American Revolution, 1638

The Massachusetts Bay Colony had an ongoing battle with Parliament over its royal patent, issued by Charles I and given to John Winthrop to carry over to New England with the Puritan settlers in 1630.

The patent gave the colony’s governor and officers the power to make laws for themselves and basically to be self-governing, so long as their laws did not contradict the laws of England.

What’s interesting there is that the colonists were supposed or allowed to make their own laws. If those laws were not supposed to contradict those of England, then why allow them to make laws at all? Why not just say “follow the laws of England”?

The answer may be twofold. First, on England’s side, there was no real written body of laws, no constitution, to copy and take with them. Second, on the Puritans’ side, there was the understanding that special and/or unexpected conditions in the New World might call for new laws not pertinent to England. But on MBC’s side, there was also the firm if unspoken intent to function as a nearly sovereign state. The battle it fought to remain so is amazingly similar to the battle against royal authority in which Massachusetts took the lead in the 1770s.

As early as 1634, the Commission for Regulating Plantations, headed by Puritan foe Archbishop Laud, was seeking a revocation of MBC’s patent. In September 1634 Winthrop received a letter from the Commission stating its power to oversee MBC, call in its patent, make its laws, remove and punish its (elected) governors, “hear and determine all causes, and inflict all punishments, including death itself.” Sounds remarkably like the terms of what we call “the Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

In January 1635 we find the MBC reacting to this threat, calling all ministers, the governor, and the assistants together in Boston to discuss “what we ought to do if a general governor be sent out of England.” The decision was “we ought not to accept him but defend our lawful possessions (if we were able); otherwise, to avoid or protract [the confrontation].”

This very early decision not to accept direct rule from England is startling. This is from a colony only 4 years old, and far from secure. The MBC perceived threats from the French in Canada and today’s Maine, the Dutch in New York and western Connecticut, and potentially the Pequots or Narragansetts in Eastern Connecticut. Yet it was determined to manage its own affairs.

Over the years, the MBC used the “avoid or protract” strategy to parry many requests that it send its patent back to England for “review.” Winthrop particularly used a wide variety of ruses to avoid this. Once a demand for the patent was included in a packet of personal letters for Winthrop, and so, since the demand had not come by the usual official government messenger, Winthrop decided it was not a valid demand, and instructed the person who had delivered it to him to say the letter did not exist.

By September 1638, there was “a very strict order” from the Commission for sending back the patent. Again the governor (Winthrop) and the court of assistants agreed not to do so, “because then such of our friends and others in England would conceive it to be surrendered, and that thereupon we should be bound to receive such a governor and such orders as should be sent to us, and many bad minds, yea, and weak ones among ourselves would think it lawful if not necessary to accept a [royal] governor…”

It’s pretty astonishing to see English colonists in 1638 stating that only the bad or the weak would think it lawful to accept a governor from their home country, from the king they are supposed to be loyal to, from the government supposedly governing them.

The final quote on this could have come from 1775: in February 1641, the Long Parliament was in session, and its triumphant English Puritans wrote to MBC asking for its best men to come back to England to join Parliament and further their great work. The MBC’s response?

“But consulting about it, we declined the motion for this [reason], that if we should put ourselves under the protection of the parliament we must then be subject to all such laws as they should make, or at least such as they might impose upon us, in which course though they should intend our good, yet it might prove very prejudicial to us.”

It’s no surprise that Massachusetts led the way to Revolution in the 18th century. From its English settlement it was led by people who were determined to self-govern. This determination was largely if not completely based on religion, in that the Massachusetts Puritans had left England in order to live under a government consonant with their religious principles. Before 1640 they would not be ruled by an Anglican Parliament. After 1640, they would not be ruled by any Parliament. (The English Parliament’s espousal of toleration and presbyterianism quickly and completely alienated the Massachusetts Puritans, who then had dangerously difficult relations with the English Puritan government.)

The active leaders of rebellion in Massachusetts were mostly born in the 1730s and 40s. Those people would have had grandparents born in the late 1600s, who remembered when Massachusetts was at last subdued under a royal government in 1690.  Those grandparents would have known and told stories about their own grandparents, who fought Parliament in the mid-1600s. So the link between the rebellion of the 1630s and the rebellion of the 1770s is not so distant. When we look for the seeds of rebellion in America, we need to look all the way back to the beginnings of colonization, in the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts.

5 thoughts on “American Revolution, 1638

  1. I am afraid that this note is mistaken in a number of respects. No Parliament was in existence in England between the spring of 1629 and that of 1640. There were thus no “official Parliamentary messengers” in existence. Archbishop Laud headed a committee of the Privy Council charged with the oversight of England’s colonies. Even so, “direct rule” from England was not practicable for any such colonies as the experiences of Virginia, Bermuda, Maryland, Barbados and of Providence Island (in the Bay of Honduras) showed. Massachusetts was the product of a proto-revolutionary crisis in England in the late-1620s. By the mid to late-1630s, its model of government in Church and State was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the opponents of Charles I’s regime: the King himself was by then preoccupied by the revolt of the Scottish Covenanters. Those who made the subsequent ‘Revolution’ in England in the 1640s were no longer committed to the cause which had created Massachusetts.


  2. Hello Christopher! It’s true there was no Parliament at the time Winthrop got his letter; that was an oversight on my part. But direct rule from England was possible if a colony’s charter was rescinded and the colony was put under the direct control of the crown. This meant a royal governor would be selected in England and sent to the colony, and this meant England would hear about any and all deviations from English laws in the colony (and in Massachusetts Bay Colony, church polity would be a major one).

    It’s true that ironically, Massachusetts’ Puritan way found few sympathizers in the Long Parliament, and maybe none after MA rejected the toleration and presbyterianism adopted by the English Puritans. England had its own revolution, and Massachusetts had its own revolution, and they were not in sympathy. The bulk of the 17th century would be spent by MA trying to avoid becoming a royal colony; they would eventually fail. But by that point, the seeds of separate identity from England were well sown.


  3. If you look at the CO1 series of papers in the National Archives at Kew in the U.K., you will see that the form of Church government adopted in Massachusetts was already known to the King, to his Privy Council and to Archbishop Laud. Had they had the means, they would undoubtedly have proscribed it. But sending a Governor from England would not have been enough to have won control over the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Royal authority was only acknowledged in the merest outline in the Bay colony by the exiles. It was created in order to conduct experiments in church and state for which there was no room or allowance in England. Those in England who had initially backed this enterprise became increasingly disenchanted with the rulers of Massachusetts and came by and after 1640 to prefer alternatives to its forms of church government (as my paper on The Saybrook Company and the Significance of its Colonising Venture shows). If you would like to see a copy, send me an e-mail to my accompanying address and I will send it as an attachment to you.


  4. Massachusetts’ government was indeed known to the king, and yes he would have proscribed it if problems closer to home had not been much more pressing. When the royal charter was imposed in 1691, wouldn’t you say the English government certainly took control of the colony of Massachusetts? The General Court was still elected by the freemen, but the power of church polity was sharply curtailed, toleration mandated, and the colony was no longer able to join in a confederation, declare war, or do any of the other sovereign-type things it previously did.


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