New England Confederation

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NEW ENGLAND CONFEDERATION, the United Colonies of New England, consisting of Connecticut, New Haven, Massachusetts, and Plymouth colonies, founded on 19 May 1643. Only "heretical" Rhode Island was excluded from this, the first attempt at major intercolonial cooperation.

The confederation's main purpose was mutual defense. The English civil war and its aftermath had thrown England into chaos, leaving the colonies to fend for themselves. They were vulnerable to attack from the Dutch and French, but, most importantly, the New England colonies were growing ever more concerned about deteriorating Indian relations. Rapid expansion caused friction with neighboring Indian tribes, especially in the Connecticut Valley. In forming an alliance for mutual defense, the Puritan colonies were defending their continuing expansion as much as their existing settlements.

The first Articles of Confederation set up a "firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offense and defense." Each colony maintained full jurisdiction within its borders and selected two commissioners, who collectively formed the confederation's council. The commissioners were empowered by their respective general courts to determine matters of war and peace, handle diplomatic affairs, and treat other intercolonial matters at regular annual meetings. Six commissioners had to approve policy, or the matter could be referred to the colonial legislatures. In the event of war, the colonies would divide the costs, but no colony was allowed to initiate a war without six commissioners' approval. Yet the commissioners had no coercive power over the colonies. Sovereign power remained with the legislatures.

From 1643 to 1655, the confederation successfully exercised broad intercolonial powers in areas including education, Indian missions, and extradition of criminals, but it mainly focused on diplomacy. The commissioners practiced aggressive Indian diplomacy and maintained a favorable balance of power by shifting alliances and pitting one tribe against another. The United Colonies were also successful in keeping peace with the French and Dutch, even negotiating a treaty with the Dutch in 1650 that confirmed the English-Dutch border.

Problems arose as colonies asserted their independence. Massachusetts's refusal to support a war against the Dutch and the confederation's inability to prevent Connecticut's encroachments on New Haven (beginning in 1662 and concluding with Connecticut's annexation of New Haven in 1664) exposed the confederation's lack of coercive power. A royal commission recommended reconstituting the confederation in 1664, and from that time the commissioners were limited to only triennial regular meetings. From 1655 to 1675 the confederation focused on Indian missions, administering funds raised in England for the "Society [later Corporation] for the Prop-agation of the Gospel." New Articles of Confederation were signed in 1672, but the commissioners remained essentially powerless to affect policy, and continued to focus on Indian missions, neglecting diplomacy and defense.

Failure to manipulate alliances with Indian tribes, aggressive and unregulated expansion, and Plymouth's harsh treatment of Metacom and the Wampanoag Indians led to the outbreak of Metacom's War (King Philip's War) in June 1675. For the first six months, the confederation successfully organized an intercolonial war effort, but initiative fell to the individual colonies as attacks became more dispersed and the war devolved into one of attrition. The confederation's last major piece of business was settling the colonies' war debts at its 1678 meeting. The official record ends in 1684 with the revocation of Massachusetts's charter, but commissioners met again in 1689, hoping to frame new articles. None were adopted, and the final blow to any hope of reviving the confederation came when Massachusetts absorbed Plymouth and became a royal colony in 1691.


Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.

Drake, James D. King Philip's War: Civil War in New England, 1675–1676. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Leach, Douglas E. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War. New York: Norton, 1958.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel, and David Pulsifer, eds. Acts of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England, 1643–1679. Volumes 9–10 of Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. 1855. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675. 3d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Ward, Harry M. The United Colonies of New England, 1643–1690. New York: Vantage Press, 1961.

Aaron J.Palmer

See alsoKing Philip's War .

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New England Confederation

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New England Confederation