Massachusetts Bay Company

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Massachusetts Bay Company

The Massachusetts Bay Company was formed in 1628 as a joint stock venture to trade in the fish and furs of New England. But from the beginning, a number of its leaders, notably John Winthrop (1588–1649), wanted to use it as a vehicle for promoting a Puritan religious commonwealth. The Puritans were dissatisfied with the progress of reform in the Church of England and were also alarmed at the outbreak of the Counter Reformation in Europe, to reestablish the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. Their last hope of reform was seemingly lost when King Charles I (1600–1649) dissolved Parliament and began a period of absolutist rule. Accordingly, Winthrop and his Puritan colleagues bought out their more commercially minded colleagues in August 1629 and set sail for America in March 1630, taking the charter with them. But before leaving, the company held one last meeting at which Winthrop was elected governor with a council of eighteen like-minded assistants. The transformation of the company into a religious commonwealth was further strengthened on arrival in Massachusetts, where the General Court of the company, comprising the governor, council, and freemen, passed a resolution stating that thereafter only full church members could participate in the colony's affairs.

For the next eighteen months Winthrop and the assistants ran the colony almost as a theocracy. They made land grants to "the elect," as church members were known, allowing them to establish covenanted communities based on the congregational principle. They also issued laws and ordinances regarding everyday life, using the Bible as their guide. All of this contravened the charter, which stated that the laws of the company were to conform to those of England. The charter also stated that quarterly meetings of the General Court were to be held, and that the governor and council should be elected annually by the freemen of the company. Although the majority of the population wanted to live as good Puritans, they still cherished their rights as Englishmen. Hence it was not long before the authority of Winthrop and the council was challenged, first over the issue of taxation in 1632 and then over the general governance of the colony in 1634. Critical to the resolution of this controversy was the demand to see the charter, which Winthrop had in his safekeeping. Inspection of this confirmed that the General Court had the sole right to raise taxes, make laws, and hold elections. As a result, Winthrop lost his position as governor, though he retained his place on the council and duly returned during the Antinomian controversy in 1636 when Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643) challenged the qualifications required for membership of the elect. Nevertheless the principle of annual elections had been established, even if participation was still restricted to the elect. Since most church members now lived outside Boston, they opted to send representatives instead of attending the General Court in person. Another change was the decision of the representatives in 1644 to sit as a separate chamber, finally breaking the dominance of the governor and council. Massachusetts now had the makings of a constitution and a representative system of government, all based ironically on its royal charter as a joint stock company.

Meanwhile, the activities of the Massachusetts Bay Company had not gone unnoticed in England, where calls were made for an investigation into both its secular and spiritual activities. Several other parties had claims to the area, while the Anglican Church of Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) was alarmed at the dissenting nature of the settlement. Proceedings were accordingly begun by King Charles I to annul the company's charter. Fortunately for the Puritans, the king soon found that he had other more pressing challenges at home and had to recall Parliament. The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1641 further shielded the Massachusetts Bay Company, especially when Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) and the Puritan Independents emerged victorious. Massachusetts now had a friendly government in England that would protect its religious and civil polity. The 1650s proved a golden time for Massachusetts as an independent selfgoverning commonwealth.

The restoration of Charles II (1630–1685) to the throne in 1660, therefore, was a blow to the people of Massachusetts Bay. However, the second-generation Puritans followed their predecessors' example by attempting to keep the English authorities at bay. The colony accordingly declined the request of Charles II to appoint a governor. They also maintained the fiction that their charter only required nominal allegiance to the crown and that it gave the General Court a parallel authority to that of Parliament. Hence, when the crown demanded compliance with the Navigation Act Laws of 1660, 1663, and 1673 to control colonial trade for the benefit of the mother country, Massachusetts simply passed a duplicate measure of its own. Clearly this situation could not continue, and in 1684 the crown began proceedings once more to annul the charter of the company. This was effected in 1685. In the future, Massachusetts was to be governed by a royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros (1637–1714), with an appointive council and no representative assembly. Equally distressing to the Puritans was the decision to subsume the colony into a new entity to be called the Dominion of New England. Fortunately for Massachusetts, King James II's (1633–1701) attempts to establish an absolute monarchy on both sides of the Atlantic were overturned by the events of the Glorious Revolution in 1689, which led to accession of William III and Queen Mary to the English throne. Nevertheless, there was to be no return to the old company charter of 1629. Under the new charter of 1691 the crown would appoint the governor. However, the skillful lobbying of Increase Mather (1639–1723), the province's most influential divine minister, ensured that Massachusetts regained much of what it had previously enjoyed. Not only would the freeholders elect an assembly, but their representatives in turn would nominate the governor's council, reflecting the old company charter whereby the freemen elected the council of assistants. It was this system of government that served the people of Massachusetts until the American Revolutionary War began in 1775.

see also Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas; Empire in the Americas, British; Fur and Skin Trades in the Americas; Religion, Roman Catholic Church.


Labaree, Benjamin W. Colonial Massachusetts: A History. Millwood, NY: KTO, 1979.

Lovejoy, David S. The Glorious Revolution in America. New York: Harper, 1972.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958). 2nd edition. New York: Longman, 1998.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Builders of the Bay Colony (1930). 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; reprinted 2004.

Massachusetts Bay Company

views updated May 11 2018

Massachusetts Bay Company. The company received a crown charter in 1629 for the settlement of a New England territorial grant. Its leading members were puritan gentry, divines, and merchants, who agreed that the charter should be transferred from London to Massachusetts. After extra-legal alterations, including restricting voting rights and office-holding to church members and the creation of law courts, the charter became the Massachusetts frame of government, until its vacation in 1684 and the imposition of a second charter (1691). Criticized for creating a semi-independent godly commonwealth by its enemies, it was cherished for this reason by the colony's political and religious leadership.

Richard C. Simmons

Massachusetts Bay Company

views updated May 17 2018

Massachusetts Bay Company English company chartered in 1629. Its purpose was trade and colonization of the land between the Charles and Merrimack rivers in North America. A group of Puritans, led by John Winthrop, gained control of the company and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. They took the company's charter with them to Massachussetts and thus enjoyed considerable autonomy. Within a decade, c.20,000 people, mainly English Puritans, had settled in the colony.

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Massachusetts Bay Company