Another Charles, Another Challenge

King Charles II
At the end of the 1650s, England turned back to the Stuart dynasty, and Charles II was recalled from exile. In 1664, he sent two ships to North America, carrying 700 soldiers and four commissioners. Their dual mission was to seize Nieuw Nederland—England then being at war with the Dutch Republic—and to sort out the stiff-necked Puritans of Massachusetts. The military did its part, and New Netherland soon became New York and New Jersey. In Boston, however, the General Court frustrated the commissioners by forbidding colonists to take part in their proceedings. They sailed home in a foul mood, and in due course (1666) a letter from the king arrived in Boston, summoning the governor and other officials to London to answer complaints that the colony had violated its charter. As before, the colony stonewalled. In the words of Leading the Way, “The General Court sent no agents; instead, a resolution was adopted committing the colony’s cause to God, ‘praying and hoping that his Majesty (a prince of so great clemency) will consider the state and condition of his poor and afflicted subjects.’”

Nothing happened immediately. England had barely recovered from a serious outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665, when in the next year a fire destroyed a good deal of London. The 1670s were half over before His Majesty’s government again showed an interest in Massachusetts Bay. It has been suggested that the Indian uprising called King Philip’s War (1675–76) may have provoked this interest by showing that, even though it came too close to catastrophe for comfort, the colony was strong enough to defend itself. The crown may have seen this strength and resilience as a product of Massachusetts’ resistance to proper imperial control.

Organizing an Empire

In 1675, King Charles II created a committee, familiarly called the Lords of Trade and Plantations, or often just the Lords of Trade. Both were abbreviations of the committee’s rather cumbersome formal title, which was “The Lords of the Committee of Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations.” Although the committee’s members were not themselves Privy Councilors, they served the Council as expert advisors in its effort to maximize England’s economic advantage in trading with other countries and exploiting its own colonies. (Plantation was a synonym often used at that time for colony—in this context it doesn’t refer to specific agricultural enterprises like tobacco or cotton plantations.) As part of their work, the Lords of Trade laid out a plan for reorganizing the English colonies in America, a process that required several colonies’ charters to be changed. Massachusetts was perhaps the foremost example.

Earlier in his reign, Charles’s government had enacted a set of Navigation Acts that forbade a colony to export its goods directly to any port except those of England or other English colonies, and required foreign goods to be imported only from England, and in English ships. Compliance would have cut deeply into Massachusetts’ flourishing maritime trade, but the colony insisted that, since these restrictions were not specified in its charter, it wasn’t bound to comply. Such defiance doubtless irritated the king, though it has been suggested that the economic impact of Massachusetts’ defiance was in fact fairly small, and that the crown made no great effort to enforce the trade laws.

Massachusetts Bay had also been minting its own silver money—a natural development in a thriving colonial economy far distant from the economic centers of the mother country. Minting had begun in 1652, when the treasury of the English Commonwealth (that is, the Puritan government that was in power between the two Charleses) was still somewhat disorganized, and silver coinage was hard to come by. Massachusetts had always had a money supply problem—without sufficient pounds and shillings to exchange, people relied variously on barter, foreign coins (often spent in New England ports by pirates), and even wampum to conduct business. This fiscal awkwardness and confusion obstructed economic progress until the silver shillings, sixpences, and three-penny bits produced at the new Boston mint provided much-needed liquidity.
Pine tree shilling
John Hull and Robert Sanderson, two Boston goldsmiths, were entrusted with the work, and the little mint produced a series of coins bearing the likenesses of various trees, including oak, willow, and—in the greatest number—pine. The pine tree shilling in this picture was recently (in November, 2013) sold at auction for just short of $50,000. An interesting detail (not unique to the coins in the picture, which are fully typical) is the spelling of the colony’s name as “Masathusets.” The number XII below the year indicates the coin’s value, a shilling being equal to twelve pence.

From England’s point of view, this certainly illegal minting was a nuisance and a drain—though again a pretty small one—on the mother country’s treasury. According to Morison, the issue of Massachusetts Bay’s mint had come up soon after Charles II’s restoration, and the colony had deputed Sir Thomas Temple (the proprietor of a colony in Nova Scotia, but also active in Boston business affairs) to present their defense to King Charles. He described the economic necessity that the mint had served, and showed the king a shilling. “Charles inquired what tree that was? Sir Thomas had the wit to declare it to be the royal oak, which the good people of the Bay had placed on their coins as token of loyalty, daring not to incur the usurper’s displeasure by using the royal name! The King was greatly pleased, called the New Englanders ‘a parcel of honest dogs,’ and allowed the Boston mint to continue operations” [Builders of the Bay Colony, 1930]. The king may have been in a good mood that day, but there was no place for such whimsy in the new imperial order.

The continued refusal of Massachusetts Bay to grant political rights to non-Puritans, including members of the Church of England—while taxing everyone alike, Puritan or not, to support their Congregational Church—may have been the most powerful irritant. It was certainly against English law. The king’s commissioners in 1664 had insisted that the colony change this policy, but although this change was put in the law-books, it was neither obeyed nor enforced. After a few more years on the throne, however, Charles was less dependent on the good will of Puritans and other dissenters. Their political power had waned since the time of his restoration, and the king, logically enough, considered them enemies of the established church that he headed.

On a more personal level, King Charles had probably not forgotten the enthusiastic welcome that Massachusetts Bay gave to some of the Puritan judges who had signed his father’s death warrant in 1648. Immediately following his restoration in 1660, these men were all charged with the crime of regicide. Several were executed, more were sentenced to long prison terms, and the remainder fled into exile. Three of these had taken refuge in New England, and Boston had welcomed them as heroes when they arrived. (In 1675, two were still alive, residing in Connecticut.)

All things considered, Massachusetts presented a major obstacle to the plans of the Lords of Trade and Plantation. Not only was the colony contributing less than they thought proper to the prosperity of England, but it was carrying its defiance of the royal will much farther than any of the others. To complicate their problem, however, Massachusetts was stronger and richer than any other English colony in America. The Lords had to reckon with the possibility that, if pressed too far, Massachusetts Bay would put up a fight. But they determined not to shirk their duty.