions concerning church and government, should be allowed to vote. This last command struck of course at the very root of the Puritan system; and when the General Court met in October, 1662, the only thing they did was to direct that all writs should run in the king's name, while at the next session, in May, 1663, they appointed a committee to consider the rest of the letter. The colonists were quite ready to go through all the forms of obedience; but when it came to substantial concessions they grew straightway stubborn, and began to play the waiting game, which had always served them so well.

Meanwhile the Committee of the Privy Council had begun to move; and in April, 1663, it was declared that his Majesty had determined to send new commissioners to the colonies to preserve the charter of the Plantation, and to remove existing differences. The news that these men were coming as passengers on men-of-war, and accompanied by troops, reached Massachusetts in the spring of 1664. When the General Court met in May, it appointed Captains Oliver and Davis to go on board these ships as soon as they appeared, and to acquaint the commissioners that the officers and soldiers should be permitted to land only in small numbers, and unarmed. The Court also appointed a day of humiliation and prayer, gave the patent and its duplicate to certain persons to be hidden in a safe and secret place, ordered the trainbands to be put in readiness, and placed Captain Davenport in command of the castle in the harbour. Thus prepared, both spiritually and temporally, they awaited the coming of the ships. Two of the men-of-war reached Boston on the 23d of July, 1664, and the others followed. The fleet brought some four hundred troops for the reduction of the Dutch settlements and four commissioners, - Colonel Nichols, Sir Robert Carr, Colonel Cartwright, and Mr. Maverick. These gentlemen bore the royal commission, which ordered them to reduce the Dutch of New York, to hear all trials of complaints against existing governments, and to settle the peace and security of the country. They also brought a letter from the king which gave a more detailed expression of the powers set out in the commission.

The commissioners laid before the governor's council their commission and the king's letter, and asked for men to assist them in the reduction of New York, whither they went at once, after stating in broad terms that they would return later amid hoped for a more satisfactory answer than the king's missives had yet received. When the General Court assembled in August they resolved that they would keep true faith and allegiance to his Majesty, and also would adhere to the patent. They gave two hundred men for service against the Dutch and then proceeded to consider the king's letter of 1662, which they had had before them for two years. By way of compliance with its requests they repealed the law which confined the franchise to church membership and replaced it by another, which gave a vote to those who, with certain other unimportant qualifications, could present a certificate from the minister of the place where they lived that they were orthodox in religion. This was a change without a difference; and the practical effect of this new law was the same as the old, for it left the control of the franchise in the hands of the ministers. The only other thing that the Court did was to appoint a committee to draw up a petition to the king for the continuance of their chartered privileges. Thus the points of difference came out clearly through the mist of words in letters, reports, commissions, and proclamations. The two parties were fairly arrayed against each other, and the attitude of the General Court was sufficiently unpromising to those who understood the temper of the people.

The commissioners came back to Massachusetts in February, and proceeded thence to Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where they met with a reception or a submission which was satisfactory to them and to the king. By the following May they were once more in Boston, prepared for the last contest. John Endicott, sternest and most unyielding of all the Puritan magistrates, had died, and had been succeeded by Richard Bellingham; but the policy of the colony was unchanged. When the opponents were at last fairly face to face there ensued a plentiful exchange of letters and much discussion, none of which tended to any results. After a good deal of irritation on both sides the commissioners decided to bring the conflict to a direct issue. They accordingly announced that they would hold a court, at which the colony was cited to appear as defendant, at the house of Captain Bridger, on Hanover Street, in Boston, at nine o'clock in the morning of May 24, 1665. The General Court of the colony was prepared for this move. At eight o'clock in the morning on the appointed day a messenger of the Court appeared in front of Captain Bridger's house, blew an alarm on his trumpet, and proclaimed in his Majesty's name and by authority of the royal charter that it regarded this action of the commissioners as a gross usurpation, which could not be countenanced or allowed. Then the messenger and trumpeter went to other parts of the little town and with similar cereniony made the same proclamation. Thus it befell that when the commissioners assembled at nine o'clock on the same morning they found nobody either to hear them or to confer with, except Colonel Cartwright, who was ill with the gout in Captain Bridger's house, and who had had the pleasure of listening at an early hour to the trumpeter and the proclamation. So far as the commissioners were concerned the matter was at an end, for they had no force sufficient to cope with that of the colony. Accordingly they stated that they would not lose more of their labours in so unpromising a field, and thereupon departed.

In this first struggle with the Crown, Massachusetts triumphed; and having triumphed, the colonists proceeded to show their loyalty in their own way, by sending provisions to time royal fleet in the West Indies and masts for the navy to England. Meantime chance favoured them. Other matters intervened, and another decisive struggle was not destined to come for some years. In time following year a letter came from the king through Maverick, directing the Government to send four or five persons to attend upon his Majesty, which the General Court, with great humility, declined to do, and then proceeded to send out the gifts of provisions and masts, which were much needed and well received. The first attempt of the government of the Restoration to take control of Massachusetts had been scattered by time blast of the trumpeter of the General Court.


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