Political Growing Pains

Boston Town House (based on the specifications)
The General Court held its second meeting, on October 19, 1630, in Boston, which has been the site of its headquarters ever since, although meetings were occasionally held in other places. Just where in Boston the early meetings took place isn’t known—most likely in a church or the home of a member who owned a large house—but from 1659 onward the Court met in Boston’s newly built Town House. Based on the specifications, the building looked something like this picture (drawn in 1930 and full of the sort of amusing local color, such as public floggings, that people like to associate with the Puritans). The open lower floor was a place for buying and selling—produce and merchandise, not votes. (Some illustrators, unable to believe that, in this climate, the bottom floor had no walls, have shown the market space walled and glassed in. No one wrote about this matter, and the building burned in 1711, so we can’t investigate.)

A good many settlers were uncomfortable with Massachusetts Bay’s original political organization. During the colony’s first few years a succession of periodic protests, followed by measures of accommodation, gradually hammered the government into a more representative shape. The appointed assistants failed to keep the reins of power exclusively in their own hands, although they tried. As more and more colonists were admitted to the status of freemen, deputies elected from the towns were added to the Court. They were given the right to elect the governor, the deputy governor, and the assistants.

But the religious requirement for voting or holding any executive or legislative office stayed in place for half a century. Even those staunch Puritans who didn’t opt to apply for freeman’s status seem to have felt that keeping governance in orthodox hands was preferable to letting just anyone (including themselves) vote. As early as 1647, the requirement of church membership was dropped for participation in town government—all men could vote in town meetings, and hold local office. (Unfortunately from our viewpoint, the idea of women voting would have seemed, in that age and culture, bizarre. It was never seriously entertained.)

However, political power in Massachusetts Bay wasn’t completely centralized. The governor and General Court decided large matters of colonial and even town policy, but every community held frequent town meetings to conduct its own strictly local business. The colony’s laws limited the vote even in town meetings to church members until 1647, but there’s evidence that this requirement was coming to be ignored even before that. Massachusetts town meetings were able to outpace the General Court in progressing toward the ideal of democracy that we’ve been taught to give them credit for.

Democracy nevertheless made some headway in the General Court as well. At first the town-elected deputies had only an advisory role in lawmaking, but they pressed for more truly representative powers even as they went on reelecting the assistants from among the colony’s established leaders. The assistants saw themselves increasingly outnumbered as more towns were established and the number of deputies grew. For some time they managed to hang onto a veto over the deputies’ decisions, but eventually the deputies gained an equal right to veto the assistants. In 1644, the Great and General Court formally divided into a house of assistants and a house of deputies, sitting separately, and unable to take any action without the consent of both houses.

Samuel Eliot Morison described the colony’s gradual (and partial) movement toward democracy this way:
The transfer of the charter did not give the Bay Colony a completely workable government; only a bare framework, and practical independence. Fourteen years were required for the complete evolution of the government from that of trading corporation to commonwealth. The government thus established was not a democracy, and was not intended to be; but the puritan builders left out of their foundations two principles of government, the feudal and the hereditary, upon which democracy had always found it difficult to raise a house. […]

However, the point of departure for [their] rejection of the heredity principle was not democracy, but godliness. [… The] leaders of the emigration… conceived that they had a divine commission to govern the Colony according to gospel ordinance. They did not propose to share this authority any further than circumstances required.
Simon Bradstreet, 1604–1697
Simon Bradstreet, whose picture appears here, came to Massachusetts in the Arbella, a 26-year old Cambridge graduate and the son-in-law of Thomas Dudley, the colony's first deputy governor. He was one of the six assistants at the first American meeting of the General Court, outdoors in Charles Towne, and wrote the minutes. He went on serving as an assistant for almost half a century, until he was elected governor in 1679 at the age of 75. He held office until 1686, when the colonial government was replaced by the imposition of the Dominion of New England, and when that was overthrown in 1689, he first chaired a provisional government and later reassumed the office of governor. He was finally, as Morison reports, “forced into premature retirement at the age of eighty-nine by the arrival of a new charter” in 1692. His wife, Anne Bradstreet (Thomas Dudley’s daughter), was English America’s first published poet.

Members of the General Court’s smaller and more conservative house, who had judicial as well as legislative powers, in time came to be called magistrates instead of assistants. They were still, like Simon Bradstreet, elected from among the colony’s elite. Although the nomination and election of magistrates was conducted in various ways over the years, the General Court’s own history of itself (Cornelius Dalton, John Wirkkala, and Anne Thomas, Leading the Way: A History of the Massachusetts General Court 1629–1980,1984) reports that the process was “rigged in favor of the incumbents, and [assistants or magistrates] generally served for life, if they so desired.” Most of them had shorter lives, politically at least, than Bradstreet.

John Winthrop was in and out of office as governor. He served four separate terms (adding up to about 12 years), and in between he was always either deputy governor or an assistant. Until his death in 1649, however, he remained the colony’s political master and guiding spirit. Half a century after he died, Cotton Mather wrote of him: “He was, indeed, a governour, who had most exactly studied that book which, pretending to teach politicks, did only contain three leaves, and but one word in each of those leaves, which word was, MODERATION.” It was this virtue of Winthrop's that, probably more than anything else, kept Puritan Massachusetts from becoming the harsh dictatorship that some people today think it was.

Although Winthrop ultimately had to accept a more representative government than he really wanted, he succeeded in keeping all, or nearly all, political power in the hands of professed Puritans despite the well-founded complaint that the colony’s charter didn’t support this requirement. As we’ve seen, the religious requirement stood unchanged for 60 years because the majority of colonists, even the non-freemen, considered it a reasonable arrangement.
King Charles II
The crown felt otherwise. The charter granted the company the right to “to make Lawes and Ordinances for the Good and Welfare of the saide Company, and for the Government and ordering of the saide Landes and Plantation, and the People inhabiting and to inhabite the same, as to them from tyme to tyme shalbe thought meete, soe as such Lawes and Ordinances be not contrarie or repugnant to the Lawes and Statuts of this our Realme of England.” It also granted all freemen the vote. But the imposition of a religious condition that took this right away from all non-Puritans—even, and especially, those who belonged to England’s established church—was “contrarie or repugnant” to an extreme. Both King Charles II (pictured) and his brother and successor, James II, made attempts to quash the religious condition, but it wasn’t done away with completely until 1691, when a new charter was negotiated under William and Mary.

William insisted that not only members of the Church of England, but all other Christians—except, of course, Papists, for Europe’s religious wars were not quite over yet—should have the right to build churches in the colony and worship as they pleased, and to participate as fully in its governance as the members of Massachusetts’ established church, by that time called Congregational rather than Puritan. The charter contained other provisions that the colonists disliked: it placed them under the authority of a royal governor who could veto any action taken by the General Court, and it imposed restrictions on trade that, if observed, ensured a far greater share of the profits ending up in English pockets. But there’s some evidence that—for the colony’s lay and spiritual leaders, at least—terminating the Puritan monopoly on religious and political rights was the least popular measure of all.