Chronicles of America 

Wayward Massachusetts

Except for the northern frontier, where Indian forays and atrocities continued for many years longer, the last great struggle with the Indians in New England was finished. The next danger came from a different quarter and in a different form. In June, 1676, two months before the Indian War was over, one Edward Randolph arrived from England to make an inquiry into the affairs of Massachusetts. That colony had scarcely weathered the ever-threatening peril of the New World when it was called upon to face an attack from the Old which endangered the continuance of those precious privileges for which the magistrates at Boston had contended with a vigor shrewd rather than wise. As we have seen, the position that Massachusetts assumed as a colony largely independent of British control was incompatible with England's colonial and commercial policy, a position that was certain to be called in question as soon as the authorities at home were able to give serious attention to it.

This opportunity did not arrive until, in 1674, the plantations council was dismissed, and colonial business was handed over to the Privy Council and placed in the hands of a standing committee of that body known as the Lords of Trade. This committee, which was more dignified and authoritative than had been the old council, at once assumed a firmer tone toward the colonies. It caused a proclamation to be issued announcing the royal determination to enforce the acts of trade, and it made the King's will known in America by means of new instructions to the royal governors there. It stated clearly the purpose of the Government to bring the colonies into a position of greater dependence on the Crown in the interest of the trade and revenues of the kingdom, and it showed no inclination to grant Massachusetts, with all the charges and complaints against her, preferential treatment. At the same time it was not disposed to pay much attention to religious differences, minor misdemeanors, and neighborhood quarrels, if only the colony would conform to British policy in all that concerned the royal prerogative and the authority of Parliament; but it made it perfectly plain that continued infractions of parliamentary acts and royal commands would not be condoned.

Had the leaders of Massachusetts been more complaisant and less given to a policy of evasion and delay, it is not unlikely that the colony would have been allowed to retain its privileges; and had they been less absorbed in themselves and more observant of the world outside, they might have seen the changes that were coming over the temper and purpose of those in England who were shaping the relations between England and her colonies. But Massachusetts had grown provincial since the Restoration, looking backward rather than forward and moving in very narrow channels of thought and life, so that she was wrapped up in matters of purely local interest. The clergy were struggling to maintain their control in colony and college, while the deputies in the legislature, representing in the main the conservative country districts, were upholding the clerical party against some of the magistrates, who represented the town of Boston and were inclined to take a more liberal and progressive view of the matter. These country members saw in England's attitude only the desire of a despotic Stuart régime to suppress the liberties of a Puritan commonwealth, and failed to see that the investigation into the affairs of Massachusetts was but an effort to establish a colonial policy fundamental to England's welfare and power.

It cannot be said that, from 1660 to 1684, the Government in England displayed undue animus toward the colony. It allowed Massachusetts to do a great many things that in law she had no right to do, such as coining money and issuing a charter to Harvard College. Its demand for a broadening of the Massachusetts franchise was in the interest of liberty and not against it, and the insistence on freedom of worship deserves no reproof. Its condemnation of many of the Massachusetts laws as oppressive and unjust shows that in some respects legal opinion in England at this time was more advanced than that in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and, even at its worst, English law did not go to the Mosaic code for its precedents. There is a distinct note of cruelty and oppression in some of the Massachusetts and Connecticut legislation at this time, and many of the Puritan measures were harsh and arbitrary and liable to abuse. Even the Government's support of the Mason and Gorges claims was not dishonorable, and while it may have been unwise and, in equity, unjust, it was not without excuse. The Government listened to complaints of persecution, as any sovereign power is required to do, and was naturally impressed with the weightiness of some of the charges; yet so little inclined was it to tamper with Massachusetts that the colony might have succeeded, for a longer time at least, in maintaining the integrity of its control, had not the question of colonial trade brought matters to a crisis.

Under Charles II, finances presented a difficult problem, for Parliament in controlling appropriations took no responsibility for the collection of money granted. To meet the deficit which during the earlier years of the reign was ever present, efforts were made to increase the revenue from customs, and so successful was this policy that, after 1675, these customs revenues came to be looked upon as among England's greatest sources of wealth. Now, inasmuch as trade with the colonies was one of the largest factors contributing to this result, England, as she could not afford to maintain colonies that would do nothing to aid her, came more and more to value her overseas possessions for their commercial importance, classing as valuable assets those that advanced her prosperity, and treating as insubordinate those that disregarded the acts of trade and thwarted her policy. The independence that Massachusetts claimed was diametrically opposed to the growing English notion that a colony should be subordinate and dependent, should obey the acts of trade and navigation, and should recognize the authority of the Crown; and, from what they heard of the temper of New England, English statesmen suspected that Massachusetts was doing none of these things.

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