The Short, Unhappy Life of the Dominion of New England

Sir Edmund Andros, 1637–1714
Dudley’s presidency lasted only from May till December of 1686, when Sir Edmund Andros—King James’ appointed Captain General and Governor of the Dominion of New England—arrived, bringing a hundred redcoats with him. At about the same time, the Dominion was enlarged to include Rhode Island and Connecticut, the only English-settled parts of modern New England that were not already in it. Randolph had accomplished this addition by providing the Privy Council with evidence that both colonies had been nearly as delinquent as Massachusetts in observing the terms of their charters, and they yielded to the quo warranto writs that followed.

Consolidation into the Dominion made New England easier to defend, because the independent colonies had always been reluctant to send militia volunteers outside their own borders, and the colonies closest to Canada, thinly populated and correspondingly weak economically, were the least able to put up a strong defense. Under the Dominion government, New England’s northern border was more capably defended.

Sir Edmund Andros was a good soldier. As governor of the New York colony from 1674 to 1683, he had also acquired some experience as an administrator, but his military qualifications were uppermost in King James’ mind when he made the appointment. In some historians’ judgment, Andros might have governed well enough in a tranquil and contented colony where administration was mostly routine—but that was not a good description of Massachusetts right after the loss of its charter.

The dominion council included members appointed by the king from all the small colonies that were now united. Its number eventually reached as high as 28, though only seven were needed for a quorum, and no meeting seems to have been attended by more than 21. Since the council sat in Boston, the Massachusetts representatives (who included Dudley and several allies) had a disproportionate share of influence. All were, however, fully committed to the transition from independent commonwealth to royal dominion.

Andros was an honest and honorable man, but like many administrators whose careers began in the military, he tended to see government as a chain of command. His duty was to obey the king’s orders, and the colonists’ duty was to obey his, issued with the advice and consent of an appointed council. Democracy had no place in this scheme, which, like Dudley’s interim government, made no provision for popular representation.

As governor, Andros took a hard line, maintaining that the colonists had not only lost all the rights formerly conferred by the charter, but had also, by moving from England to America, lost those rights that belonged to all Englishmen. When the minister and officers of Ipswich balked at paying taxes imposed by a government in which they had no representation, Andros jailed and fined them. During a preliminary hearing, he remarked on the absurdity of letting “every Jack and Tom … tell the King what moneys he should have for the use of his government.”

In the course of the trial, conducted by members of the Dominion Council sitting as magistrates, it was Dudley who expressed the colonists’ loss of status in terms that have clung to the history of the Andros government (and to Dudley himself, earning him a permanent place on Massachusetts historians’ list of Bad Guys). When the defendants asserted their rights under the Magna Carta, Dudley told them “You must not think that the laws of England follow you to the ends of the earth, or whither you go.” Addressing their leader, the town’s minister, he said, “Mr. Wise, you have no more privileges left you than not to be sold for slaves.”

The new administration had to impose taxes, because the General Court, when word of the charter’s revocation arrived in 1684, had—for no better reason than to spite the government that would replace it—ordered that all tax laws would expire at the end of that year. The laws were twice extended for a year only, but 1687 began with no form of taxation established in law. After seeing what happened in Ipswich, the colonists grumbled, but submitted to taxation without representation. Their mood was not sweetened by Andros’ and Dudley’s remarks, which were widely circulated.

The Ipswich case also brought to Andros’ notice a likely source of popular resistance, and he made a law forbidding that town meetings be held more than once a year. This caused great irritation—not only was it considered arbitrary and tyrannical, but it interfered seriously with the usual conduct of town business.
Sir Edmund strolling in Boston
Lacking political instincts, Andros governed in a way that offended all parties and turned them unanimously against him, instead of balancing the interests of one party against another as a more skillful administrator might have done. This picture, by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle, probably doesn’t do Andros justice in rendering him as a typical London fop, but it does capture the essence of the relationship between the governor and the governed. And some of the associates he had brought with him may, if reports of their behavior can be trusted, have resembled the gentleman in the picture.

The clerical party was outraged when Andros demanded that the Old South Meetinghouse be made available for Anglican services, and refused to be moved by sorrowful pleas or indignant demands. The Puritans of Old South were not turned out altogether, but found themselves standing outside, waiting their turn to worship, while Anglican rites—no doubt detestably Romish—were being celebrated inside the house they had built.

Dudley’s friends in the business world were displeased with Andros’ ham-handed approach to the Navigation Acts. He insisted that they be obeyed to the letter, even when this caused a considerable business decline that might easily have been avoided—with better results not only for Boston’s merchants but for His Majesty’s treasury as well.
Massachusetts militia in 1637
A rung or two down the economic ladder, most colonists were unhappy with their new military obligations. This affected a great many, because every town had its militia unit, in which every able-bodied man had the duty to serve. This picture, commissioned by the National Guard Bureau in celebration of its history, shows a New England militia muster in 1637. The large number of pikemen in the background suggests a muster comprising the militia of several towns. The pikes may seem primitive, but they were still in use during the English Civil war, which hadn't happened yet. Though I couldn’t find a picture, New England militia in the 1680s probably had more up-to-date weapons, but would have been just about as ragtag in appearance.

Andros organized and commanded a campaign to secure the northern border. Not every militiaman was called out, but the campaign was fought during the winter months, and those soldiers who had been marched, unwillingly, out of their own colonies into a freezing northern waste, where weather and disease took more lives than enemy action, felt like the victims of tyrannical oppression.

By far the most unpopular of Andros’ policies, however, and the one that most effectively united all New England’s parties and classes against him, was his attempt to impose a more English form of landholding on the Dominion. He was only implementing a policy directed by the Lords of Trade, whose motive was to normalize the empire’s legal system rather than to stamp out economic independence in the colonies. But it struck at the political and economic heart of their culture—the right of all individuals and families to possess their own land.
Farming in feudal England
In feudal times, an Englishman could buy land and yet have to share it in various ways with others who retained certain rights over it. The owner of a small farm, for example, might be obliged to do a certain amount of labor every year on the lands of the local earl. The same earl might have the right to hunt or fish on the smallholder’s property, regardless of how this might interfere with farming. These rights didn’t automatically change hands when land was bought and sold. In time it became the custom for landholders to free themselves from such feudal obligations by paying the earl an annual fee called quit-rent. This eventually became a simple land tax paid to the government, and everyone in England was used to it.

In Massachusetts and the other New England colonies, however, the colonial and town governments had granted land “in fee simple,” which conveyed full ownership with no obligations to other parties (except, of course, a citizen’s obligations to town, church, and colony, which were subject to decisions made in General Court or town meeting). Now they were told that all land still to be granted in the dominion would carry an annual quit-rent. And the dominion government would assess all land that had been granted since the first settlement. Its owners—if they wanted to keep their property—would have to make a single retroactive payment of back quit-rent, and pay the standard annual rent from that point on. Objections were met with the declaration that the owners’ titles had been vacated along with the charter, and titles obtained by direct purchase from the Indians were worthless. Every land title must be reestablished by means of the payments prescribed.

Everyone, rich and poor, was horrified. The tax rate was not especially high, though sometimes those who collected it (a poorly paid lot) seem to have been guilty of inflating the bill. And there were at least a few episodes of outright extortion, where an earlier title to desirable property was denied and the property bestowed on a well-connected associate of the governor. Andros’ government also denied that the towns owned the common lands most of them had set aside for pasture, and made large grants of these lands to various friends.

Small farmers (in other words, most colonists) were appalled by the injustice of a government that would demand to be paid a substantial amount of cash—in an economy where cash was rare and hard to come by—or else declare that the land they and their families had worked and built homes on for two or three generations didn’t belong to them.

As for rich landholders who owned multiple properties all over the dominion, they were dismayed to learn that they’d have to apply (and, of course, pay) for a valid title in each county where they held property.

The blame for the disaster of this landholding policy belongs ultimately to the blundering English government, but Andros’ customary no-nonsense implementation contributed to the universal revulsion it provoked. The clerical party had never liked anything about the Dominion of New England; they regarded it as an instance of the Scourge of God—that is, a catastrophe inflicted on the colony for its sins—and expected that it would come to an end when God decided that the punishment had been sufficient. The moderates of the merchant class, on the other hand, had welcomed the transition, hoping that it would make them richer. But they were alienated by the inflexible application of the Navigation Acts and the introduction of English land law. People of all classes and parties began to see that the loss of representative government had been a bad thing for the New England colonies, and this feeling was particularly intense in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where representative government had been most active. (Andros had made an attempt to seize the charter of Connecticut, whose leaders thwarted him by hiding it in the hollow of a tree—the subsequently famous Charter Oak.)

It’s possible that armed resistance might have arisen in time, but the lifespan of the Dominion of New England proved to be unexpectedly short. King James’ boneheaded attempts to rule England without parliament and at the same time to enlarge the rights of Roman Catholics in his kingdom had provoked intense hostility against the monarch who had been welcomed so warmly in 1685. By 1688, he had few friends and supporters left in England.