Negotiating a New Charter

New Rulers, New Rules

William and Mary triumphant
The proclamation that William and Mary were now the joint rulers of England—the technical term is coregents—arrived about a month after Boston’s miniature revolution, and was enthusiastically celebrated. The restored General Court kept Andros, Randolph, Dudley, and five other Dominion officials locked up while it drew up bills of particular charges against them, and after enduring about ten months of captivity they were sent to England for trial. Many of the charges brought against them, however, concerned actions that would have been illegal only if the Dominion government itself had been illegal, and that argument would not stand in court. In the end there was no trial: all charges were dismissed and the prisoners were freed. Dudley later returned to Massachusetts as one of its royal governors, and both Andros and Randolph also held offices in the American colonies, though never again Massachusetts.

According to the agreement that William of Orange had made with Parliament before accepting the invitation to take his father-in-law’s place, he would still be king should his wife die before him, and even while she lived he had the sole right to exercise “regal powers.” So it was William III—his namesake predecessors on the throne of England being William the Conqueror and his son—with whom Massachusetts would have to negotiate its future status.

The colony had a representative in London: no less a notable than Increase Mather, long its most influential minister. He had gone there in the summer of 1688, before the overthrow of James II or the Dominion of New England, in order to bring the colony’s case against Andros before King James and his advisors. Mather hadn’t gotten very far with the king, but he was still on hand when William took James’ place, and he lost no time in pleading the cause with the new king, months before anyone at home knew that the crown had changed heads.

William, needless to say, had a good many issues demanding more immediate attention than the political status of Massachusetts Bay—that war in Ireland, for one thing—and besides that, he planned to regularize the administration of the colonies in America to a degree that the hodgepodge collection of old charters with their various provisions and interpretations had never made possible.

Imperial Economics

England had become an empire, though still a pretty small one. Its colonies on the North American coast and in the West Indies constituted most of its overseas “plantations,” augmented by a trading post here and there in Africa and Asia. After England and Scotland were merged in 1701, the country was named Great Britain and the empire, now of course the British Empire, was to expand enormously during the next two centuries, reaching the point where the sun really did never set on it. That was all in the future when William took power, but in the meantime, over the course of the 17th century, the European kingdoms had arrived at a consensus on how empires should operate. The basis was an economic system that we call mercantilism. Charles II, James II, and the Lords of Trade had been trying, without much success, to impose it on Massachusetts Bay.

According to mercantilist doctrine, the function of a colony was to enrich the mother country by helping it maintain a positive balance of trade. A steady increase in the amount of gold in a nation—whether publicly or privately owned—meant success for that nation; if the amount of gold declined, the nation declined with it. And the way to ensure that the amount of gold increased instead of decreasing was for the nation to sell more goods than it bought, thereby taking in more gold than it paid out. Colonies were to aid this process by producing raw materials that the mother country could use to produce goods for sale—not only to other nations, but back to the colonies themselves.

As we’ve seen, Massachusetts had little reason to love this arrangement. For one thing, it had few raw materials to sell. The fur trade had dwindled as population and cultivated land increased. The French in Canada, with a much smaller population, and access to a great deal more forested territory (which they never tried to take over), could maintain easier trading relationships with the native peoples, and consequently had the fur trade pretty much to themselves. English colonies farther south than New England could raise cash crops like tobacco and sugar, raw materials that fit better into the mercantilist pattern and made it easier for those colonies to come to acceptable terms with that system. But crops like those wouldn’t grow in New England. About the only raw material the region could export was timber—and even this trade was somewhat hampered by laws that reserved the tallest and straightest trees for use as masts by the Royal Navy.
Inside a 17th-century merchant ship
Massachusetts, like other New England colonies, had created a trading economy, building ships and trading in its own right with other colonies and countries. A Boston or Salem merchant could, for example, sail into a Mediterranean trading port with a load of timber, which was scarce in that region, sell it, and use the proceeds to buy eastern silks and spices that he could sell to shopkeepers at home, making a profit at each end. This picture shows a museum scale model of a 17th-century English merchant ship—or rather, half a merchant ship, so that we can see it in cross-section. Massachusetts ships that traded in the Caribbean or across the Atlantic wouldn't have been much different.

But mercantilist economic doctrine, and therefore the Lords of Trade, decreed that all goods should be carried in ships registered and owned by the mother country, and could be sold only there or in its other colonies. New England traders were behaving not as dutiful colonists but rather as competitors. Their independent economic activity did nothing to fill English coffers, public or private, and in effect deprived England of gold that its own merchants might otherwise bring home. To correct this anomaly, the Navigation Acts forbade the importation of foreign goods to the colonies in any ships that were not English-owned. The provisions of the new charter, issued in October, 1691, enjoined cooperation with this system.