Chronicles of America 

The Revocation of the Charter, 1684

It is difficult to understand the attitude of Massachusetts. Her leaders probably 'thought that with the settlement of the Mason and Gorges claims the most serious source of trouble with England was disposed of. They believed, honestly enough, though the wish was father to the thought, that the colony lay beyond the reach of Parliament and that the laws of England were bounded by the four seas and did not reach America. Hence they deemed the navigation acts an invasion of their liberties and could not bring themselves to obey them. As to England's new colonial policy, it is doubtful if they grasped it at all, or would have acknowledged it as applicable to themselves, even if they had understood it. The experiences and reports of their agents in England seem to have taught them nothing and served only to confirm their belief that a Stuart was a tyrant and that all English authorities were natural enemies. They had labored and suffered in the vineyard of the Lord and they wished to be let alone to enjoy their dearly won privileges. Randolph wrote, soon after his arrival in New England, that the colony was acting "as high as ever," and that " it was in every one's mouth that they are not subject to the laws of England nor were such laws in force until confirmed by their authority." The colony neglected to send the agents demanded, alleging expense, the dangers of the sea, the difficulty of finding any one to accept the post, and their belief that King and council were "taken up with matters of greater importance," until finally in September, 1680, the King wrote an exceedingly sharp letter, calling the excuses "insufficient pretences," and commanding that agents be sent within three months. Strange to say the colony even then allowed a year to elapse before complying, and again instructed those whom they sent to agree to nothing that concerned the charter.

Before the agents arrived in the summer of 1682, the royal patience was exhausted. Randolph's continued complaints that he was obstructed in every way in the performance of his duties; the act of the colony in setting up a naval office of its own; the revival of an old law imposing the death penalty upon any one who should "attempt the alteration or subversion of the frame of government "; the opinion of the Attorney-General that the colony had done quite enough to warrant the forfeiture of its charter; and the delay in sending the agents, which seemed a further flouting of the royal commands — all these things brought matters to a crisis. Therefore, when finally the Massachusetts agents reached England, they found the situation hopeless. "It is a hard service we are engaged in," they wrote; "we stand in need of help from Heaven." Their want of powers provoked the Lords of Trade to say that unless they were procured, the charter would be forfeited at once. Randolph was called back in May, 1683, to aid in the legal proceedings which were immediately set on foot. Other charters were falling: that of the Bermuda Company was under attack; that of the City of London was already forfeited; and those of other English boroughs were in danger. On June 27, a writ of quo warranto was issued out of the Court of King's Bench against the colony. The agents, refusing to defend the suit, returned to New England, and the writ was given to Randolph to serve. He reached Boston in October, but owing to delays in the colony and a tempestuous voyage back, he was unable to return it to England within the allotted time. The first attempt failed, but another was soon made. By the advice of the Attorney-General, suit was brought in the Court of Chancery by writ of scire facias against the company, and upon the rendering of judgment for non-appearance the charter was declared forfeited on October 23, 1684.

Though the colony was given no opportunity to defend the suit, the charter was legally vacated according to the forms of English law. The colony was but a corporation, its charter but a corporation charter, and in only one respect did it differ from other corporations, namely, its residence in America. The methods of vacating corporate charters in England were definite and in this case were strictly followed. Had Massachusetts been a corporation in fact as well as in law, it is doubtful if the question of illegality would ever have been raised; but as this particular corporation was a Puritan commonwealth, the issue was so vital to its continuance as to lead to the charge of unjust and illegal oppression. On moral grounds a defence of the colony is always possible, though it is difficult to uphold the Massachusetts system. It was certainly neither popular nor democratic, tolerant nor progressive, and in any case it must eventually have undergone transformation from within. The city of Boston was increasing in wealth and importance, and trade was bringing it into ever closer contact with the outside world. There were growing up in the colony more open-minded and progressive men who were opposing the dominance of the country party, which found its last governor in Leverett, its chief advocates among the clergy, and its strength in the House of Representatives, and which wished to preserve things as they always had been. The leaders of this conservative party, Danforth, Nowell, Cooke, and others, struggled courageously against all concessions, but they were bound to be beaten in the end.

That the conservative members of the colony were thoroughly in earnest and thoroughly convinced of the absolute righteousness of their position, admits of no doubt. No man could speak of the loss of the charter as a breach in the "Hedge which kept us from the Wild Beasts of the Field," as did Cotton Mather, without expressing a fear of a Stuart, of an Anglican, and of a Papist that was as real as the terrors of witchcraft. To the orthodox Puritans, the preservation of their religious doctrines and government and the maintenance of their moral and social standards were a duty to God, and to admit change was a sin against the divine command. But such an unyielding system could not last; in fact, it was already giving way. Though conjecture is difficult, it seems likely that the English interference delayed rather than hastened the natural growth and transformation of the colony, because it united moderates and irreconcilables against a common enemy — the authority of the Crown.

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