The Failure of Wage and Price Control in the Massachusetts Theocracy

Email Print



This article
is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty
(1975), chapter 22, “Suppressing Heresy: The
Flight of Anne Hutchinson.” An MP3 audio file of this chapter,
narrated by Floy Lilley, is available
for download

Very shortly
after the expulsion of Roger
, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was rent far more widely
by another heresy with roots deep in the colony – the “antinomianism”
of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. A major reason for the crisis that Anne
Hutchinson’s heresy posed for Massachusetts was that she occupied
a high place in the colony’s oligarchy. Arriving in Massachusetts
in 1634, she and her husband lived close to Governor Winthrop’s
mansion in Boston and participated in Boston’s high society. A friend
of the eminent Reverend John Cotton, she first confined her religious
activities to expatiating on Cotton’s sermons. Soon, however, Mrs.
Hutchinson developed a religious doctrine of her own, now known
as antinomianism. She preached the necessity for an inner light
to come to any individual chosen as one of God’s elect. Such talk
marked her as far more of a religious individualist than the Massachusetts
leaders. Salvation came only through a covenant of grace emerging
from the inner light, and was not at all revealed in a covenant
of works, the essence of which is good works on earth. This meant
that the fanatically ascetic sanctification imposed by the Puritans
was no evidence whatever that one was of the elect. Furthermore,
Anne Hutchinson made it plain that she regarded many Puritan leaders
as not of the elect. She also came to assert that she had
received direct revelations from God.

In contrast
to Williams’ few Salem followers, Anne Hutchinson had rapid and
sweeping success in converting her fellow citizens. John Cotton
now became a follower of hers, as did young Sir Henry Vane, chosen
governor by the General Court in 1636, and Anne’s brother-in-law,
Rev. John Wheelwright. Indeed, John Winthrop (deputy governor in
1636) wrote disgustedly that virtually the entire church at Boston
had become her converts. As bitter enemies of Anne, there remained
especially Winthrop and the senior minister of Boston, John Wilson.
Mrs. Hutchinson failed in her attempt to oust Wilson from his post,
but she did succeed in having him censured by his own congregation.

The Hutchinsonian
movement began, if inadvertently, to pose political problems for
the oligarchy as well. The conscription of soldiers for a war against
the Indians met resistance from Boston Hutchinsonians, on the ground
that the military chaplain, Rev. John Wilson, was under a “covenant
of works” rather than of grace.

The anti-Hutchinson
forces moved first against the fiery Reverend Mr. Wheelwright; the
General Court narrowly convicted him of sedition and contempt in
March 1637. But the sentencing of Wheelwright was postponed. The
turning point of the Hutchinson affair came with the May election
of 1637, which the Winthrop forces managed to win by shifting its
site from pro-Hutchinson Boston to Newtown (now Cambridge). The
election pitted Sir Henry Vane against former governor Winthrop
and Thomas Dudley, running for his old post of deputy governor.
With the election turning on the Hutchinson issue, Vane carried
Boston but lost the other towns heavily. Winthrop, Dudley, and the
majority of the magistrates, or assistants, were carried by the
conservative, anti-Hutchinson faction – a not surprising victory
when we consider that suffrage was restricted to the ranks of accepted
church members.

This overwhelming
defeat spelled swift suppression for the antinomian heretics. Quickly
the new General Court passed a law that penalized strangers and
was directed against a group of Hutchinsonians known to be on their
way from England. Disheartened, Sir Henry Vane gave up the struggle
and returned to England. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, John
Cotton promptly deserted his old disciple, abjectly recanted his
“heresies,” and at a Newtown synod denounced 91 antinomian opinions
as unwholesome or blasphemous. Vane was gone and Cotton an apostate,
but there was still the Reverend Mr. Wheelwright. The already convicted
Wheelwright was again hauled before the General Court and sentenced
to banishment from the colony. Wheelwright walked through the snows
to New Hampshire in the north, where he founded the settlement of
Exeter. When by 1643 Massachusetts had appropriated the New Hampshire
towns, Wheelwright fled to Maine. But by 1646 Wheelwright had recanted,
bewailed his own “vehement and censorious spirit,” and was allowed
back into Massachusetts.

Having vented
their fury on the major followers and isolated the leader, the Puritan
oligarchs proceeded to the culminating point of the drama: the trial
and persecution of Anne Hutchinson herself. There was no independent
judiciary in the colonies; the supreme judicial arm in Massachusetts
was the legislative body, the General Court, at this time a unicameral
legislature presided over by the governor. Anne Hutchinson was hauled
up for “trial,” or rather public examination, before the General
Court in November 1637. Anne’s enemies on the General Court duly
“tried” her, convicted her of sedition and contempt, and banished
her from the colony. Governor Winthrop summarized the proceedings
thus: “The Court hath already declared themselves concerning …
the troublesomeness of her spirit, and the dangers of her course
amongst us, which is not to be suffered.”

Winthrop then
called for a vote that Mrs. Hutchinson “is unfit for our society
– and … that she shall be banished out of our liberties and
imprisoned till she be sent away….” Only two members voted
against her banishment.

Winthrop pronounced the sentence of banishment Anne Hutchinson courageously
asked: “I desire to know wherefore I am banished.”

Winthrop refused
to answer: “Say no more. The court knows wherefore, and is satisfied.”
It was apparently enough for the court to be satisfied; no justification
before the bar of reason, natural justice, or the public was deemed

The General
Court now proceeded against all the leading Hutchinsonians, concentrating
on 60 Bostonians who had previously signed a moderate petition denying
that Reverend Wheelwright had stirred up sedition among them. Two
members of the General Court, both of whom had spoken up for Mrs.
Hutchinson at the trial, were expelled from the court and banished
from the colony. Many people were disfranchised, and 75 citizens
were disarmed, on the pretext that the Hutchinsonians were plotting
to follow the path of the German Anabaptists of old and rise up
in armed revolt. The “reasoning” as expounded by Dudley at the Hutchinson
trial was that the German Anabaptists had also claimed to
enjoy private revelations. Hutchinsonian military officers were
forced to recant, but the determined Captain John Underhill refused
to do so and was duly banished.

Anne Hutchinson’s
ordeal was still not ended. Spared banishment during the rugged
winter, she was imprisoned at the home of one of her major enemies,
and the elders attempted, throughout the winter, to argue her out
of her convictions. Finally, they subjected her to an ecclesiastical
trial the following March. Tormented, ill, and exhausted, Mrs. Hutchinson
momentarily recanted, but as she continued to be denounced, her
spirits returned and she put forth her views again.

To save himself
from the fate meted out to the other Hutchinsonians, John Cotton
now apparently felt that his personal recantation was not enough,
so he joined the pack rending Mrs. Hutchinson at the ecclesiastical
trial. This man, whom Anne Hutchinson had revered and followed to
the New World, now turned on her savagely, wailing that he had been
duped, denouncing her as a liar and for conduct tending eventually
to infidelity.

The Boston
ecclesiastical court then pronounced excommunication upon Anne,
and it was the peculiar satisfaction of the Reverend John Wilson,
her most bitter enemy, to deliver the sentence:

I do cast
you out and in the name of Christ, I do deliver you up to Satan,
that you may learn no more to blaspheme, to seduce and to lie,
and I do account you from this time forth to be a heathen and
a Publican … therefore I command you in the name of Christ Jesus
and of His Church as a Leper to withdraw yourself out of the Congregation.

The undaunted
Anne Hutchinson had the last word: “Better to be cast out of the
Church than to deny Christ.”

While Anne
was undergoing imprisonment and subsequent excommunication, the
leaders of the Hutchinsonian movement gathered together to flee
the colony, and to prepare a home for themselves and Anne away from
the developing reign of terror in Massachusetts. On March 7, 1638,
19 men, including Anne’s husband, William Hutchinson, gathered at
the home of the eminent Boston merchant William Coddington, one
of the wealthiest men in the colony and its former treasurer. In
a solemn compact, the 19 formed themselves into a “Bodie Politick,”
choosing Coddington as their judge.

The Hutchinsonians
first intended to go to Long Island or Jersey to make their home,
but they were persuaded by Roger Williams to settle in the Rhode
Island area. On Williams’ friendly advice, Coddington purchased
the island of Aquidneck from the Indians, and founded on the island
the settlement of Pocasset (now Portsmouth). Anne, ill and exhausted,
joined her husband at Aquidneck in April as soon as her trial was

The enormous
significance of Roger Williams’ successful flight and settlement
of Providence two years before was now becoming evident. For Williams’
example held out a beacon light of liberty to all the free spirits
caught in the vast prison house that was Massachusetts Bay. By the
happy accident of the demise of the Council for New England, the
land south of Massachusetts Bay and west of Plymouth was free land,
free of proprietary and effective royal government alike. It was
a haven for religious liberty and for diverse sects and groupings,
and for an extension of the logic of liberty as well; for once liberty
is pursued and experienced, it is difficult to hobble its uttermost

When the ill
Anne Hutchinson arrived at her haven in Aquidneck, the many months
of persecution had left their mark and she suffered a miscarriage,
as did her beautiful young follower Mary Dyer, who had stood up
to walk out of the Boston church with the excommunicated Anne. The
Puritan leaders of Massachusetts Bay, preoccupied for years afterward
with the Hutchinsonian menace, characteristically gloated in righteous
satisfaction at the misfortunes of Anne and Mary. The theocrats
were jubilant and the Reverend John Cotton, Governor Winthrop and
the Reverend Thomas Weld all hailed Anne’s and Mary’s sufferings
as the evident judgment of God. It was typical of the Puritans to
hail the misfortunes of their enemies as God’s judgment, and to
dismiss any kindness shown them by others as simply God’s will and
therefore requiring no gratitude to those showing it.

Bay continued, indeed, in a state of hysteria over the Hutchinsonian
heresy for a number of years. Anne’s followers and sympathizers
were fined, whipped, and banished, and five years later Robert Potter
was executed for being a Hutchinsonian. It was also typical that,
with Anne outside their jurisdiction, the Boston church leaders
should send a committee to Aquidneck to try to persuade her of the
error of her ways. If they could no longer inflict violence upon
Anne, they could at least badger and harass her. It is not surprising
that the beleaguered Anne gave the committee short shrift, kicked
it out of her home, and denounced the Boston church as a “whore
and a strumpet.”

In Pocasset,
Anne was spiritual leader of the flock and Coddington temporal leader.
The Pocasset government was chosen by the assembled freeholders,
and, like Providence, the government had to consent to the arrival
of any newcomers to the colony. But Anne Hutchinson was becoming
more and more concerned for the principle of freedom of conscience
rather than for propagating her own religious views. She began to
see that Coddington and his associates were launching a new theocracy
of their own in the infant colony. For Coddington was “judge” of
the settlement, basing his decrees and decisions on the “word of
God,” as interpreted by himself. And Anne began to chafe at the
state control that Coddington was increasingly imposing.

based his seizure of power on the flimsy legalism of his being the
sole name on the deed of purchase of Aquidneck from the Indians.
Therefore, he claimed for himself all the rights of a feudal lord
owning the whole island, owning and renting out the lots of all
the settlers, and asserting authority over all land grants.

At the beginning
of 1639, Anne Hutchinson led a movement that successfully modified
the Pocasset constitution; the change gave the body of freemen a
veto over the actions of the governor, and the right to elect three
“elders” to share the governor’s powers. Thus, the increasingly
dictatorial rule of Coddington was checked.

reacted most ungraciously to this limitation on his power, and he
appointed a constable to keep watch on any “manifest breaches of
the law of God that tend to civil disturbance.” Had Anne Hutchinson
fled the theocracy of Massachusetts only to see a miniature raise
its head in her new home?

Finally, in
April, the Hutchinson forces insisted, at the Pocasset town meeting,
on a new election for governor – a demand that startled Coddington,
who expected to remain in office indefinitely and without the fuss
and bother of elections. Vigorous pressure by the freemen on Coddington
finally won the demand for elections, and William Hutchinson was
elected by a large majority. Coddington and his followers, including
Nicholas Easton, John Coggeshall, William Dyer, and John Clarke,
abandoned Pocasset and founded the new settlement of Newport, at
the southern end of Aquidneck Island.

The victorious
Hutchinsonians adopted a new compact of government and changed the
name of the town to Portsmouth. Oligarchical distinctions were eliminated,
and all the male inhabitants signed the new compact. Provision was
made for jury trial, and church and state were at last separated.
There was no provision, for example, in the new civil compact about
the “word of God,” the only rule by which Coddington had made his
decisions. Anne Hutchinson had been rapidly learning firsthand about
state persecution, and freedom of religion for all Christians was
now guaranteed. William Hutchinson was chosen new chief judge of
the colony.

The power-hungry
Coddington now mounted an armed attempt to rule over Portsmouth,
but was forcibly ejected by the Hutchinsonians. Soon, however, Coddington
was able to arrest William Hutchinson and order his disfranchisement.
Anne and her husband were again victims of harassment and persecution.

A year later,
on March 12, 1640, the two groups came to an agreement and the settlements
of Portsmouth and Newport (the latter by now being the larger of
the two) united, primarily on the libertarian principles of Portsmouth.
Coddington was chosen governor, however, and William Hutchinson
one of his assistants. The separate towns were allowed to retain
their autonomy, and the laws were to be made by the citizens rather
than by an oligarchy. And a year later, in May 1641, the Aquidneck
government declared, “It is ordered that none shall be accounted
as delinquent for doctrine.”

Religious liberty
had been officially decreed in Aquidneck. The settlements of Providence
and Aquidneck had raised the banner of freedom for all religious
creeds. In this free air, diversity of religion came to proliferate
in the colony.

Soon, however,
Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, ruminating in the free air of Rhode Island
on the meaning of her experience, came to an astounding and startling
conclusion – and one that pushed the logic of Roger Williams’
libertarianism far beyond the master. For, as Williams reported
in bewilderment, Anne now persuaded her husband to give up his leading
post as assistant in the Aquidneck government, “because of the opinion,
which she had newly taken up, of the unlawfulness of magistry.”

In short, the
logic of liberty and a deeper meditation on scripture had both led
Anne to the ultimate bounds of libertarian thought: to individualist
anarchism. No magistracy whatever was lawful. As Anne’s biographer
Winifred Rugg put it,

She was supremely
convinced that the Christian held within his own breast the assurance
of salvation…. For such persons magistrates were obviously
superfluous. As for the other, they were to be converted, not

To the Puritans
of Massachusetts, Aquidneck was an abominable “Isle of Errours”
and the Rhode Island settlements were “Rogue’s Land.” Massachusetts
began to plot to assert its jurisdiction over these pestiferous
settlements and to crush the havens of liberty. Indians were egged
on to raid the Providence and Aquidneck territories. Massachusetts
then shut off all trade with the Rhode Islanders, who were thus
forced to turn to the neighboring Dutch settlements of New Netherland
for supplies. A son and son-in-law of Anne’s, visiting Boston, were
seized and very heavily fined by the authorities, and then banished
from Massachusetts on pain of death.

In 1642, soon
after his resignation from public office, William Hutchinson died.
Deprived of her husband and mainstay, disgusted with all government,
and deeply worried about Massachusetts’s threatened encroachments
on Rhode Island (and knowing also that the Bay Colony was now regarding
her as a witch and therefore deserving of death), Anne decided to
leave once more. Taking a few members of her family and a few dozen
disciples, Anne Hutchinson left Rhode Island to go to Long Island,
in New Netherland, and finally to settle in the wilderness of Pelham
Bay. There, in late summer of 1643, Anne and her family were murdered
by a band of Indians, engaged in armed struggle with the Dutch.
William’s and Anne’s deaths were hailed and gloated over by the
Puritan oligarchy of Massachusetts Bay. To the unconcealed delight
of the divines of Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson had, finally, been
physically destroyed; but the spirit of liberty that she embodied
and kindled was to outlast the despotic theocracy of Massachusetts
Bay. Perhaps, in the light of history, the victory in the unequal
contest was Anne Hutchinson’s.

Even in the
short run, Massachusetts Bay was soon to meet again the spirit of
Anne Hutchinson – the emphasis on the inner light, on individual
conscience, on liberty – in the new sect of Quakers, a sect
joined by many Hutchinsonians, including William Coddington and
Mary Dyer, and in the Baptists, headed by Anne Hutchinson’s sister,
Catherine Scott, and by the Hutchinsonian Dr. John Clarke.


Winifred K. Rugg, Unafraid,
A life of Anne Hutchinson
(Boston, 1930).

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

Email Print