The Colonial Era (1585–1763)

views updated

The Colonial Era (1585–1763)

How They Were Governed

Jamestown Colony

Jamestown Colony, established in 1607 in what is now the state of Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was a commercial undertaking, set up by merchants seeking riches and nobles promoting royal ambition. In the colony’s early days, disease, famine, and infighting were common, and the venture nearly failed on several occasions. The company that founded the colony restructured itself repeatedly, trying to find an organization that fit the geography and the people who lived there. Ultimately the colony was held together by tobacco.

First, a Royal Charter

The Virginia Company of London, which settled Jamestown Colony, was a joint-stock company, with investors sharing risks and potential profits. It received a royal charter but no money from the crown, although the king appointed one of the councils that controlled the operation. The other council, based in Virginia, was chosen by the company.

Three ships—the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery—sailed from England in December 1606 carrying 144 men and boys. Many of the passengers were nobles, who had never made a living working with their hands. The rest were soldiers, a doctor, an Anglican minister, artisans, and laborers. None of them was a farmer or a woman, who are generally needed to establish a self-sustaining agricultural settlement. Four months later the 104 who had survived the voyage disembarked on a low, marshy peninsula in a beautiful river. They named it Jamestown, after King James I (1566–1625). The site was chosen because it was defensible—it was fifty miles upriver from the sea—and could provide anchorage for deepwater ships. It also afforded ready access to the wilderness for trading with the native inhabitants and for exploring.

Until they arrived, the passengers aboard the ship did not know who would be running the settlement. Seven men’s names were on a list in a sealed box. According to many accounts, those seven men had grown to despise each other by the time the box was opened. One of them, John Smith (1580–1631), who had earlier distinguished himself as a soldier, had been imprisoned during the voyage because of a conflict with the ship’s captain. The seven-member council elected as its president Edward Maria Wingfield, making him the first elected official in the American colonies.

While they quickly built a fort and cottages and grew some crops, many of the men spent their time searching for gold. Nearly half of the group died during the summer, partly because their poor hygiene had made the river an open sewer and breeding ground for diseases. Many contracted typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. Others died from salt poisoning. They got their drinking water from the river, but its movement could not counter the tide that brought salty water rolling up from the Chesapeake Bay. Many others died during the first winter. By September 1608 Wingfield and two other council members had returned to England, and three others had died, leaving Smith, the remaining council member, in charge. He enforced strict rules, causing bitterness and resentment.

Gifts of Food

The settlers would probably not have survived at all if the Powhatan people had not provided them with food, which they did apparently because they thought the English were temporary visitors. The settlers insulted their hosts, however, by refusing to give them gifts, negotiate for land, or intermarry. After a while the Powhatan chief, Wahunsonacock (c. 1550–1618), who feared an old prophecy of a nation rising out of the Chesapeake Bay, began to ask Smith when the English were leaving. When it became clear the English were not leaving, the Native Americans began to attack settlers, burn their crops, and kill their livestock. The settlers retaliated in kind.

The only accounts of the attacks and their gruesomeness were recorded by colonists, so it is not clear what was provoked and what was wanton. It is known that on a mission to find food in 1608, Smith was captured by Opechancanough (1556?–1646), the half-brother of the Powhatan leader. Smith’s companions were killed, and he was taken to the chief. According to Smith’s memoir (which has often been called “boastful”), he was saved from being killed by Pocahontas (c. 1596–1617), the chief’s daughter. He wrote that his head was placed on a large stone and warriors gathered round to bash it with clubs. Pocahontas intervened, took his head into her hands, and laid her own head on top of his so that he would not be killed. While this story has led to the legend of a romantic relationship between the two, most historians now say that if Smith’s account is accurate it shows that she was a diplomat from the beginning. She was, in fact, no older than thirteen at the time. A year later she warned Smith of a plot to kill him. Within the month Smith forced Opechancanough, at gunpoint, to fill a boat with corn. Shortly thereafter another plot to kill Smith led to a reprisal. This sporadic war continued for several years. Pocahontas was eventually baptized, married the colonist John Rolfe (1585–1622), and enchanted the king and society when she visited England.

A New Start

In 1609 the company negotiated a new charter, which abolished the royal council in England and placed the colony in the hands of a governor with absolute authority. (The king had removed himself from the company’s affairs, in part so he could disavow the operation if it overly antagonized Spain.) Now called the Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the First Colony in Virginia, or the Virginia Company for short, it reorganized its shareholder policies, bringing in investments from corporations, trade guilds, and 659 individuals. It also pooled labor with common stock, with each settler’s migration counted as equal to one share of stock, creating an equivalence between the wealthy “adventurers”—that is, investors—in England and the colonists.

Under the new arrangement sixteen hundred settlers were to immigrate to Virginia in two expeditions in 1609. The first ships, which sailed in May, were separated in high winds, and three ships, including those carrying the new leaders, were wrecked near Bermuda. The other ships arrived in Jamestown at the end of the summer, bringing hundreds of weakened settlers, who strained an already weakened colony. Food supplies dwindled. Order disintegrated in the fall when Smith, who had been seriously burned in a gunpowder accident, returned to England. The winter of 1609–10 would become known as “the starving time,” brought about not only by a shortage of food but also by the colonists’ stealing and hoarding of food, so some ate while others died. They ate their animals and leather, and there were even reports of cannibalism. When the leaders of the expedition arrived from Bermuda the following summer, they found only about sixty settlers alive and the settlement in ruins. Abandoning hope, they started back to England. As they were sailing down the river, however, they met their new governor, Thomas West (1577–1618), sailing up. His fleet carried the second group of new settlers and provisions. He ordered the settlement reestablished.

For a decade starting in 1609 the settlement functioned under martial law, first instituted by Smith and then enforced with increasing firmness by his successors. Under Governor Thomas Dale (?–1619; who served from 1614 to 1616) the laws, called “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall,” became notorious. They imposed the death penalty for desertion (some of the settlers had left to live with the natives), mutiny, and disrespect to the company or its officials; corporal punishment for adultery, sodomy, and blasphemy; and withdrawal of a day’s food for nonattendance at church. The laws resulted in daily order, however. The settlers worked for the company from 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. The rest of the time they tended garden plots or did maintenance.

Tobacco Road

Company officials in England still had their doubts about the long-term viability and profitability of the colony—promotional tracts were not luring prospective investors—so they issued a third charter in 1612 that extended the land grant of the colony to include Bermuda and established a lottery to raise money. The colony was set on a path to long-term success the following year, when Rolfe planted a West Indian tobacco, Nicotiana tabaccum, which was more palatable than the rustic tobacco the settlers had been growing. The first shipment arrived in England about 1614 and was an immediate success. By 1626, in the midst of the tobacco boom, the colonists sent 260,000 pounds of tobacco to England. The output would multiply over the following decades. While King James I referred to smoking as “lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, [and] dangerous to the Lungs,” the crown would eventually rely on the money it made by controlling the tobacco market.

Because it needed more settlers, the company sent more indentured servants in 1617. At the end of their seven-year terms, according to the agreement, the servants would get tenancies for which they would pay the company a small amount of rent. This policy of giving away more and more of the company’s resources accelerated in 1618 when leadership of the company changed. The new treasurer, Edwin Sandys (1561–1629), began making land grants for “private plantations,” each of which was to include a town. The first plantation was Martin’s Hundred, owned by a corporation in England. Named after its principal investor, John Martin, it covered 21,500 acres, about ten miles east of Jamestown, and was settled with two hundred colonists. By 1660 there were seventy such plantations. In a similar move, in 1619 Sandys began granting fifty acres to migrants who paid their own passage and fifty more for every family member or servant they took with them.

The House of Burgesses

That year as well the new governor, George Yeardley (1587–1627), received instructions to discontinue martial law and implement law as it was enforced in England. A more important move, however, was the company’s decision to create a form of self-government for the colony, a House of Burgesses, which was the first elected assembly in colonial America. Meeting for the first time in the Jamestown church, it had twenty-two representatives from different parts of the colony, as well as the governor and his council (six prominent citizens who were chosen by the governor). Only landowning males over age seventeen were eligible to vote for burgesses, and laws were subject to veto by the governor and ultimately company officials in London.

It is worth noting that the year self-government arrived was also the year the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown. A privateer had plundered the twenty slaves in the West Indies and had not been able to sell them elsewhere. So, slavery having been familiar in the Americas for more than a hundred years, the governor readily exchanged food for them. Because cheap indentured servants were available in England, however, slavery did not become a major economic factor in Virginia for forty more years.

A Royal Colony

In April 1619 the colony was once again faced with financial, political, and Indian crises. King James proposed a shilling per pound import duty on tobacco, to be collected by certain designated farmers. Sandys persuaded the king to accept an alternative: the colonists would simply give him one-third of the crop. The King’s Privy Council became suspicious at the generosity of this offer and set up a commission to inquire into the Virginia Company’s business. While that was proceeding, news arrived in London of new bloodshed in the colony.

The death of Pocahontas in 1617 returned the relationship between the colonists and the native people to one of uneasy coexistence. In 1618 her father died and was succeeded by Opechancanough, who had a less tolerant attitude toward the English. A year later, after the colonists did nothing to redress the murder of an Indian, he led the Powhatans in devastating attacks on the colony, killing almost a third of the population. The colonists responded by destroying all Native American settlements around Jamestown.

When the news of the bloodshed reached London, and the Virginia Company refused to send aid to the colony, the commission investigating the company sought successfully in court to have it dissolved. The colony was put under a temporary governorship in 1624. A year later, two months after the death of King James, Charles I (1600–1649) placed Virginia under a governor and council answerable to the king, making it England’s first royal colony.

Because the crown had the authority and resources to solve problems that a private company did not, the formation of a royal colony was a practical solution. Perhaps more important, dissolution of the company meant better conditions for the colonists. The company had restricted the spread of settlements, and it had had monopoly control over sale and importation of goods. Under the new system the crown controlled tobacco exports, but the colony gained a monopoly in the English market because Charles had banned foreign imports and suppressed domestic cultivation of tobacco. The king did not interfere with private planters and investors or stop the meeting of the assembly.

The following decades saw major purges of the native tribes in the area—the first royal governor, Sir Francis Wyatt (1588–1644), sent out three expeditions each year for a decade whose goals were to kill the enemy, seize their crops, and prevent their return. Conflict between the colonists and the native people would be officially ended by a peace treaty in the 1640s, but unease continued, especially on the western frontier, and in 1676 an uprising called Bacon’s Rebellion was sparked in part by the rebels’ dissatisfaction with the government’s response to attacks on English settlements. Just as important were a festering class distinction between the settlers on the frontier and the more prosperous farmers on the Atlantic coast, and a test of wills between two strong, uncompromising personalities, Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. (1647–1676), for whom the rebellion was named, and the colony’s governor, Sir William Berkeley (1606–1677). The uprising evolved into full-scale civil war, with the governor fleeing across the Chesapeake Bay and Bacon and his allies burning Jamestown. When Bacon died suddenly, however, the rebellion collapsed, and Berkeley hanged the remaining rebel leaders. The king had sent more than a thousand troops to suppress the revolt, but he also sent a commission to investigate its causes. Based on the commission’s findings, the governor was replaced.

Crises back in England had little effect on the colony over the following century as its economy prospered in the hands of the next generation of planters. Representative government became the norm, and tobacco became the local king. By the time of the Revolutionary War, tobacco exports from Virginia and its neighboring colony, Maryland, totaled more than 100 million pounds each year.

A Hot, Humid Day in July

The House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in the Americas, gathered for its first meeting at the church in Jamestown on July 30, 1619. By all accounts, that day, like the five that followed, was unbearably hot and humid. Several burgesses became ill (there were reports of malaria in Jamestown, although it is not clear if that was the malady of which they complained). An entry in the records for August 1, a Sunday, reads simply: “Mr. Shelly, one of the Burgesses, deceased.”

The assembly included twenty-two burgesses—the name derives from the Parliamentary system in England, where representatives were elected from boroughs—two from each of the “citties” and plantations in the colony. The assembly also included the governor and his council, made up of six prominent individuals he selected. The burgesses’ decisions could be vetoed by the governor and the directors of the Virginia Company, which ran the colony (and chose the governor).

According to the official records of the assembly, the burgesses made several decisions before cutting the session short because of the heat. They established the price of the best tobacco at three shillings per pound (the “second” tobacco would be sold for eighteen pence per pound). They made church attendance compulsory (residents of the colony “upon the Sabaoth daye shall frequente divine service and sermons both forenoon and afternoon”); adopted several measures about personal behavior, such as drunkenness, idleness, gambling (those discovered playing dice or cards would forfeit all winnings, and both winners and losers would pay ten shillings each, with ten of those shillings going to “the discoverer” and the rest to “charitable and pious uses”). They also debated and passed legislation regarding relations with Native Americans.

At least two of the burgesses’ initiatives became precedents for Virginia and governments elsewhere. They passed a tax that required every man and manservant in the colony to pay a pound of the best tobacco to the officers of the assembly for their services. More important, perhaps, they discussed “a thirde sorte of lawes (suche as might proceed out of every man’s private conceipt)”: they wanted the right to initiate legislation themselves, rather than simply debate legislation proposed from above. Like almost all politicians who followed them, they saw the need for legislation that appealed to and assisted their own constituents and, no doubt, their own careers in government.

See also Bacon’s Rebellion

See also John Smith

See also The Roanoke Disasters

Plymouth Colony

Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620 in what is now the state of Massachusetts, was the first self-governing English settlement in North America. Its structure evolved partly because of circumstances and partly because of the colonists’ intentions. Among them were a group of religious dissidents—now commonly referred to as the Pilgrims—who had fled across the ocean after setting up their own church, which was an illegal act. They hoped to build a self-sustaining religious haven, far removed from control of the Church of England and the crown.

Their ship, the Mayflower, had been headed for the Virginia Colony. It had sailed with the assistance of a group of London merchants, who had received a patent, or land grant, to settle a private plantation in that territory. A storm blew the ship off course, however, so the settlers came ashore farther north. Attempts to continue south failed because of the treacherous coastline and winds. Knowing that their patent was useless where they landed and seeing an opportunity, they drew up a document to govern themselves and provide a legal framework for their colony. The signers of the document agreed to “covenant & combine” themselves together into “a civill body politick, for our better ordering & preservation.” The Mayflower Compact, as the document became known, remained the basis for government until the colony was absorbed into Massachusetts in 1691.

The Community Grows

The passengers of the Mayflower arrived in North America weakened by the voyage, which left them vulnerable to disease. About half of them died during the first winter, many from scurvy. In order to stay alive, the survivors plundered corn stockpiled by the Wampanoag people. In 1621, with advice from the tribe, they raised native corn, which was more suitable to the climate and soil than their English seed. By fall they had recovered their health and enjoyed a plentiful harvest. They celebrated with a feast, which they shared with the Native Americans; their celebration became the basis for the nation’s Thanksgiving holiday.

A second group of settlers—about thirty-four—arrived aboard the Fortune in November 1621. About seventy-four settlers, including the wives and children of some of the passengers of the Mayflower, arrived on the Anne and the Little James in August 1623. Other groups arrived in 1629 and 1630. By 1691, the colony had a population of about seven thousand people.

A Government of Freemen

The forty-one men who signed the Mayflower Compact were considered stockholders in the joint-stock company that financed the colony. They shared ownership of its assets as well as its liabilities. They had the right to vote for the governor and his seven assistants and had the right to hold office. Early in the colony’s history, its residents began using the term “freemen” to indicate a citizen of the colony who had these rights. Women and servants were not eligible to be freemen.

The government created by the freemen functioned much like a Congregational Church, which chooses its own minister. Ordinances were debated and passed by majority rule and were enforced by the governor and his assistants. The freemen also served on twelve-member juries if disputes arose or if colonists were charged with crimes.

John Carver (1576–1621), the governor the colonists had chosen while still aboard the Mayflower, died in the spring of 1621. William Bradford (1590–1657), a man with a strong personality who had shouldered many of the administrative duties for the group before its voyage, was chosen to succeed him. Bradford served continuously as governor until just before his death in 1657, with the exception of five years when he refused the post. He kept many notes and documents during his administration, which not only served as the basis for his history Of Plymouth Plantation, but also established a tradition of record-keeping in the settlement. The records of Plymouth Colony still exist.

The governor and his assistants initially exercised fairly broad powers and influence on the organization of the colony and the division of lands. Apart from home plots, which were kept separate, and fifteen hundred acres reserved for common use, they allotted about one hundred acres to each colonist on a yearly basis. They also appointed constables to keep the peace in towns and messengers whose duties included acting as jailers, conducting land surveys, and publishing announcements of intended marriages. One of the governor’s assistants acted as colony treasurer. Each year someone was selected to be coroner, who held inquests when a colonist was found dead and the cause was unknown.

In 1627, when the colony broke from the London merchants who had financed their voyage, freemen were assigned personal, permanent allotments of land. Assets and debts of the colony were divided among them. Single men received one share (twenty acres and livestock) and heads of families received one share per family member. The colony eventually paid off its debt to the London merchants with profit earned by trading furs.

The Government Evolves

From the beginning freemen were required to attend all sessions of a General Court, which enacted legislation, and heavy fines were levied against those who did not attend. Nevertheless, as the colony expanded and new towns were built, it became impractical for all freemen to take part in the General Court, so assemblies of freemen in individual towns elected representatives, who were called deputies. Eventually the colony allowed individual towns to enact local ordinances and created courts at the town and county levels to handle noncriminal matters, such as small monetary disputes and damage to the natives’ crops by stray livestock.

The legislative code became more complex as the years passed. A 1636 codification was fairly concise, setting forth the powers of the government, the duties of each officer, a list of offenses and punishments, and regulations regarding such matters as land transfer, inheritance, and bounty on wolves. By 1658, when the laws were reviewed again, the code had become much more detailed, outlining the religious, moral, and civic conduct expected of those living in the colony. Compilations were published again in 1672 and 1685.

A Bloody War

In its earliest days Plymouth had good relations with its neighbors, the Wampanoag. An English-speaking member of the tribe—Samoset—approached the colony in March 1621 and offered useful information about geography, crops, and the local people. A few days later the Pilgrim leaders met with Wampanoag chief Massasoit (c. 1590–1661) and signed a mutual defense treaty. Even in the 1630s, after a bloody war erupted between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pequot tribe, Plymouth condemned those colonists’ actions. In 1643, however, Plymouth joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in an alliance called the New England Confederation for the purpose of mutual defense. As the colonies continued to expand into native lands, the air was rife with rumors that the Native Americans planned to attack.

By 1670 Metacom (c. 1640–1676), the son of Massasoit, had begun to form a tribal confederation to stop English encroachment. His efforts intensified in 1671 after the Plymouth colonists forced him to sign a humiliating treaty, which essentially placed his tribe under the authority of the king and Plymouth. In 1675 a Christian Indian warned the Plymouth colonists of the Native Americans’ plans for war. Later, when he was found dead, three Wampanoags were convicted of his murder and executed. As a result, war erupted with Plymouth and the other colonies in New England. The Native Americans were successful at first, but famine and disease, plus military cooperation by the colonies, prevented an Indian victory. By war’s end, as many as a thousand colonists had died in direct action, and the number of native inhabitants in the region had been reduced by more than half.

The war caught the attention of the English king, who had already grown impatient with the colonists. He disliked their governmental structures, which differed from those in England and favored local religious beliefs. More important, he was irritated by the colonists’ continual flouting of trade regulations imposed by Parliament. In 1686 he created a Dominion of New England that included Plymouth and the other New England colonies. Three years later it was dissolved when the Catholic king, James II (1633–1701), was driven from power by Protestants in Parliament. The new monarchs, the Protestants William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694), granted a new charter to Massachusetts. Plymouth was absorbed into the larger colony, ending a seventy-year experiment in self-governance.

Success Story

Plymouth’s success was a direct result of the religious beliefs of its citizens. They were not adventurers or seekers of worldly wealth, as many other colonists were. They were simple people, who wanted only enough to sustain themselves so they could lead religious lives. They did not, however, welcome people of other spiritual persuasions into their midst. Freedom of religion, for them, was confined to their version of Christianity. They created governmental structures and a code of conduct specifically designed to control behavior so their interpretation would be sustained. While these regulations were challenged once the colony was absorbed into Massachusetts and, later, the United States, their practice of debating and ruling by majority vote became fundamental to the American way of government.

The Mayflower Compact

This document, which established a framework for governing the Plymouth Colony, was signed in 1620 by the adult men aboard the Mayflower. The original no longer exists. This version was copied by William Bradford, a meticulous note-taker who became governor of the colony.

In ye name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by ye grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, & Ireland king, defender of ye faith, &c., haveing undertaken, for ye glorie of God, and advancemente of ye Christian faith, and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering & preservation & furtherance of ye ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equal lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes wherof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd ye 11. of November, in ye year of ye raigne of our soveraigne lord, King James, of England, France, & Ireland ye eighteenth, and of Scotland, ye fiftie fourth. Ano: Dom. 1620.


William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, edited by Charles Deane. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856.

See also Dominion of New England

See also King Philip’s War

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630 on the Atlantic shore of what is now the state of Massachusetts, started out as a fur- and fish-trading company. A Puritan group led by John Winthrop (1588–1649) saw a different opportunity. Because the company’s charter did not require it to have headquarters in England, the Puritans believed that they could take over the colony and create a religious community with minimal royal oversight.

Puritans, whose name derives from “purification,” found fault with the Church of England for its elaborate hierarchy, ornate vestments, and rituals left over from Catholicism. They saw their move to the New World as a kind of “holy experiment” that they hoped would spark transformation of the church and society in England. Because of their belief that the church could be reformed, they were called Dissenters. Those who did not believe that the church could be reformed and chose to leave it, like the founders of Plymouth Colony, were called Separatists.

In the fall of 1629 the Puritans bought out the stock of the Massachusetts Bay Company and made preparations to sail the following spring. Winthrop, who was elected governor, and a Court of Assistants, or council, organized the expedition, which included more than a thousand settlers aboard a fleet of ships. Not all of them were Puritans. Winthrop and the others made sure that the immigrants included enough doctors, servants, and laborers to build a community, regardless of their religious convictions.

Ships made landfall at the small settlement of Salem in June 1630. The first winter tested their mettle, as starvation and disease reduced their number by two hundred, and two hundred more returned to England the following spring. But a steady stream of immigrants—who were engaged in what became known as the Great Migration, a massive flight from the strictures and persecutions of England—arrived in the following months, bringing fresh supplies, including guns and powder, cloth, clothing, and even window glass. Within a year settlements had spread from Salem to Charlestown to Boston, which they made their seat of government.

Leadership of the Elect

While the General Court was made up of all freemen—initially 118 male residents were given that status—all legal and judicial powers remained with the council. They deeded title for townships to groups of the “elect,” as church members were known, who then distributed the property among themselves. Land grants reflected the wealth and status of town leaders—men of the highest rank got the largest plots—but all got enough land to support their families. The council issued laws and ordinances regarding everyday life, using the Bible as a guide. While the colony was explicitly not a theocracy—ministers were not allowed to hold office, for instance—its religious underpinnings were clear. For that reason in 1631 the vote was restricted to those freemen who were church members.

All freemen participated in town meetings, at which they chose “selectmen” to manage local affairs. As the colony became more spread out and more populous—by 1640 the population was around twenty thousand—it became necessary for each town to have elected representatives to the General Court.

Eventually the colony would have laws that controlled nearly every aspect of daily life, from required church attendance to appropriate modes of dress and speech. In 1641 the General Court codified the law, which covered many published pages. Twelve categories of crimes, including blasphemy, murder, adultery, and witchcraft, were punishable by death.

Puritans, but Still English

Debate within the fledgling colony flourished. While they were all good Puritans, they also cherished their rights as Englishmen. Some colonists challenged the overarching authority of Winthrop and the council, first over taxation in 1632 and then over general governance in 1634. They demanded to see the charter, which Winthrop had kept to himself, supposedly for safekeeping. Inspection of the document 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, although he remained on the council.

Radical religious views flourished, too, although public expressions of them were not tolerated. Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683), an articulate clergyman, was banished, in part because he advocated a complete break with the Church of England. He held other views that rankled colonial authorities as well, including his claim that the king had no right to issue a charter for the land on which the colony stood because he had not compensated the native inhabitants for it. Puritans saw such views as threats to the religious and political order. Even more threatening to them was Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), who had a large following and had created a division within the Boston church. She openly questioned ministers’ interpretations of scripture—which was unheard of, especially for a woman—and criticized the authorities for regulating so many kinds of behavior. Because Hutchinson said Christians were not bound by laws, she and her followers became known as Antinomians, or “antilaw.” Convicted of heresy and excommunicated from the church, she was banished as well. Others who expressed religious views at odds with Puritan standards were imprisoned, tortured, and even executed.

“Praying Indians”

While the Puritans had developed good relations and treaties with the Native Americans in their midst, they also saw conversion of the Indians to Christianity as part of their religious calling. At first ministers simply entered Indian lands to preach, although some tribes turned them away. After some success, they established special communities where “praying Indians”—those who had, at least outwardly, converted to Christianity—could live under the protection of the colony.

The praying communities tended to make the Native Americans loyal to the colonists, rather than to their native chieftains. That interference in the native way of life, plus fears of colonial encroachment on tribal lands and the perceived failure of colonists to uphold treaty obligations, led to outrage in 1675, when a full-scale war erupted. Now referred to as King Philip’s war, the fighting pitted the Wampanoag people against the colonists of first Plymouth and then Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of the bloodiest battles, the Great Swamp Fight, was waged by the Massachusetts militia. They made a preemptory attack on a village of the Narragansett people, burning hundreds of them alive in their wigwams. The Narragansetts, who had been neutral before that battle, quickly entered the war, escalating the fighting. While the Native Americans were successful at first, they were overcome by famine, disease, and the combined efforts of the colonial militias. At war’s end, more than a thousand colonists had been killed and the native population of the region had been reduced by more than half. Many died and others fled or were sold into slavery, which opened lands into which the colonies could expand.

A Short-Lived Dominion

When Charles II (1630–1685) ascended the English throne in 1660, he established a committee, the Lords of Trade and Plantations, to oversee colonial policy. The committee’s mandate included enriching England and achieving victory in the global war for trade. A series of trade acts, called the Navigation Acts, were passed to restrict commerce, requiring cargo to be carried on English ships and enumerating goods that had to be shipped to England before they could be sold to other countries. The Puritans ignored the trade laws, believing their royal charter exempted them. The king grew increasingly impatient with their actions. In 1684, on the advice of the Lords of Trade, he revoked the colony’s charter.

In its place he created a Dominion of New England, merging Massachusetts and its neighboring colonies into a single entity ruled by a royal governor. His appointee, Edmund Andros (1637–1714), dismissed the council and banned town meetings. He questioned the validity of all land titles under the charter and raised taxes and duties arbitrarily. The first Church of England was established in the colony.

In 1688 Protestants in Parliament drove the king into exile in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. When news arrived in Massachusetts, the colonists revolted against Andros and imprisoned him. William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694), the new monarchs, agreed to dissolve the dominion. Three years later they issued a new royal charter, joining Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Maine into one colony. The charter restored the General Court but undermined the religious basis on which Massachusetts had been founded. All male property owners, not just church members, were granted the right to elect representatives. The colonies with which Massachusetts was joined had different demographics and goals, further diluting its religious cohesion.

Hysteria in Salem

Puritans, still holding on to superstitions from medieval days, fell into witchcraft hysteria in Salem in 1692. While trials of witches had been held in other towns, the scope of the accusations in Salem was unprecedented: more than 185 people were charged with being witches, who were considered the embodiment of the devil on earth. Twenty-four women and six men were tried and convicted. Nineteen of them were hanged, and one was pressed to death because he refused to plead guilty or not guilty. More than a hundred awaited trial when the frenzy ended.

The accusations, trials, and executions exposed much about legal procedures in the colony. Those charged with practicing witchcraft were usually Salem residents who deviated in some way from Puritan religious, cultural, or economic norms. Some were simply outsiders; many were perceived to be enemies of the largest family in Salem. Those who stepped forward to defend the accused quickly found themselves accused as well.

At trial the accused witches were presumed guilty. They had no legal counsel, were confronted by accusers who went into fits in the courtroom, and faced a loud and seething crowd of spectators. Some people were convicted of being witches because they could not recite the Lord’s Prayer properly. The trials were stopped when clergy and authorities in other parts of the colony questioned the reliability of spectral evidence. The only evidence that some of the accusers could offer was that they had been visited during the night by a ghostly figure who resembled the defendant.

The Massachusetts Legacy

The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony saw their main virtue as submission to God, so they established laws and structures to help make that submission a way of life. The charter of 1691 ended that experiment in religious legislation. In fact, the documents that would later create the United States of America specifically forbade the blurring of the roles of church and state. At the same time, those documents also protected the right to believe as the Puritans did. Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the Puritans is their conviction that hard work and self-discipline would be rewarded by wealth, which remains a widespread belief about success in America.

See also Dominion of New England

See also The Glorious Revolution

See also The Great Migration

See also King Philip’s War

See also The Navigation Acts

See also Salem Witch Trials

See also The Trial of Anne Hutchinson

Puritan Law

In December 1641 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony gathered its regulations into the first code of law in New England. The following entry lists the capital crimes:

  1. If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.
  2. If any man or woeman be a witch (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit), they shall be put to death.
  3. If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemy, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.
  4. If any person committ any willful murther, which is manslaughter committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or Crueltie, not in a man’s necessarie and just defence, nor by meere casualtie against his will, he shall be put to death.
  5. If any person slayeth an other suddaienly in his anger or Crueltie of passion, he shall be put to death.
  6. If any person shall slay an other through guile, either by poysoning or other such divelish practice, he shall be put to death.
  7. If any man or woeman shall lye with any beaste or bruite creature by Carnall Copulation, They shall surely be put to death. And the beast shall be slaine, and buried and not eaten.
  8. If any man lyeth with mankinde as he lyeth with a woeman, both of them have committed abhomination, and they both shall surely be put to death.
  9. If any person committeth Adultery with a married or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteresse shall surely be put to death.
  10. If any man stealeth a man or mankinde, he shall surely be put to death.
  11. If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and of purpose to take away any mans life, he shall be put to death.
  12. If any man shall conspire and attempt any invasion, insurrection, or publique rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall indeavour to surprize any Towne or Townes, fort or forts therein, or shall treacherously and perfediouslie attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of politie or Government fundamentallie, he shall be put to death.


Nathaniel Ward, “The Liberties of the Massachusets Collonie in New England,” in American Historical Documents: 1000–1904, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910.

Providence Settlement

Providence, founded in 1636 in what is now the state of Rhode Island, was the first settlement in North America to welcome people of all religious convictions. While many settlers had fled England to avoid persecution for their religious beliefs, they usually created communities in the New World that sustained their particular interpretations of Christianity. The founders of Providence, by contrast, kept church and state distinctly separate, spelling that division out clearly in their organizing documents. This principle later became fundamental to the U.S. Constitution.

The guiding force behind the settlement was Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683), who had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His religious views—he thought the Church of England had become so corrupt that it could not be reformed—and his views on land ownership—he said native inhabitants should be compensated for the land on which the colonies were built—alarmed the Puritan leadership. They were building an ideal religious community, which they hoped would be a shining example for reform of the church and society back in England. Furthermore, their community stood on land granted by royal charter, so they took his views as a direct threat to the colony’s very existence. Perhaps because he was so articulate and uncompromising, Williams was deemed unfit for their society.

A Liberty of Conscience

When Williams and some friends fled into the wilderness from Massachusetts, they headed south, eventually finding suitable acreage for settlement straddling small tributaries to a larger river. They negotiated treaties with the Narragansetts and other native tribes and purchased the land. True to their beliefs, they outlined a government structure that separated church and state and offered “a liberty of conscience” to all settlers. No one could be prosecuted for religious views, and no one would be required to attend any church. Williams named the settlement Providence because of “God’s merciful providence to me.”

Other nonconformists, many of them exiles from Massachusetts, followed. Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), for instance, who was banished from Massachusetts in 1638 because she believed Christians were not bound by laws, established Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island, which had been purchased that year. Disputes arose within Portsmouth, so William Coddington (1601–1678) left to found Newport on another part of the island. Another dissident from Portsmouth, Samuel Gorton (1592–1677), founded Warwick. Smaller settlements, or “plantations,” grew up around Providence as well. Anabaptists (who stressed baptism of adult believers, rather than the baptism of infants) formed the first Baptist Church in America in 1639. A large Quaker community, which became a powerful force in the colony’s politics and economic life, arrived in Aquidneck in 1657. A Jewish community settled in Newport in 1658 and founded a synagogue that still survives. French Huguenots, who were Calvinists, settled in East Greenwich in 1686.

By the 1640s Williams had succeeded in uniting the small outposts, but neighboring colonies refused to recognize the validity of their settlements and threatened to expand into the territory. To protect their investments, Williams sailed to England and secured a parliamentary patent, which granted Providence, Newport, and Warwick incorporation as “Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay of New England.” The threats of encroachment continued, however, so when a new king ascended to the throne in 1660, the settlers sought a royal charter. Granted in 1663, it established a self-governing colony with specific guarantees that no resident could be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called into question for any differences of opinion in matters of religion.”

The charter also recognized that the colonists had purchased the land from the Narragansetts and other native inhabitants, with whom Williams had nurtured good relations for decades. He had earlier learned the Algonquian language by spending time with Indians—he was one of the first settlers to do so—and wrote A Key into the Language of America based on that experience. He also respected their heritage and did not try to convert them to Christianity, which was a common goal in other colonies. By the 1670s, however, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate, largely because the other colonies were expanding rapidly and because increased missionizing was undermining natives’ loyalty to their tribes. For a while Williams was successful in keeping the Narragansetts neutral when King Philip’s War erupted in 1675, pitting the Wampanoag people against Plymouth and Massachusetts. Then both sides fell victim to rumors and misunderstandings, and the Massachusetts militia made a preemptive attack on a Narragansett stronghold, which has become known as the Great Swamp Fight. Some three hundred braves and more than four hundred women and children were killed, many burned alive in their wigwams. Narragansett warriors joined the Wampanoags, attacked some villages, and then burned Providence. As the war escalated, the Rhode Island colonists, who still considered themselves Englishmen, joined other colonists to protect English interests. Williams, by then in his seventies, reluctantly served as a captain in the militia.

After the war, which reduced the native population of New England by more than half, Rhode Island evolved into a mercantile center. Wharves and warehouses expanded in the 1680s, an era of trade in rum, sugar, and slaves—and Rhode Island’s merchants outdid all other colonies in working “the triangle”: molasses was shipped from the West Indies to Rhode Island, where distilleries transformed it into rum, which was then shipped to Africa, where it was bartered for slaves along the coast. The slaves, jammed aboard fetid ships, were transported to the West Indies, the southern colonies, and even Rhode Island, where they became servants in the mansions that rose along the waterfront.

In 1686 King James II (1633–1701) revoked the charters of Rhode Island and the other New England colonies and merged them into a Dominion of New England, partly as retaliation for the colonists’ refusal to heed trade laws passed by Parliament. The dominion lasted only a short time. It was dissolved in 1689 when William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694) ascended the English throne. Rhode Island’s original charter was restored, this time with a royal governor. Freedom of conscience—the idea that a government could not force anyone to believe in any religion—became standard throughout the New England colonies.

A Settlement’s Legacy

By carefully detailing a “liberty of conscience,” the settlers of Providence created a community with an innovative social order. While they embraced concepts that have since been rejected (slavery, for example) and limited participation in government (universal suffrage was still unheard of), their emphasis on religious liberty echoed loudly in the documents that later formed the United States of America. In fact, they set precedents that have resonated over the years in many parts of the world.

See also Dominion of New England

See also King Philip’s War

See also The Navigation Acts

A Key into the Language of America

Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, wrote A Key into the Language of America in 1643, based on his time spent with the native inhabitants of New England. The book contains transliterations of Algonquian words, as well as his observations of the Indians’ way of life.

Nanotateem. I keepe house alone.Aquie Kuttunnan. Doe not tell.Aquie mooshkishattous. Doe not disclose.Teag yo augwhattick? What hangs there?Yo augwhattous. Hang it there.Pemisquai. Crooked, or winding.Penayi. Crooked.Nqussutam. I remove house: Which they doe upon these occasions: From thick warme vallies, where they winter, they remove a little neerer to their Summer fields; when ’tis warme Spring, then they remove to their fields where they plant Corne. In middle of Summer, because of the abundance of Fleas, which the dust of the house breeds, they will flie and remove on a sudden from one part of their field to a fresh place: And sometimes having fields a mile or two, or many miles asunder, when the worke of one field is over, they remove house to the other: If death fall in amongst them, they presently remove to a fresh place: If an enemie approach, they remove into a Thicket, or Swampe, unlesse they have some Fort to remove unto. Sometimes they remove to a hunting house in the end of the yeere, and forsake it not until Snow lie thick, and then will travel home, men, women and children, thorow the snow, thirtie, yea, fiftie or sixtie miles; but their great remove is from their Summer fields to warme and thicke woodie bottomes where they winter: They are quicke; in halfe a day, yea, sometimes at few houres warning to be gone and the house up elsewhere; especially, if they have stakes readie pitcht for their Mats. I once in travell lodged at a house, at which in my returne I hoped to have lodged againe there the next night, but the house was gone in that interim, and I was glad to lodge under a tree: The men make the poles or stakes, but the women make and set up, take downe, order, and carry the Mats and housholdstuffe.


A Key to the Language of America (1643): 1. Roger Williams. Women in America. American Journey Online. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 1643.

See also King Philip’s War

Dominion of New England

The Dominion of New England was formed in 1686 by the king of England to assert new control over colonial affairs. The charters of English colonies in North America had been revoked in 1684, in what was both a political and economic maneuver: the crown had intended to break the representative spirit of the colonies, expressed most clearly by their willingness to flout the Navigation Acts that were intended to control colonial commerce. The dominion centralized control and put people in place to enforce laws made in England.

For years the colonies had operated with minimal royal intervention. They had developed representative institutions that differed considerably from those in England and passed laws that were often based on local religious beliefs. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, had altered the rules of citizenship, requiring all freemen—those with voting rights—to be dissenters from the Church of England. Perhaps most annoying to the crown, however, was the colonists’ burgeoning, unregulated commerce that added little to the wealth of the mother country.

In 1686 King James II (1633–1701) appointed Edmund Andros (1637–1714) to be “Captain General and Governor in Chief of Our Territory and Dominion of New England.” Andros had authority over Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and some disputed lands of the native Narragansett people. The colonies of New Jersey and New York were added later.

As established by the Lords of Trade and Plantations, the committee that oversaw royal policy for the colonies, the dominion had a governor and council appointed by the king but no representative assembly. The governor, working with the council, had the authority to legislate, levy taxes, and sit as a supreme court. Andros increased customs duties and enforced the Navigation Acts. He also brought the local court system in line with English law by declaring that jurors no longer had to be chosen from among the landowners. This was a direct blow to Puritan authority; in Massachusetts only those whose views followed the Puritan model could have full citizenship. Puritans became even more alarmed when the king issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which allowed freedom of religion—or no religion—to all of the king’s subjects. While they saw the declaration as a direct threat to the kind of religious community they had built, the most immediate result was that Puritan ministers and schools could no longer be funded by taxes collected from the entire population.

The dominion was short-lived. It was dissolved after James’s successor, Charles II (1630–1685), fled into exile in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694) ascended the throne in 1689. The news caused colonial insurrection, which led to imprisonment of Andros in Boston. While the governments and laws of the colonies were reinstated—Puritans quickly returned to their theocratic policies—William became more interested in his war with the French than with colonial policy. In 1691 a new charter for Massachusetts was drawn up, establishing a royal governor for the colony (which Massachusetts had never had), an elected assembly, and a council chosen by that assembly. Puritan control of the government was reduced by policies that ensured religious freedom and expanded citizenship and by the annexation of Maine and Plymouth into Massachusetts, significantly altering the makeup of the population. At the same time New Hampshire became a separate royal colony, and Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were allowed to operate under their previous charters.

The Legacy of the Dominion

While the dominion had a short life, it had long-term repercussions for the colonies and their relationships with the English crown. The most immediate effect was the reduction of Puritan control of government in Massachusetts. The colony had been expanded to include colonists, such as the Separatists of Plymouth, with widely different views about religion and its place in government and everyday life. In fact, freedom of conscience, which had been a staple of life in Rhode Island, suddenly was the norm for all the colonies. The larger effect of the dominion, however, was closer supervision of colonial affairs by representatives of the crown. Laws passed thousands of miles away became constant factors in everyday commerce. The crown and Parliament added trade restrictions and piled on new duties and taxes over the following decades. At the same time colonial distaste for arbitrary authority swelled, eventually to a breaking point.

See also The Glorious Revolution

See also The Massachusetts Bay Colony

See also The Navigation Acts

See also Plymouth Colony

See also Providence Settlement

Colonial Legislatures

Colonial legislatures—also known as general assemblies and, in the early days of what is now the state of Virginia, the House of Burgesses—were bodies of elected representatives in each colony. They generally operated according to the English parliamentary system and English common law, although some—Plymouth, for example—were based on the operations of Congregational churches. Each legislature operated differently, according to the needs and beliefs of the companies and people who founded the colonies.

The First Legislature

The earliest representative body was established in Jamestown in 1619 by the company that founded the colony. Governor George Yeardley (1587–1627) set up a House of Burgesses, named after the system in which elected officials represented political divisions called boroughs. The House of Burgesses was unicameral (that is, made up of a single legislative body): along with twenty-two representatives of the cities and plantations in the colony, it included the governor, who was appointed by the colony’s organizing company, and the governor’s council, made up of six prominent men chosen by the governor. The body was supposed to meet yearly, with the governor calling elections each year to choose burgesses.

The company’s intention was to have the governor and council initiate legislation that the burgesses would debate; in their first meeting, however, the burgesses made it clear that they wanted the right to initiate legislation as well. According to the rules set out by the company, any taxes, laws, and other measures passed by the body could be vetoed by the governor or the directors of the company in London. Colonial laws were subject to acts of Parliament in England as well.

Over the years the operations of the House of Burgesses evolved. By the time John Harvey (?–1646) was governor in the 1630s the burgesses had demanded the right to control taxation. After William Berkeley’s (1606–1677) first stint as governor ended in 1652, the burgesses exercised considerable authority, limited only by the Navigation Acts passed by Parliament. During that time the burgesses passed a resolution stating that all propositions and laws were to be discussed first among the burgesses privately, without the governor and the council present. In 1680 Governor Thomas Culpeper (1635–1689) made this arrangement official by creating a bicameral legislature, with the burgesses becoming the lower house led by a speaker they elected from the group.

The Second and Later Legislatures

The other colonies did not develop bicameral legislatures until the 1720s, in part because of the way they were originally set up. Plymouth Colony, whose settlers created their own founding documents, at first had an assembly of all qualified freemen. The body later became representative, rather than including all freemen, and bicameral as the colony expanded. The Massachusetts Bay Company, the forerunner to the Massachusetts Colony, was carefully controlled at first by Governor John Winthrop (1588–1649) and his Court of Assistants. Nevertheless, the other freemen who were members of the General Court—being Englishmen and aware of their rights—demanded to see the charter, which Winthrop had put away for safekeeping. On inspection of the document, they discovered that the settlement was supposed to have a legislative body. By 1640 the colony had become widely dispersed and travel to the General Court had become too time-consuming for all the freemen, so the towns elected representatives to the annual assembly, which was chaired by the governor. It later evolved into a bicameral legislature, with the popularly elected lower house choosing the members of the council.

Rhode Island and Connecticut operated with elected representation from the outset. Rhode Island started as a collection of settlements, so legislation originated in the towns, which sent it to the colonial assembly for consideration. The assembly could also initiate legislation, which the towns could then approve or disapprove. The system proved cumbersome. When the colony was granted a royal charter in 1663, the elected assembly was given the dominant role in government. Connecticut’s founding documents, the Fundamental Orders of 1639, set up a representative assembly, which was continued after the colony received a charter in 1662. It became the seat of governmental authority.

The proprietary colonies—those run by individuals—had mixed experiences with legislatures. The Duke of York ruled New York for many years without an elected assembly. When the colonists refused to pay taxes without representation in 1680, the duke had two choices: send an army to enforce his wishes or allow a publicly elected legislature. He decided on the assembly. The proprietor of Maryland, Lord Baltimore, called an assembly of freemen with the proviso that he alone could initiate legislation. The legislature rejected his offerings, claiming that it had the sole right to initiate legislation. He, in turn, rejected the legislation they passed. Eventually he came to realize that they were competent to create laws, although he reserved the right to accept or reject them.

Carolina, which was controlled by Eight Lords Proprietor, operated under the Fundamental Constitutions, a document written by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) in 1669. It divided the land into governmental units called precincts (which became counties after 1739), with each precinct and certain towns electing representatives to an assembly. At the end of each legislative session, bills passed were signed by the speaker, who was chosen from among the representatives, and the president of the colony’s appointed council. In 1729 seven of the proprietors sold their interests back to the king, who made Carolina a royal colony. Legislative functions continued as before, although the governor and other officials were then appointed by the crown.

Pennsylvania’s proprietor, William Penn (1644–1718), created a Frame of Government, the first constitution of its kind in the New World. It created a council of seventy-two colonists, appointed by the governor, and an assembly with elected representatives who had three-year terms. For many years the assembly was dominated by Quakers. In 1756, however, Parliament threatened to compel officeholders to take oaths, which violated Quaker tenets. Many members of the assembly resigned in protest, giving the assembly a non-Quaker majority for the first time.

Similar in Their Differences

Legislatures developed according to the fundamental principles on which each colony was based. Religious belief, personalities of the people involved, geography, relationships with the native population, and royal attention made each legislature different. Tension between the legislatures, the governors, and the colonists themselves erupted in all cases; it was resolved with or without skill depending on circumstances and the people involved. The most significant feature of all of them, however, is that they were all based on a desire for representative government, achieved through some kind of popular election.

Oath of a Freeman

To vote at town meetings and to hold public office, such as assemblyman, a colonist had to be a “freeman,” which generally meant a male, age twenty-one or over, who owned land in the colony and was a member of the church (indentured servants, women, and slaves could not be freemen). A freeman had to take an oath sworn by the “Great and Dreadfull Name of the Ever-Living God” and with allegiance to the king. The oaths varied over the years and from colony to colony. This excerpt is from an oath taken in 1690:

Whereas I, [A.B.] being an inhabitant of the Jurisdiction of the Massachusetts, and now to be made free, Do hereby acknowledge m selfe to be subject to the Government thereof … and that I will be true and Faithfull to the same, and will accordingly yeild Assistance and Support hereunto with my person and estate, as in equity I am bound; And will also truely endeavour to maintain and preserve all the Liberties and priviledges thereof, submitting my selfe to the wolesome Laws made and established by the same. And farther that I will not Plot nor Practice any Evill against it, or consent to any that shall do so, but will timely discover and reveal the same to Lawfull Authority now here established, for the speedy prevention thereof. Moreover I do solemnly bind my selfe in the sight of God, that when I shall be called to give my Voyce touching any such matter of this State wherein Freemen are to deal, I will give my Vote and Suffrage as I shall in mine own Conscience judge best to conduce and tend to the Public Weale of the body, without respect of persons or favour of any man. So help me God in our Lord Jesus Christ.


Oath of a Freeman, Web site of the Town of Millis, Massachusetts, April 19, 2007).

See also Dominion of New England

See also Jamestown Colony

See also Massachusetts Bay Colony

See also Plymouth Colony

See also Providence Settlement

Colonial Courts

Colonial courts had distinct differences, but they all generally adhered to English common law and functioned much like courts in England. Structures started out as primitively as the colonies themselves; over time they developed into sophisticated operations, with carefully prescribed procedures for arrest, trial, and punishment.

In the earliest days most colonies had a general court, over which the governor and his assistants presided, that heard both criminal and misdemeanor cases and civil disputes. As more and more colonists arrived and settlement pushed the frontier west, it became necessary to create a hierarchy of courts. Justices of the peace sat at the lowest level, usually in towns, handling simple misdemeanors and disagreements within the local area. Their cases included public drunkenness, simple thefts, and disputes between farmers, such as crop damage by livestock. They also handled suits brought by indentured servants and Indians. Felonies—any crime that involved loss of life or limb—and large civil suits were handled at higher levels. Sometimes a county court would first sit as a grand jury and, if it believed enough evidence existed for trial, forward the case to the general court or, in later years, the supreme or superior courts.

Usually defendants had the right to trial by jury of peers, could call witnesses, and could confront their accusers. Innocence was generally presumed until guilt was proved, although standards fluctuated. The right to counsel existed, if defendants could afford it, but most defended themselves. Appeals were possible: defendants who did not like the verdicts they received could ask higher courts to review their cases. In many instances, however, the same judge or justices would sit on the higher courts.

Crime and Punishment

The crimes that brought settlers into colonial courts included murder, slander, swearing, failure to attend church, inappropriate behavior on the Sabbath, theft, rape, premarital sex, postmarital adultery, and public drunkenness. Hog theft took up a lot of the courts’ time because livestock were valuable in agricultural communities. Blasphemy—either denying God, saying there was more than one God, or worshipping a different god (or goddess) from the God of the established church—was treated harshly. Treason, which covered a variety of acts, depending on the colony, was one of the most serious crimes because it undermined the cohesiveness of communities and, not incidentally, interfered with the king’s ability to control the colonies.

In the early years activities often became crimes because of religious beliefs. Churches were the moral centers of communities, although colonists learned quickly that having churches was not enough. They saw a need to enforce morality, so “failure to attend church,” for example, became a crime. Massachusetts Bay Colony was the most specific, creating a code of laws in 1648 that stated all the prescribed morals in one book. Each crime had a specific punishment as well.

Punishment varied by colony and court. Leniency was often granted on first offenses in hope that the defendant would reform and reenter the workforce. Repeat offenders were treated harshly and often executed, because the courts sought to remove confirmed criminals from the community. Debtors were usually released, with judgments against them, because the courts realized they could not pay their debts if they could not work.

Hanging by the neck until dead was the most common form of capital punishment, and hangings were usually public spectacles. When a nonfatal sentence was given, convicts were often branded at the base of the thumb on the right hand. This led to the practice of raising the right hand when being sworn in—the court could quickly check the criminal record of the witness.

Those convicted of high treason could be drawn and quartered: after hanging, a convict’s body was cut into four pieces, which were buried in widely separated plots. The belief was that this method of burial would not allow the soul to rest. In some colonies the traitors’ heads were displayed on pikes as warnings against such activity.

Corporal (physical) punishment was common and usually carried out in public view in town squares. For petty crimes criminals were placed in stocks (a wooden framework that had holes for ankles and an uncomfortable place to sit) or pillories (a similar framework with holes for the head and hands, but no seat). Once locked into the devices, convicts were assaulted by crowds that hurled eggs, rotten fruit, and other rubbish at them. After a while the filth would attract ants and other insects.

Criminals were regularly whipped at public whipping posts, with thirty to fifty lashes on a bare back being the most common sentence of this type. In extreme cases the convict’s back would be doused with salt water at intervals. Those sentenced to whipping for lesser crimes might get part of the sentence, be allowed to heal, and then return for the remainder of the sentence.

Women who slandered were often tied to a ducking stool and repeatedly dunked in water. The sentence could be curtailed if the woman confessed and apologized.

Gender and social class often affected sentencing. Women could be whipped or publicly shamed for crimes for which men would receive a fine. Slaves were almost always convicted at local courts and given physical punishment, whether it was their first, second, or third offense. Children, if it was determined they knew right from wrong, could be tried as early as age eight.

Important Figures of the Day

John Smith

John Smith (1580–1631) was an adventurer, soldier, cartographer, and writer. In colonial America, his most important role was as leader: he kept the Jamestown Colony from disintegrating in 1608. Many of the settlers had died from disease and Indian attacks, most of the survivors wanted to spend their time exploring for gold, and some had become lazy. Smith took control and enforced strict discipline. Within a year the colony had stabilized.

The Mercenary Years

Smith was already an experienced adventurer when he boarded the ship for Virginia in December 1606. He had left home at age sixteen, after his father died.

After working on a merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea, he joined a mercenary force fighting for Henry IV of France (1553–1610). At the end of hostilities, the mercenary army joined the Dutch in their war against Spain.

In 1600, when he sailed home to England, the captain of the ship was Henry Hudson (c. 1575–1611), who would later discover parts of North America. Smith also befriended Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552–1616), another strong promoter of exploring the New World. While Smith was fascinated by their dream of undiscovered lands, he headed back to Europe to join Austrian forces fighting against the Turks. His success in three duels is said to have fueled Christian morale, and he was promoted to captain. When his commander overextended his forces, however, Smith was captured and enslaved in Constantinople. He eventually escaped through Russia and engaged in one more successful adventure—to save an English woman who was in captivity in Tunis—before returning to England.

A Restless Adventurer

At home the twenty-five-year-old Smith grew restless. Learning that Hakluyt had invested in the Virginia Company of London’s expedition to the New World, he did so as well. He was one of 144 men who boarded the three ships in December 1606. The voyage lasted four months—and evidently over time Smith grew belligerent. He ended up in irons: he had so infuriated the captain that on several occasions he had threatened to execute Smith on the spot. On arrival in May 1607 the captain broke open a sealed box that contained a list of names of the seven leaders of the new colony. Smith was one of those named.

While the council of seven tried to organize housing and the growing of some crops, many of the colonists went off into the wilderness to search for gold and other precious metals. Smith charted the river along which they had settled, fishing for sturgeon and discovering an oyster reef. He communicated with the native Powhatan people, learning some of their language, and traded for food and furs.

The Indians, who at first believed the English were only temporary visitors, became wary of their intentions, and soon began to attack. In December 1607 while he was searching for food, Smith was ambushed. His companions were killed, but he was dragged before the chief, Wahunsonacock (c. 1550–1618). Smith evidently impressed the chief with his self-confidence and also enchanted him with navigation instruments, including an ivory and glass pocket compass. Smith later wrote about the chief’s delight at seeing the spinning dials, which he could not touch because they were covered by the compass’s glass.

Legend in His Own Time

What happened next has become legend. According to Smith’s account, after he had been in captivity for some time the Indians prepared a large feast, which led him to believe he was out of danger. Then, after some conferencing, the Indians positioned two large stones in front of the chief. Smith was dragged forward and his head placed on the stones. Warriors wielding clubs stood around him, as though they were going to “beate out his brains.” Pocahontas (c. 1596–1617), the chief’s daughter, intervened, according to Smith, and placed his head in her hands and her head on top of his so that he would not be killed. As the story has been repeated since, Smith’s account of how Pocahontas saved his life has been turned into a romantic encounter. He notes in his memoirs, however, that she was but a girl of twelve or thirteen. Two days later the chief offered him a huge tract of land in exchange for “two great gunnes, and a grindstone” and said he would always think of Smith as his son “Nantaquoud.”

When Smith returned to the colony, he found dissent brewing, fomented by disease, lack of supplies, and general sloth. By fall of that year three members of the council had died, and three others had returned to England. (They took along Smith’s manuscript True Relations, which detailed the colony’s activities. It sold well and created interest in the New World.) Being the only remaining member of the council, Smith took charge, instituting rigid discipline—similar to martial law—and forcing the men to work. They strengthened the palisade around the colony and did some farmwork. To encourage them, he said simply: “He who does not work will not eat.” With Smith’s leadership, the settlement stabilized.

In 1609 Smith was severely burned in a gunpowder explosion, so in October he returned to England for treatment. By then he was out of favor with the Virginia Company—he reportedly failed to accede to their demands to find gold and build glass and tar factories—but he continued to promote colonization. Five years later he completed a successful voyage to what is now called New England, the name Smith gave to the region, with the approval of Prince Charles (1600–1649). His account of the adventure, New England Trials (1622), made its way to the Separatists, or Pilgrims, who founded Plymouth Colony. They relied on his account on their own voyage.

Smith spent the remainder of his life in England writing books. His memoir The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles appeared in 1624. He died in 1631 at the age of fifty-one.

A Leader at the Right Time

Smith has often been referred to as “boastful,” and the accuracy of his accounts of his escapades has been fodder for debate for centuries. His reputation as a leader—his courage in battle and his ability to organize and charm men to do the best for their fellows—has not been successfully challenged, however. By keeping Jamestown from disintegrating, he provided a base on which later settlers could build the foundation of the United States, and his skillful mapping of the North American coastline was of tremendous benefit to later explorers and settlers

To Beate out His Brains

In his Generall Historie, first published in England in 1624, John Smith recounted how Pocahontas saved his life. The accuracy of the story has been questioned by some historians, because Smith was known as a boaster and self-promoter. Others, however, have found no reason for him to fabricate or distort it. In his colorful account, he refers to himself in the third person:

At his [Smith’s] entrance before the King, all the people gave a great shout. The Queene of Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, in stead of a Towell to dry them: having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before [the chief of the] Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them [the stones], and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his brains, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him aswell of all occupations as themselves. For the King himselfe will make his owne robes, shooes, bowes, arrowes, pots; plant, hunt, or doe any thing so well as the rest …. Two dayes after, Powhatan having disguised himselfe in the most fearefull manner he could, caused Capt. Smith to be brought forth to a great house in the woods, and there upon a mat by the fire to be left alone. Not long after from behinde a mat that divided the house, was made the most dolefullest noyse he ever heard; then Powhatan more like a devill than a man with some two hundred more as blacke as himselfe, came unto him and told him now they were friends, and presently he should goe to James towne, to send him two great gunnes, and a gryndstone, for which he would give him the Country of Capahowosick, and for ever esteeme him as his sonne Nantaquoud.


Captaine John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & The Summer Isles (Together with the True Travels, Adventures and Observations, and A Sea Grammar), Volume 1, New York: Macmillan Company, 1907.

See also Henry Hudson

See also Jamestown Colony


Metacom (c. 1640–1676) was sachem, or chieftain, of the Wampanoags, an Algonquian-speaking people in what is now southern New England. Called Philip by the English colonists, he was a diplomat of some skill and an ardent protector of his people’s way of life. He is most remembered for King Philip’s War, a bloody confrontation in which the Wampanoags and other tribes sought to stop colonial advancement into Indian territory.

Not much is known about many parts of Metacom’s life, especially his early years, although clearly he grew up at time when colonization by the English was expanding. His father, Massasoit (c. 1590–1661), befriended the settlers who landed in Plymouth in 1620. The tribe had been devastated by an epidemic, so Massasoit, as sachem, agreed to a mutual defense treaty with the colonists, believing an alliance with the English would strengthen his people’s hand against attacks from their traditional Indian rivals. Like his brother Wamsutta before him, Metacom reaffirmed the treaty that their father had signed.

The Role of Sachem

Metacom became sachem in 1662 at about age twenty-two, when his brother died mysteriously. Wamsutta had been called to Plymouth to answer questions about a land transaction he had made with the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, and he fell ill on his way home and died. Some Indians thought he had been poisoned, although that was never proved.

Traditionally, a sachem maintained his authority through a reciprocal agreement with his people: he would provide leadership and maintain security over their resources, and they pledged their allegiance to defend the group. Indians who became dissatisfied would simply leave and find another leader to whom they could offer their loyalty. For Metacom, the alliance with Plymouth was an important leadership tool. The Wampanoags and the colonists developed mutually dependent societies—the Indians provided furs, meat, and wild foodstuffs that the English could either use or sell, while the colonists imported clothing and other goods that the Indians needed. Both sides agreed to defend the other. On paper at least, coexistence meant secure land as well as supplies and markets.

As the distances between peoples diminished and the balance of populations changed, however, English settlements became a distinct threat to Wampanoag traditions and beliefs. Metacom was especially opposed to converting Indians to Christianity; his father had refused to let missionaries into his villages. Many colonists, however, saw allegiance to their God as paramount and exercised their calling to convert the Indians. The Puritans in the Massachusetts colony were especially active in “missionizing.” They founded “praying communities” where Indians who had, at least outwardly, converted to Christianity could live safely under colonial protection. As a result, they no longer needed to be loyal to a sachem. With fewer Indians pledging their allegiance, a sachem was less able to negotiate alliances or discourage enemies. Praying communities and itinerant preachers had begun appearing in the Plymouth Colony by the 1660s, and it is clear that Metacom saw them as a serious threat.

Just as threatening was the burgeoning population of settlers, whose thirst for land made it a more valuable commodity than furs or any other products the Indians could offer for trade. The expansion reduced the amount of land the Wampanoags had to maintain their traditional way of life: they were a “semisedentary” people, living on agricultural land during the growing season—they grew maize and other produce, some of which they stored for the winter ahead—and then camped in other parts of their territory during the colder months. The problem was magnified by two different views of land ownership: Some Indians, for example, may not have understood that selling their land meant they could no longer hunt and fish on that land. The English, once they held title, believed they could control its use. While Metacom sold tracts of Wampanoag land, often to build personal loyalties and good relations, he clearly watched the westward spread of settlements with apprehension.

“Their” Indians

The settlers who arrived on the shores of Massachusetts thought of themselves as “God’s chosen people,” which they believed gave them special position in the world. They were also Englishmen and freemen, who thought they were by nature superior, and although they signed mutual defense treaties with the Indians, they did not think of them as their equals. In fact, they thought of the Indians as “subjects,” much in the same way they would think of nonfreemen and women as subjects. For the colonists at Plymouth, Metacom and the Wampanoags were “their” Indians because they had agreed to protect them.

The Plymouth colonists often demanded that Metacom appear before them to answer questions, which usually entailed rumors about plots against the colony or land deals to which the hierarchy had not been party. In early 1671, for example, Metacom was questioned about a possible Indian attack. At the meeting he was forced to surrender all the weapons that Indian tribes loyal to him had secured from the English. When the Indians resisted, the colony made preparations for battle. In a last-ditch effort to stop conflict in September 1671, the leaders of Plymouth called him to a meeting with the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Metacom was forced to pay a fine to the colony, to agree to follow the colony’s advice before resorting to war or selling land, and to take a fealty oath to the colony and the English crown. Essentially, he was forced to give up the autonomy of his people. Whether he took it seriously or not is unknown; he is known to have called it a “humiliation.”

Ally or Spy?

Metacom’s fate was intertwined with that of John Sassamon (?–1674?), a Wampanoag orphan who had been raised by Puritan parents and had studied at Harvard College. Literate and articulate, he had successfully protected Indian lands around the praying community Natick, in the Massachusetts colony. When Massasoit died in 1660, however, Sassamon left Natick and returned to his ancestral home among the Wampanoag. Because of Sassamon’s reputation, Metacom made him his chief counselor and secretary, hoping that he would use his negotiating skills to protect Wampanoag lands. Sassamon was a witness when Metacom took the fealty oath in 1671.

Because Sassamon had been raised a Christian, Metacom must have had his suspicions about him. In 1673 Tuspaquin, a Wampanoag leader who was loyal to Metacom, gave Sassamon a “gift” of twenty-seven acres of land at Nemasket, perhaps to ensure his loyalty. Sassamon quickly left the Wampanoag community, moved to Nemasket, and began a Christian ministry. Because he saw Christianity as a direct threat to his people’s beliefs, Metacom now viewed Sassamon as an enemy.

Some historians suggest that Sassamon had been working as a spy all along. In the fall of 1674 he told authorities in Plymouth that Metacom was plotting war against the English. It is clear that Metacom had started to build an Indian alliance to stop English encroachment. The colonists, however, did not take Sassamon’s story seriously—such rumors were frequent, if unsettling. Reports from the time note that, as he left Plymouth, Sassamon told the colonists that he feared for his life for having told them of the plot.

Some months later Sassamon’s body was found under the ice in a pond. An Indian came forward and said he had seen three Wampanoags kill Sassamon and place his body in the lake to make it appear that he had drowned. The three men were put on trial in Plymouth’s colonial court. Attempting to appear impartial, the court allowed the jury to consult with six “of the most indifferent, gravest, and sage Indians,” which, in the world of the English, most likely meant consultation with Christian Indians loyal to the colony. After a unanimous verdict, the three men were executed in June 1675.

That event destroyed Metacom’s political strategy. Like his father and brother, he thought that an alliance with Plymouth would be the best way to provide protection for his people. When he saw three members of his tribe convicted in a court of the colony that was supposed to protect his tribe, based on evidence from Christian Indians who were not loyal to the tribe, he believed that the English had broken their covenant.

Pulling the Trigger

The executions triggered an attack at Swansea, a colonial village near the entrance to the Wampanoag territory. It did not appear to have been a planned attack, nor did it appear that Metacom had a strategy for full-scale war in place. The colonists mustered their militia, however. Sporadic Indians attacks on the colonists throughout the fall were successful, with high casualty rates and burned villages.

While Indians loyal to other colonies often fought with their militias, other tribes allied with the Wampanoags. For example, the Narragansetts, who had been their traditional enemies, entered the war after the Massachusetts militia made a preemptory strike on a Narragansett stronghold, killing more than seven hundred Indians, many burned alive in their wigwams. The Narragansetts burned Providence, along with other villages. Over the winter, however, lack of food and weapons reduced the Indians’ effectiveness, and the uprising began to fall apart.

Metacom and his dwindling group were cornered in a swamp on August 12, 1676. At the moment Metacom became aware of the trap, a member of the colonial militia raised his musket. It failed to fire. An Indian serving with the colonial forces shot the sachem. His corpse was dragged out of the bog, beheaded, and quartered. His head was mounted on a pole in Plymouth, as a stark reminder of a traitor’s fate.

The chief’s wife and son were captured and apparently sold in the West Indies as slaves.

A Diplomat for His People

While his English name may be famous because it is attached to a bloody war, Metacom was not by nature a warmonger. War was, in fact, his last resort. Like his father before him, he maintained an alliance with the colonists at Plymouth because he thought it was mutually beneficial. Like the best political leaders and diplomats, however, he remained skeptical. Perhaps he and the colonists misunderstood each other’s assumptions; just as likely, neither party knew enough about the other’s culture to build a truly lasting coexistence.

See also King Philip’s War

See also Plymouth Colony

William Penn

William Penn (1644–1718), a Quaker writer and advocate of religious freedom, established Pennsylvania Colony as a sanctuary for religious tolerance. Its constitution, the Frame of Government, curtailed the authority of that government, especially in areas of religion and liberty, and established a free press, trial by jury, and a penal code that was progressive for its time. His negotiations with the native population were equally progressive: he traveled unarmed among them, learned their dialects so he could negotiate with them more effectively, and made peaceful purchases of the territory, even though he had been made proprietor by the king.

The colony he created—his “religious experiment”—would become an example to the world of a large society that offered equal rights to people of all religions and races. Later he would use its success to advocate new ways to settle conflicts between nations.

Quaker Beginnings

Penn was already a well-known supporter of the Society of Friends, or Quakers (although “Quaker” was originally a term of derision), when he arrived in the New World in 1682. From an early age he had developed an interest in religion, and by the time he studied at Oxford he had become something of a religious rebel, defying Anglican officials on such matters as compulsory chapel attendance and attending Quaker meetings, which were illegal at the time. Police raided one of those meetings in September 1667, arresting everyone. Because he was dressed as an aristocrat, rather than in the plain clothes of the Quakers, the magistrate was willing to let him go. He protested, however, that he was indeed a Quaker and wanted to be treated like the others. In jail he began to write about freedom of conscience and the folly of governmental attempts to curtail such freedom.

His father turned him out of the house because of his religious views, so he lived for a while in a series of Quaker homes. He continued writing, eventually attacking the doctrine of the Trinity, which is elemental to Catholicism and Anglicanism, and he was jailed again. While confined he wrote a series of pamphlets that used his education and legal training to define the principles of the Quakers, a Protestant sect that stressed a direct relationship with God and believed that an individual’s conscience, not the Bible, was the final authority on morality. One of those pamphlets, No Cross, No Crown, which laid out an argument for religious toleration, became one of his best-known works.

He then organized a public meeting at which he and fellow Quakers were arrested because they expressed nonconformist views. At the trial, Penn persuaded the jury that Quakers should not be imprisoned for their faith. The government objected and demanded that the jury change its verdict. Penn maintained that a jury should not be coerced, and the highest court of the land unanimously agreed. The case became a landmark in the freedom of English juries.

Penn would later be instrumental in the Declaration of Indulgence, a proclamation of religious freedom issued in 1687 by King James II (1633–1701), with whom Penn had been long acquainted. While the king’s main concern was freedom for Catholics, the declaration covered citizens of all religious beliefs, including Quakers.

A Colonial Haven

Because the Anglican Church was so firmly entrenched, Penn and the Quakers saw little chance that religious toleration would ever be possible in England and sought a haven elsewhere. He asked for a charter for colonial territory for a “religious experiment,” which King Charles II (1630–1685) gave him in 1681. It made Penn and his heirs proprietors of a huge area, about the size of present-day Pennsylvania, west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland. Conditions were attached to the charter: while Penn as proprietor had authority over the land and its governance, Penn had to uphold the Navigation Acts, by which Parliament regulated colonial trade; maintain an agent in London; forward all laws to the crown for approval; and each year provide the king with two beaver skins and a fifth of all gold and silver mined in the territory. As part of the agreement, Penn canceled a debt of sixteen thousand pounds that the crown owed to Penn’s father, who had served the king steadfastly as an admiral. The king chose the name Pennsylvania, meaning “Penn’s forest,” in honor of him.

When Penn arrived in the colony in 1682, he and Quaker friends first established Philadelphia, with Penn selecting the site and designing the street grid. His major focus, however, was his Frame of Government, which was to provide the legal basis for a free society. The document also clarified issues of authority in the colony. While the rights of all citizens were guaranteed—religious toleration, secure private property, free enterprise, a free press, and trial by jury among them—the document created an office of governor that had veto power over all legislation. A council of seventy-two members worked with the governor to propose legislation for the general assembly (of up to five hundred members) to consider. Each year a third of the assembly was elected for three-year terms. The document also included a penal code that was different from codes elsewhere: for example, it named only two crimes, murder and treason, for which capital punishment was allowed. (The English penal code, by contrast, listed about two hundred capital crimes).

Significantly, the Frame was the first constitution that could be altered by amendment, setting the precedent for a similar clause in the U.S. Constitution a century later. Early in the colony’s history the amendment procedures were activated when controversy erupted over the power of the governor and council. A new Frame, adopted in 1701, gave the assembly full legislative power. The Penn family continued to inherit the proprietorship until the American Revolution.

Penn was an enthusiastic advocate for the colony, writing tracts to encourage settlement. It quickly became one of the most populous colonies, with a heterogeneous mix of people. His policies toward the native population were equally successful: his treaty with the Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and Leni-Lenape peoples, who respected his courage and skill—reportedly he could out-sprint Indian braves—prevailed for seventy years.

A Legacy of Brotherly Love

Eventually Pennsylvania ceased to be a Quaker haven. The colony’s policies of religious toleration and peace—military conscription was not allowed—attracted a wide variety of European immigrants seeking religious protection from intrusive, militaristic governments. Philadelphia, whose name means “City of Brotherly Love,” became a major intellectual center in the colonies, with ambitious publishing companies reflecting a variety of opinions. It later became the site of the first Continental Congress, which declared independence from Britain and drew up the documents that would be the basis for the United States of America.

By most measurements Penn’s experiment was successful. It showed that people of all beliefs can live together in a free society if they create systems to achieve it. He used the Pennsylvania experience, as well as his own well-considered beliefs, to write Present and Future Peace of Europe, a document that argued for arbitration of disputes between nations, rather than war. Some historians consider it a prototype for the United Nations.

Will You Turn Imposers?

In 1675 William Penn wrote a letter, addressed to “Certain Forreign States,” to protest their jailing of Quakers and other religious nonconformists. This is an excerpt:

Protestants (and such you glory to be thought) got their Name by protesting against Imposition; and will you turn Imposers? They condemned it; and will you practice it? They thought it a Mark peculiar to the Beast; and can you repute it the Care of a Christian Magistracy? I mean, that Persons must not live under your Government, unless they receive your Mark in their Forehead or Right-hand? which in plainer Terms is, to submit their Consciences to your Edicts, and to ask your Leave, What Religion they should be of. Remember, that Faith is the Gift of God; and, that What is not of Faith is Sin: Nothing can be more Unreasonable, then to compel Men to believe against their Belief, or to trouble them for practising what they believe, when it thwarts not the Moral Law of God. You doubtless take your selves to be Christians, and would esteem it no little Injury to be otherwise represented; yet what more Unchristian, then to use External Force, to sway the Consciences of Men about the Exercise of Religious Worship?


William Penn, Christian Liberty As it was Soberly Desired in a Letter to Certain Forreign States, Upon Occasion of their late Severity to several of their Inhabitants, meerly for their Different Perswasion and Practice in Point of Faith and Worship towards God (1675), Digital Quaker Collection, Earlham School of Religion, (accessed April 19, 2007).

Current Events and Social Movements

The Roanoke Disasters

In the 1580s English explorers established two colonies on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Both of them disappeared. What happened to the settlers, and the clues they left behind, have tantalized historians ever since.

A Favorite of the Queen

Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583), an accomplished sailor and explorer, was granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) in 1578 to search for a Northwest Passage to the South Seas or, if that was not possible, to colonize “heathen and barbarous lands” not already claimed by another “Christian prince.” Gilbert spent most of his fortune, and part of his wife’s, to finance his voyages. On his second trip in 1583 he made his way to Newfoundland, found some fishermen there, and declared himself governor. On his return to England, however, he was lost at sea.

The patent was then transferred to Gilbert’s half-brother, Walter Raleigh (1554?–1618), who at the time was in high favor with the queen. An explorer, soldier, and accomplished poet, Raleigh augmented his own funds with money from investors for another attempt. He chose Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to head an expedition in 1584. Reaching Roanoke Island, they made contact with the native population; explored the inlets, islands, and mainland south of Chesapeake Bay; and then returned to England with skins, a pearl necklace, and two Indian men, Manteo and Wanchese. The two Indians were put on show in England to raise money for the next expedition. The explorers told a glowing story of the area’s beauty—they had been there during the summer, when it was bountiful, and had no knowledge of how harsh it could be during winter months. The queen was impressed by Raleigh’s success and knighted him in January 1585. She offered no money for further expeditions, however.

Later that year Raleigh organized an expedition led by Richard Grenville (1542–1591). (The queen would not allow Raleigh to risk hazardous voyages himself.) On the way he diverted to raid the Spanish West Indies, a move that used up many of the supplies needed for colonization. The expedition arrived at Roanoke in July, too late for the planting season. Grenville got off to a bad start with the Roanoke Indians: when a silver cup was reported missing, he burned a native village in revenge. Grenville returned to England, leaving Ralph Lane (1530–1603) in command of 108 men, with orders to find a better site for a military base and to build a fort.

Despite Grenville’s apparent overreaction, the settlers were able to establish good relations with the Indians and their chief, Wingina. Lane explored the area, while artist John White sketched plants and animals, and Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), a mathematician and Raleigh’s tutor, conducted a detailed survey of the land and recorded observations about Indian life. As spring approached the colony began to run out of food, however, so Lane demanded corn from Wingina. He evidently took the chief’s offer of land and seeds as an insult, so he attacked the tribe, killing Wingina and several of his people. This exacerbated the settlers’ problems, because the natives withdrew from contact with the colonists.

In June 1586 English navigator Francis Drake (1540?–1596), who had been attacking Spanish ships in the West Indies, stopped offshore from Roanoke. He sent supplies ashore, but the settlers were eager to return to England and left with Drake’s fleet. A few weeks later Grenville arrived with six hundred men and a load of supplies to find the colony deserted. Grenville returned to England, leaving fifteen men behind to plant crops and build dwellings for the colonists who were expected to follow.

City of Raleigh

The following expedition, with White as governor, was intended to build a new colony, called the City of Raleigh, in the Chesapeake Bay area north of Roanoke. It was to be a family settlement, so the expedition included seventeen women, nine children, and ninety-four men. When it reached Virginia in late 1587, however, the ship’s captain refused to take them farther north than Roanoke because he and his crew were more interested in moving on to plunder the West Indies. The settlers found the island deserted, with no crops or housing awaiting them. When White returned to England to get supplies, he told the colonists to move to another location if necessary. He asked them to leave him a message on the island if they did.

As White was returning to England, trouble erupted with Spain, and the queen directed all English ships to stay in port in case they were needed for the war effort. When White finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, he discovered that the settlers, including his daughter, his son-in-law, and his granddaughter had vanished. He found only two clues to their whereabouts: the word “Croatan” carved on a fence post and the letters “Cro” etched in a tree trunk. The speculation was that the settlers’ fate was somehow linked to Croatan Island, the birthplace of Manteo, about fifty miles south of Roanoke. Some historians have found evidence that the settlers joined with local Indians there.

Colonies and Lives Lost

The “lost colonies” of Roanoke made clear the expense, in both human lives and money, of creating settlements in the New World. While the settlers were led by their ship captains and later their governor, their fates were more closely linked to supplies and the time of year in which they arrived. Just as important, they were adventurers in private enterprises, and the queen, who certainly would defend the rights of her subjects, had other priorities. Defeat of the Spanish Armada brought England one step closer to ruling the seas.

The Great Migration

Between 1630 and 1640 more than twenty thousand men, women, and children left England to settle permanently in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their exodus was called “great” not just because of the large number of people involved, but also because their purpose was considered great: almost all of the migrants were seeking spiritual rewards rather than material wealth.

Most of the migrants were Puritans, dissenters from the Church of England who sought to eliminate corruption and the last vestiges of Catholicism from the church. Their goal in Massachusetts—establishing a religious haven where they could worship as they thought proper, away from the oversight of the crown and the leaders of the established church—provided the basis for the government they put in place, including laws based on biblical teachings that enforced the Puritan way of life.

A Refuge from Persecution

From an economic standpoint it was riskier for the Puritans to leave England than to stay. More than half of them were successful artisans and craftsmen, very few were servants, and hardly any were poor. In a new colony, thousands of miles from the mother country, they faced difficult, uncertain conditions with no ready markets for their wares.

At the same time, the settlers felt that in England their spiritual lives were in peril, and dissent from the established church was seen as dangerous to society and dealt with harshly. Dissenters could be imprisoned, excommunicated, banished, or even executed. When King Charles I (1600–1649) dissolved Parliament in 1629, the Puritans saw that it would be impossible to effect change in the church or society, and that leaving England would be their best option.

The First Fleet

The Massachusetts Bay Company was organized as a joint-stock company with a dual purpose: some investors wanted to develop trade and enjoy its profits, while others sought a religious refuge. In 1629 twelve Puritan investors in the company, led by John Winthrop (1588–1649), who would become the first governor of the colony, bought up all the stock and changed the company’s focus. A fleet of ships, led by the Arabella, sailed out of Southampton the following March carrying about a thousand passengers to what they saw as a religious haven. They reached Salem, an earlier settlement in the colony, and in a short period relocated south along the Atlantic shore.

While not all the passengers were Puritans—Winthrop had made sure that the group included enough doctors, laborers, and servants to settle a community, regardless of their religious beliefs—the homogeneity of the group was remarkable. Most of them traveled in family groups, often with husbands and wives in their thirties and three or more children. They had a high level of literacy—by some accounts more than twice that of England as whole—and most came from middle-class urban areas a short distance from their points of departure. They shared similar backgrounds and perspectives, favoring the spiritual life rather than material concerns.

The Colony Grows

As the decade progressed, more and more settlers arrived. Newcomers usually stayed for a while—often through the first winter—in the towns at which they arrived. They then dispersed to other areas of the colony, usually to new towns as proprietors. Those designated proprietors received the best, and largest, land grants, as well as a share in future divisions. Once the limit of proprietors in a town was reached, it was considered closed. Sometimes this happened within six years of a town’s founding. The frontier kept expanding, however, and new towns were regularly founded. Twenty-three towns were founded in the colony in the 1630s.

Most of the settlers, who sought religious refuge, found economic comfort as well. They owned land, houses, livestock, and farm equipment. According to some accounts, they were more likely to spend money on books—often those related to Puritanism—than on household goods. The most prosperous among them usually bought additional land.

The Migration Ends

In 1640 King Charles I summoned Parliament for the first time in eleven years. The possibility of major political and religious reform at home slowed Puritan immigration to a trickle, ending the Great Migration. In the following years most of the colony’s growth was through childbearing. By some accounts, the population continued to double every twenty-eight years.

See also The Massachusetts Bay Colony

See also The Puritans

See also Church of England

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening, a Protestant religious movement, swept through the English colonies in North America in the 1740s. Promoted largely by traveling ministers who preached in an unorthodox, theatrical style, the movement offered an alternative to the solemn, traditional ways of the established churches. Its message about salvation was equally unorthodox. Rejecting catechisms, these ministers maintained that the way to salvation was through “New Birth,” a spiritual experience in which a person accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior.

Survival, Not Salvation

The Awakening—as the movement was later named—crossed the ocean with itinerant ministers who found plenty of kindling for their religious spark. The established churches had taken hold in the early days of the colonies; as years passed, however, the frontier moved farther into the wilderness, where it was difficult for the official religions to maintain their control. Settlers lived such great distances from parish churches that participation declined. More important, the most pressing issues on the frontier were not theological. Survival was a daily struggle, as the settlers faced severe weather, wild animals, malnutrition, complications from childbirth, and attacks by the native population. As individuals became accustomed to taking responsibility for their own survival, authoritarian structures of any sort—either religious or governmental—met with resistance. By the second and third generations, the vast majority of the population did not belong to churches.

Undeterred by the frontier, traveling ministers could preach anywhere—on roads, in cleared fields, even on horseback. They were usually lay ministers, who had received little, if any, training, with an engaging style that relieved the harsh monotony of everyday life. They used vivid imagery—especially when describing the horrors of hell—that caught their listeners’ attention. They fed their audiences’ distaste for the traditions of the established churches, arguing that the college-trained clergy of those churches was too intellectual to bring them a message of faith. Instead, the revivalists made salvation seem attainable by ordinary people. Many colonists, moved by the powerful words and their own new or renewed belief in salvation, founded their own churches.

The Whitefield Phenomenon

One of the most influential figures in the movement was the English minister George Whitefield (1714–1770), who traveled to the colonies seven times. He was a brilliant orator with a commanding voice who could be heard by open-air crowds of thousands (the turnout for one of his sermons on Boston Common was estimated at twenty thousand). He could reportedly make crowds swoon by pronouncing the word “Mesopotamia”—and said the word at most gatherings. He gave some eighteen thousand sermons in his lifetime, and was one of the first ministers to preach to slaves.

Although he was ordained as an Anglican priest, Whitefield was shunned by the church for his impassioned style, his meetings with dissident groups (such as Methodists), and, undoubtedly, his success. Whitefield’s focus was on the sinners gathered before him, the people of all stations in life who were lost to damnation unless they had a spiritual awakening. One of his singular achievements was to preach in each of the colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, which helped unify the movement across great distances.

A Break in Cultural Authority

As the movement grew, it began to cement in the minds of ordinary people the idea that no one religion had a monopoly on truth. This fueled a related idea—even more revolutionary at the time—that no one social class had a monopoly on truth, a concept which soon manifested itself in social interactions. For example, in New England, wealthy merchants were locked in a dispute with local traders, artisans, and laborers. The two groups disagreed over a new currency, with the wealthy merchants favoring currency backed by silver and their opponents preferring currency backed by land. When Whitefield and other revivalists began preaching in New England, the wealthy class expected the spiritual message to divert their adversaries from worldly matters—such as the currency dispute—to matters of the soul. Instead they quickly learned that the sermons had an underlying message of equality among religions and classes. To their surprise, ordinary people began attacking them on the currency issue, calling them hypocrites, “fighters against God,” and “children of the devil.” What they thought was a harmless religious event had led to an assault on their social and political authority.

Some historians see the Great Awakening as an abrupt break with the past, in that the chain of authority no longer ran from God to the ruler to the people, but from God to the people to the ruler. While the revival movement eventually waned, the spirit of independence it inspired surfaced decades later in the American Revolution.

Marks of a True Conversion

George Whitefield (1714–1770) was one of the most prominent preachers of the Great Awakening. This is an excerpt from his sermon Marks of a True Conversion.

Are ye God’s children? Are ye converted, and become like little children? Then deal with God as your little children do with you; as soon as ever they want any thing, or if any body hurt them, I appeal to yourselves if they do not directly run to their parent. Well, are ye God’s children? Doth the devil trouble you? Doth the world trouble you? Go tell your father of it, go directly and complain to God. Perhaps you may say, I cannot utter fine words: but do any of you expect fine words from your children? If they come crying, and can speak but half words, do not your hearts yearn over them? And has not God unspeakably more pity to you? If ye can only make signs to him; “As a father pitieth his children, so will the Lord pity them that fear him.” I pray you therefore be gold with your Father, saying, “Abba, Father,” Satan troubles me, the world troubles me, my own mother’s children are angry with me; heavenly Father, plead my cause! The Lord will then speak for you some way or other.


George Whitefield, “Marks of a True Conversion,” Selected Sermons of George Whitefield, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (accessed March 16, 2007).

Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion was an uprising in Jamestown Colony in 1676 that escalated into full-fledged civil war. Led by Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. (1647–1676), against the administration of Sir William Berkeley (1606–1677), the governor of the colony, the rebellion was caused by many factors. Key were the governor’s seeming indifference to Indian raids on the colony’s frontier settlements and a simmering class struggle between prosperous planters on the eastern seaboard and small farmers in the backcountry.

Two Strong-Willed Men

Bacon, born a gentleman and educated at Cambridge, arrived in Jamestown in 1674 to start a new life. He was the cousin of Lady Berkeley, the governor’s wife, and was immediately welcomed into elite society. The governor offered respect and friendship, giving Bacon a seat on his council in 1675. He refused, however, to make Bacon a partner in the lucrative Jamestown fur monopoly, a slight that would fuel Bacon’s push for reform.

The governor had had a distinguished career. A scholar (he graduated from Oxford University) and a playwright (his play The Lost Lady, a Tragic-Comedy had been performed for the king and queen), he had also shown his mettle in frontier fighting and negotiated the treaty that ended the Anglo-Indian war in 1646. He served two terms as governor—longer than anyone in the colony’s history. Some historians suggest that when he married his second wife, Frances Culpeper, his administration took an aristocratic turn. The couple lived in luxury at Green Spring, the mansion he built on his thousand-acre estate.

Hard Times

In 1676 the colony was experiencing a variety of economic problems, including declining tobacco prices and restrictions on trade imposed by England. In a single year the colony had been threatened by floods, dry spells, hailstorms, and hurricanes. In addition, the population had tripled since 1640, increasing demand for land. The wealthiest planters had bought up most of the best acreage (in one county, according to colony records, more than one hundred thousand acres were owned by only thirty men), so new settlers—and especially indentured servants who had just been freed from their contracts—had to move farther into the wilderness, away from government protection against Indian attacks. Nevertheless, the settlers were still required to pay taxes that funded the government. The taxes were poll taxes, levied per person, rather than property taxes, which meant that an eastern landowner with many thousands of acres paid the same taxes as a hardscrabble planter on the frontier.

The trigger for the uprising was a raid by the Doeg Indians on the plantation of Thomas Mathews, who had failed to pay them for some pigs. The situation escalated when the militia retaliated against the wrong tribe, the Susquehanaugs, prompting large-scale Indian attacks. Over the years Berkeley had been careful to distinguish between tribes that were friends and those that were foes—partly because of his lucrative fur trade with friendly Indians—so he tried to solve the crisis diplomatically. He set up a meeting between the parties that went horribly wrong, and several tribal chiefs were murdered, intensifying hostilities.

Throughout the crisis Berkeley pleaded for restraint, but Bacon, seeing an opportunity, disobeyed the governor and led volunteers to the frontier, where they slaughtered and plundered friendly Indians. When the governor tried to call him to account, Bacon and his men marched to Jamestown, where he demanded formal authority to lead a war against all Indians. When the burgesses and the governor gave in, Bacon marched against another friendly tribe. Berkeley immediately declared Bacon a rebel.

In June 1676 Bacon was elected to the assembly with support from landowners who were sympathetic to his Indian campaigns. When he arrived to take his seat, he was captured and taken before Berkeley and the governor’s council. Berkeley appears to have been affected by the large crowds that gathered to support Bacon, so he offered him a pardon if he behaved “like a gentleman.” Bacon complied and was seated in the assembly. In the midst of heated debate over Indian issues, however, Bacon abruptly left, gathered his forces, and surrounded the assembly building. Tension escalated. According to some accounts, when Bacon made a demand of the governor, the governor called his bluff and told him to shoot him. Bacon refused. A while later Bacon threatened to shoot several burgesses if the governor did not make him general of all forces against the Indians and enact several reforms. Those reforms, which became known as “Bacon’s Laws”—even though they were already in the works before he made his demands—reduced the influence of the ruling few, expanding the right to vote to all freemen and allowing the populace a stronger voice in matters of taxation.

The governor and the burgesses, being surrounded, saw no option but to give Bacon the commission he wanted. When Bacon left to fight, however, the governor quickly changed his mind, denounced Bacon as a traitor, and began gathering troops to end the rebellion. Once the news got to Bacon, he returned to the capital with a force of more than a thousand men. Berkeley, his authority waning, fled to safety across the Chesapeake Bay.

Declaration of the People

On July 30, 1676, Bacon issued a Declaration of the People, which called Berkeley corrupt and a traitor. The governor, it said, had raised “greate unjust taxes upon the Comonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends” and had “protected, favoured, and Imboldned the Indians against his Majesties loyall subjects, never contriveing, requireing, or appointing any due or proper meanes of sattisfaction for theire many Invasions, robbories, and murthers comitted upon us.” The document included the names of twenty “confederates, aiders, and assisters” who were considered traitors to the king and country. That was the high point of Bacon’s power, however, because his forces were infiltrated by Berkeley’s men and many were captured. Bacon was so enraged he burned Jamestown to the ground, an act that diminished his popular support.

Then Bacon died suddenly in October, afflicted by the “bloodie flux” (dysentery) and “lousey disease” (body lice). The rebellion collapsed. Berkeley quickly regained control and hanged twenty-three of its leaders. He also seized rebel property without a trial.

King Charles II (1630–1685) had sent about a thousand troops to quell the rebellion, but they did not arrive until January, by which time Berkeley had matters under control. The king also sent two investigators, however, who were charged with determining the causes of the rebellion. When they linked it to Berkeley’s autocratic style, the king relieved him of the governorship. According to some reports, when Berkeley left for England to defend his reputation, the colonists celebrated with bonfires and merrymaking.

See also Jamestown Colony

King Philip’s War

King Philip’s War (1675–1676) was the bloodiest conflict in North America in the seventeenth century. Named for the sachem, or chieftain, of the Wampanoag people (his native name was Metacom, but the English colonists called him Philip), the war fundamentally changed the political culture of New England. At war’s end more than half of the native inhabitants had disappeared from the area—while some had fled north and west, hundreds more had been killed or sold into slavery.

Native-Colonial Relations

It is known that Metacom (?–1676) had been trying for some time to forge an Indian alliance to stop English expansion. He saw the arrival of more settlers, their thirst for more and more land, and especially their mission to convert Indians to Christianity as serious threats to his people’s way of life. Years earlier, his father, Massasoit (1580?–1661), had formed a mutual defense pact with the Plymouth colonists because his people had been devastated by an epidemic and needed leverage against other tribes, especially the powerful Narragansetts to the west. His sons, first Wamsutta (who died suddenly, two years after becoming sachem) and then Metacom, would reaffirm the alliance, although they were far more wary of English intentions that their father had been.

As sachem, Metacom saw the treaty with the English as reciprocal. The Indians provided furs and other produce that the English could either use or sell, while the colonists imported clothing and other goods that the Indians needed. The alliance also meant that each side would come to the aid of the other when attacked.

In the fall of 1674, John Sassamon (?–1674?)—who had once been an aide to Metacom—told the colonists at Plymouth that Metacom was plotting against the English. They discounted his claims, because rumors of such plots were common. Sassamon also told them, however, that he feared for his life for having told of this plot, and later that winter his body was found under the ice in a pond. An Indian came forward to say that he had seen three Wampanoags murder Sassamon and attempt to conceal his body in the pond to make it appear that he had drowned. The three Wampanoags were ordered into Plymouth court in June 1675. After consulting with six of “the most indifferent, gravest, and sage Indians”—mostly like Christian Indians, who would not have been loyal to the Wampanoags—the jury declared them guilty. The sentence was death. About two weeks later, a band of Wampanoags attacked Swansea, an English village in Plymouth Colony, and burned it. Only a handful of the seventy settlers were able to flee.

A War without a Strategy

Indian accounts do not exist, but the attack on Swansea did not appear to be part of an overall war strategy: it may have been an isolated act of revenge by young warriors enraged by the executions. Metacom clearly did not have alliances with other tribes in place to launch such an initiative, and cooperation between the tribes would have been essential to remove the English, whose population in the region neared fifty thousand. Some historians suggest that the solitary attack may have led to war because it was followed by a total lunar eclipse. Traditionally, eclipses were seen by the Indians as a divine omen of mortality, appearing at times of great sickness or war. While colonial almanacs had predicted the eclipse, the Indians appear to have been caught by surprise. The perceived omen may have fueled a desire to go to war.

After the attack on Swansea, the colonial militias mobilized, but the Indians used surprise and ambush to their advantage. The Indian braves had been trained since childhood to hunt wild animals using bows and arrows, which required stealth and expert marksmanship. Now in their first war with firearms, they used their training to good advantage. The colonial militias were thwarted because they could not see their enemies lurking in the wilderness. Furthermore, they had been trained to fire a fusillade of shots, which required regimentation to be effective. That also made large numbers of militia vulnerable to attack.

As their skirmishes continued, the Indians burned villages and destroyed crops and livestock, a tactic they had learned from the English. In 1637, during the war with the Pequot Indians, the Massachusetts militia had surrounded a Pequot stockade at Fort Mystic, in what is now the state of Connecticut, and set it on fire. Several hundred Indians died; those who did not burn to death were shot as they tried to flee. Other Indian tribes were startled when they heard of the attack, for they tried to limit casualties, preferring to capture their enemies to increase the population of their own villages. Having seen the effectiveness of the fire strategy, however, they attacked villages throughout New England, coming within twenty miles of Boston, the largest town in New England.

Throughout the fighting, only a minority of the Indians were officially allied with the Wampanoag effort. A majority of the tribes had remained officially neutral, while some were openly allied with the colonies. Roger Williams (1603?–c. 1683), who had founded Providence and gained the respect of the large and greatly feared Narragansett tribe, worked diligently to keep them out of the war. Rumors of new Indian alliances were rife, however, so in December the colonial militia made a preemptory attack on a Narragansett stronghold in what became known as the Great Swamp Fight. In an echo of the battle at Fort Mystic, hundreds of Indians were killed, many burned alive in their wigwams. The Narragansetts then entered the war, burning Providence in their first wave of fighting.

Food and Weapons Become Scarce

While the number of Indians active in the war increased, food and weapons became scarce for them over the winter. Because of the fighting, they had not tended their crops and stockpiled food, and their previous source of firearms and powder—the English—was now engaged in a war against them. Many Indians fled westward, while others surrendered. Skirmishes continued, but by the end of July 1676 the war was nearly over.

In August the colonists learned from an informant that Metacom had returned to the original Wampanoag campsite. The informant was a member of Metacom’s tribe, who claimed that Metacom had ordered his relative killed for suggesting a truce. Benjamin Church, captain of a militia unit, believed the story and followed the informant back to Metacom’s camp. After a short chase on August 12, an Indian serving with the colonists felled Metacom with one shot. Church had Metacom’s corpse beheaded and quartered. His head was taken to Plymouth and mounted on a pole.

The Opposite Result

During the fourteen-month war more than a thousand colonists died in direct action. Fifty-two of the ninety colonial towns were attacked; twelve of them were destroyed. For the Indians, however, the repercussions were far worse. The number of dead is not known, but entire tribes ceased to exist. Many of the individuals who survived fled north and west; hundreds more were sold into slavery. At its end, a war intended to protect Indian lands and heritage had achieved exactly the opposite, and the English controlled the area without serious challenge.

See also Metacom

See also Plymouth Colony

The Glorious Revolution

In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, often called the “bloodless revolution,” England’s Parliament asserted its rights over the monarch and removed the Catholic King James II (1633–1701) from the throne. In his place, the king’s Protestant daughter Mary (1662–1694) and her husband, William of Orange (1650–1702), a Dutch prince, ruled as joint sovereigns. When accepting the crown, they also consented to a Declaration of Right, which redefined the relationship between monarch and subjects and barred any future Catholic succession to the throne.

Three years earlier, when James II became king, the Protestant population was concerned that he would seek to reestablish Catholicism in England, and their fears were quickly confirmed. First he asked the House of Commons to repeal the Test Acts, which required civil and military officials to prove that they were not Catholic. (They had to take oaths in which they denied transubstantiation—the idea that during the sacrament of Communion the bread and wine were actually transformed into the blood and body of Christ—and confirmed that the “adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”) Parliament refused to repeal the laws. James took the matter to court, which ruled in April 1686 that he could dispense with the Test Acts without Parliament’s consent in individual cases. He then appointed Catholics to some of the highest offices in the kingdom and, to protect himself from challenges to the throne, established a standing army, putting Catholics in charge of several regiments.

In 1687 he issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which suspended laws against dissenters and other religious nonconformists, including Catholics. The declaration was reissued a year later, and Anglican clergy were ordered to read it to their congregations. The archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, and six other bishops refused and petitioned the king to withdraw the order. They were prosecuted for seditious libel. When they were acquitted on June 30, 1688, crowds took to the streets, burning likenesses of the pope and attacking Catholic establishments. Their reaction was stirred as well by the birth, on June 10, of the king’s son, opening the possibility of a Catholic dynasty.

With discontent escalating, a bishop and six prominent citizens invited William to invade with his army. He agreed, largely because he wanted to check the growth of French power in Europe, and he needed England’s assistance to do so. Landing at Torbay on November 5, he advanced slowly on London. Support for James II fell away, and a month later, the king escaped to France.

A new Convention Parliament met in January 1689—it was not strictly a Parliament because William, rather than the king, had summoned it. After some deliberation, the convention agreed that James’s flight had been an abdication and offered the crown, with conditions outlined in the Declaration of Right, to William and Mary jointly. They accepted. The convention then became a proper Parliament, which turned the Declaration of Right into a new English Bill of Rights. That document gave the succession to Mary’s sister, Anne (1665–1714), if Mary did not bear a child. It also barred Roman Catholics from the throne and abolished the crown’s power to suspend laws, levy taxes, or maintain an army in peacetime without Parliament’s consent.

The revolution was a major step in the gradual shift of power from the monarch to elected representatives. By excluding Roman Catholics from the throne, it overturned the concept of the divine right of kings. All monarchs thereafter would rule conditionally, based on the wishes of Parliament.

Declaration of Indulgence

On April 4, 1687, the Catholic King James II of England (1633–1701) issued a second Declaration of Indulgence, which established religious toleration and suspended laws requiring attendance at the Church of England.

We cannot but heartily wish, as it will easily be believed, that all the people of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church. Yet we humbly thank Almighty God it is, and hath of long time, been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained, nor people forced in matters of mere religion; it has ever been directly contrary to our inclination, as we think it is to the interest of government, which it destroys by spoiling trade, depopulating countries and discouraging strangers; and finally, that it never obtained the end for which it was employed. And in this we are the more confirmed by the reflections we have made upon the conduct of the four last reigns; for after all the frequent and pressing endeavours that were used in each of them to reduce this kingdom to an exact conformity in religion it is visible the success has not answered the design, and that the difficulty is invincible.


James II, “Declaration of Indulgence,” Select Documents of English Constitutional History, edited by George Burton Adams and H. Morse Stephens. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

See also Dominion of New England

See also Kingdom of England

The Trial of Anne Hutchinson

When authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony charged Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643) with heresy in 1637, they intended to do more than quiet a woman of unorthodox religious convictions. They saw her interpretations of scripture—and the size of her following—as threats to religious harmony and social order. Putting her on trial was a way to reassert the colony’s authoritarian, theocratic roots.

By the time Hutchinson arrived in Boston in 1634, she was familiar with a variety of religious views, as well as official reaction to them. She had been raised in Lincolnshire, a part of England whose residents included some Puritans who sought moderate reforms in the Church of England and others (called Separatists) who completely rejected that church. Her father, a minister, spoke so critically of the church hierarchy that he was jailed several times. Perhaps the most important influence on her later actions was John Cotton (1584–1652), a minister who had turned his church in Boston, England, into a center of radical Puritanism. She might have become a Separatist, had it not been for Cotton, whose ministry allowed some room for skepticism. Politics intervened, however, when King Charles I (1600–1649) and Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) put more and more pressure on Puritans. Cotton was banned from preaching in 1632 and fled to Massachusetts to avoid imprisonment. With her mentor gone, Hutchinson and her husband decided to emigrate with their children.

As soon as their ship landed in Boston, the capital of the Massachusetts colony, two ministers who had been on board notified authorities of Hutchinson’s radical views. She had told one minister that she received direct revelations from God, a claim that Puritans considered heretical. She had criticized the other minister for the doctrines he preached, which was unheard of, especially for a woman in a society with a male hierarchy. Before she was granted admission to the Boston church—a requirement for full participation in the community—she had to submit to several hours of questioning. The inquiry was carried out by a group that included the governor, Thomas Dudley (1576–1653), her mentor Cotton, and her accusers. Eventually the governor would express the majority view that “she held nothing different from us.”

In the following months Hutchinson began to hold small gatherings of women in her home after church services on Sunday. At first they were relatively straightforward discussions of the day’s sermons. Word of her fierce intellect and ability to talk about scripture spread, and soon some fifty to eighty people, both men and women, attended—the group often included some of the city’s business and political elite. Eventually she moved into commentary, with some of her sharpest criticism aimed at civic and church leaders.

Her most intense focus was trained on one theological issue: Was salvation achieved through a “covenant of works” or through a “covenant of grace”? Christians who accept a covenant of works believe that, if they perform good works and live as free from sin as possible, God will reward them with salvation. Puritans had always rejected this view. They believed in a covenant of grace: they would achieve salvation “only if God chooses them and extends his saving grace to them.” To Hutchinson this meant that behavior was not a factor in salvation, so a Christian was not bound by the law. She rejected the entire body of law in Massachusetts, including laws that compelled people to attend church and observe a day of rest on the Sabbath. Similarly, she rejected the authority of magistrates and ministers. (She and her followers were called Antinomians, a name that derives from the Greek and means “antilaw.”) She eventually asserted that authorities had created the colony’s many laws so citizens would behave in ways that would win them salvation—in effect, she charged authorities with advocating a covenant of works.

By 1636 the Boston church had become deeply divided, with Hutchinson’s followers were openly challenging their minister’s interpretation of biblical passages. Her influence had spread to other towns in the colony, where dissent began to be heard. In the fall the most conservative leaders took steps to curb the Antinomians’ influence.

Political Maneuvers

Before they could deal with Hutchinson, church leaders sought to strengthen their political position. First they maneuvered the elections of 1637 out of Boston to Newtown, where they hoped to find increased support among agrarian colonists and to reduce the number of Boston men who voted. Their plan succeeded, and John Winthrop (1588–1649), a staunch opponent of Hutchinson, became governor. His administration quickly passed an Alien Act, under which new settlers were required to have their religious views approved by the magistrates. The law was first used to refuse friends and relatives of Hutchinson. The Antinomians already in the colony were then disenfranchised and disarmed. Many renounced their views. Even Cotton, Hutchinson’s mentor of many years, eventually gave in and reconciled to the establishment view.

The last step was bringing Hutchinson to trial. Earlier in the fall a conference of ministers had condemned her teachings, so the proceeding before the General Court in November 1637 was really a show trial, with the verdict never in question. By most accounts, she sparred deftly with her accusers—some contemporaries said it became clear she was intellectually superior to most of them. On the second day she repeated the claim that she received direct revelations from God. She did not say that God spoke to her; rather, she suggested that she experienced the revelations through a form of biblical divination, finding hidden meanings in biblical passages. To the magistrates this assertion was heresy. “Mrs. Hutchinson,” Winthrop read, “the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society.”

A church trial followed, at which she was found guilty of blasphemy and lewd conduct because she had men and women in her house at the same time during her Sunday meetings, which was not an accepted practice in Puritan circles. She was excommunicated in March 1638. She and her family were invited to move to the Providence settlement, which welcomed settlers of all religious persuasions. About sixty followers joined her.

The authorities of Massachusetts, whose goal was to build an ideal community—a community that would be a shining model for reform of the church and society back in England—had made it clear that religious dissent would undermine that undertaking. They not only reasserted their control, they also reaffirmed the nature of the community they hoped to build.

See also Massachusetts Bay Colony

See also Providence Settlement

The Navigation Acts

Beginning in 1651 a series of trade laws, usually called the Navigation Acts, were passed by the English Parliament to tighten the crown’s grip on colonial commerce. They were intended not only to add wealth to England’s coffers, but also to wrest supremacy of the seas from the Dutch, who had dominated commerce for more than a century. The Navigation Acts placed the colonies at the center of a global war over trade.

While colonial merchants considered themselves good Englishmen, they were also savvy businessmen, trading where they found the best markets and sending their cargo on ships offering the best return on their investments. They became part of a trade network that followed the circular pattern of winds over the Atlantic Ocean. “Trade winds” blew from Europe toward the equator, across the ocean to the West Indies, and then north along the coast of North America. Ships carrying goods manufactured in Europe followed these winds, sometimes dropping off cargo in colonial outposts in Africa and then sailing west toward America. Often the ships took on slaves in African ports and delivered them to the West Indies and the colonies. The “westerlies”—winds blowing from the west—carried ships across the northernmost parts of the ocean toward Europe. Cargo from the West Indies and the colonies did not always end up in England, because the ships could just as easily dock on the European mainland wherever the goods were in most demand.

English Ships, English Crews

The first Navigation Act sought to curtail the colonial merchants’ independence. It resembled an earlier law, which required that whale oil imported to England be carried by English ships with English crews. The new law expanded that requirement, stipulating that all goods bound for England, Ireland, or the colonies had to arrive in English or English colonial vessels on which at least three-quarters of the crew were English. This was a boon for colonial shipbuilders and colonial sailors (who were considered English), but it irritated merchants, so they usually ignored the law, which was largely unenforced.

In 1660 King Charles II (1630–1685) created a new committee in his Privy Council, the Lords of Trade and Plantations, which was charged with formulating policy for the colonies. That year Parliament passed the second Navigation Act, which declared that certain “enumerated articles,” including apples, cotton, indigo (a dye), molasses, rice, sugar, tobacco, and wool, could be shipped only to England, where merchants could reexport them to other countries at greater profit. Duties were also applied to most of these commodities, especially tobacco from the Virginia and Maryland colonies. In 1663 the Staple Act required that all European exports to the colonies be shipped through England. This added middlemen to the trade network, inflating the prices of foreign goods and making English goods cheaper by comparison.

Over the next century Parliament continued to pass trade restrictions, many quite specific: the White Pines Acts (1720s) gave England first pick of New England trees suitable for ships’ masts, while the Hat Act of 1731 controlled colonial manufacture of beaver hats. A law passed in 1733 taxed the importation of molasses from French-controlled islands in the Caribbean. The Iron Act of 1750 outlawed forges for turning pig iron into steel; nevertheless, it also dropped duties that had been placed on pig iron, so it both hindered and helped the colonies.

Dominance of the Seas

Dutch traders had dominated sea routes and international trade for more than a century, building business relationships with merchants around the world. Their trade with the English colonies had become especially lucrative. When the Navigation Acts went into effect, Dutch shippers technically lost much of their business, although in actuality they still entered English colonial ports and took on goods for transport to markets in Europe and the Caribbean. Tensions rose, however, as England passed more restrictions on trade and made it clear it intended to protect its interests. Perceived flouting of the laws was enough to cause English captains to attack Dutch ships and seize cargo. The countries fought three commercial wars between the 1650s and the 1670s. The English, with improved sea strategies and larger ships, eventually overwhelmed the Dutch. English merchants were then free to expand their private fleets and dominate the seas.

For the colonists the laws started out as irritants. Merchants usually ignored them—for instance, they continued a robust, lucrative business with the French- and Dutch-controlled sugar islands, even though that trade was specifically prohibited. Smuggling was rampant. By 1686, however, the flagrant flouting of the laws became one of the factors leading the crown to revoke the colonies’ charters, merging the Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Plymouth, and Rhode Island colonies into a Dominion of New England. The king appointed a royal governor who ruled arbitrarily, abolishing local assemblies and levying taxes. The dominion was short-lived—it was dissolved in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution in England—but many governmental structures in the colonies were permanently altered. Each colony was assigned its own royal governor, and vice-admiralty courts were established to enforce all matters related to navigation and trade. Those courts, breaking from colonial tradition, functioned without juries. Instead, a single judge appointed by the governor rendered decisions. England continued to increase its control over the colonies until the Revolution in 1776.

See also Dominion of New England

See also The Glorious Revolution

Salem Witch Trials

In 1692 Salem, a community in the Massachusetts Colony, was gripped by hysteria over witchcraft. At least 185 women and men were accused of being witches. Of the thirty who were tried and convicted, nineteen were hanged; one, an octogenarian farmer named Giles Corey (c.1612–1692), was pressed to death under heavy weights because he steadfastly refused to participate in his trial. More than a hundred remained in jail when the frenzy of accusations and trials was stopped by the governor.

The causes of the hysteria, the reaction to it, and the way in which the trials were conducted can be traced back to Puritan religious beliefs, which determined the operations of the government, and to political and social tension in the colony and the community of Salem.

Puritans and Witchcraft

While many colonists believed in witchcraft, only Puritan communities held trials, convicted witches, and executed them. Before the Salem frenzy, at least fifty other cases had been tried in the Massachusetts Colony—in Charlestown in 1648, in Boston in 1655, and in Newbury in 1680.

Because they saw themselves as “God’s chosen people,” Puritans constantly sought signs that the devil was in their midst, testing their piety. They shunned science and interpreted many natural events—diseased crops, insect infestations, fires, and especially epidemics—as the work of the devil. Similarly, they were suspicious of outsiders, who were seen as direct challenges to God’s will. Indians, European settlers of different faiths, people who were eccentric, poor, deformed, or sickly—all of them might be the offspring of Satan. Puritans considered witches to be the devil’s favorite way to test their religious beliefs.

That most of those accused of being witches were female followed from church teachings. Ministers preached repeatedly about the inferiority of women, using the biblical tale of Adam and Eve as evidence. Women, according to the sermons, had inherited Eve’s original sin—she was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge—and could not be trusted. Women who gained access to power, therefore, did so only through communion with the devil. Women outside the Puritan mainstream—which could describe those who were simply strong-willed, outspoken, or unmarried—were most frequently targeted as witches. About twenty percent of those accused of being witches were men, most of whom were considered guilty because they associated with female suspects.

Because they believed that witches could harm people and the community, Puritans thought eliminating witches from their midst was a crucial way to achieve victory over the devil. Among the capital crimes codified in 1641, witchcraft was listed second, right after worshipping any God other than the Puritan God.

Convulsions and Contortions

The frenzy of accusations in Salem started in February 1692 when Elizabeth Parris, her cousin Abigail Williams, and their friend Ann Putnam were practicing fortune-telling, which they had read about in books. At some point and for some reason—perhaps because they were frightened by their experiments—the girls went into convulsions that distorted their bodies into odd positions and impaired their ability to hear, speak, and see. Elizabeth’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris (1653–1720), called the village’s physician, William Griggs, to examine the girls. He could find no physical illness; instead, he thought the girls were bewitched.

When they regained their ability to speak, the girls named three tormentors: Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good (?–1692), and Tituba, the Parris family’s West Indian slave. Each of the women fit the mold for a suspected witch in the Puritan world. Osborne, an elderly lady, had not been to church in more than a year, and poor church attendance was considered a sin to Puritans; Good was a beggar who, when she did not get handouts, would mutter unrecognizable words; Tituba, who had been purchased by Elizabeth’s father in Barbados, frequently told the girls stories about witchcraft and demons.

Once the accusations had been made, two magistrates began an investigation at the Salem Village meetinghouse. As was tradition, the defendants were presumed guilty and had no legal counsel. Magistrates asked clever questions, intended to evoke confessions. During the questioning of the accused, Elizabeth, Abigail, and six other girls screamed and tumbled onto the floor. Overlooking the spectacle was a terrified and boisterous crowd. Good and Osborne maintained their innocence. Tituba, however, confessed, talking about red rats and a man dressed in black. Historians offer several explanations for Tituba’s confession; some say she was proud of her ability as a sorceress, while others suggest she confessed in an attempt to avoid execution. The three women were jailed in Boston. Osborne would later become the first victim of the witch trials when she died of natural causes in jail.

Despite the jailing of the three accused witches, the number of accusations grew, as did fear among the general populace. Many of those named as witches fit the Puritan model of a witch—outsiders, nonconformists, a woman who had borne an illegitimate child. Rebecca Nurse (1621–1692) did not fit the mold, however, for she was a generous older woman who was well liked in the community. Putnam and the other girls testified that Nurse’s specter would float into their rooms at night, pinching and torturing them. Nurse was arrested and jailed.

By the end of May at least 185 people were jailed on charges of witchcraft. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop (?–1692), who had been accused of witchcraft in 1680 but not convicted. Dolls stuck with pins—signs of a practicing witch—had been found in her cellar. She was convicted and hanged in June. When Good, Nurse, and three other women were tried later that month, spectral evidence—testimony about apparitions that could not be substantiated—was key to their prosecution. When the jurors announced that Nurse had been acquitted, the afflicted girls howled and rolled around on the floor. The courtroom erupted in protest. The judges asked the jury to reconsider, which it did, and found Nurse guilty. The five women were hanged in July.

Public opinion began to turn when George Burroughs, who was about to be hanged in August, recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, something witches were not supposed to be able to do. In September, Giles Corey refused to answer the court’s questions, so the court, acting according to practice, ordered that rocks be piled on him until he did. Each time they asked a question, he said, “More weight.” After two days he was crushed to death. While waiting to be hanged, Mary Easty, who was Nurse’s sister, petitioned the court, suggesting that, while she knew she had been condemned to die, “more innocent blood” would be shed if the court continued on its current path. Those events affected several prominent citizens and clergy. In October the eminent theologian Increase Mather (1639–1723) told the Boston clergy, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.” Soon afterward Governor William Phips (1650–1694) issued orders to protect current prisoners and suspended arrests of suspected witches. The witch trials ended in May 1693 when Phips pardoned the remaining accused.

A Climate of Tension

For many historians, the political and social anxieties that festered in the Massachusetts colony were important factors in the accusations and trials of 1692. Over the previous five years the colony had seen its charter revoked; had been combined with its neighboring colonies into the Dominion of New England under a royal governor; and had its king replaced by a new one, who dissolved the dominion and replaced it with a new colony, combining Massachusetts with Maine and Plymouth. The populace of the new colony was far less homogenous and religiously single-minded than the original Puritan colony. These changes, coupled with a smallpox epidemic and fear of attacks by Indians, made the world unsettling.

Additional tensions gripped Salem, a community of more than six hundred that was made up of two parts: Salem Village, an agrarian community, was a few miles inland from Salem Town, a coastal settlement that was more mercantile and secular because its port handled the international trade of the fur, fish, and timber industries. The farmers of Salem Village had tried to break away, maintaining that Salem Town had become “individualistic” and had fallen away from the communal life of proper Puritans. One prominent family, the Putnams—the largest family in Salem Village, who lived the austere life of traditional Puritans—was the driving force behind that separation. They were opposed by their longtime rivals, the Porter family, which was the richest in the community. While the Porters also derived much of their income from agriculture, they were a family of entrepreneurs, with investments in Salem Town, New England, and the West Indies. Tensions between the two families increased when the Putnams tried to start a new church under Reverend Parris. The Porters disagreed with the generous compensation, paid out of community funds, that was offered to the minister; to reverse the decision, they wrested the local council from the hands of the Putnam family and its allies.

In the months that followed, eight members of the Putnam family were involved in the prosecution of approximately fifty witches. Ann Putnam was the most prolific accuser, providing testimony against forty-eight accused witches. When the Porter family tried to intervene to stop the frenzy, their efforts were thwarted and nineteen of their allies quickly found themselves facing witchcraft allegations.

Witch Trials and Government

Religious belief, a tradition of theocratic governance, and social and political tension were all factors in the frenzy that led to and sustained the Salem Witch Trials. Eventually, however, religious leaders returned to one of their most basic beliefs—the importance of a single human life—and were able to rise above the hysteria. Governmental authorities saw that the trials were undermining such fundamental principles as fairness and reason and reacted to stop them.

See also Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Trial of John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger (1697–1746) was prosecuted in August 1735 for publishing seditious and libelous articles in his newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal. The articles—which he printed, but did not write—accused the colony’s royal governor, William Cosby (1690–1735), of misusing his power and tainting the judicial system. When the jury declared that Zenger was not guilty of the crime, he immediately became a symbol for freedom of the press. Years later his name and case would be referred to repeatedly when the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was drafted.

Legal Maneuvering

When Cosby became governor in 1732, local politicians learned quickly what kind of man he was. He filed a lawsuit against Rip Van Dam (1660–1749), a highly respected member of the colonial council, who had been acting governor between the time of Cosby’s appointment and his arrival in New York. Cosby demanded that Van Dam pay him half the salary he had earned during that time. Knowing that he would not fare well before a jury, Cosby maneuvered to have the New York Supreme Court decide the case without a jury. Van Dam challenged the legality of Cosby’s action. Three members of the Supreme Court considered the matter and voted in Cosby’s favor, with Chief Justice Lewis Morris (1671–1746) casting a dissenting vote. When Cosby asked Morris for an explanation of his vote, his response appeared in a pamphlet printed by John Peter Zenger. A furious Cosby had Morris removed from the bench and replaced with the royalist judge James DeLancey.

Political opposition to Cosby, already strong, began to intensify. Morris, Van Dam, and James Alexander (1691–1756), an attorney, founded the Popular Party, intending to challenge Cosby’s governance. They decided to start a newspaper and approached Zenger, who agreed to print it. The first edition, which appeared on November 5, 1733, reported on Lewis Morris’s victory in an election for assembly, including details about the governor’s attempt to rig the vote. (He had ordered the sheriff to disqualify Quaker voters because they only affirmed, rather than swore, the oath required of voters.) In the following months the newspaper published other articles sharply critical of the governor. Some were sophisticated essays about freedom of the press; some of them referred to the governor as “an idiot” and “a Nero.” Significantly, none of the articles was published with the byline of a real person; all appeared under pseudonyms, such as “Cato” and “Thomas Standby.” Zenger’s name was the only one published in the newspaper, which is why the case was brought against him.

Until Zenger’s newspaper appeared, the New York Weekly Gazette was the only paper published between Philadelphia and Boston. The Gazette was also the official printer for the governor, the colonial council, and the assembly, so it was not surprising that the paper would carry articles in favor of the governor’s policies. The paper also began to run articles ridiculing Zenger, who was a German immigrant with a poor understanding of English. According to some accounts, Cosby sent a hatchet man to intimidate Zenger, after which Zenger took to carrying a sword. That led to more ridicule from the Gazette.

The Grand Juries Say No

Cosby tried to have Zenger jailed in January 1734, but the grand jury failed to indict him. Ten months later a second grand jury refused as well. Cosby then tried openly to ridicule Zenger’s paper, which had developed quite a following, by ordering that copies of it be burned by the public hangman. The ploy did not work: New Yorkers boycotted the event; even the hangman failed to show up.

In November 1734 Cosby ordered that a warrant be issued for Zenger, charging him with seditious libel by “information,” an alternative legal procedure that bypassed the grand jury process. It said that issues of his newspaper had printed “many things tending to raise factions and tumults among the people of this Province, inflaming their minds with contempt of His Majesty’s government, and greatly disturbing the peace thereof.” Bail was set so high that neither Zenger nor his friends could pay it, so he spent the next ten months locked in a cell at City Hall. His only contact with the outside world was through a hole in the door—even his wife had to communicate with him through the door, and always in the presence of a deputy sheriff. She continued to print the newspaper in his absence.

The case was tried before the New York Supreme Court and Chief Justice DeLancey. Zenger’s lawyers, Alexander and William Smith, challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case and questioned DeLancey’s impartiality. In response DeLancey disbarred them both. Andrew Hamilton (1676?–1741), one of the most celebrated lawyers in the colonies, then agreed to travel from Philadelphia to represent Zenger.

Hamilton’s Defense

Hamilton quickly told the court that his client did not intend to deny that he had published the allegedly libelous material. This surprised everyone in the courtroom, because the law said the mere act of publication was proof of libel. Hamilton argued, instead, that the libel law should not be interpreted to prohibit “the just complaints of a number of men who suffer under a bad administration.” He relied on the truth of the articles, which had not been questioned in court. He wondered aloud whether the standards by which libel was judged in England were appropriate for determining libel in New York. The colonies, he suggested, had developed an entirely different understanding of liberty.

DeLancey ruled that Hamilton could not present evidence of the truth of the statements contained in Zenger’s paper. “The law is clear that you cannot justify a libel,” DeLancey said. “The jury may find that Zenger printed and published those papers, and leave to the Court to judge whether they are libelous.”

Then Hamilton made clear that his real defense was jury nullification—in effect, asking the jury to disregard the judge’s legal instructions. Regardless of the judge’s charge to the jury, he said, the jury was allowed to look at the evidence and the law and decide whether a crime had been committed. Hamilton’s summation was, by all accounts, dramatic and eloquent. “It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone” that was being tried, he said, arguing that each citizen had “a liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power” by “speaking and writing truth.” He encouraged the jury to decide whether the published statements, which had not been judged false, had really libeled the governor.

The jury deliberated for ten minutes and found Zenger not guilty.

Press Freedom and Juries

The Zenger trial has long been considered a stepping-stone to the concept of freedom of the press. It was the first case in which truth was asserted as a defense against libel. As important, it made clear that the public opposed prosecutions of newspapers because they printed articles critical of public officials. The case was referred to several times while the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was being drafted half a century later.

The case’s reliance on jury nullification may have had a more profound effect, for it discouraged the government from prosecuting many such cases. A jury acting as the “conscience of the community” is not an ingrained concept—or even allowed—in all jurisdictions, but the precedent was established in 1735.

It Is the Cause of Liberty

Andrew Hamilton (1676?–1741), the attorney for John Peter Zenger (1697–1746), reportedly stunned the courtroom with his eloquent summation in the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735:

The question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not one of small nor private concern; it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequences affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause, it is the cause of liberty! And I make no doubt but your upright conduct to-day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens; but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempts of tyranny and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right—to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing the truth.


Sherman Williams, Stories from Early New York History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.

Colonial Charters

Colonial charters were legal documents, usually land grants or contracts, that gave companies or groups of individuals the right to colonize land claimed by the crown. They spelled out each colony’s future relationship with the monarch and established lines of authority within each colony. Although the crown did not provide funds with the charters, it expected to reap some kind of benefit, whether it be prestige or income.

The English crown, which controlled most of the colonies on the eastern coast of North America, issued three types of charters: joint-stock company charters, proprietary charters, and royal charters. Each type of charter allowed different internal organization of the colonies, but all guaranteed the colonists the rights and privileges of Englishmen.

Joint-Stock Company Charters

Joint-stock company charters were issued to groups of investors, many of them wealthy and many of noble rank, who pooled their resources and shared both the profits and liabilities of their ventures. The charters usually vested governing powers in a council in England, with a separate council in the colony carrying out company policy and organizing day-to-day operations. Internal organization of the companies was left up to the companies themselves. The Virginia Company, for example, reinvented itself three times trying to make the Jamestown Colony a success. At one point it added labor to the joint-stock agreement: a migrant’s passage to the colony was made worth one share of stock, which gave the colonists a personal interest in the success of the company as a whole.

The charters specified the territory in which a colony could be developed. For example, the Virginia Company was allowed to settle along the coast of North America from the thirty-fourth parallel, which crosses present-day North Carolina, north to the forty-first parallel, which cuts across Long Island Sound. The Plymouth Company could colonize between the thirty-eighth parallel, which crosses present-day Maryland, and the forty-fifth parallel, which runs through the state of Maine. The two huge parcels of land overlapped, so their charters specifically stated that settlements had to be at least one hundred miles apart.

Joint-stock companies had a fair deal of autonomy. They organized local governments according to their needs and put officials in place who would follow the companies’ wishes. A basic requirement was that any structures, laws, and ordinances developed in the colony had to conform to the laws of England. The Massachusetts Bay Company, unlike all other colonies based on joint-stock charters, was not required to have a council in London. That loophole was used by Puritan investors to establish a government that was based on their own religious principles, which provided for different rights than the settlers would have had in England—in some cases expanding and in others curtailing those rights. The loophole would become a factor in later disputes with the crown.

Proprietary Charters

Proprietary charters were issued to one or more individuals, usually friends of the king, who governed in his place. They had extensive authority to organize local institutions, although the charters usually had some provision for representative government by the “freemen of the province.” Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were proprietary colonies. Those who sought the charters intended to make money, taking the best land and resources for themselves. Many were inept as administrators, however, and lost interest in governing their ventures. Without effective leadership, political factions and bitter struggles developed over the direction the colonies would take.


Some colonies were formed with compacts, which had no legal authority from the king, rather than charters. Rhode Island, for instance, was settled by colonists who had been banished from Massachusetts. They purchased land from the Narragansett people and created their own governmental structure. Because of pressure from neighboring colonies that had charters, however, they appealed to Parliament for a charter and were granted one. The settlers who arrived at Plymouth had a land grant from the Virginia Company, but it was useless in the part of North America where they settled. They drew up their own legal document, the Mayflower Compact, as a guide for government. The colony was never granted an official charter.

Royal Charters

Over the years the English crown took greater interest in operation of the colonies, imposing closer oversight. The colonies were seen as both sources of income and weapons in the global trade war with the Dutch. At the same time, they could be irritants to the crown, ignoring royal direction and pursuing their own interests. The king’s solution was to put the colonies under a royal charter and his direct control. He appointed a royal governor—usually a wealthy aristocrat with social connections to the crown—who recommended members of a ruling council for the colony. While the governors exercised different degrees of autonomy—the personality of a particular governor could be a factor—they all operated fairly independently.

The royal governor and his council had veto authority over any representative government that existed in the colony. Some governors were arbitrary, overriding or dissolving representative institutions and legislating, levying taxes, and appointing local officials themselves. Those who ignored colonists’ concerns, however, ran considerable risk of displeasing the king, who wanted the colonies to run smoothly. Because they served at the king’s pleasure, the governors could be readily recalled and replaced.

The charters of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island were revoked in 1684 by King Charles II (1630–1685). A year later his successor, James II (1633–1701), followed up on his brother’s plan and merged those colonies and Plymouth Colony into the Dominion of New England. They operated with one royal governor wielding absolute authority until James was forced from the throne in 1688. The new king and queen, William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694), dissolved the dominion and gave the colonies back their autonomy, although Maine and Plymouth were merged into Massachusetts. New Hampshire became a royal colony, and Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were allowed to operate under their previous charters. Each colony had a royal governor, however, as well as an elected assembly and a council chosen by the assembly. By 1763 most of the colonies had surrendered their joint-stock and proprietary charters and had become royal colonies.



Andrews, Charles M. The Colonial Period of American History, vol. 1. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939, reprinted 1966.

Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Morison. New York: Knopf, 1952.

Drake, James D. King Philip’s War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Miller, John. James II: A Study in Kingship. Hove, East Sussex, U.K.: Wayland, 1977.

Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contributions to the American Tradition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Penn, William. The Political Writings of William Penn. Introduction and annotations by Andrew R. Murphy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Purvis, Thomas L. Colonial America to 1763. New York: Facts on File, 1999.

Sarson, Steven. British America 1500–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & The Summer Isles, vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Company, 1907.

Vaugh, Aldon. American Genesis: The Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little Brown, 1975.


Ditmore, Michael G. “A Prophetess in Her Own Country: An Exegesis of Anne Hutchinson’s ‘Immediate Revelation,’” William and Mary Quarterly 57 (2000): 349–92.

Greene, Jack P. “By Their Laws Shall Ye Know Them: Law and Identity in Colonial British America.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33 (Autumn 2002): 247–60.

Olson, Alison G. “Eighteenth-Century Colonial Legislatures and Their Constituents.” Journal of American History 79 (September 1992): 543–67.

Web sites

The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Colonial Charters, Grants, and Related Documents. (accessed March 1, 2007).

Digital Quaker Collection, Earlham School of Religion, (accessed March 15, 2007). (accessed March 7, 2007). (accessed February 15, 2007). (accessed February 10, 2007).

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. (accessed February 14, 2007).

Salem Witchcraft Trials. (accessed February 26, 2007). (accessed March 12, 2007). (accessed March 2, 2007).

About this article

The Colonial Era (1585–1763)

Updated About content Print Article


The Colonial Era (1585–1763)