Chronicles of America 

John Winthrop and the Cambridge Agreement

But events were moving rapidly in England. Between March, 1629, and March, 1630, Parliament was dissolved under circumstances of great excitement, parliamentary privileges were set aside, parliamentary leaders were sent to the Tower, and the period of royal rule without Parliament began. The heavy hand of an autocratic government fell on all those within reach who upheld the Puritan cause, among whom was John Winthrop, a country squire, forty-one years of age, who was deprived of his office as attorney in the Court of Wards. Disillusioned as to life in England because of financial losses and family bereavements, and now barred from his customary employment by act of the Government, he turned his thoughts toward America. Acting with the approval of the Earl of Warwick and in conjunction with a group of Puritan friends — Thomas Dudley, Isaac Johnson, Richard Saltonstall, and John Humphrey,— he decided in the summer of 1629 to leave England forever, and in September he joined the Massachusetts Bay Company. Almost immediately he showed his capacity for leader, ship, was soon elected governor, and was able during the following winter to obtain such a control of affairs as to secure a vote in favor of the transfer of charter and company to New England. The official organization was remodeled so that only those desiring to remove should be in control, and on March 29, 1630, the company with its charter, accompanied by a considerable number of prospective colonists, set sail from Cowes near the Isle of Wight in four vessels, the Arabella, the Talbot, the Ambrose, and the Jewel, the remaining passengers following in seven other vessels a week or two later. The voyages of the vessels were long, none less than nine weeks, by way of the Azores and the Maine coast, and the distressed Puritans, seven hundred altogether, scurvy-stricken and reduced in numbers by many deaths, did not reach Salem until June and July. Hence they moved on to Charlestown, set up their tents on the slope of the hill, and on the 23rd of August, held the first official meeting of the company on American soil; but finding no running water in the place and still pursued by sickness and death, they again removed, this time to Boston, where they built houses against the winter. With the founding of this colony — the colony of Massachusetts Bay — a new era for New England began.


Painting by Charles Osgood, 1834, copied from the original in the State House, Boston. In the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

This grant of territory to the Massachusetts Bay Company and of the charter confirming the title and conveying powers of government put a complete stop to Gorges's plans for a final proprietorship in New England. Gorges had acquiesced in the first grant by the New England Council because he thought it a sub-grant, like that to Plymouth, in no way injuring his own control. But when in 1632, he learned the true inwardness of the Massachusetts title and discovered that Warwick and the Puritans had outwitted him by obtaining royal confirmation of a grant that extinguished his own proprietary rights, he turned on Warwick, declared that the charter had been surreptitiously obtained, and demanded that it be brought to the Council board. Learning that it had gone to New England, he forced the withdrawal of Warwick from the Council, and from that time forward for five years bent all his efforts to overthrow the Puritan colony by obtaining the annulment of its privileges.

In this attempt, he was aided by Captain John Mason, an able, energetic promoter of colonizing movements who had already been concerned with settlements in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and who was zealous to begin a plantation in the province of Maine. Mason had received grants from the Council, both individually and in partnership with Gorges, and had visited New England in the interest of his claims. Through the influence of Gorges, he was now made a member of the Council and joined in the movement to break the hold of the Puritans upon New England. He and Gorges found useful allies in three men who had been driven out of Massachusetts by the Puritan leaders soon after their arrival at Boston — Thomas Morton of Merrymount, Sir Christopher Gardiner, a picturesque, somewhat mysterious personage thought to have been an agent of Gorges in New England, with methods and morals that gave offense to Massachusetts, and Philip Ratcliffe, a much less worthy character given to scandal and invective, who had been deprived of his ears by the Puritan authorities. These men were bitter in their denunciation of the Puritan government.

The situation was perilous for the new colony, which was hardly yet firmly established. In direct violation of the royal commands, hundreds of men and women were leaving England — not merely adventurers or humble Separatists, but sober people of the better classes, of mature years and substantial characters. When, therefore, Gorges and the others meeting at Gorges's house at Plymouth brought their complaints to the attention of the Privy Council, they were listened to with attention, and instructions were sent at once to stop the Puritan ships and to bring the charter of the Massachusetts Company to the Council board. To check the Puritan migration and to institute further inquiry into the facts of the case a commission was appointed in 1634, with Archbishop Laud at its head, for the special purpose, among others, of revoking charters "surreptitiously and unduly obtained." Gorges and Morton appealed to Laud against the Puritans, and Morton wrote his New England Canaan, which he dedicated to Laud, in the hope of exposing the motives of the colony and of arousing the Archbishop to action. Warwick threw his influence on the side of Massachusetts, being always forward, as Winthrop said, "to do good to our colony"; and the colony itself, fearing attack, began to fortify Castle Island in the harbor and to prepare for defense. Endecott, in wrath, defaced the royal ensign at Salem, and so intense was the excitement and so determined the attitude of the Puritans that, had the Crown attempted to send over a Governor-General or to seize the charter by force, the colony would have resisted to the full extent of its power.

Gorges, believing that he could work better through the King and the Archbishop than through the New England Council, brought about the dissolution of that body in 1635, thus making it possible for the King to deal directly with the New England situation. Before its dissolution the Council had authorized Morton, acting as its lawyer, to bring the case to the attention of the Attorney-General of England, who filed in the Court of King's Bench a complaint against Massachusetts, as a result of which a writ of quo warranto was issued against the Company.

The outlook was ominous for Puritanism, not only in New England but in old England as well. That year saw the flight of the greatest number of emigrants across the sea, for the persecution in England was at its height, the Puritan aristocracy was suffering in its estates, and Puritan divines were everywhere silenced or dismissed. Even Warwick was shorn of a part of his power. Young Henry Vane, son of a baronet, had already gone to America, and such men as Lord Saye and Sele, Lord Brooke, and Sir Arthur Haslerigg were thinking of migrating and had prepared a refuge at Saybrook where they might find peace. But the turn of the tide soon came. The royal Government was bankrupt, the resistance to the payment of ship-money was already making itself felt, and disturbances in the central and eastern counties were absorbing the attention and energies of the Government. Gorges, left alone to execute the writ against the colony, joined with Mason in building a ship for the purpose of carrying the quo warranto to New England, but the vessel broke in the launching, and their resources were at an end. Mason died in 1635, and Gorges, an old man of seventy, bankrupt and discouraged, could do no more. Though Morton continued the struggle, and though, in 1638, the Committee of the Council for Foreign Plantations (the Laud Commission) again demanded the charter, the danger was past: conditions in England had become so serious for the King that the complaints against Massachusetts were lost to view. At last in 1639 Gorges obtained his charter for a feudal propriety in Maine but no further attempts were made to overthrow the Massachusetts Bay colony.

During the years from 1630 to 1640, the growth of the colony was extraordinarily rapid. In the first year alone seventeen ships with two thousand colonists came over, and it is estimated that by 1641 three hundred vessels bearing twenty thousand passengers had crossed the Atlantic. It was a great migration. Inevitably many went back, but the great majority remained and settled in Boston and its neighborhood — Roxbury, Charlestown, Dorchester, Cambridge, and Watertown, where in 1643 were situated according to Winthrop "near half of the commonwealth for number of people and substance." From the first the colonists dispersed rapidly, establishing in favorable places settlements which they generally called plantations but sometimes towns. In these they lived as petty religious and civil communities, each under its minister, with civil officials chosen from among themselves. In the decade following 1630 the number of such settlements rose to twenty-two. The inhabitants were almost purely English in stock, with here and there an Irishman, a few Jews, and an occasional negro from the West Indies. Nearly all the settlers were of Puritan sympathies, and of middle-class origin — tenants from English estates, artisans from English towns, and many indentured servants. A few were of the aristocracy, such as Lady Arabella Johnson, daughter of the Earl of Lincoln, Sir Richard Saltonstall, Lady Deborah Moody, members of the Harlakenden family, young Henry Vane, Thomas Gorges, and a few others. Of " Misters " and " Esquires " there was a goodly number, such as Winthrop, Haynes, Emanuel Downing, and the like. The first leaders were exceptional men, possessed of ability and education, and many were university graduates, who brought with them the books and the habits of the reader and scholar of their day. They were superior to those of the second and third generation in the breadth of their ideas and in the vigor and originality of their convictions.

Migration ceased in 1641, and a time of stress and suffering set in. Commodities grew scarce, prices rose, many colonists returned to England leaving debts behind, and as yet the colony produced no staples to exchange for merchandise from the mother country. Some of the settlers, discouraged, went to the West Indies; others, fleeing for fear of want, found their way to the Dutch at Long Island. Pressure was brought to bear at various times to persuade the people to migrate elsewhere as a body, to Old Providence and Trinidad in the Caribbean, to Maryland, and later to Jamaica; but these attempts proved vain. The Puritan was willing to endure hardship and suffering for the sake of civil and religious independence, but he was not willing to lose his identity among those who did not share his faith in the guiding hand of God or who denied the principles according to which he wished to govern his community. At first the leaders of the migration were Nonconformists not Separatists. Francis Higginson, Endecott's minister at Salem, had declared in 1629 that they did not go to New England as separatists from the Church of England but only as those who would "separate from the corruption in it"; and Winthrop used "Easter" and the customary names of the months until 1635. But the Puritans became essentially Separatists from the day when Dr. Samuel Fuller of Plymouth persuaded the Salem community, even before the company itself had left England, to accept the practices of the Plymouth Church. Each town consequently had its church, pastor, teacher, and covenant, and became an independent Congregational community — a circumstance which left a deep impress upon the life and history of New England.

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