Shirley, William

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Shirley, William

SHIRLEY, WILLIAM. (1694–1771). Colonial governor of Massachusetts. Son of a London merchant who died when he was only seven, William Shirley grew up amidst aristocratic connections but without the financial means for the life to which he aspired. He was graduated from Cambridge University, was admitted to the bar in 1720, and practiced law in London for the next eleven years. During this time he increased his circle of influential connections but not his financial status. Deciding to emigrate to America, he reached Boston in 1731 with a letter of introduction to Governor Jonathan Belcher from the duke of Newcastle, who was an acquaintance of the family and Shirley's lifelong patron. A long period of place-hunting was marked by his appointment as judge of the vice-admiralty court in New England in 1733 and, soon thereafter, as advocate general (prosecutor) of the court. In his search for higher office, Shirley undertook to undermine the already shaky reputation of Belcher, and on 25 May 1741 succeeded him as governor of Massachusetts.

Faced with the problem of liquidating various banking schemes that made the finances of the colony unstable, and with the need to strengthen military defenses because war with France appeared to be inevitable, Shirley restored public credit by closely regulating the use of tax money to redeem paper currency and by holding out the prospect of increased trade and a larger empire when French ambitions were defeated. He proved himself an able and tactful administrator. Shortly after Britain declared war on France in late 1744, Shirley proposed an expedition to capture Louisbourg, the French fortress that threatened the New England fisheries, and in early 1745 he secured from the Massachusetts General Court and from neighboring colonies approval for his scheme. Shirley's popularity soared when, on 17 June 1745, Louisbourg surrendered to an expeditionary force of New Englanders under William Pepperrell and the supporting British fleet under Commodore Peter Warren. He made sure that the specie that Parliament voted in 1748 to reimburse Massachusetts for its expenses in the Louisburg expedition was used to reestablish the finances of the province on a firm basis. Shirley was in Paris from 1749 to 1753 as a commissioner to establish the boundary between New England and French Canada. On his return to Massachusetts, he worked to prepare for the expected renewal of hostilities with the French in America.

In April 1755 Edward Braddock, the new British commander in North America, appointed Shirley as his second in command and gave him the task of mounting an expedition against Fort Niagara. Logistical obstacles prevented Shirley from ever reaching his target. One of his sons died of fever on this expedition, and his eldest son was killed at the Monongahela on 9 July while serving as Braddock's secretary. Shirley became British commander in chief in North America after Braddock's death, but his indecisiveness led to the loss of Oswego in 1756. He was succeeded by the Earl of Loudoun in July 1756, when the home authorities became dissatisfied with his conduct of military affairs. Loudoun developed an intense dislike for Shirley, who was finally recalled to England to face charges not only of mismanagement of military strategy and organization but also of irregularities in his financial accounts. It was his misfortune to arrive just as the tenure of the duke of Newcastle was ending, but in the fall of 1757 the War Office was forced to drop its courtmartial charges for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Thomas Pownall took office as governor of Massachusetts. Promoted to lieutenant general, Shirley became governor of the Bahamas in 1761, after having been denied the governorship of Jamaica. In 1767 he relinquished the governorship to his only surviving son, Thomas, and two years later he returned to his home at Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he died in March 1771.

SEE ALSO Belcher, Jonathan; Pownall, Thomas.


Lincoln, Charles H., ed. Correspondence of William Shirley, 1731–1760. 2 vols. 1912.

Schutz, John A. William Shirley: King's Governor of Massachusetts. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Institute of History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, 1961.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky