American History: Massachusetts Bay Colony

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The Massachusetts Bay Colony, a New England Colony, was established by the Puritans in 1629. The Puritans wanted to purify the church of England, however after years of persecution they opted to instead found a new colony and start anew.

The Puritans were much different from the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims wanted complete separation from England, while the Puritans wanted to purify the church. The Pilgrims were simple men and women who were not well educated, the Puritans were well educated men and some were very influential. They also differed theologically. These differences were evident in their founding. Plymouth was successful, but only succeeded throughout tremendous hardship. Massachusetts Bay was more successful and well organized which led to them eventually exploding in population and absorbing Plymouth as its own.

The man often credited as the founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony was John Winthrop. Winthrop was a well-learned man who had acquired a substantial amount of wealth. He and other wealthy Puritans secured the land from King Charles. He served as Governor four different times and was one of the strongest and most successful pioneers of American colonial history.

The exodus of Puritans from England began once the Massachusetts Bay Company received a royal charter from King Charles I. This caused congregations to pick up their possessions and leave for the New World away from the persecution of England.


The government originally was placed in the hands of a Governor and Deputy Governor. These governors were to be elected annually by the company. As governor, John Winthrop melded the company and colonists into one unit. This helped create a self-governing community that was not governed by England, but rather the people of Massachusetts Bay. The Puritans form of government would go on to influence the forms of government in Connecticut colony, Rhode Island Colony, and the Province of New Hampshire since those three colonies were offshoots of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The second step to fusing the colonists and the company was the issue of becoming a freeman. When one was a freeman the right to vote for local government officials was granted. By admitting colonists into the company, the company ceased to be a private trading company and became a body politic. Once this was accomplished the fuse was complete.

The freemen of Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually found it inconvenient to all meet in one place and chose to elect representatives to represent their interests. It was apparent that even at the beginning there was a democratic tendency to the government. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were highly influential in the mindset of future colonists. The quote “No Taxation without Representation” was first uttered in Watertown around 1631, 146 years before the American Revolution.

American History: Massachusetts Bay Colony

The process of the government had many similarities to the current United States of America. Each town would elect two representatives and these along with the Governor and assistants would make up the General Court. The General Court acted as a legislative and a judicial branch of government. The freeman would meet annually to elect a governor, at one point they voted John Winthrop out of office because of his aristocratic tendencies. This process also became troublesome and eventually the use of ballots was introduced to tally the vote. The colonists were governed by English Common Law and the precepts of the Bible until they developed the “Body of Liberties” which was a code of laws adopted by the General Court in 1641.

Growth of the Colony

By 1640 Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown to more than 20,000 people. Quaint cabins were replaced with well built homes with animals grazing. Trade began to thrive and many in the colony became wealthy. Colonists were not coming over from England as individuals, but rather congregations and these congregations were founding cities and falling into line with the government already established. The colony was thriving, much to the dismay of King Charles I who did not care for the Puritans. King Charles planned on stifling the freedom of the colony, but had more pressing issues to deal with in England and did not have the time to worry with such things, leaving the colony to remain independent and thrive.

Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Nude Quakers

For most of the early years the governorship of Massachusetts Bay Colony alternated between Winthrop and Dudley, but in 1636 a young man named Harry Vane won the governorship. Harry Vane was a radical and his policies caused a severe rift in the colony between he and a minister named Roger Williams.

Roger Williams’ ideas were ahead of his time. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony there was no separation of Church and State. Citizenship was determined by ones religion, however Williams saw it differently. He believed that the church and state should remain separate. His beliefs were radical during his time and caused tremendous upheaval in the colony. The colonists of Massachusetts Bay were simply not ready to hear what Williams was proposing. The colony was thriving and the colonists were happy with the current system of government. The people of Massachusetts Bay Colony had labored hard and sacrificed to establish their system and were proud of their theocratic government. It was undoubtedly the right fit for the Puritans at this time and one cannot blame the colonists for not accepting Williams.

Roger Williams teaching was deemed to be so radical that he was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. He and his followers left Massachusetts Bay and established a colony in what is now Rhode Island. It was called Providence Plantations and the colony would eventually become part of the New England Confederation which Massachusetts Bay was a part of. Williams should be applauded for his ideas, for they were much ahead of his own time. However his application of these ideas were impractical at the time and one can see that his banishment was justified.

Shortly after the episode of Roger Williams had quieted, a new problem arose in the form of a woman named Anne Hutchinson. At this time the men would meet in a meeting house to discuss political and theological issues and the women were not permitted to attend. Anne Hutchinson found this to be offensive and an insult to her sex. She organized meetings at her house with some of the women of the colony and they would put forth views that disagreed with the magistrates and ministers of the colony. She argued that she and her followers were under the covenant of grace while the others were under the covenant of works. Winthrop disagreed with her views, but Governor Vane agreed with him so she was permitted to continue until Winthrop was re-elected as governor and Vane sailed back to England. The colonists became increasingly annoyed with the issue so Hutchinson was exiled from the colony and would end up in Rhode Island. Her story would end in tragedy.

The episodes of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were not separated by much time, but after their banishment the colony continued to thrive without any major problems for about 20 years when the Quakers began to arrive. The Quakers were pacifists and refused to take an oath which caused problems. In order to live in Massachusetts Bay one was required to take an oath and adhere to the religious principles that governed the colony, but the Quakers would not. The few that first came were quickly sent back to England and laws were enacted that prohibited them from coming to the colony in the future. However, the Quakers were defiant and continued to emigrate over. Laws were passed that ordered a death sentence for any persons returning to the colony after being banished. In response the Quakers not only returned to the colony, but returned in a nude state. They denounced the laws and religious practices of the Puritans.

The Puritans never anticipated actually enforcing the laws that required the death penalty for banishment, instead they were meant more as a bluff. However the defiance of the Quakers continued and the Puritans were left with two options, 1.) to repeal the law or 2.) put the Quakers to death. Four Quakers were hanged and public opinion shifted in favor of them which led to the repeal of the law. With the sacrifice of four the Quakers were able to repeal the law.

Once the incident came to a head and the laws were repealed the Quakers lived in peace with the Puritans. They settled in the frontier and developed a good relationship with the Indians.

Temporary End to the Commonwealth

The Massachusetts Bay Colony continued to thrive up until the Restoration of England. It had become a successful independent commonwealth largely due to the internal strife within England. That changed during the reign of King Charles II. King Charles became jealous of the increasingly valuable Massachusetts Bay and sought to bring them under submission. He accused them of violating the Navigation Acts and continued to pursue the end of their independence up until the final years of his life when he finally succeeded on a writ of quo warranto. This put a a temporary end to the commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay. However, the years of Independence were not forgotten and it is no coincidence that the first shots fired in the American Revolution were those in Massachusetts. For when one no freedom he does not know what he has lost, but when he has freedom and loses it he will die to taste it again. Massachusetts Bay had tasted freedom and success for decades and as generations passed, they did not forget that.