Many claims and counter-claims are made about whether the Puritans of New England can be considered to have dug the foundation for democracy in British America. The more I study it, the more I believe it is true. Let’s look at one important instance, the battle against the Dominion of New England, 1686-1689.
James II became king of England in 1685. James posed a threat to the country, in the eyes of his Protestant subjects, because he was Catholic. People feared he would try to return the kingdom to Catholicism, but James’ first move was not against England but Massachusetts. The Puritans in New England were just as vocal and militant about their designs for an improved England from the distant shores of America as they had been in the heart of London. And, more immediately, they had just sent Increase Mather as their representative to Parliament to try to fend off a new, royal charter that would give the king more power over them. James decided to rid himself of a burr in his saddle.
In 1686 he created the Dominion of New England. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey made up the new domain. Edmund Andros, formerly governor of New York, was appointed by the king to run the Dominion with the help of a council—also appointed by the king. Andros took to his new role, exerting his power dictatorially.
The impact on Puritan colonists was fundamental:
—The popularly elected assemblies were dismissed.
—Puritan judges and military officers were replaced by Anglicans.
—Puritan clergy could no longer be paid by taxes.
—Land titles issued by Puritan governments before 1686 had to be reissued. Not only did Puritan colonists have to pay new title fees, they would also have to pay quitrents, an annual land tax.
—A new court was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts. It had no jury. In 1686 the court found at least six merchant ships guilty of violating the Acts and seized the ships. Merchants started avoiding the port of Boston, depressing the new England economy.
The list sounds very familiar to any student of the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774.
Puritan citizens of the colonies formerly known as New England were angry and despairing. They had little power to represent themselves to Parliament, and no hope of subverting the Dominion. Little did they know that the young, healthy new king who had enslaved them would soon be overthrown.
James had made his desire to return the country to Catholicism more and more open; thus, when his queen gave birth to a son and potential Catholic heir in 1688, his government didn’t wait for James to act. It invited Protestant Holland’s leader William of Orange to invade England and force James off the throne. William was conveniently married to Mary Stuart, James’ own daughter.
The plan worked. William was welcomed in London, and James II fled to France.
When the Puritans in the Dominion first heard about this Glorious Revolution in 1689, there was a moment of suspense. It was impossible to know if James was really permanently overthrown, and the long wait for news from England was agonizing. Once the good news came, Puritans from Maine to Connecticut rose up against Governor Andros’ officials, who were arrested and imprisoned. Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut restored their original governments, complete with elected assemblies.
In New York City, rebels led by Jacob Leisler took over the colony. Leisler became governor.
The Puritans celebrated their successful rebellion. The colonies of New England remained royal colonies, rather than privately owned colonies, but they had preserved their independence. Their lawmakers were popularly elected. Their courts were local. Their laws were valid. And it was specifically to maintain those vital components of representative government that the Puritans fought.
Thus I think we can look back to the overthrow of the Dominion as a valid instance of Puritan Americans putting their independent and representative government ahead of all other considerations, and the events of 1689 were indeed fresh in the memories of men and women—grandchildren of rebels—who fought the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, born in 1705, just 16 years after the Dominion was overthrown, would have heard the stories from people who took part in the rebellion. And thousands of New Englanders must have had their ancestors in mind when they agreed in 1776 that a government which does not have the consent of the people is legitimately overthrown.