The Fall of the New England Confederation

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

 

 
 

This article
is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty
, volume 1, chapter 37, "The Restoration
Crisis in New England." An MP3 audio file of this article,
narrated by Floy Lilley, is
available for download
.

The Restoration
of the Crown in May 1660 was a fateful event for New England.
The destruction of the Puritan Revolution had ended, and the home
country could now turn its full attention to the state of the
American colonies. From the royal point of view the Southern colonies
were in satisfactory order: Virginia, always of royal sympathies,
had already restored the royal Governor Berkeley to his post;
and the Calverts had quickly returned to control of Maryland.

But in the
north, the New England colonies appeared chaotic. Not one colony
had a royal governor; all were self-governing, and three –
Rhode Island, New Haven, and Connecticut – didn’t even have
a proper charter. Connecticut and New Haven were completely without
a charter, and Rhode Island’s perfunctory charter had been granted
by the Commonwealth Parliament and thus could hardly be deemed
valid by the restored Crown. And though Charles II in his Declaration
of Breda, preceding the Restoration, had pledged religious liberty,
none of the Puritan or dissenting colonies of New England anticipated
warm treatment.

Neither were
the New England colonies reassured by the English condemnation
of those implicated in the death of Charles I. Of those implicated
14, including Henry Vane and Hugh Peter, were executed, 25 committed
to life imprisonment, and many others exiled or excluded from
public office. Two of the regicides, Whalley and Goffe, escaped
to New England, where they were protected and became the objects
of constant complaint by the English government, which was convinced
that the two were plotting to restore the Commonwealth.

The news
of the Restoration was, indeed, received as a calamity in New
England, signifying at the least the end of the Puritan republic,
which had treated these colonies almost as self-governing allies.
Typical of New England’s response to the Restoration was the comment
of Roger Williams: "The bloody whore is not yet drunk enough
with blood of the Saints." But the New England colonies prudently
decided to recognize the Restoration government: Rhode Island
in October 1660, Connecticut and New Haven in March and June of
1661, and Massachusetts trailing them all in August 1661.

The first
order of business for the three New England charterless colonies
was to preserve their self-government by obtaining royal charters.
Connecticut, one of the three, determined to seize the occasion
to annex some or most of the territory of its neighbors. John
Winthrop Jr. was sent to London as Connecticut’s agent to try
to annex all of Rhode Island, New Haven, and even New Netherland
to the west, still in the hands of the Dutch. If not all of Rhode
Island, then Connecticut at least tried to seize the Narragansett
Country, about one-third of present Rhode Island – the territory
to the southwest of Warwick and west of Narragansett Bay.

Winthrop
was particularly eager to acquire the Narragansett Country as
he was a leading partner of the Atherton Company of Massachusetts,
speculators whose arbitrary claims to the land were backed by
Connecticut. This backing was quite understandable: the Atherton
Company had been recently formed, in 1659, and had engaged in
a spurious purchase of the choicest areas of the Narragansett
Country, near Boston Neck, from the sachem of the Narragansett
Indians. Winthrop had then proceeded to use his power as governor
of Connecticut to add greatly to the possessions of himself and
his partners. In the fall of 1660 Winthrop induced the New England
Confederation to order the Narragansett Indians to pay Connecticut
a huge fine in wampum in compensation for various disturbances
in the border regions. The gracious alternative offered the Indians
was to mortgage the entire Narragansett Country to the Connecticut
government. Captain Humphrey Atherton, a major partner of the
Atherton Company, now in turn graciously paid the Indian fine,
provided that Connecticut transfer the mortgage of the Narragansett
Country to the company. By treading this path of chicanery and
coercion, the Atherton Company managed to acquire a claim –
unrecognized by Rhode Island – to the Narragansett Country
of Rhode Island. Only Connecticut jurisdiction guided by the company’s
own Winthrop could guarantee the land to the company.

Connecticut’s
designs on New Haven were also made clear before Winthrop arrived
in London. It had sent an arrogant message to the latter colony
in early 1661, asserting "our own real and true right, to
those parts of the country where you are seated, both by conquest,
purchase and possession."

Winthrop
managed, by judicious distribution of money in London, to obtain
for Connecticut a royal charter in May 1662. The charter confirmed
Connecticut’s powers of self-government and left its political
structure intact, except for restricting the franchise completely
to freemen of the colony. The royal charter granted to Connecticut
all land west of Narragansett Bay and south of Massachusetts.
By this, Rhode Island territory was reduced to the tiny area of
existing settlement, and New Haven Colony – whose existence
was not even mentioned by Connecticut in its negotiations at London
– was wiped out altogether.

It is quite
probable that the new English government, in the confusion of
the day, had never heard of New Haven Colony, and that its grant
of New Haven’s territory to Connecticut was entirely unwitting.
The problem was that New Haven, a fading colony with an economy
in decline, felt itself too poor to afford the expense of maintaining
an agent in London, and it believed that either Connecticut or
Massachusetts, its brothers in the New England Confederation,
would look after its interests. Very fortunately, Rhode Island
did have an agent in London to speak up for its interest. Dr.
John Clarke had remained there after Roger Williams’s return to
Rhode Island years before. When Charles II assumed the throne,
Clarke had urged a new charter for Rhode Island, stressing its
great principle of "soul liberty," or freedom of conscience,
and shrewdly emphasizing the similarity of that principle to Charles’s
views in his Declaration of Breda.

Now, as soon
as Clarke heard of the aggressive Connecticut charter gained by
Winthrop, he appealed to the king for a charter and for review
of the Connecticut document, which had "injuriously swallowed
up one half of our colony." In response, Edward Hyde Clarendon,
the lord chancellor, blocked the Connecticut charter and the dispute
raged between Winthrop and Clarke, with Winthrop continuing to
insist that the Narragansett lands belonged to Connecticut.

Finally they
submitted the dispute to five arbitrators, who awarded the entire
Narragansett Country to Rhode Island; the Pawcatuck River was
to be the latter’s western boundary, as in the original Rhode
Island patent in 1644. The award also provided, however, that
the Atherton Company was free to shift the jurisdiction over its
land to Connecticut. John Winthrop Jr.’s personal property on
Fishers Island, on the boundary, was also carefully given to Connecticut.
With Winthrop and Clarke both accepting the settlement in April
1663, Winthrop now joined in support of a royal charter for Rhode
Island. Finally, in July 1663, the Crown granted Rhode Island
its charter as a self-governing colony, including the Narragansett
land.

Particularly
remarkable in the charter was the explicit guarantee of religious
freedom for Rhode Island:

No
person within the said colony was to be anywise molested, punished,
disquieted or called in question for any differences in opinion
in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil
peace.

Furthermore,
Rhode Island was protected from encroachment by Massachusetts
by guarantees of freedom to trade with the Bay Colony. In general,
the governmental changes made by the new royal charter were minor:
the president’s title was changed to governor, and the number
of assistants or magistrates expanded from four to ten. The new
charter, however, did cause the removal of the important nullification
check on central government power in Rhode Island, by rescinding
the law requiring a majority of towns to approve the laws of the
General Court. Two years later the Crown restricted democracy
further by requiring that suffrage in Rhode Island, as well as
in the rest of New England, be limited to those with "competent
estates."

The Narragansett
land dispute was far from over. As soon as Winthrop had concluded
his agreement with Clarke in April, he joyfully sailed for home,
convinced that he had outsmarted Rhode Island. By the agreement
the Atherton Company was recognized as the owners of the Narragansett
lands and it was granted a free choice of jurisdiction. Winthrop
had no doubt which path his associates would choose. As soon as
he landed, Winthrop and his partners voted to shift jurisdiction
of the Narragansett Country from Rhode Island to Connecticut and
Connecticut eagerly accepted the gift. But, in the meanwhile,
in the course of drafting the Rhode Island charter, Clarke had
shrewdly neglected to include any mention of a free option to
the Atherton Company. Thus, Rhode Island obtained a charter with
unconditional jurisdiction over the Narragansett lands.

But if Dr.
Clarke did a superb job of winning rights for Rhode Island in
the turbulent years following the Restoration, hapless New Haven
suddenly found itself blotted from the map. Here was a treacherous
blow indeed from its neighbor colony, and a clear violation of
the terms of the New England Confederation.

In addition
to treachery without, New Haven was suffering increasing opposition
within – rebellion against its extreme theocratic and oligarchic
rule. The opposition denounced the severe limitations on suffrage
and longed to join the more liberal and prosperous Connecticut.
Francis Browne, for example, denounced the New Haven government
and magistrates and refused to obey laws not in conformity with
the laws of England.

When news
of the royal grant of New Haven to Connecticut arrived in the
fall of 1662, Connecticut issued an ultimatum to New Haven Colony
to surrender its jurisdiction to it. The colony refused, but town
after town now took advantage of the opportunity to shift its
allegiance from New Haven to Connecticut. First came Southold
on Long Island and then part or all of Stamford, Greenwich, and
Guilford. By the end of 1662, the jurisdiction of New Haven had
shrunk to a fraction – to its hard core. Only the towns of
New Haven proper, Milford, and Branford remained.

The core
of New Haven, headed by Governor William Leete and Rev. John Davenport,
remained adamant. The freemen of the colony voted to keep its
independence, and to appeal the decision to the king and ask for
a charter for the colony. New Haven then took its case to the
New England Confederation, charging Connecticut with gross violation
of its terms. In September 1663 the commissioners of the United
Colonies voted in favor of New Haven and its continued independence.
Connecticut, however, blithely ignored the verdict of the commissioners
and continued to demand unconditional submission. New Haven, for
its part, took heart in the winter of 1664 when the Crown’s order
to the colonies enjoining enforcement of the Navigation Acts included
New Haven in its address. This seemed to accord implicit royal
recognition of New Haven’s autonomy. Even the defection of the
town of Milford to Connecticut could not dampen New Haven’s hopes
for survival.

But in 1664
the crisis reached its culmination. The king took the first step
down the path of ending the right of self-government in New England
by sending four commissioners to New England in mid-1664 to try
to enforce the navigation laws, settle disputes, and generally
begin the process of taking over the colonies. In the meanwhile,
in March, the king decided to give to his brother James, the Duke
of York, the entire huge area of New Netherland, which England
was in the process of seizing from the Dutch: from the Connecticut
River all the way south to Delaware Bay – virtually the entire
middle area between New England and the Southern colonies of Chesapeake
Bay. For good measure, James was also granted all of central and
eastern Maine, from the Kennebec River east to St. Croix on the
Canadian border.

The huge
grant to the Duke of York startled Connecticut, for all of Long
Island now belonged to the duke. In 1650 New England had come
to an amicable agreement with the Dutch for partitioning Long
Island: three-quarters of the island east of Oyster Bay went to
Connecticut or New Haven, and Dutch sovereignty was virtually
limited to Long Island areas that now are Nassau County and part
of New York City. Now, suddenly, the Long Island towns had been
transferred to the Duke of York. But far more dangerous was the
fact that James was now granted all land west of the Connecticut
River. This meant the virtual eradication of the colony of Connecticut;
all the significant towns in the colony, except New London, were
located west of this river. Its charter thus completely negated,
and being anxious to present the royal commission with a fait
accompli, Connecticut again demanded total submission from New
Haven and sent its agents to that colony to take over the government.

The other
colonies also wanted to settle matters as quickly as possible.
The commissioners of the United Colonies reversed their stand
in September and endorsed Connecticut’s appropriation of New Haven.
Finally, in November the royal commissioners agreed and decided
that all the New Haven area belonged to Connecticut.

The blow
was final. The Crown had decided. In December 1664 the New Haven
General Court surrendered but under bitter protest to the last,
denouncing the injustice imposed by Connecticut. New Haven Colony
was ended, and the towns became part of the considerably more
liberal colony of Connecticut.

The
most extreme and rigid Puritan theocracy in New England was thus
no more. The Reverend John Davenport, founder and spiritual chief
of New Haven, moved to the ministry of First Boston Church, there
to end his days in bitter controversy, as the foremost and most
relentless enemy of the Half-Way
Covenant
.

As for Branford’s
zealous minister, Rev. Abraham Pierson, he had led his flock there
from Southampton, Long Island, two decades before, when that town
had decided to join the lax rule of Connecticut. He was not now
prepared to give up the strict theocratic ideal, and so he moved
his flock once more, this time to found another theocratic settlement
in former Dutch territory at New Ark, on the banks of the Passaic
River.

With New
Haven seized by Connecticut, the New England Confederation came
to a virtual end. Although it formally existed for 20 more years,
its annual meetings ceased and it no longer played a significant
role in New England affairs.

Murray
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.

Copyright
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare