Massachusetts Bay Colony

Massachusetts Bay Colony
Massachusetts Bay Colony

In the early 17th century, England began acting on its imperial ambitions by chartering business organizations called joint-stock companies, which undertook the actual work and expense of spreading England and its institutions around the world. The system had created the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, and the Council for New England, under the leadership of Sir Ferdinando Gorges.

During the 1620s, one of the council’s patents went to some Dorchester merchants to develop a fishing industry at Cape Ann on the New England coast. By 1626, the effort had failed, although John White, a Puritan minister in England associated with the project, began to see the enterprise as a potential refuge for discouraged Puritans from England.

Unfortunately for White and a group of fellow Puritans who had joined him, the Council for New England had ceased effective operation, and the group instead applied directly to the government for its own charter for the lands it already held. The charter, for a company called The Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, was issued in March of 1629.

The company was to be managed by a governor and a council of 18 assistants, who were to be elected by a General Court of investors, which also had the power to legislate for the company. Not part of the charter was the usual requirement that the company conduct its business meetings in England.

This omission, quite possibly done by design, allowed the company to hold its meetings wherever it chose. In late August of 1629, in what is known as the Cambridge Agreement, the company opted to move its operations, including the charter, to New England.

When control of the company quickly passed into the hands of dedicated Puritans willing to leave England, the company started its transformation into a colony. By late 1629, the company had sent out John Endicott to assert its control over a settlement at Salem and had then supported that effort with five more ships and possibly one hundred additional settlers.

City Upon a Hill

Thus, by April of 1630, when a flotilla of 11 ships left England, the Massachusetts Bay Company was already a significant presence on the New England coast, and its conversion into a full-fledged colony assured. John Winthrop, elected the company’s governor, established the character of early Massachusetts in a sermon preached at the outset of the journey.

He stressed that the colony would be created as a covenant with God, and that religious orthodoxy would be maintained by the merging of civil and ecclesiastical power and consolidated in the hands of the colony’s leaders. His reference to Massachusetts as a “city upon a hill” to serve as an example to England of what God intended for his people further solidified the religious nature of the proposed colony.

Massachusetts bay colony map
Massachusetts bay colony map

There is no question about the success of the enterprise. The Company of the Massachusetts Bay was indistinguishable from what came to be called simply the colony of Massachusetts. And the religious nature of the colony was secured by requiring that only male church members could vote in colony elections.

There were challenges to some aspects of the colony from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Quakers, and the freemen of the colony who demanded an elected body to represent them, but there was never any likelihood in New England that the colony would not succeed.

But that certainty was not the case in England. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, still hanging on to the remnants of the Council for New England, argued that the colony’s charter had been secretly obtained and started a campaign to have it annulled.

To the same end in 1635, the council gave up its own charter and requested that the king reassign the disputed territory to eight members of the former Council for New England. The outbreak of the English Civil War, or Puritan Revolution, in 1640, however, prevented any of the grants except the one for Maine from being made.

By the time of the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Gorges had died, the Council of New England had passed from the scene, and Massachusetts had become too powerful and too independent to be easily tamed.

Control of Commerce

With the Restoration, England commenced a colonial policy that stressed the importance of commerce in the empire and the necessity of England’s control of that commerce for the greater good of the mother country.

Massachusetts viewed such a policy as interference in its self-styled independence. When England decided to oust the Dutch from New Netherland in 1664, the leaders of the expedition were ordered to investigate the situation in New England. Their report was especially critical of Massachusetts, but through delay and avoidance the colony managed to escape serious ramifications.

England tried again in 1676, when it sent over Edward Randolph. Randolph’s report was more damaging than the previous commissioners’ account, and the English government felt compelled to act.

It ordered the colony to send representatives to negotiate a settlement, but when England determined that the colony had not lived up to its agreements, it commenced legal action against the original charter as the only method whereby Massachusetts could be brought under control.

England completed the effort in 1684, and the courts annulled the original 1629 charter. The colony existed dependently until it was incorporated into the Dominion of New England in 1686. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in England, Massachusetts received a new charter in 1691 as a royal colony, the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

The Puritan old guard were displeased, but by the end of the 17th century the original charter had generally outlived its usefulness, as perhaps demonstrated by the Salem witchcraft trials.

The more practical and forward-looking portion of the colonists recognized that future growth and prosperity lay with a royal charter, the institution of a property qualification for the vote, and a more cooperative relationship with English authority. Those whose ancestors had migrated as Puritans under the 1629 charter had become the Yankees of the 1691 charter. They and their colony were ready for the 18th century.