Cambridge’s Counterpetition, 1683

Cambridge Selectmen's Petition
The next item in order of time is the response prepared by the selectmen of Cambridge, which the General Court had the opportunity to read and consider before responding again to the Farmers’ petition. It is dated October 16th, 1683, so it’s clear that the Court hadn’t gotten around to dealing with this matter in the spring session. (Perhaps Cambridge had requested a delay—the records aren’t detailed enough to let us find out.) The petition is signed by William Manning, Samuel Andrew, and Samuel Champney (‘Chamne’). The last two were selectmen, and the first, Manning, would be one only a month later, when all three were elected to that office.

The town’s argument sounded a rather mournful note, recollecting its financial stresses and struggles as far back as the departure of Thomas Hooker and his congregation more than 40 years previously, and the General Court’s subsequent grant of additional land to help the town attract more settlers. The church “was abler to maintain the ministry and defray public charges then than it now is, by reason most of our principal men are now removed from us, some by death, and others [gone] into England and other countries.”

Cambridge still felt keenly the defeat of its attempt to keep the precinct of Cambridge Village, today known as Newton, under its control. At the time of this petition the Village was still part of the town, but the legislature had granted the inhabitants not only the right to a meetinghouse and minister, but also their own selectmen and constables. They weren’t satisfied, and in 1679 petitioned for full separation. This move enraged the town, which responded with a fierce counterpetition. The Court didn’t opt to set Cambridge Village free, but the town’s belligerent approach may have annoyed some of the members, because this time the selectmen took a softer tack, perhaps hoping that pathos might gain them a few more points than fury.

Reading their petition, one could get the impression that Cambridge Village had already gained full independence from the town, although that event was still a few years in the future:
We also humbly present unto Your Honors’ serious consideration the great disenablement of our church and town by the village on the south side of the river breaking off from us, which was so considerable a part of our town, and bore a considerable part of our charge in the maintenance of our ministry, and now bares none of that, nor several other charges the town is at, whereby we are greatly disenabled so comfortably to maintain our ministry and discharge our other public charges as we want and ought to do, by reason one principal arm of our town is cut off, and our accommodations for husbandry so poor and small, and our trade in this town so little and inconsiderable, that it is even a wonder to ourselves, how we do subsist and carry on public charge[s] so well as we do, though we do it not so well as we should.
One is tempted to examine the manuscript for tearstains. But, to be fair, this may not be a simple matter of rhetorical strategy. Massachusetts was on edge at this time with the realization that the crown was about to annul its charter and impose royal authority in ways likely to damage both its freedom and its economy. There was a general feeling that the good times were ending, and that may be responsible for some of the emotion in this petition.

One issue that had enlivened the dispute with Cambridge Village was the Villagers’ contention that all the territory in their precinct not already granted to settlers, and therefore the town’s property, should after their separation belong to the new town, not the old one. This would have been a serious economic loss to land-starved Cambridge, and the petitioners wrote as if it had already happened, even though no separation had yet occurred. The possibility that the ungranted land in the Farms might go the same way clearly disturbed them: “…much more should we be damnified if the honored Court should grant any part of our outlands unto them, [since] we are so straitened in the boundaries of our lands, as we shall plainly demonstrate to the honored Court.”

The Farmers’ petition, which explicitly declares that they desire no separation from the town except in the matter of tithes to support the minister, has nothing to say about the ownership of those “outlands,” and certainly posed no explicit threat to the town’s interest in that property.