Cambridge, The Focal Point Of Puritan Life (Part Two)

Catch up on part one of this post here!

By Henry Hallam Saunderson
Read April 22, 1947


Puritans And Politics

It was early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth that this party which loved the Bible supremely and asserted the right of private judgment came to have a name, and that name was invented by one of their most powerful critics and enemies. The work “Puritan” was applied to them in derision, but it came to be a term of honor. It was inevitable that when tens of thousands of men in England were united in a supreme religious purpose they should come to have a sense of solidarity. When they acquired a definite name they gained in influence and importance. As this party gathered unto itself the men who were most original in their thinking, most independent in their judgment, most spiritual in their interpretation of religion, the party of the Puritans came to have a large political significance as well as an enormous religious meaning. Being ready to defy the archbishop and the sovereign in religious matters, they ceased to be docile and meek in governmental matters. Just as they championed the right of men to think for themselves in religion, they became the leaders of political reform. During the long reign of Elizabeth the Puritans were able continuously to elect a majority of the English House of Commons. In the meetings of that company of representatives of the common people, men gained priceless experience in the methods of popular government. They learned to think in terms of the welfare of the whole nation; they learned how to make motions and second them and debate them and vote upon them. Their autocratic sovereign might veto their decisions, but they did not find that to be any reason for desisting from their plan and purpose of gaining for the common people a large influence in governmental matters. Puritanism came to be the representative of the aspirations of the common people for a larger degree of political freedom.

The Puritans believed, just as strongly as did the high-church party, that in England there should be one great established church; but they believed that the church should be thoroughly purified of its inheritance from the dark ages. The Puritans were willing to use the Book of Common Prayer, but they resisted the claims made in its behalf, that it was to have autocratic authority over their consciences and their religious habits.

The Puritans placed great emphasis upon education; they wanted the common people to have increased opportunities for enlightenment. Especially they wanted a scholarly ministry; they wanted to provide a sufficient number of educated men to fill their pulpits; men who were capable of addressing intelligent audiences and stating religion in intelligent terms. They wanted a ministry which would encourage in people originality of thinking, and who would cultivate in the people direct personal, vital experience of God.

The high-church party distrusted the general spirit of enlightenment; they distrusted the movement for encouraging the people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves; they feared the growing movement for popular government; they looked with alarm upon the leaders of the House of Commons. They did their utmost to impress upon the people the attitude of meekness and docility. They were willing to fill the pulpits of the parish churches with men who would obediently read the prescribed ritual.

Time after time there were tragic movements for the suppression of Puritanism. Hundreds and hundreds of the most devout and the most highly educated and the most progressive of the clergymen of the Church of England were deprived of their livings. Poverty and exile and death were used as the terrible means for enforcing conformity, but the Puritan movement combined within itself the Progressive Party in English politics and the broad-church party in the established Church of England. Between Puritanism and the authorities of the Church there was an irrepressible conflict.

Intensifying The Conflict

Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the history of England enters upon a new era. James VI. of Scotland became James I. of England, and he was the first of the Stuart line of kings. Queen Elizabeth had asserted, as had her father, Henry VIII., that the sovereign of England was the head of the Church of England; but James I., exceedingly arrogant, carried that idea further than his predecessor had ever dreamed of carrying it. He definitely formulated the idea of the “divine right of kings.” He was determined to push the principle of autocracy in church and state to its utmost limits.

After a reign of twenty-two years, James I. was succeeded by his son, Charles I., a man as obstinate, as arrogant, and as opinionated as his father, but with even less of wisdom or of tact. When James I. died in 1625 there were some things in his autocratic policies that were not yet carried through to completion. Charles I. determined, not only to do what his father would have liked to do, but to go beyond even his father’s policies.

Charles I. saw that Puritanism dominated the English House of Commons, — therefore he resolved to get rid of that power which sought to restrict him. He demanded of Parliament a vote of large sums of money to be raised by taxation in order that the royal plans might be carried out. Parliament was willing to grant the King modest sums of money on condition of political and religious reforms. The lines came to be very sharply drawn. The House of Commons stood for the rights of the people of England, and was determined to control taxation. The King pushed, even further than had his royal father, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and regarded as treason and blasphemy all endeavors to resist the royal will. Therefore Charles I. resolved to rule England without Parliament, and to raise vast sums of money by extortion.

Discoveries and explorations had given to the people of England a knowledge of a new continent to the westward. During these trying times many of the Puritan people were saying that if in England they could not carry out their progressive plans in religion and politics they might create a new England in the North American wilderness. It seems paradoxical that Charles I. was pleased with this plan, but he saw in it two possibilities which seemed to favor his policies. He saw first that a migration of Puritans across the Atlantic would divide his opponents. He believed, too, that if a large company of English people were developing the virgin resources of the American seacoasts, forests, streams, fields, and possibly the mines, he might, by new taxation, fill his depleted treasury from these new sources.

It is one of the strangest paradoxes of all history that during one week in March, 1629, Charles I. dissolved the English Parliament, not to reassemble it for a decade, and also signed the charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay.

The Great Migration

It was a common thing in those days for the head of a business organization to be called Governor; and at that time there were many projects for transporting large numbers of people to distant parts of the world in order to develop new resources. Charles I. believed that he was signing the charter of a commercial company. The Puritans, however, were determined that the organization of that company should be the beginning of a movement for a new political government. In the course of a few months John Winthrop was named Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Charles I. regarded that title as equivalent to that of business manager of a colonizing corporation. The Puritans knew that his title of Governor was to carry with it the significance of head of the new government.

The Puritans were shrewd enough in their negotiations with the King to avoid saying anything in the charter about where the seat of government should be. In their hearts they were determined that it should not be kept in England nor under royal control. When the charter had been signed it was guarded as a priceless possession; and in April 1630 John Winthrop, with a little fleet of ships, set sail for the North American coast, carrying with him that charter which was destined to be the foundation for a new government of mighty influence. He arrived in the harbor of Salem in June 1630, and, after a brief survey of that part of the coast, he sailed into the mouth of the Charles River and made his final landing. With their feet upon American soil the people that were with him held a popular election and John Winthrop was thus elected Governor of Massachusetts.

During the next ten years twenty thousand people followed in this migration and established many communities and developed their colonial government. What they did in that decade is one of the great achievements of human history.

Now let us review the early years here. There is something highly dramatic about the Puritan migration. Sometimes the congregation of a church in England acted in cooperation. The able-bodied people turned their immovable property into money, gathered up their portable possessions, arranged for ships for the voyage, and migrated together. Arrived here, they explored what was to them unknown territory, made a quick choice of an area to be settled upon, and proceeded with haste to build homes for permanent living. In such a group you have more than the sum of the individuals: you have fellowship, a united purpose, a spirit of cooperation.

During the long voyages there must have been much discussion of the vital problems of what must be done in the new life and how it should be done. Especially did the leaders of this great migration shape tentative plans for their new life. But in our study of this movement, which established this Commonwealth and shaped a pattern for our Republic, we should keep constantly in mind that the whole movement was an experiment. These men were doing something which had never been done before, and for which there were no precedents. The leaders of the movement had a charter for a commercial company; but under that charter they were determined to create a political government. They knew that what they did in that project would arouse the suspicion of King Charles, and that armed conflict might result. Their concern over this phase of their enterprise was fully justified even before their migration was completed.

A Capital For The Colony

This gave great importance to the plans of the leaders for a seat of government. They began promptly to explore the land with this problem in view. Groups of people chose for settlement Salem, Charles-town, Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester and Watertown. But the leaders decided, before the end of December 1630, to create a town for the definite purpose of making it the seat of government. Boston was regarded as too vulnerable if the royal ships should make an invasion; and so the choice was made of what is now Old Cambridge; and the name Newtowne was chosen for this community.

Many of us can remember when the tides flowed and ebbed in this part of the Charles River. Doubtless some of you remember when your winter’s supply of coal came on barges which were towed up the river. Our early settlers believed that the royal ships would not undertake to come up the river. So the matter of safety was a strong argument for this choice. Another argument was convenience for those who lived in various other towns, and who would live in towns yet to be settled.

Thus Newtowne was started. The agreement was hastily made that the officers of government should build, each one, his house here; except one already settled in Salem and one who returned to England. In 1631 Thomas Dudley proceeded in good faith to build his home here, as did also his son-in-law Simon Bradstreet. Thus Thomas Dudley, Deputy-Governor, became the real founder of this community. The Governor, John Winthrop, began to build a house but did not complete it.

The convenience of holding meetings of the Governor, Deputy-Governor and the Assistants was a strong argument for the plan of each one building his house here. But there was also the problem of how these men should make a living. If by salt-water commerce, Boston Harbor was greatly superior to these shores of the Charles River. Then, too, the officers of government had very important duties in guiding the newly arriving shiploads of people. These people were coming in great numbers — averaging two thousand each season. They needed quick decisions made as to where they should look for land for their new settlements. Therefore it is not to be regarded as failure to keep good faith that so many of the men in the government revised the plan for building their houses in Newtowne.

This does not mean, however, that the idea of Newtowne as the capital was abandoned immediately. The General Court, as the officers of the government were called, met first at Charlestown in the summer of 1630. From then till May 1634 the sessions were held in Boston. Then they were held in Newtowne till May 1636. A session was next held at Boston but Newtowne was again the chosen place from April 1637 to September 1638. After that Boston was definitely chosen as the place of meeting.

This applies to the sessions of the General Court. But there were other gatherings of great importance. Occasionally a call went out for a general assembly of the whole voting population of the colony. And this community was the place most convenient for such a gathering. If on Cambridge Common you follow the walk nearest to Massachusetts Avenue, and pause at a spot opposite the Hemenway Gymnasium, you can see a substantial tablet. It marks the site of an oak tree, which had attained impressive size in those early years. That tree was often used as a landmark for these general assemblies of the Freemen — the legal voters — of the Colony. The tree has disappeared but a young scion of the Washington Elm stands in its place. This ancient oak is important in our further story. The open-air elections were held there and had important results in the government of the Colony. It marked an important point in Puritan life.

Taxation And Representation

Meantime another phase of the plans for Newtowne as the capital had unexpected consequences. The community was to be made safer by the building of a palisade. As the safety of the Capital was of value to the whole colony, the General Court announced a tax on all the towns to pay for the palisade. The total tax was sixty pounds and this was assessed in approximately equal sums on the various towns. The amount to be paid by our near neighbor, Watertown, was eight pounds.

Watertown had been settled in 1630 by Sir Richard Saltonstall and a group of about forty men who set sail from Cowes, England, near the Isle of Wight, their ship being part of Winthrop’s fleet. On July 30, in the year 1630, these men met for prayer and consultation. They drew up a church covenant and signed it; and thus became the second church of this Puritan migration, its only predecessor being the church in Salem. Thus Watertown was founded.

George Phillips was the first minister of the church in Watertown, and his pastorate continued for fourteen years. He was a man of deep religious convictions and also had large ability as a leader in secular affairs.

Incidentally, let us note that the General Court, holding a session in Charlestown on September seventh, 1630 ordered that “Trimountain be called Boston; Mattapan, Dorchester; and the town upon the Charles River, Watertown.” Thus was chosen the name of that new settlement.

Under the leadership of their minister, George Phillips, the men of Watertown gave evidence of clear thinking on fundamental questions of government. When this tax for the palisade protecting Newtowne was levied, a meeting of the men of Watertown was called and the matter was debated at length. The decision was reached to protest against the tax — not from any objection to Newtowne as the capital, nor from any criticism of the plan for its protection, but on the ground that taxes could not legally be levied by the government of the colony without the consent of the people who were to pay the tax.

The amount of money involved in the incident was small, but the principle was vastly important. The people feared that this tax would establish a precedent. Their statement included the declaration that it was “not safe to pay monies after that sort, for fear of bringing themselves and posterity into bondage.” The leaders of Watertown were summoned before the General Court to be examined for their resistance. Their argument was that they could not lawfully be taxed without their consent. A fresh examination of the Charter of the Colony showed that it did not contain any provision for raising money by such taxation. The men of Watertown won their argument that day.

The incident led to a radical change in the government of the Colony. It was agreed that each town choose deputies who should share in the government. This established the pattern of government for our Commonwealth, giving us our State Senate and our House of Representatives. And this is reproduced in the Congress of this Republic.

Be it noted again that those early creators of this Commonwealth were making a great experiment. They explored their procedure step by step. They had a charter for a commercial company; and only slowly could they evolve the constitution of a new political government. They had to maintain their charter in order that they might continue their colonial experiment. It was an achievement of a high degree of importance that they did succeed in carrying their political adventure through to a splendid success.

The plan of a palisade for the protection of Newtowne was carried through. A writer in 1633 speaks of its site as “too far from the sea, being the greatest inconvenience it hath.” But he goes on to say that it is “one of the neatest and best compacted townes in New England” and adds that the inhabitants are prosperous and have plenty of cattle. He says that they have “many hundred acres of land paled in with a general fence, which secures all their weaker cattle from the wild beasts.”

There is evidence that some of the poles, driven into the ground to form the palisade, took root, and produced trees which have not yet died out entirely. It was in 1632 that the General Court imposed the tax for this palisade. Evidently the project was completed promptly and a good many families availed themselves of its added protection.


This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 32, from the years 1946-1948.