The Last Defense

The Lords’ Man in Boston

John Leverett, 1616–1679
In 1675, the Lords of Trade sent an agent named Edward Randolph to Boston to investigate the various ways in which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was violating its charter. Looking into trading practices, coinage, religious restrictions on political rights, and the expansion of Massachusetts’ boundaries beyond the Merrimac, he found the colony delinquent in all these respects. Back in England, he set forth his findings in a series of reports to the Lords of Trade. Randolph’s reports were basically accurate—the violations they described were not fictional—but they were also strongly colored by his animosity toward the Puritans. The colony’s leaders bore some responsibility for Randolph’s hostility: they showed no respect for the royal government’s point of view, which he represented, and with which he strongly identified. Governor John Leverett offended him deeply by keeping his hat on when Randolph paid an official call—a strong sign of contempt in that era. No picture of Randolph seems to have survived, if there ever was one, so I've inserted a picture of the disrespectful governor instead.

But Randolph had no respect for the colonists’ point of view, either. One historian describes him this way:
He was a type of Englishman with whom America was to become fully acquainted; of great ability, great industry, very zealous, honest on the whole for a man with prejudices, yet wholly unaware that in the new world had been developed a character and mode of thinking quite different from any in the old. […] Like the class with which he was most in sympathy he had no toleration for the Puritan system. That men arduously should make a home for themselves to preserve a spiritual or governmental ideal, meant nothing at all to him. The King’s subjects were the King’s subjects, no more nor less [Sherwin Lawrence Cook, in Albert Bushnell Hart, Commonwealth History of Massachusetts , Vol. 1, 1927].
As we’ve seen, some in the colony were dissatisfied with its policies and wanted a more cooperative relationship with the English government. Randolph’s sympathy with this viewpoint may have caused him to overestimate both the size of that group and the intensity of their opposition. On the other hand, he was never above presenting evidence selectively so as to favor his point of view, so the exaggeration may have been deliberate. In any case, the Lords of Trade followed his lead.

Before that committee acted, however, an English court ruled that New Hampshire and Maine were not inside Massachusetts’ boundaries as defined by the charter. New Hampshire was taken away and made a royal colony in 1679, but the General Court had, in the previous year, prevented Maine from going the same way by purchasing the rights to it, for £1,250, from the grandson of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. (This action infuriated the king, who reportedly wanted to bestow Maine on his eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth—indeed, some historians believe that it set the final seal on the charter's doom.)

Meanwhile, the Privy Council considered Randolph’s accusations and the colony’s counterarguments to it. The latter were weak at best, and sometimes approached self-contradiction. In a letter to their agents in England, for example, the General Court called the Navigation Acts “an invasion of the rights, liberties and properties of the subjects of His Majesty in the colony, they not being represented in parliament, and according to the usual sayings of the learned in the law, the laws of England were bounded within the four seas, and did not reach America.” In that single sentence, the colonists seem to say that they are members of the English polity being denied their just rights under English law, and also that they are not members of that polity and therefore untouched by the same law.

The Colony Digs In

The leaders of Massachusetts knew that a serious game was under way, in which England held most of the cards. The General Court was divided over what to do. A moderate group, mostly Governor Simon Bradstreet and the magistrates, felt that the charter didn’t entitle the colony to all the rights it was claiming (not to mention exercising), and favored conciliation. A more radical group, influenced by zealous clerics, dominated the house of deputies; they persisted in interpreting the charter entirely in the colony’s favor, and urged resistance.

Randolph returned to Boston in 1681 bearing not a writ, but a letter from the king. It listed the many violations of law and charter that Massachusetts was accused of, and threatened to revoke the charter unless the colony sent representatives to England authorized to pledge full obedience to the crown.

The General Court debated at length, and finally acknowledged that it had to send agents to reply to the charges. However, it instructed them not to agree to anything that would infringe on Massachusetts’ liberties and privileges, whether granted in the charter or decreed by the government that the charter had authorized the colonists to establish. The agents were magistrates John Richards and Joseph Dudley—the latter an appointment that the colony eventually had cause to regret.

Aware that its response was unlikely to go down well in London, the General Court also took a few half-hearted actions in the hope of persuading the crown that it was changing its ways. It had the Navigation Acts proclaimed in the market place to be the law of the land, and amended a few laws that clearly violated the charter on the grounds of being “contrarie or repugnant to the Lawes and Statuts” of England. Boston’s small communities of Baptists and Quakers were allowed to build meetinghouses—but the local magistrates promptly forbade them to hold any meetings there. No one really expected either the agents’ very qualified submission or these illusory relaxations of the laws to make a deep impression in Massachusetts’ favor, and no one was wrong about that.
Increase Mather, 1639–1723
At the time, however, the king and his Privy Council were caught up in the controversy over the famous “Popish Plot” alleged by Titus Oates, which occupied their attention from 1678 to 1681. It was not until June, 1683 that the king got around to issuing a writ of quo warranto, as his father had done in 1637, with the same intention of revoking the charter. In Massachusetts, the General Court’s clerical and moderate parties held another debate. The governor and magistrates took the moderate view and urged acceptance of the king’s terms, but the deputies, more strongly influenced by the clerics, voted to resist. The town of Boston shared their feeling. At a town meeting called to confront the crisis, Increase Mather (the colony’s most influential preacher, who was at the time president of Harvard College), declared “I verily believe we shall sin against the God of Heaven, if we vote an affirmative to it.” In the end, according to Leading the Way, the colony did no more than order its London lawyer to “spin out the case to the utmost.”