A Third Governor, and a Legacy

Dudley Redux

Joseph Dudley, Governor 1702–1715
Bellomont’s demise in 1701 gave Joseph Dudley (who had in the meantime, through the patronage of well-connected friends, become a member of Parliament) another chance to campaign for the governorship, and this time he got it. He was appointed by Queen Anne, who succeeded William III on his death early in 1702—William might have preferred another governor without Massachusetts origins, though that’s only speculation. Dudley also replaced Bellomont as governor of New Hampshire, where he remained fairly popular throughout his term, which (like his term in Massachusetts) ran until 1715.

No one could describe Joseph Dudley as popular in Massachusetts, however. The English government had assured him of the right to a salary, but, despite many indignant protests to that government, he never got the General Court to vote him one—only the usual annual grant. He offended the Mathers by denying Cotton the presidency of Harvard College, and he made enemies of many local politicians by consistently using his veto to prevent the election to his council, or the office of Speaker of the General Court, of anyone whose behavior during the revolt of 1689 had provoked his wrath.

If there was anyone left that Dudley hadn’t already alienated, he finished the job in a letter to his son, serving at the time as the province’s attorney general. The letter—discovered and made public—contained the remark that “this country will never be worth living in for lawyers and gentlemen, till the charter is taken away.” This won the governor very little love from the governed, and perhaps as much as anything else he did or said shows what a distance now separated him from his Massachusetts roots.

In 1711, the Boston Town House, which the provincial government had followed precedent by using as its headquarters, burned down. An elegant and capacious replacement was built in 1713. Like its predecessor, it had space for commerce on the ground floor; upstairs were meeting places for the Governor’s Council, the General Court, the Suffolk County court, and the province’s Supreme Judicial Court. It was still called the Boston Town House, though none of the political and judicial bodies it housed seem to have been exclusively Bostonian (although perhaps the court of Suffolk county comes close). Province House, which I erroneously called it in an earlier draft of this page, might have been a more fitting name, but that was given to a 17th-century mansion near the Old South Church after it was purchased, in 1716, as an official residence for the governor.
The Old State House, built 1713, in its present-day setting
The 1713 Town House, functioning today as a museum in downtown Boston, is now called the Old State House, having been the seat of Massachusetts’ government from the War of Independence until 1798. In that year, Thomas Bulfinch’s state house on Beacon Hill (still visible despite massive subsequent additions) took on that function. This picture shows the Old State House’s balcony draped in bunting—perhaps for the annual public reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It’s the same balcony from which that document was publicly read when it arrived in Boston in 1776.
The United Kingdom's royal arms
The most distinctive features of the 1713 building are the gilded lion and unicorn on the gable end, above the balcony. These heraldic beasts traditionally support the British monarchy’s coat of arms. The design was obviously meant to leave no doubt in Bostonian minds about who was in charge of Massachusetts.

It was during Dudley’s term of office, early in 1713, that the General Court received the petition of Cambridge’s North Precinct to separate from Cambridge and become a town in its own right. The terms of separation had been peaceably negotiated, and Cambridge raised no objections. This was routine business that neither the governor nor his council had any reason to quarrel with. Their order established the new town and conferred on it the name Lexington, not found in any earlier documents that have survived. (In the chapter headed "But Why Lexington?" I’ve given my reasons for believing that that name was the governor’s idea.)

This is the rather arbitrary ending point for my story of the charter and of Massachusetts Bay’s contentious relations with the country that most of the colonists considered their native land. Governor Joseph Dudley signed the order that made Lexington a town, and (probably, at least) gave the town its name. Two years later he was out of office.

The charter wars left a legacy of friction between the province and its governors that never entirely ended until the last royal governor, General Gage, evacuated Boston with his redcoats in 1776.

The Legacy of the Charter Wars

The Boston Tea Party, 1773
The Province of Massachusetts Bay and the crown, as represented by a succession of royal governors, never quite learned to get along. The General Court never did consent to vote the governor a salary, preferring to make grants at its own pleasure, and in general doing whatever it could to keep him on as short a leash as possible. The power-sharing features of the 1691 charter, though modest, were sufficient to make the harmonious administration of the province nearly impossible.

Massachusetts had lost its 17th-century struggle for the charter, but the animosity generated in that conflict never died, nor did the feeling that the mother country cared for her colonies only insofar as she was able to exploit them, looking always to her own interest and never to theirs.

Seen objectively, the colonists’ means and motives hadn’t always been admirable, but neither had they been detestable. In maintaining the inherent “rights of an Englishman” against the “divine right of kings,” Massachusetts Bay fought on the side that most of us would choose.

But in the struggle between colonial liberty and imperial order, each side may have been, with unfortunate consequences, blind to the elements of justice and common sense in the other’s position.

That blindness may have been inevitable at the time. The old idea of empire as an absolute hegemony over a conquered or settled territory and its people (both natives and settlers) was barely beginning to weaken in favor of a newer conception that those people still had some political and economic rights. The modern conception of the nation state was still under development, and much that seems obvious to us hadn’t yet been thought of.

We should probably acknowledge that the sentiments that, in Massachusetts Bay, eventually nourished the desire for American independence were rooted partly in a sense of justice and inherent human rights that was entirely reasonable; partly in the desire for a degree of freedom that was, given the conditions of the time, less than reasonable; partly in genuine religious zeal; partly in sectarian protectionism; and partly in at least trace amounts of prideful cantankerousness.

Whatever their noble and ignoble roots, these sentiments—strengthening throughout the 18th century—made it inevitable that, when the time came for England and her colonies to part ways, Massachusetts would be in the front rank of the Revolution.
Stacks Image 58992