History of the New England Colonies



The ties of interest and common sympathy united the struggling colonists in New England. They were natives of the same country, and were the social and political products of persecution-alike exposed to the weapons of hostile Indians and the greed for territory and power of the French and Dutch on their eastern and western borders. They were equally menaced with punishment by the parent government for non-conformity in matters of state and religion. They were, in fact, one people, bound by interwoven interests. Therefore when the civil war in Old England broke out in 1641, and the New England colonists, numbering more than twenty thousand, with fifty villages, almost forty churches, and their commerce expanding and manufactures of cotton from Barbadoes making them independent of the mother country so far, the aspect of the present and future made them seriously contemplate the establishment of a new nation. No tie of gratitude exacted their allegiance to the British government. On the contrary, their happiness in freedom was the result of neglect and oppression, rather than of care and protection. In 1643, the British Parliament acknowledged that "the plantations in New England had, by the blessing of the Almighty, had good and prosperous success without any public charge to the parent state."

A confederation of New England colonies for mutual defence had been proposed by Connecticut immediately after the war with the Pequods. When the crown threatened to deprive Massachusetts of her charter, in 1638, the other colonies counselled resistance, and the people of the Bay threatened secession from the British realm. Now, relieved of the pressure of royal rule under royal displeasure, the inhabitants of New England resolved to unite in a political league. In May, 1643, deputies from the colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven met those of Massachusetts in Boston. They very soon agreed upon twelve articles of Confederation, and constituted a confederacy under the title of "The United Colonies of New England." That written agreement was signed on the 20th of August following. Rhode Island and the settlements in New Hampshire and Maine asked to be admitted to the Union, but were denied, chiefly, as Winthrop said, "because they ran a different course from us, both in their ministry and civil administration." They would not bend to the dictates of Massachusetts in matters which concerned the conscience.

Whereupon, as we have observed, Rhode Island, which refused required allegiance to Plymouth, took immediate and successful steps to procure an independent charter. See Chapter VII, Book II.

The New England Confederacy-the harbinger of the United States of America-was simply a league of independent provinces, as were our thirteen States under the "Articles of Confederation," as we shall observe hereafter, each jealously guarding its own privileges and rights against any encroachments of the "general government." That central body was really no government at all. It was composed of a Board of Commissioners consisting of two church members from each colony, who were to meet annually or oftener if required. Their duty was to consider circumstances and recommend measures for the general good. They had no executive nor independent legislative powers, their recommendations becoming laws only after the separate colonies had acted upon and approved them. The doctrine of State supremacy was controlling.

That famous league, of which Massachusetts assumed the control because of its greater population and its being a "perfect republic," remained in existence more than forty years, during which period the government of England was changed three times. Unlike the Virginians, the New Englanders sympathized with the English republicans, and found in Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of England next to the beheaded Charles the First, a sincere friend and protector. The colony of Massachusetts, in particular, prospered. A profitable commerce between that colony and the West India Islands was created. That trade brought bullion, or uncoined gold and silver, into the colony, which led, in 1652, to the exercise of an act of sovereignty on the part of the authorities of Massachusetts by the establishment of a mint. It was authorized by the General Assembly, in 1651, and the following year silver coins of the denominations of three-pence, six-pence, and twelve-pence, or shilling, were struck. This was the first coinage within the territory of the United States.

The Puritan of Massachusetts, at this time, was the straightest of his sect-an unflinching egotist who regarded himself as eminently his "brother's keeper," whose constant business was to save his fellow-men from sin and error; sitting in judgment upon their belief and actions with the authority of a God-chosen high-priest. His laws, found on the statute-books of the colony or divulged in the records of court proceedings, exhibit the salient points in his stern and inflexible character as a self-constituted censor, and a conservator of the moral and spiritual destiny of his fellow-mortals. He imposed a fine upon every woman who should cut her hair like that of a man. He forbade all gaming for amusement or gain, and would not allow cards or dice to be introduced into the colony. He fined families whose young women did not spin as much flax or wool daily as the selectmen had required of them. He would not allow a Jesuit or Roman Catholic priest to live in the colony. He forbade all persons to run or even walk "except reverently to and from church" on Sunday; and he doomed a burglar, because he committed his crime on that sacred day, to have one of his ears cut off. He commanded John Wedgewood to be put in the stocks for being in the company of drunkards; Thomas Petit, for "suspicion of slander, idleness and stubbornness," he caused to be "severely whipped;" Captain Lovell he admonished to "take heed of light carriage;" Josias Plaistowe, for stealing four baskets of corn from the Indians, was ordered by him to return to them eight baskets, to be fined five pounds, and thereafter to "be called by the name of Josias, and not Mr. Plaistowe, as formerly. He directed his grand jurors to admonish those who wore apparel too costly for their income, and if they did not heed the warning to fine them; and in 1646, he placed on the statute-book of Massachusetts a law which imposed the penalty of flogging for kissing a woman in the street, even in the way of honest salute.

Almost a hundred years after that law was passed, its penalty was inflicted upon the commander of a British man-of-war. She arrived at Boston after a long cruise. As her commander was going toward his home in that city, he met his wife in the street hastening to greet him, when he gave her an affectionate kiss. A stern old magistrate in a cocked-hat and powdered hair in a queue, who was "learned in the law," seeing the act, caused his immediate arrest. The next morning, after due trial, the captain was convicted and the punishment of flogging was administered in a very mild way, but in a public place, causing much merriment. When the victim was about to sail on another cruise, he invited that magistrate and others whom, he understood, had approved of his punishment, to a complimentary dinner on board of his vessel, as a token of his forgiveness and submission. They accepted it, and when they were all merry with good cheer, and were on deck ready to depart, he ordered his boatswain and mate to give the magistrates a sound flogging. Each officer was armed with a knotted cat-o'-nine-tails, and they drove the astonished guests pell-mell over the side of the vessel into the boat waiting to receive them. The captain sailed away, and the law was soon afterward repealed. Governor Winthrop tempered these laws with merciful mildness in their execution. On one occasion it was reported to him that a man had been stealing from his store of winter's firewood, and he was urged to punish him. "I will soon put a stop to that bad practice," said the governor sternly. He sent for the offender. "You have a large family," he said to the offending culprit, "and I have a large magazine of wood; come as often as you please, and take as much of it as you need to make your dwelling comfortable." Then turning to his accusers, he said: "Now I defy him to steal any more of my firewood."

The bigotry and austerity of the Puritans in Massachusetts were vehemently condemned at the time of their iron rule in New England, and have been ever since. But there are peculiar considerations in their case, which the eye of justice cannot overlook. Their theology and their ideas of church government were founded upon the deepest heart-convictions of a people not broadly educated. They had encountered and subdued a Indian wilderness for the purpose of planting therein a church and a commonwealth fashioned in all their parts after a narrow but cherished pattern. They felt that the domain which they had conquered with so much peril and toil was their own, and that they had as good a right to regulate its internal affairs according to their own notions, and exclude all obnoxious persons, as had a householder the affairs of his family and the avoidance of an unwelcome visitor. They had boldly proclaimed the right to the exercise of private judgement in matters of conscience, and so they tacitly invited the persecuted of all lands to come to them. Therefore, "unsettled persons," libertines in unrestrained opinions, came to Massachusetts from abroad to disseminate their peculiar views. In that dissemination the Puritans saw clear prophecies of a disorganization of their church. They took the alarm early, and with a mistaken policy they resisted such encroachments upon their domain and into their society with fiery penal laws implacably executed. But it was only in respect to religion that the Puritan laws were specially harsh as compared with the general jurisprudence or science of law of that day. "Good forbid," said Governor Dudley in his old age, "our love for the truth should be grown so cold that we should tolerate errors-I die no libertine." "Better tolerate hypocrites and tares than thorns and briers," exclaimed that "famous man of God," as Norton called Parson John Cotton. "To say that men ought to have liberty of conscience is impious ignorance," said Parson Ward of Ipswich, author of "The Simple Cobbler of Agawam." "Religion admits of no eccentric notions," said Parson Norton, the colleague of Ward, biographer of Cotton, and persecutor of the Friends or Quakers.

Friends or Quakers. The peculiarities of this sect, we have considered in Chapter Ninth of the Second Book. Among the earlier disciples of George Fox were many enthusiasts whose zeal led their judgment. They were absolute fanatics, and sometimes became lunatics in their religious views and actions, and were utterly unlike the sober, mild-mannered members of that society to-day. They ran into the wildest extravagancies in the exercise of the liberty of speech; openly reviling magistrates and ministers with intemperate language; overriding the rights of all others in maintaining their own, and scorning all respect for human laws. They made the most exalted pretensions to the exclusive possession of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the power of persuasion with which they were endowed. Some, in the pride of their egotism, went to Rome to convert the Pope ; others went to the East to convince the Grand Turk and his people of their errors; and some came to America to proselyte the Puritans in New England, the Roman Catholics in Maryland, and the Cavaliers and Churchmen in Virginia. Some of them behaved so wildly and disorderly in Boston that they suffered intensely from the indignation of the magistrates and clergy there; and they so disgusted the tolerant Roger Williams, that he tried to root them out of Rhode Island.

The first of the sect who appeared conspicuous in New England were Mary Fisher and Anna Austin, who arrived at Boston in the summer of 1656, when John Endicott was governor. There was then no special law against them, but under a general act against heretics, they were arrested; their persons were examined to find marks of witch craft, with which they were suspected; their trunks were searched, and their books were burned publicly by the common hangman. These innocent and well-behaved women were so treated because of the stories of the disorderly acts of some of the sect in England who had come over the sea. After keeping them in prison several weeks, the authorities of Massachusetts sent them back to England. Mary Fisher afterward visited the Sultan of Turkey, passing everywhere unharmed because his people reverenced a crazy person, for such they took her to be.

This harsh treatment of the first comers fired the zeal of the more enthusiastic of the sect in England. They sought martyrdom as an honor. They flocked to New England and fearfully vexed the souls of the Puritan magistrates and ministers. One woman came all the way from London to warn the authorities against persecutions. Others came for the purpose of reviling and denouncing-vehemently scolding--the powers in church and state. They would rail at magistrates and ministers from windows, as these functionaries passed by. They mocked the institutions of the country; and some fanatical young women appeared without clothing in the churches and in the streets, as emblems "of the unclothed souls of the people," while others, with loud voices, proclaimed that the wrath of the Almighty was about to fall like destructive lightning upon Boston and Salem. Horrified by their blasphemies and indecencies, the authorities of Massachusetts passed some very cruel laws. At first they forbade all persons "harboring Quakers," imposing severe penalties for each offence. Then they imposed mild punishments upon the Friends themselves. These statutes were ineffectual; and finally, driven by resentment and mistaken judgment, they passed laws which authorized the cropping of the ears, boring of the tongues with hot irons, and hanging on a gibbet, of offending Quakers. Yet these terrible laws did not keep them away. They were fined, imprisoned, whipped and hanged during the administration of the rigid Endicott, who was implacable. On a bright October day in 1659, two young men named William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson, with Mary Dyer, wife of the secretary of state of Rhode Island, were led from the Boston jail, with ropes around their necks, and guarded by soldiers, to be hanged on Boston Common. Mary walked between her companions hand in hand to the gallows, where, in the presence of Governor Endicott, the two young men were executed. Mary was unmoved by the spectacle. She was given into the care of her son who came from Rhode Island to plead for her life, and went away with him. But she returned the next spring, defied the laws, and was executed on Boston Common.

The severity of these laws caused a revulsion in public sentiment. The Friends stoutly maintained their course with decency, and were regarded by the more thoughtful as real martyrs for conscience sake. The people, at length, demanded a repeal of the bloody enactments, and by that repeal, in 1661, the Friends achieved a triumph. The fanaticism of both parties subsided. A more Christian spirit prevailed; and the attention of the more sober-minded Friends was turned to the task of converting the Indians. They nobly assisted the Apostle Eliot and others in propagating the gospel among the pagans of the forests for whom that Apostle had labored for years. He had established a Christian church among them at Natic, and at the time of the repeal of the cruel laws, there were no less than ten villages of converted Indians in Massachusetts.





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