Goodbye to the Commonwealth

Needless to say, it wasn’t only in the economic sphere that the new charter, issued in 1691, gave Massachusetts Bay a good deal less than it hoped for. Whatever real or imaginary strength their physical possession of the old charter had given to their bargaining position, that had been lost in 1684, and the colonists, even with the eminent Increase Mather representing them, were standing before the throne as supplicants, not sitting at the table as equal negotiators. The oppressive weight of England’s maritime policy really depended on its enforcement, which in the event turned out most of the time to be lenient or even lackadaisical. Massachusetts Bay therefore continued to prosper pretty much as before. But the charter made more painful changes in some other areas.


The cause of Massachusetts’ restlessness in its relationship with England wasn’t primarily economic. It had more to do with the original nature and purpose of the colony: not to create wealth, but to found an ideal commonwealth on true religious principles. The proportion of citizens for whom this was the main purpose in life was doubtless smaller in the 1690s than it had been 60 years earlier, but it was still a large proportion, whose clerical leaders badly wanted the original charter to be restored in its full glory, professing loyalty and gratitude to the mother country, but allowing it only an advisory role in the governance of Massachusetts.

There was no real chance that this could happen. William was now responsible for the Church of England, which had long been demanding freedom of worship and political rights for its members in Massachusetts. Also, after William’s accession Parliament had passed the Act of Toleration, which granted the right to worship—though not in every case to hold political office—to members of all Christian sects except Catholics. (Most of William’s foreign enemies were Catholic, and the most notable of these, King Louis XIV of France, sponsored and aided the exiled King James’ efforts to recapture the English throne. So the withholding of tolerance from Catholicism, while deplorable from our century’s more liberal point of view, is more or less understandable.)

Increase Mather did his best to advocate for the clerical party’s position on this issue, but there was very little he could do. The new charter imposed a religious policy consistent with the Act of Toleration, including the exception of Papists from its benefits. Voting rights could no longer be based on religion. A financial standard was imposed instead, but with the bar set low enough to allow about three quarters of the colony’s men to become freeholders (the new term for those who could vote, replacing the former freemen).


Another imposition the colonists couldn’t fend off was that of a royal governor and lieutenant governor, both appointed by the crown rather than elected by the people. This was the general European practice, and probably didn’t surprise many people. But William’s negotiators avoided the major mistake that had nearly brought about mutiny in the Dominion of New England: the charter allowed the colony to elect a representative assembly, and so the General Court appeared once more.

The governor was assisted by a council of 28 members, elected by the General Court, who sat as its upper house. Both the governor and the king could veto acts of the Court, making its actions subject to a double veto—if a law got past the governor, the king could disallow it. According to Leading the Way, out of 45 acts passed by the General Court during the first few years under the charter, 15 were vetoed by either the governor or the crown.

However, Increase Mather’s advocacy did succeed in winning a couple of important concessions. One was the General Court's right to elect the governor’s council instead of their being appointed by the king, as they were in other colonies. But the governor could veto their choices.

In another concession, the General Court, unlike other colonial legislatures, was given “the power of the purse”— in other words, the administration couldn’t spend money unless the Court appropriated it. This was a concession that Massachusetts’ royal governors had cause to regret, since it gave the Court an effective veto on any action that required funding. The General Court was reluctant to appropriate money for the governor’s salary—it preferred to keep him dangling with year-to-year grants that might be reduced or even withheld.

But having its grip on the purse strings didn’t enable the General Court to take control of the province. The court could appropriate money for whatever purpose it wished, but not a penny could be spent without the approval of the governor and his council.

In the words of Leading the Way, “The new charter had built-in contradictions which made it unworkable, and which provoked almost continuous controversy between the General Court and the royal governors, and between colony and crown.” The Court truly represented popular sentiment in its long power struggle with the royal governors. Massachusetts never lost the feeling that its sovereign rights were wrongfully suppressed by the substitution of the new charter for the old one. That feeling certainly fed the animosity between governor and governed that continued through the decades, and made Massachusetts perhaps the readiest of the colonies to rebel in the 1770s.


Like the other English colonies in North America, Massachusetts was now officially designated a province rather than a colony. One change that apparently caused no dissatisfaction with the charter was the significant enlargement of its territory. Massachusetts Bay was merged with the former Plymouth colony, containing all of what’s now southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. The nearby Elizabeth Islands, plus Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket were also added to Massachusetts at the same time. They had previously belonged to the colony of New York, a result of King Charles II’s generosity to his brother in 1664. James, then Duke of York, was granted all of the former Nieuw Nederland (that is, New York and New Jersey) after soldiers under his nominal command had taken it away from the Dutch. The king apparently tossed in these islands as a sort of garnish. They were collectively known as Duke’s County until Nantucket became a separate county under its own name. (The other islands are still Dukes County, though the name has lost its apostrophe).

There were other territorial additions that didn’t turn out to be permanent. Maine was one of these, more as a confirmation of Massachusetts’ claims than a grant of new territory. It wasn’t separated from the Bay State until 1820, when it became the 23rd of the United States. French Acadia (modern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) were also joined to Massachusetts, but remained mostly in French possession until the end of the French-English colonial wars in the 1760s—at which time they were made British provinces in their own right, unconnected with Massachusetts.