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The pre-colonial background of the settlement of Massachusetts, in common with that of the whole western hemisphere, is that extraordinary burst of discovery, exploitation and colonization in which all the western nations of Europe shared during the sixteenth century. Beginning with Columbus’s discovery, in turn Spain, Portugal, France, England, Holland, and even Sweden, set themselves to take advantage of this vast addition to the resources and the opportunities of the Old World. In this great enterprise each people revealed its own peculiar conditions and its character; yet of these nations, though it might have been expected she would have been the first to move, England was slow to take advantage of the situation thus created. Henry VII, busy consolidating the power he had won at the battle of Bosworth Field and securing the throne to his descendants of the Tudor line, did little more than allow John Cabot in 1497 a grant from Bristol customs for his discovery of Newfoundland.

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His successor, Henry VIII, ( 1509) busied in many other affairs, political, religious, diplomatic and matrimonial, did still less; and by the close of his reign, ( 1547) while Spain and Portugal had consolidated their position in the southern hemisphere, and France had secured a claim on the St. Lawrence by the discoveries of Jacques Cartier, England’s foothold in North America consisted of little more than whatever title Cabot’s discovery gave her to the northern coast; and even that was disputable by Spain and Portugal as well as by the French.

The real beginning of England’s entry into colonial affairs, then, lies toward the middle of the sixteenth century, when she was brought within the circle of the great Reformation movement and the no less important rivalry for extra-European trade by which the Protestant Revolution in Europe was accompanied and intensified. In that movement, so far as colonization was concerned, she was again anticipated by the French. Admiral Coligni’s efforts to find in the new world a refuge for his fellow-Huguenots, (1555-60) though they were blocked by Spain, pointed the way to new developments. For the moment that way was not followed by the English. The discovery of men like John Hawkins that negro slaves could be bought cheaply in west Africa and sold dearly in Spanish America, began a very different sort of struggle between England and Spain than Coligni’s colonizing experiments, but one of no less violence; and it was not for years that the English adopted the French ideas of colonization, and then adapted and enlarged the process.

The dramatic history of the Puritan groups in England and in Holland has been told in the first chapter of this work. For the westward enterprise three things were deemed essential: a guaranty of liberty in worship from the king, a patent from the Virginia Company, and means for financing the undertaking. The king refused their request, but agreed to connive at them so long as they carried themselves peaceably. A patent dated June 29, 1619, was secured in the name of John Wincob to lands near the northern limits of the Virginia Company. This was never used, but was supplanted by another, dated February 12, 1620, to John Pierce in trust, to lands practically in the same place near the Hudson River. While this may have made easier their sailing from England, it was of no other service, since they did not go to that region. [1]

While negotiations were pending for financial assistance, Dutch capitalists, learning of their ambitions, offered a location in the island of Zealand, or to transport them to the Hudson River country, furnish them with cattle and otherwise equip them, a most tempting offer. At this point Thomas Weston came to them with the proposal to organize a company of some seventy merchant capitalists into a voluntary speculative association to finance their enterprise. All the arrangements took three years to complete and were far from satisfactory; but they were the best that could be got.

The failure of the Commission of 1664 to bring Massachusetts into a tractable state was only a temporary check. King Charles and his capable minister Clarendon were entering on a vast colonial policy. Charters and grants were made in Jersey and the Carolinas. A royal government was provided in New York and the philosopher, John Locke, was called upon to draw up an elaborate project for reviving in America the feudal system which had practically ceased to exist in England. Another step in this general colonial policy was the renewal of the attempt to harness the “Bay mare.”

The economic development in the southern and island colonies made them fit naturally into England’s scheme for controlling colonial shipping, products and markets. It was no hardship for them to send their staples to England or English colonies and to receive in return English manufactures. It is quite otherwise with the northern colonies of which Massachusetts was the commercial center.

Having no staple product for exchange in England these colonies naturally turned to commerce and by the time the Navigation Acts were passed had developed under the leadership of Massachusetts a network of routes spreading out in every direction. This prosperous trade was perhaps the greatest impediment in the way of England’s new commercial policy.

The independent attitude of Massachusetts is the greatest testimony to the strength and power which she had developed in the laissez faire period of the Puritan Revolution. The Confederation of the United Colonies removed some of the interior strains. Commercial prosperity contributed an economic self-reliance. The colony was in everything except name a self-sufficient independent commonwealth. The founders felt little or no concern that the colony was fast deviating from the path mapped out in the charter of 1629, justifying all doubtful innovations in the greater law, “Salus populist suprema lex.” Massachusetts felt no hesitation over usurpation of prerogative powers when the growing trade of the colony demanded the coining of money and no sense of patriotic disloyalty when the proposition of a commercial alliance with the Dutch colonies was favorably entertained.

Nor were the terms of the charter any impediment to the territorial expansion in every direction, including the appropriation of the lands belonging to the Mason and Gorges families. Trade routes had developed in every direction with the aid of Dutch shipping, and promised increasing prosperity. By hard labor and industry and by letting nothing interfere with her will, Massachusetts had become the most powerful of all the English overseas possessions; and now contemplated making a stand for her hard won autonomy, possibly with force if necessary. [2]

Boston became the headquarters of the American Revolution largely because the policy of George III threatened her maritime interests. Massachusetts Bay is the most prejudicial plantation to this kingdom. Instead of trading only with the mother country, and producing some staple which she could monopolize, Massachusetts would spite the Acts of Trade and Navigation, and would “trye all ports,” would trade with England’s rivals, and drive English ships from colonial commerce.

Of course the queen had to do all this in order to live and prosper; and every penny won from free trade (as she called it) or smuggling (as the English called it) was spent in England. Until 1760, Englishmen saw the point and let well enough alone; but the ministers of George III believed it their duty to enforce the statutes, and make Massachusetts a colony in fact as in name. Not only their policy, but their method of executing it was objectionable.

The American Revolution in eastern Massachusetts was financed and in part led by wealthy merchants like John Hancock, Josiah Quincy, James Bowdoin, Richard Derby, and Elbridge Gerry. When the crisis came in 1775, a minority of the merchants, alarmed at mob violence, preferred law and order to liberty and property; but the majority risked the one to secure the other — and obtained both. They may, too, have been moved by the same high ideals which, spread broadcast by the voice and pen of Adams and Otis, Hawley and Warren, set interior Massachusetts ablaze. But their interests as well were at stake. If American trade were regulated by corrupt incompetents three thousand miles away, Massachusetts might as well retire from the sea. In consequence the Revolution in eastern Massachusetts, radical in appearance, was conservative in character. The war closed with little change in the social system of provincial days, although the change in personnel was great. Maritime interests were still supreme. The Constitution of 1780 was a lawyers’ and merchants’ constitution, directed toward some. [3]

The maritime history of Massachusetts during the War of Independence would make a book in itself; it has already lent color to many books. We must pass by the marine Lexington in Machias Bay, the state navy fitted out in 1775, the British attacks on Gloucester, Portland, and New Bedford. Just a word however, on privateering. Her success in this legalized piracy was probably the greatest contribution of seaboard Massachusetts to the common cause. Six hundred and twenty-six letters of marque were issued to Massachusetts vessels by the Continental Congress, and some thousand more by the General Court.

From an economic and social viewpoint, privateering employed the fishermen, and all those who depended on shipping; taught daring seamanship, and strengthened our maritime aptitude and tradition. Privateers required speed; and the Massachusetts builders, observing, it is said, the scientifically designed vessels of our French allies, did away with high quarterdecks, eased water-lines, and substituted a nearly U-shaped cross-section for the barrel-shaped bottom and unseemly tumble-home of the old-style ships. Commerce continued with the West Indies, France, and Spain in letter-of-marque ships, armed merchantmen with a license to take prizes on the side.

In the earlier years of the war, large profits were made from privateering by every one connected with it. A favorite speculation for merchants was to buy, in advance of his cruise, half a privateer’s man’s share of his forthcoming prizes. But in the last year or two of the war the British tightened their blockade, captured a large part of our fleet, and drove the rest into port. The insurance rate from Beverly to Hayti and back was forty per cent in 1780. The Derbys of Salem are said to have been the only privateering firm to retain a favorable balance, when peace was concluded. But it was a great war while it lasted!

Then came the worst economic depression Massachusetts has ever known. The double readjustment from a war to a peace basis and from a colonial to an independent basis, caused hardship throughout the colonies. It worked havoc with the delicate adjustment of fishing, seafaring, and shipbuilding by which Massachusetts was accustomed to gain her living. By 1786, the exports of Virginia had more than regained their pre-Revolutionary figures. At the same date the exports of Massachusetts were only one-fourth of what they had been twelve years earlier. [4]

Worst of all, civil conflict was impending. For some years before the Revolution, central and western Massachusetts had been increasing rapidly in population, and acquiring class consciousness. The farmer no longer blessed the merchant, but cursed him as an exploiter. All classes and sections had allied to resist British imperialism; but the war brought about much friction. Mutual accusations of profiteering and slacking were frequent. Berkshire County refused obedience to the Boston government until 1780; and few debts or taxes were paid in western Massachusetts for seven years. Notwithstanding these civil disorders, some brave efforts were made both by the Commonwealth and by private individuals, in the years near 1786, to make the state more self-sufficient. The Massachusetts Bank, first in the state, was chartered in 1784. A small manufacturing boom set in about the same time. The “Boston Glass House” was established by a group of local capitalists in 1786, and received a state monopoly for manufacturing window-glass. The Cabot family established the Beverly Cotton Manufactory in 1787. Most of these experiments closed their doors in a few years’ time. But the Charles River Bridge from Boston to Charlestown, opened on the eleventh anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill, was a financial success, and encouraged the building of several other toll-bridges that greatly increased the facilities of the seaport towns.

But the general commercial situation in Massachusetts was still most unsatisfactory. Every state, under the Confederation, had its own customs duties and tonnage laws. When Massachusetts attempted to discriminate against British vessels, her neighbors received them with open arms; and British goods reached Boston from other ports by coasting sloops. Not even the coasting trade was confined to the American flag; and the port dues were constantly changed. More commercial treaties were needed with foreign powers. Federal bounties were needed to revive fishing. Shays’s Rebellion, fortunately, sent such a thrill of horror through the states, that conservative forces drew together to create a more perfect union.

In the struggle of 1788 over the ratification of the Federal Constitution, Massachusetts was a pivotal state. The voters returned an anti-Federalist majority to her ratifying convention. By various methods, enough votes were changed to obtain ratification. A meeting of four hundred Boston mechanics (following, it is said, a promise by local merchants to order three new vessels upon ratification) drew up strong Federalist resolutions, which turned the wavering Samuel Adams. Finally the Convention ratified, by a majority of 19 out of 355 votes. The sectional alignment was significant. The coast and island counties of Massachusetts proper cast 102 votes in favor, and only 19 against, ratification. The inland counties cast 60 in favor, 128 against. For the third time in ten years, maritime Massachusetts won over farming Massachusetts.

On her proper element, maritime Massachusetts was already winning a cleaner fight: — victory over lethargy and despair; victory over powers who would cramp her restless energy, doom her ships to decay, and her seamen to emigrate. Some subtle instinct, or maybe thwarted desire of Elizabethan ancestors who, seeking in vain the Northwest Passage, founded an empire on the barrier, was pulling the ships of Massachusetts east by west, into seas where no Yankee had ever ventured. Off the roaring breakers of Cape Horn, in the vast spaces of the Pacific, on savage coasts and islands, and in the teeming marts of the Far East, the intrepid shipmasters and adventurous youth of New England were reclaiming their salt sea heritage. [5]





Light Townsend Cummins (2004) the First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. Journal Title: The Historian. Volume: 66. Issue: 1.
William Tucker (1995) States-Rights Renaissance Portends an American Revolution. Magazine Title: Insight on the News. Volume: 11. Issue: 12.
Jonathan Gruber (2006), the Massachusetts American Revolution. The Hastings Center Report. Volume: 36. Issue: 5.
Albert Bushnell Hart (1997) Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, Colony Province and State. Volume: 1. Publisher: States History Company. Place of Publication: New York.
Robert J. Taylor (1994) Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Publisher: Brown University Press. Place of Publication: Providence, RI.





[1] Light Townsend Cummins (2004) the First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. Journal Title: The Historian. Volume: 66. Issue: 1.

[2] William Tucker (1995) States-Rights Renaissance Portends an American Revolution. Magazine Title: Insight on the News. Volume: 11. Issue: 12.

[3] Jonathan Gruber (2006), the Massachusetts American Revolution. The Hastings Center Report. Volume: 36. Issue: 5.

[4] Albert Bushnell Hart (1997) Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, Colony Province and State. Volume: 1. Publisher: States History Company. Place of Publication: New York.

[5] Robert J. Taylor (1994) Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Publisher: Brown University Press. Place of Publication: Providence, RI.