Self-Government in Massachusetts – Bancroft

Arrival of Governor Winthop’s fleet in Boston

HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES BY GEORGE BANCROFT

Volume 1, Part 1

Chapter 14 — Self-Government in Massachusetts

THE concession of the Massachusetts charter seemed to the Puritans like a summons from Heaven, inviting them to America. England, by her persecutions, proved herself weary of her inhabitants, esteeming them more vile than the earth on which they trod. Habits of expense degraded men of moderate fortune; and the schools, which should be fountains of living waters, had become corrupt. What nobler work than to plant a church without a blemish where it might spread over a continent?

But was it right, a scrupulous conscience demanded, to fly from persecutions? Yes, they answered, for persecutions might lead their posterity to abjure the truth. The certain misery of their wives and children was the most gloomy of their forebodings; but a stern sense of duty hushed the alarms of affection, and set aside all consideration of physical evils as the fears of too carnal minds. Respect for the rights of the natives offered an impediment more easily removed; much of the land from the Penobscot to Plymouth had been desolated by a fatal contagion, and the good leave of the surviving tribes might be purchased. The ill success of other plantations could not chill the rising enthusiasm; former enterprises had aimed at profit, the present object was purity of religion; the earlier settlements had been filled with a lawless multitude, it was now proposed to form a “peculiar government,” and to colonize “THE BEST.” Such were the “Conclusions,” which were privately circulated among the Puritans of England.

At a general court, held on the twenty-eighth of July, 1629, Matthew Cradock, governor of the company, who had engaged himself beyond all expectation in the business, following out what seems to have been the early design, proposed “the transfer of the government of the plantation to those that should inhabit there.” At the offer of freedom from subordination to the company in England, several “persons of worth and quality,” wealthy commoners, zealous Puritans, were confirmed in the desire of founding a new and a better commonwealth beyond the Atlantic, even though it might require the sale of their estates, and hazard the inheritance of their children. To his father, who was the most earnest of them all, the younger Winthrop, then about four-and-twenty, wrote cheeringly: “I shall call that my country where I may most glorify God, and enjoy the presence of my dearest friends. Therefore herein I submit myself to God’s will and yours, and dedicate myself to God and the company, with the whole endeavors both of body and mind. The Conclusions which you sent down are unanswerable; and it cannot but be a prosperous action which is so well allowed by the judgments of God’s prophets, undertaken by so religious and wise worthies in Israel, and indented to God’s glory in so special a service.”

On the twenty-sixth of August, at Cambridge, in England, twelve men, of large fortunes and liberal culture, among whom were John Winthrop, Isaac Johnson, Thomas Dudley, Richard Saltonstall, bearing in mind that the adventure could grow only upon confidence in each other’s fidelity and resolution, bound themselves in the presence of God, by the word of a Christian, that if before the end of September an order of the court should legally transfer the whole government, together with the patent, they would themselves pass the seas to inhabit and continue in New England. Two days after this covenant had been executed, the subject was again brought before the court; a serious and long-continued debate ensued, and on the twenty-ninth of August a general consent appeared, by the erection of hands, that “the government and patent should be settled in New England.”

This vote, by which the commercial corporation became the germ of an independent commonwealth, was simply a decision of the question where the future meetings of the company should be held; it was sanctioned by the best legal advice; its lawfulness was at the time not questioned by the privy council; at a later day was expressly affirmed by Sawyer, the attorney-general; and, in 1677, the chief justices Rainsford and North still described the “charter as making the adventurers a corporation upon the place.” Similar patents were granted by the Long Parliament and Charles II, to be executed in Rhode Island and Connecticut; and Baltimore and Penn had an undisputed right to reside in their domains. The removal of the place of holding the courts from London to the bay of Massachusetts changed nothing in the relations of the company to the crown, and it conferred no franchise or authority on emigrants who were not members of the company; but the corporate body and their successors retained the chartered right of making their own selection of the persons whom they would admit to the freedom of the company. The conditions on which the privilege should be granted would control the political character of Massachusetts.

At a very full general court, convened on the twentieth of October for the choice of new officers out of those who were to join the plantation, John Winthrop, of Groton in Suffolk, of whom “extraordinary great commendations had been received both for his integrity and sufficiency, as being one altogether well fitted and accomplished for the place of governor,” was by erection of hands elected to that office for one year from that day; and with him were joined a deputy and assistants, of whom nearly all proposed to go over. The greatness of the undertaking brought a necessity for a supply of money. It was resolved that the business should be proceeded in with its first intention, which was chiefly the glory of God; and to that purpose its meetings were sanctified by the prayers and guided by the advice of Archer and Nye, two faithful ministers in London. Of the old stock of the company, two thirds had been lost; the remainder, taken at its true value, with fresh sums adventured by those that pleased, formed a new stock, which was to be managed by ten undertakers, five chosen out of adventurers remaining in England and five out of the planters. The undertakers, receiving privileges in the fur trade and in transportation, assumed all engagements and charges, and after seven years were to divide the stock and profits; but their privileges were not asserted, and nine tenths of the capital were sunk in the expenses of the first year. There was nothing to show for the adventure but the commonwealth which it helped to found. Of ships for transporting passengers, Cradock furnished two. The large ship, the Eagle, purchased by members of the company, took the name of Arbella, from a sister of the earl of Lincoln, wife to Isaac Johnson, who was to sail in it. The corporation, which had not many more than one hundred and ten members, could not meet the continual outlays for colonization; another common stock was therefore raised from such as bore good affection to the plantation, to defray public charges, such as maintenance of ministers, transportation of poor families, building of churches and fortifications. To the various classes of contributors and emigrants, frugal grants of land promised some indemnity. In this manner, by the enterprise of the ten undertakers and other members of the company, especially of those who were ship-owners, by the contributions of Puritans in England, but mainly by the resources of the emigrants themselves, there were employed, during the season of 1630, seventeen vessels, which brought over not far from a thousand souls, besides horses, kine, goats, and all that was most necessary for planting, fishing, and shipbuilding.

As the hour of departure drew near, the hearts of some even of the strong began to fail. On the eighteenth of March, 1630, it became necessary at Southampton to elect three substitutes among the assistants; and, of these three, one never came over. Even after they had embarked, a court was held on board the Arbella, and Thomas Dudley was chosen deputy governor in the place of Humphrey, who stayed behind. It was principally the calm decision of Winthrop which sustained the courage of his companions. In him a yielding gentleness of temper and a never failing desire for unity and harmony were secured against weakness by deep but tranquil enthusiasm. His nature was touched by the sweetest sympathies of affection for wife, children, and associates; cheerful in serving others and suffering with them, liberal without reluctance, helpful without reproaching, in him God so exercised his grace that he discerned his own image and resemblance in his fellow-man, and cared for his neighbor like himself. He was of a sociable nature; so that “to love and be beloved was his soul’s paradise,” and works of mercy were the habit of his life. Parting from affluence in England, he unrepiningly went to meet impoverishment and premature age for the welfare of Massachusetts. His lenient benevolence tempered the bigotry of his companions, without impairing their resoluteness. An honest royalist, averse to pure democracy, yet firm in his regard for existing popular liberties; in his native parish, a conformist, yet wishing for “gospel purity;” in America, mildly aristocratic, advocating a government of “the least part,” yet desiring that part to be “the wiser of the best;” disinterested, brave, and conscientious—his character marks the transition of the reformation into virtual republicanism. The sentiment of loyalty, which it was still intended to cherish, gradually yielded to the unobstructed spirit of civil freedom.

England rung from side to side with the “general rumor of this solemn enterprise.” On leaving the isle of Wight, Winthrop and the chief of his fellow-passengers on board the Arbella, including the ministers, bade an affectionate farewell “to the rest of their brethren in and of the church of England.” “Reverend fathers and brethren,” such was their address to them, “howsoever your charitie may have met with discouragement through the misreport of our intentions, or the indiscretion of some amongst us, yet we desire you would be pleased to take notice that the principals and body of our company esteem it our honor to call the church of England, from whence wee rise, our deare mother, and cannot part from our native countrie, where she specially resideth, without much sadnes of heart and many tears in our eyes; blessing God for the parentage and education, as members of the same body, and, while we have breath, we shall syncerely indeavour the continuance and abundance of her welfare.

“Be pleased, therefore, reverend fathers and brethren, to helpe forward this worke now in hand; which, if it prosper, you shall bee the more glorious. It is a usuall exercise of your charity to recommend to the prayers of your congregations the straights of your neighbours: do the like for a church springing out of your owne bowels; pray without ceasing for us, who are a weake colony from yourselves.

“What we intreat of you that are ministers of God, that we crave at the hands of all the rest of our brethren, that they would at no time forget us in their private solicitations at the Throne of Grace. If any, through want of cleare intelligence of our course, or tenderness of affection towards us, cannot conceive so well of our way as we could desire, we would intreat such not to desert us in their prayers, and to express their compassion towards us.

“What goodness you shall extend to us, wee, your brethren in Christ Jesus, shall labour to repay; wishing our heads and hearts may be as fountains of tears for your everlasting welfare, when wee shall be in our poore cottages in the wildernesse, overshadowed with the spirit of supplication, through the manifold necessities and tribulations which may not altogether unexpectedly, nor, we hope, unprofitably befall us.”

About seven hundred persons or more—most of them Puritans, inclining to the principles of the Independents; not conformists, but not separatists; many of them men of high endowments and large fortune; scholars, well versed in the learning of the times; clergymen, who ranked among the best educated and most pious in the realm—embarked with Winthrop in eleven ships, bearing with them the charter which was to be the warrant of their liberties. The land was to be planted with a noble vine, wholly of the right seed. The principal emigrants were a community of believers, professing themselves to be fellow-members of Christ; not a school of philosophers, proclaiming universal toleration and inviting associates without regard to creed. They desired to be bound together in a most intimate and equal intercourse, for one and the same great end. They knew that they would be as a city set upon a hill, and that the eyes of all people were upon them. Reverence for their faith led them to pass over the vast seas to the good land of which they had purchased the exclusive possession, with a charter of which they had acquired the entire control, for the sake of reducing to practice the system of religion and the forms of civil liberty which they cherished more than life itself. They constituted a corporation to which they themselves might establish the terms of admission. They kept firmly in their own hands the key to their asylum, and were resolved on closing its doors against the enemies of its unity, its safety, and its peace.

“The worke wee have in hand,” these are Winthrop’s words on board the Arbella during the passage, “is by a mutuall consent, through a speciall overruling Providence, and a more than ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seeke out a place of cohabitation and consorteshipp under a due forme of government both civill and ecclesiastical. For this wee are entered into covenant with God; for this wee must be knitt together as one man, allways having before our eyes our commission as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people; wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness, and truthe, than formerly wee have been acquainted with; hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘The Lord make it likely that of New England.'”

After sixty-one days at sea, the Arbella came in sight of Mount Desert; on the tenth of June, the White Hills were descried afar off; near the isle of Shoals and Cape Ann the sea was enlivened by the shallops of fishermen; and on the twelfth, as the ship came to anchor outside of Salem harbor, it was visited by William Peirce, of the Lyon, whose frequent voyages had given him experience as a pilot on the coast. Winthrop and his companions came full of hope; they found the colony in an “unexpected condition” of distress. Above eighty had died the winter before. Higginson himself was wasting under a hectic fever; many others were weak and sick; all the corn and bread among them was hardly a fit supply for a fortnight. The survivors of one hundred and eighty servants, who had been sent over in the two years before at a great expense, instead of having prepared a welcome, thronged to the newcomers to be fed; and were set free from all engagements, for their labor, urgent as was the demand for it, was worth less than the cost of their support. Famine threatened to seize the emigrants as they stepped on shore; and it soon appeared necessary for them, even at a ruinous expense, to send the Lyon to Bristol for food.

To seek out a place for their plantation, since Salem pleased them not, Winthrop, on the seventeenth of June, sailed into Boston harbor. The west country men, who, before leaving England, had organized their church with Maverick and Warham for ministers, and who in a few years were to take part in calling into being the commonwealth of Connecticut, were found at Nantasket, where they had landed just before the end of May. Winthrop ascended the Mystic a few miles, and on the nineteenth took back to Salem a favorable report of the land on its banks. Dudley and others, who followed, preferred the country on the Charles river at Watertown. By common consent, early in the next month the removal was made, with much cost and labor, from Salem to Charlestown. But, while drooping with toil and sorrow, fevers consequent on the long voyage, and the want of proper food and shelter, twelve ships having arrived, the colonists kept the eighth of July as a day of thanksgiving. The emigrants had intended to dwell together, but in their distress they planted where each was inclined. A few remained at Salem; others halted at the Saugus, and founded Lynn. The governor was for the time at Charlestown, where the poor “lay up and down in tents and booths round the hill.” On the other side of the river the little peninsula, scarce two miles long by one broad, marked by three hills, and blessed with sweet and pleasant springs, safe pastures, and land that promised “rich cornfields and fruitful gardens,” attracted, among others, William Coddington, of Boston in England, who, in friendly relations with William Blackstone, built the first good house there, before it took the name which was to grow famous throughout the world. Some planted on the Mystic, in what is now Maiden. Others, with Sir Richard Saltonstall and George Phillips, “a godly minister specially gifted, and very peaceful in his place,” made their abode at Watertown; Pynchon and a few began Roxbury; Ludlow and Rossiter, two of the assistants, with the men from the west of England, after wavering in their choice, took possession of Dorchester Neck, now South Boston. The dispersion of the company was esteemed a grievance; but it was no time for crimination or debate, and those who had health made haste to build. Winthrop himself, “givinge good example to all the planters, wore plaine apparell, drank ordinarily water, and, when he was not conversant about matters of justice, put his hand to labor with his servants.”

On Friday, the thirtieth of July, a fast was held at Charlestown; and, after prayers and preaching, Winthrop, Dudley, Isaac Johnson, and Wilson united themselves by covenant into one “congregation,” as a part of the visible church militant. On the next Lord’s Day others were received; and the members of this body could alone partake of the Lord’s Supper, or present their children for baptism. They were all brothers and equals; they revered, each in himself, the dignity of God’s image, and nursed a generous reverence for one another; bound to a healing superintendence over each other’s lives, they exercised no discipline to remove evil out of the inmost soul, except the censure of the assembly of the faithful, whom it would have been held grievous to offend. This church, the seminal centre of the ecclesiastical system of Massachusetts, was gathered while Higginson was yet alive; on the sixth of August be gave up the ghost with joy, for the future greatness of New England and the coming glories of its many churches floated in cheerful visions before his eyes. When, on the twenty-third of August, the first court of assistants on this side the water was held at Charlestown, how the ministers should be maintained took precedence of all other business; and it was ordered that houses should be built for them, and support provided at the common charge. Four days later the men “of the congregation” kept a fast, and, after their own free choice of John Wilson for their pastor, they themselves set him apart to his office by the imposition of hands, yet without his renouncing his ministry received in England. In like manner the ruling elder and deacons were chosen and installed. Thus was constituted the body which, crossing the Charles river, became known as the First Church of Boston. It embodied the three great principles of Congregationalism; a right faith attended by a true religious experience as the requisite qualifications for membership; the equality of all believers, including the officers of the church; the equality of the several churches, free from the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical court or bishop, free from the jurisdiction of one church over another, free from the collective authority of them all.

The civil government was exercised with mildness and impartiality, yet with determined vigor. Justices of the peace were commissioned with the powers of those in England. On the seventh of September, names were given to Dorchester, Watertown, and Boston, which thus began their career as towns under sanction of law. Quotas were settled and money levied. The interloper who dared to “confront” the public authority was sent to England, or enjoined to depart out of the limits of the patent.

As the year for which Winthrop and his assistants had been chosen was coming to an end, on the nineteenth of October, 1630, a general court, the first in America, was held at Boston. Of members of the company, less than twenty had come over. One hundred and eight inhabitants, some of whom were old planters, were now, at their desire, admitted to be freemen. The former officers of government were continued; as a rule for the future, “it was propounded to the people, and assented unto by the erection of hands, that the freemen should have power to choose assistants, when any were to be chosen, the assistants to choose from among themselves the governor and his deputy.” The rule implied a purpose to retain continuously in the board any person once elected magistrate, and revealed a natural anxiety respecting the effect of the large creation of freemen which had just been made, and by which the old members of the company had abdicated their controlling power in the court; but, as it was ill conflict with the charter, it could have no permanence.

During these events, the emigrants, miserably lodged, beheld their friends “weekly, yea, almost daily, drop away before their eyes;” in a country abounding in secret fountains, they pined for the want of good water. Many of them had been accustomed to plenty and ease, the refinements and the conveniences of luxury. Woman was there to struggle against unforeseen hardships, unimagined sorrows; the men, who defied trials for themselves, were miserable at beholding those whom they cherished dismayed by the horrors which encompassed them. The virtues of the lady Arbella Johnson could not break through the gloom; she had been ill before her arrival, and grief hurried her to the grave. Her husband, a wise and holy man, in life “the greatest furtherer of the plantation,” and by his bequests a large benefactor of the infant state, sank under disease and afflictions; but “he died willingly and in sweet peace,” making a “most godly end.” Winthrop lost a son, who left a widow and children in England. A hundred or more, some of them of the board of assistants, men who had been trusted as the inseparable companions of the common misery or the common success, disheartened by the scenes of woe, and dreading famine and death, deserted Massachusetts, and sailed for England, while Winthrop remained, “parent-like, to distribute his goods to brethren and neighbors.” Before December, two hundred, at the least, had died. Yet, as the brightest lightnings are kindled in the darkest clouds, the general distress did but augment the piety and confirm the fortitude of the colonists. Their earnestness was softened by the mildest sympathy with one another, while trust in Providence kept guard against despair. Not a trace of repining appears in their records; the congregations always assembled at the stated times, whether in the open fields or under the shade of an ancient oak; in the midst of want, they abounded in hope; in the solitudes of the wilderness, they believed themselves watched over by an omnipresent Father. Honor is due not less to those who perished than to those who survived; to the martyrs, the hour of death was an hour of triumph. For that placid resignation, which diffuses grace round the bed of sickness, and makes death too serene for sorrow and too beautiful for fear, no one was more remarkable than the daughter of Thomas Sharpe, whose youth and sex and unequalled virtues won the eulogies of the austere Dudley. Even children caught the spirit of the place, and, in tranquil faith, went to the grave full of immortality. The survivors bore all things meekly, “remembering the end of their coming hither.” “We here enjoy God and Jesus Christ,” wrote Winthrop to his wife, whom pregnancy had detained in England, “and is not this enough? I thank God I like so well to be here, as I do not repent my coming. I would not have altered my course, though I had foreseen all these afflictions. I never had more content of mind.”

The supply of bread was nearly exhausted, when, on the fifth of February, 1631, after a long and stormy passage, the timely arrival of the Lyon from Bristol, laden with provisions, caused public thanksgiving through all the plantations. Yet the ship brought but twenty passengers, and quenched all hope of immediate accessions. In 1631, ninety only came over, fewer than had gone back the preceding year; in 1632, no more than two hundred and fifty arrived. Men waited to learn the success of the early adventurers. Those who had deserted excused their cowardice by defaming the country; and, moreover, ill-willers to New England were already railing against its people as separatists from the established church and traitors to the king.

The colony, now counting not many more than one thousand souls, while it developed its principles with unflinching courage, desired to avoid giving scandal to the civil and ecclesiastical government in England. Wilson was on the point of returning to bring over his wife; his church stood in special need of a teacher in his absence, and a young minister, “lovely in his carriage,” “godly and zealous, having precious gifts,” opportunely arrived in the Lyon. It was Roger Williams. “From his childhood, the Father of lights and mercies touched his soul with a love to himself, to his only-begotten Son, the true Lord Jesus, and his holy scriptures.” In the forming period of his life he had been employed by Sir Edward Coke, and his natural inclination to study and activity was spurred on by the instruction and encouragement of the statesman, who was then, “in his intrepid and patriotic old age, the strenuous asserter of liberty on the principles of ancient laws,” and, by his writings, speeches, and example, lighted the zealous enthusiast on his way. Through the affection of the great lawyer, who called him endearingly his son, “the youth,” in whom all saw good hope, was sent to the Charter House in 1621, and passed with honor from that school to Pembroke College, in Cambridge, where he took a degree; but his clear mind went far beyond his patron in his persuasions against bishops, ceremonies, and the national church.

Pursued by Laud out of his native land, he had revolved the nature of intolerance, and had arrived at its only effectual remedy, the sanctity of conscience. In soul matters, he would have no weapons but soul weapons. The civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control opinion; should punish guilt, but never violate inward freedom. The principle contained within itself an entire reformation of theological jurisprudence: it would blot from the statute-book the felony of non-conformity; would quench the fires that persecution had so long kept burning; would repeal every law compelling attendance on public worship; would abolish tithes and all forced contributions to the maintenance of religion; would give an equal protection to every form of religious faith; and never suffer the force of the government to be employed against the dissenters’ meeting-house, the Jewish synagogue, or the Roman cathedral. In the unwavering assertion of his views, he never changed his position; the sanctity of conscience was the great tenet which, with all its consequences, he defended, as he first trod the shores of New England; and, in his extreme old age, it was still the desire of his heart. The doctrine was a logical consequence of either of the two great distinguishing principles of the reformation, as well of justification by faith alone as of the equality of all believers; and it was sure to be one day accepted by the whole Protestant world. But it placed the emigrant in direct opposition to the system of the founders of Massachusetts, who were bent on making the state a united body of believers.

On landing in Boston, Roger Williams found himself unable to join with its church members. He had separated from the establishment in England, which wronged conscience by disregarding its scruples; they were “an unseparated people,” who refused to renounce communion with their persecutors; he would not suffer the magistrate to assume jurisdiction over the soul by punishing what was no more than a breach of the first table, an error of conscience or belief; they were willing to put the whole decalogue under the guardianship of the civil authority. The thought of employing him as a minister was therefore abandoned, and the church of Boston was, in Wilson’s absence, commended to “the exercise of prophecy.”

The death of Higginson had left Salem in want of a teacher, and in April it called Williams to that office. Winthrop and the assistants “marvelled” at the precipitate choice; and, by a letter to Endecott, they desired the church to forbear. The warning was heeded, and Roger Williams withdrew to Plymouth.

The government was still more careful to protect the privileges of the colony from “episcopal and malignant practices,” against which they had been cautioned from England. For that purpose, at the general court convened in May after “the corn was set,” an oath of fidelity was offered to the freemen, binding them “to be obedient and conformable to the laws and constitutions of this commonwealth, to advance its peace, and not to suffer any attempt at making any change or alteration of the government contrary to its laws.” One hundred and eighteen of “the commonalty” took this oath; the few who refused were never “betrusted with any public charge or command.” The old officers were again continued in office without change, but “the commons” asserted their right of annually adding or removing members from the bench of magistrates. And a law of still greater moment, pregnant with evil and with good, at the same time narrowed the elective franchise: “To the end this body of the commons may be preserved of honest and good men, it was ordered and agreed that, for the time to come, no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same.” Thus the polity became a theocracy; God himself was to govern his people; and the “saints by calling,” whose names an immutable decree had registered from eternity as the objects of divine love, whose election had been visibly manifested by their conscious experience of religion in the heart, whose union was confirmed by the most solemn compact formed with Heaven and one another around the memorials of a crucified Redeemer, were, by the fundamental law of the colony, constituted the oracle of the divine will. An aristocracy was founded; not of wealth, but of those who had been ransomed at too high a price to be ruled by polluting passions, and had received the seal of divinity in proof of their fitness to do “the noblest and godliest deeds.” Other states have confined political rights to the opulent, to freeholders, to the first-born; the Calvinists of Massachusetts, refusing any share of civil power to the clergy, established the reign of the visible church, a commonwealth of the chosen people in covenant with God.

The dangers apprehended from England seemed to require a union consecrated by the holiest rites. The public mind of the colony was in other respects ripening for democratic liberty. It could not rest satisfied with leaving the assistants in possession of all authority, and of an almost independent existence; and the magistrates, with the exception of the passionate Ludlow, were willing to yield. It was therefore agreed, at the next general court, that the governor and assistants should be annually chosen. The people, satisfied with the recognition of their right, re-elected their former magistrates with silence and modesty. The germ of a representative government was already visible; each town was ordered to choose two men, to appear at the next court of assistants, and concert a plan for a public treasury. The measure had become necessary, for a levy, made by the assistants alone, had awakened alarm and opposition.

While a happy destiny was thus preparing for Massachusetts a representative government, relations with the natives were extended. In April, 1631, there came from the banks of the Connecticut the sagamore of the Mohegans, to extol the fertility of his country, and solicit an English plantation as a bulwark against the Pequods; in May, the nearer Nipmucks invoked the aid of the emigrants against the tyranny of the Mohawks; and in July, the son of the aged Canonicus exchanged presents with the governor.

In August, 1632, Miantonomoh himself, the great warrior of the Narragansetts, the youthful colleague of Canonicus, became a guest at the board of Winthrop, and was present with the congregation at a sermon from Wilson.

To perfect friendship with the pilgrims, the governor of Massachusetts, with Wilson, pastor of Boston, near the end of October, 1632, repaired to Plymouth. From the south shore of Boston harbor it was a day’s journey, for they travelled on foot. In honor of the great event, Bradford and Brewster, the governor and elder of the old colony, came forth to meet them and conduct them to the town, where they were kindly entertained and feasted. “On the Lord’s Day they did partake of the sacrament;” in the afternoon, a question was propounded for discussion; the pastor spoke briefly; the teacher prophesied; the governor of Plymouth, the elder, and others of the congregation took part in the conference, which, by express desire, was closed by the guests from Boston. Thus was fellowship confirmed with Plymouth. From the Chesapeake a rich freight of corn had been received, and trade was begun with the Dutch at Hudson river.

These better auspices and the invitations of Winthrop won new emigrants from Europe. In 1633, during the long summer voyage of the two hundred passengers who freighted the Griffin, three sermons a day beguiled their weariness. Among them was Haynes, a man of very large estate, and larger affections; of a “heavenly” mind and a spotless life; of rare sagacity and accurate but unassuming judgment; by nature tolerant, ever a friend to freedom, ever conciliating peace; an able legislator; dear to the people by his benevolent virtues and his disinterested conduct. Then also came the most revered spiritual teachers of two commonwealths: the acute and subtile John Cotton, the son of a Puritan lawyer; eminent at Cambridge as a scholar; quick in the nice perception of distinctions, and pliant in dialectics; in manner persuasive rather than commanding; skilled in the fathers and the schoolmen, but finding all their wisdom compactly stored in Calvin; deeply devout by nature as well as habit from childhood; hating heresy and still precipitately eager to prevent evil actions by suppressing ill opinions, yet verging toward a progress in truth and in religions freedom; an avowed enemy to democracy, which he feared as the blind despotism of animal instincts in the multitude, yet opposing hereditary power in all its forms; desiring a government of moral opinion, according to the laws of universal equity, and claiming “the ultimate resolution for the whole body of the people;” and Thomas Hooker, of vast endowments, a strong will, and an energetic mind; ingenuous in his temper, and open in his professions; trained to benevolence by the discipline of affliction; versed in tolerance by his refuge in Holland; choleric, yet gentle in his affections; firm in his faith, yet readily yielding to the power of reason; the peer of the reformers without their harshness; the devoted apostle to the humble and the poor, severe toward the proud, mild in his soothings of a wounded spirit, glowing with the raptures of devotion, and kindling with the messages of redeeming love; his eye, voice, gesture, and whole frame animate with the living vigor of heart-felt religion; public-spirited and lavishly charitable; and, “though persecutions and banishments had awaited him as one wave follows another,” ever serenely blessed with “a glorious peace of soul;” fixed in his trust in Providence, and in his adhesion to that cause of advancing civilization, which he cherished always, even while it remained to him a mystery. This is he whom, for his abilities and services, his contemporaries placed “in, the first rank” of men; praising him as “the one rich pearl, with which Europe more than repaid America for the treasures from her coast.” The people to whom Hooker ministered had preceded him; on the fourth of September, as he landed, they crowded about him with their welcome. With open arms he embraced them, and answered: “Now I live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”

Thus recruited, the little band in Massachusetts grew more jealous of its liberties. “The prophets in exile see the true forms of the house.” By a common impulse, the freemen of the towns, in 1634, chose deputies to consider in advance the duties of the general court. The charter plainly gave legislative power to the whole body of the freemen; if it allowed representatives, thought Winthrop, it was only by inference; and, as the whole people could not always assemble, the chief power, it was argued, lay necessarily with the assistants.

Far different was the reasoning of the people. To check the democratic tendency, Cotton, on the election day, in May, preached to the assembled freemen against rotation in office. The right of an honest magistrate to his place was like that of a proprietor to his freehold. But the electors, now between three and four hundred in number, were bent on exercising “their absolute power,” and, reversing the recommendation of the pulpit, chose a new governor and deputy. The mode of taking the votes was at the same time reformed; and, instead of the erection of hands, the ballot-box was introduced. “The people established a reformation of such things as they judged to be amiss in the government.”

It was further decreed that the whole body of the freemen should be convened only for the election of the magistrates; to these, with deputies to be chosen by the several towns, the powers of legislation and appointment were henceforward intrusted. The trading corporation became a representative democracy.

The law against arbitrary taxation followed. None but the immediate representatives of the people might dispose of lands or raise money. Thus early did Massachusetts echo the voice of Virginia, like deep calling unto deep. The state was filled with the hum of village politicians; “the freemen of every town on the bay were busily inquiring into their liberties and privileges.” With the exception of the principal of universal suffrage, the representative democracy was as perfect two centuries ago as it is to-day. Even the magistrates, who acted as judges, held their office by the annual popular choice. “Elections cannot be safe there long,” said the lawyer Lechford. The same prediction has been made these two hundred and fifty years. The public mind, ever in perpetual agitation, is still easily shaken, even by slight and transient impulses; but, after all vibrations, it follows the laws of the moral world, and safely recovers its balance.

To limit the discretion of the executive, of which the people were persistently jealous, they next demanded a written constitution; and, in May, 1635, a commission was appointed “to frame a body of grounds of laws in resemblance to a magna charta,” to serve as a bill of rights, on which the ministers, as well as the general court, were to pass judgment. A year having passed without a report, the making of a draft of laws was intrusted to a larger committee, of which Cotton was a member. His colleagues remained inactive, but Cotton compiled in an exact method “all the judicial laws from God by Moses, so far as they were of moral, that is, of perpetual and universal, equity;” and be urged the establishment of a “theocraty, God’s government over God’s people.” But his code was never adopted. In March, 1638, the several towns were ordered before the coming June to deliver in writing to the governor the heads of the laws which they held to be necessary and fundamental; and, from these materials and their own wisdom, a numerous body, of whom Nathaniel Ward was one, were instructed to perfect the work.

The relative powers of the assistants and the deputies remained for nearly ten years—from 1634 to 1644—the subject of discussion and contest. Both were elected by the people; the former by the whole colony, the latter by the several towns. The two bodies sat together in convention for the transaction of business; but, when their joint decision displeased the assistants, the latter claimed and exercised the further right of a separate negative vote on their joint proceedings. The popular branch grew impatient, and desired to overthrow the veto power; yet the authority of the patricians was for the time maintained, sometimes by wise delay, sometimes by “a judicious sermon.”

The controversy had required the arbitrament of the elders, for the rock on which the state rested was religion; a common faith had gathered, and still bound the people together. They were exclusive, for they had come to the outside of the world for the privilege of living by themselves. Fugitives from persecution, they shrank from contradiction as from the approach of peril. And why should they open their asylum to their oppressors? Religious union was made the bulwark of the exiles against expected attacks from the hierarchy of England. The wide continent of America invited colonization; they claimed their own narrow domains for “the brethren.” Their religion was their life; they welcomed none but its adherents; they could not tolerate the scoffer, the infidel, or the dissenter and the whole people met together in their congregations. Such was the system, cherished as the stronghold of their freedom and their happiness. “The order of the churches and the commonwealth,” wrote Cotton to friends in Holland, “is now so settled in New England by common consent that it brings to mind the new heaven and new earth wherein dwells righteousness.”


Return to Table of Contents.


History of the United States by George Bancroft, formatted for the Internet by Steve Farrell – An Americanist Classic.


Your comments