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The English Crown vs. Massachusetts

Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryInterventionism

10/16/2012Murray N. Rothbard

[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, volume 1, chapter 37, "The Restoration Crisis in New England." An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]


The Massachusetts Bay Colony's authorities, with their old self-governing charter, had good reason meanwhile to fear the onset of the Restoration. Already a British command had forced Massachusetts Bay to slacken its persecution of the Quakers. What further encroachments might follow?

King Charles, for his part, was determined to bring his most recalcitrant and independent colony to heel. Its virtual independence, its widespread flouting and evasion of the recently passed Navigation Acts, its oligarchic rule by a Puritan theocracy, its grabbing of the New Hampshire and Maine settlements, could only infuriate an Anglican monarch. In mid-1662 the king confirmed the Massachusetts charter but, vaguely and ominously, stressed the invalidity of all laws contrary to the laws of England.

More substantively, the king ordered Massachusetts to permit the use of the (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer, and to grant the franchise to all freeholders of "competent estate" whether or not they were members of a Puritan church. By this last command, of course, the king struck at the heart of theocratic rule in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts was able to obey the letter of this demand, but not the substance: in place of restricting voting to church members, the Bay Colony substituted the requirement that each nonmember must obtain confirmation from the local minister, the town selectmen, and the General Court itself, that he was orthodox in religion — a gauntlet that no one was able to run.

Eventually, King Charles saw his opportunity to take the first fateful step for bringing Massachusetts to heel. In 1664 he sent an expedition under Colonel Richard Nicolls, a veteran royalist, to America to conquer and seize New Netherland from the Dutch. Nicolls was to remain to govern New Netherland — now renamed New York — as the Duke of York's deputy. The king took the opportunity to name Nicolls as head of a four-man commission to subdue New Netherland and to inspect, regulate, and settle disputes in New England.

Here was the first intrusion of English authority on New England. Both Massachusetts and the king saw the commission correctly — the entering wedge of British rule and the end of self-government, as well as the overthrow of the Puritan oligarchy in Massachusetts. And neither was Massachusetts reassured by the fact that one of the royal commissioners was Samuel Maverick. A former Boston merchant and veteran rebel against Massachusetts tyranny, and a signer of the Child petition, Maverick was a man eager to wreak vengeance against his old enemy.

Professor Oliver Chitwood points out that in this emerging "fight between the Massachusetts oligarchy and the Crown, the people stood to lose regardless of the outcome. If the king won, the rights covered by the charter would be lost to the colony as a whole. On the other hand, if the oligarchy won, it would be strengthened in its position and the old policy of intolerance and limited suffrage would continue."1

Apparently Chitwood does not see the other side of the coin; for upon either outcome, the people also stood to gain — self-government and freedom from imperial rule on the one hand, liberation from theocracy on the other.

The commission came armed with two sets of royal instructions: public and secret. The public instructions were to hear complaints, settle disputes between the New England colonies, and enforce the Navigation Acts. They also conveyed the king's good intentions to Massachusetts. The secret instructions, however, were to press for the election of more amenable deputies and magistrates who would approve the idea of a royal governor in Massachusetts. Nicolls himself was the king's preference for this post. The king also instructed the commissioners to insist upon religious toleration in New England, especially, of course, for Anglicans.

Upon the commissioners' arrival in July 1664, Massachusetts delivered a ringing reply to their pretensions: Massachusetts' enemies had evidently persuaded the king to send a commission that could on its own discretion revoke the colonists' fundamental right of self-government, a right granted in their patent. In addition to these arguments from principle, the royal commissioners were subjected to personal denunciation in the colony. One of the commissioners, the ambitious Sir Robert Carr, was accused of keeping a mistress, while Colonel George Cartwright was suspected of being a "papist." In the Puritan climate of Massachusetts Bay, it was difficult to know which crime was deemed the more heinous.

The commission proceeded first to the rapid accomplishment of its top-priority mission — the conquest of New Netherland. The commissioners' next step, according to their instructions, was to outflank Massachusetts by bringing the weaker New England colonies into submission before confronting their most difficult task, Massachusetts Bay. Accordingly, their first step, in early 1665, was Plymouth, where the commissioners demanded that the franchise no longer depend on religious opinion, and that there be religious liberty, at least for "orthodox" Christians. In contrast to Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth quickly succumbed, thus greatly weakening the theocratic and oligarchic rule. The king warmly commended Plymouth for its ready compliance, but not without a pointed reference to her errant sister: "Your carriage seems to be set off with the more lustre by the contrary deportment of the colony of the Massachusetts."

The next step was to settle the still raging boundary dispute over the Narragansett Country; the commission was granted power to override any previous royal charter. Connecticut and the Atherton Company were still actively claiming the land. The Crown had advised the commissioners to take the Narragansett Country away from both Connecticut and Rhode Island and to make it a direct royal province, with the Atherton claim continuing in force. At the end of March, the commissioners rendered their decision, amending their instructions significantly. For although the Narragansett Country was indeed awarded directly to the Crown and called "King's Province," the commissioners decided to compensate Rhode Island for the loss by authorizing it independently to govern the province in the king's stead.

Moreover, they were convinced by Rhode Island's demonstration of the fraudulent nature of the Atherton Company's purchase of the tract from the Indians. The commissioners, therefore, boldly vacated the arbitrary Atherton claim and ordered the company proprietors off the territory. (Sir Robert Carr, however, demonstrated his buccaneering bent by asking the Crown to grant him title to a large tract of the best Narragansett grazing land.) Winthrop, however, managed to persuade Nicolls, who had not been present, to get the Atherton decision reversed. But at least Rhode Island was left in charge of the territory.

The commissioners' other major impact on Rhode Island was, as we have seen, the compulsory narrowing of suffrage to those of "competent estates." Rhode Island needed no prodding, of course, to agree to what they already had: permission for all the orthodox to have churches of their own choosing.

Apart from the Atherton decision, the commissioners' rulings were quite satisfactory to Connecticut. We have already seen the commissioners' role in the liquidation of New Haven. The commissioners were told by Connecticut that it already met the requirements of giving the right to vote to all "men of competent estates," even if not church members, and of permitting full religious liberty to those of orthodox belief and "civil lives." While it was true, however, that Connecticut had been far more democratic than Massachusetts in granting the vote to nonchurch members, it had hardly permitted full religious freedom to non-Puritans. In return for their ready compliance with the commissioners' requests, Connecticut and Rhode Island were, like Plymouth, favored with a message from King Charles complimenting them on their good behavior.

Their business with the southern New England colonies speedily and satisfactorily concluded, the commissioners turned their attention to their major problem — Massachusetts Bay. Confronting the Massachusetts General Court in May 1665, the commissioners soon realized that this colony would be winning no good-conduct medals from the king. The commissioners put forth their demands: that they proposed to act as an appeals court for Massachusetts cases; that, as the other colonies had done, Massachusetts adopt an oath of allegiance to the king; that it grant full religious liberty to Anglicans; and that it observe the Navigation Acts. The commissioners also demanded that Massachusetts really eliminate its prohibition against voting by nonchurch members.

Led by Governor Richard Bellingham, Massachusetts flatly refused each one of these royal demands. Massachusetts' charter, it further declared, gave the Bay Colony absolute power to make laws and administer justice; therefore, any appellate activity by the commission would be an intolerable breach of Massachusetts' rights. The commissioners angrily retorted that they were the direct agents of the king, the very royal authority responsible for the charter. Does Massachusetts deny the authority of the royal commission? Massachusetts answered, in a masterpiece of evasion and pseudohumility, that it was beyond its capacity or function to pass on the validity of the commission.

The commissioners decided to take the bull by the horns, and set themselves up as an appellate court, in the house of Captain Thomas Breedon, to hear grievances against Massachusetts. But the General Court moved swiftly, proclaiming "by the sound of the trumpet" outside the Breedon house that this action was a breach of the royal charter and of Massachusetts' rights, and could not gain the General Court's consent.

Defeated and frustrated, the commissioners left Boston, but with this warning of things to come:

The King did not grant away his sovereignty over you when he made you a corporation. When His Majesty gave you power to make wholesome laws and to administer justice by them, he parted not with his right to judge whether the laws were wholesome … 'tis possible that the charter that you so much idolize may be forfeited, until you have cleared yourselves of those many injustices, oppressions, violences, and blood for which you are complained against.

With Colonel Richard Nicolls returning to New York to take up his post as governor, the other commissioners proceeded northward, to try to disrupt Massachusetts' rule over the New Hampshire and Maine settlements. Beyond obtaining a few signatures on a petition to the king for relief from Massachusetts' rule, the commissioners accomplished little in the New Hampshire towns, even though accompanied by agents of the proprietary claimant to New Hampshire, Robert T. Mason. The towns of Portsmouth and Dover, in fact, sent for some Massachusetts magistrates to emphasize their solidarity with Massachusetts. This was not surprising because New Hampshire was dominated by an oligarchy of Massachusetts merchants — for example, Valentine Hill and the Waldron family — who had moved to the Piscataqua to engage in the flourishing timber and fish trade. The oligarchy was either appointed by the Massachusetts General Court or elected by a highly limited franchise.

A dozen petitioners from Portsmouth complained to the commission that under Massachusetts "five or six of the richest men of this parish have ruled and ordered all offices, both civil and military, at their pleasure, and none durst make opposition for fear of great fines or long imprisonment." In particular, the opposition attacked the theocratic Puritan rule and pleaded for the right to worship as Anglicans and for the right to vote. The greatest fire of the petitioners was leveled at Dover's Puritan minister, Reverend Joshua Moody. The petitioners also asked for a union of New Hampshire with Maine, where the settlements had similar problems.

If some merchants were privileged members of the New Hampshire oligarchy, so also merchants like Francis Champernowne headed the petition and merchants like Pynchon and Bradstreet defended the petitioners in the Massachusetts court. But all to no avail. For as soon as the commissioners left, the Massachusetts authorities began to arrest the leading petitioners and complainants. Thus, the Portsmouth distiller Abraham Corbett was hauled into court "to answer for his tumultuous and seditious practices against his government."

Pickings were more fruitful for the commission, however, in the Maine towns, which had been seized by Massachusetts only a decade before, and where the preponderance of anti-Puritan settlers and fishermen kept resentment high. Finding Maine discontented with Massachusetts' rule, the commissioners proceeded to organize an independent government at York for the eight Maine towns. The commissioners were armed with a royal letter commanding the surrender of the Maine towns to the jurisdiction of Ferdinando Gorges, grandson and heir of the previous proprietor, and John Archdale accompanied the commission as an agent of Gorges to see that the order was carried out.

Traveling further east to the Duke of York's new province east of the Kennebec River (now central and eastern Maine), the commissioners then organized a government, under the duke, of the few scattered inhabitants, and named the territory Cornwall.

Before disbanding, the commissioners sent their report to the Crown in December 1665. In it they attacked Massachusetts' intransigence and recommended revocation of the Bay Colony charter. They also recommended direct royal government for New Hampshire and Maine, and praised the cooperative attitude of other New England colonies.

The commissioners' report, however, proved to be ill-fated. One ill omen: none of the commissioners arrived home with the report. Maverick settled down in New York; Carr died shortly after; and Cartwright, traveling to England with the report, was captured at sea by the Dutch. More significantly, the king found this an inopportune time to tangle with Massachusetts.

The Dutch had naturally taken umbrage at England's sudden seizure of New Netherland at a time when the two countries were at peace. And in the ensuing war with the Dutch, England bore heavy losses and expenses, especially as the French entered on the side of the Dutch. A great plague also devastated London and southern England, and later in the year a great fire destroyed two-thirds of the housing of London. Furthermore, clamor was rising against the king's lord chancellor, the despotic Earl of Clarendon, soon to be ousted and to flee into exile.

With all the turmoil in England, Charles decided to let the Massachusetts matter go for the time being. In April 1666 he asked Massachusetts to send an agent to England to answer the commissioners' charges. Massachusetts brusquely replied that it had already given all its explanations to the commissioners and now had nothing to add. The Bay Colony did, as a sweetener, send to the Crown for the royal navy a gift of two large expensive masts, worth about two thousand pounds, from the New Hampshire forests.

Massachusetts' refusal had not been decided upon without opposition. Leading citizens of a few Massachusetts towns counseled obedience to the king's order. Of the Boston petitioners against defiance, the overwhelming majority were: (a) merchants, and (b) nonfreemen, and hence nonvoters and non-Puritan church members. Thus, the counsel of caution came largely from the groups most prominent in strong opposition to the rule of the existing oligarchy.

Despite the defiance of Massachusetts, the king now dropped the matter and pursued the colony no further. At home the hated Earl of Clarendon fell from power in 1667, to be succeeded by the Cabal ministry, in which Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury, was the most influential official on colonial affairs. And since Lord Ashley was himself an active proprietor of the new Carolina grant, it was to his interest to minimize royal interference in the colonies. Influential fellow colonial proprietors like the Duke of York, furthermore, were interested more in exploring their own proprietary claims than in bringing the colonies to heel. The Massachusetts government had triumphed — for the short run.

Even the one victory of the commissioners over Massachusetts Bay — the separation of Maine — turned out to be short-lived. During the Anglo-Dutch war, support for Massachusetts in Maine increased out of fear of the Indians friendly to the French and French-Catholic missionaries. Also, realizing that England, in the wake of war and the fall of Clarendon, was in no mind to intervene, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1668, took steps forcibly to reincorporate the Maine towns into the Bay Commonwealth. Four leaders of the General Court went to York and there reimposed Massachusetts' rule on Maine. Massachusetts now ruled triumphant, without a single defeat at the hands of the Crown.

  • 1. Oliver P. Chitwood, A History of Colonial America, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper, 1961), p. 219.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.