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The North End: site of America’s first revolution

We celebrate the Fourth of July as Independence Day because on that day in 1776 members of Congress signed the final version of the Declaration of Independence (though some historians argue they signed it almost a month later). The American Revolution was already underway by that time, having been sparked by events in Massachusetts, some of them right in the North End. Among these was the second of two Stamp Act riots, which took place on Aug. 26, 1775, when members of the North End and South End gangs ransacked the North End home of future Governor Thomas. Better known, of course, was the act of hanging two lanterns atop the Old North Church by Robert Sexton on April 18, 1775, under the instructions of North Ender Paul Revere, followed by his famous ride.

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

I don’t intend to go over these familiar events in the North End, though they are ever so important to the birth of our Republic. Instead, I want to talk about some events that occurred in the North End and Boston more than 80 years earlier, on April 18, 1689, which some have referred to as the first American Revolution. A few days earlier, the governor of the colony, Edmund Andros, ordered the arrest of Cotton Mather, pastor of Boston’s Second Church, which then stood at North Square. Mather was accused of being one of the ringleaders of a growing movement against a government that the people of Boston regarded as an occupying and foreign power. But Mather was not arrested that day. Instead, the people of Boston rose to Mather’s defense, and arrested the governor and other chief magistrates instead. They then asked Mather to draw up a declaration that explained and justified their rebellion, a document some have suggested was a model for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

To understand how and why these events occurred, I need to explain a few facts about the early Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony was set up in 1630 by about 700 people coming in 17 ships lead by John Winthrop. Winthrop had been the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company, established in England under a Charter by King Charles I. Charters were often given to towns, cities, colonies and corporations. The charter was essentially a constitution that described the rights and responsibilities of the members of the entity and established a relationship between the entity and the legal authority of England. The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company was typical of other charters, except for one very vital element: it did not stipulate where the headquarters of the company should be established, which invariably was somewhere in England. John Winthrop and the other leaders of the company, Puritans all, saw this as a golden opportunity. They promptly decided that the company headquarters would be a place in Massachusetts, to be explored and settled as soon as possible.

By this time, there were other English settlers in Massachusetts, most of them some form of Puritan. There was the famous colony of Plymouth, founded in 1620, and a settlement on Cape Ann set up in 1623. (Some of the Cape Ann people would later form Salem in 1626.) Another colony had been set up in what is now Weymouth in 1622 and 1623, but failed for various reasons. Many members of these settlements had dispersed to live in what would become Dorchester, Boston, Charlestown and Malden, sometimes in small groups but often alone as was the case of William Blaxton, who settled on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1625.

So Winthrop’s people knew that they would find both land and friends in the Massachusetts Bay area. Tthe majority of the Native American population of the region had perished through diseases inadvertently brought by European fisherman and traders between 1616-1618; those who remained had close contacts with the incoming settlers.) Thus, they first stopped at Salem, rested and reconnoitered from there. They eventually decided that the area that would soon become Boston was the ideal place for them to set up a colony, and the ships made their final stop there in July of 1630.

I do not want to bore you with a detailed history here, so let me summarize the years from 1630 to 1689 very briefly:

The Massachusetts Bay Colony flourished. Shawmut Peninsula became the center of the colony, with the North End of the peninsula becoming the most populous portion town of Boston. The governor and other leaders of the Mass Bay Company were the leaders of the Mass Bay Colony, properly authorized in New England by their charter from King Charles I. The Charter stipulated that they could not make laws that went against the laws of England, but beyond that gave them free reign to set up and run their colony as they choose – which for them meant that it would reflect Puritan values. The king and his government soon realized the freedom allowed by the charter and sought to revoke it. Fear of an attack by England was one of the motivations for creating the North Battery in 1644 (Battery Wharf). The English Civil War and the victory of the Puritan Cromwell meant that the Mass Bay Colony was safe from further threat.

However, the restoration of the kingdom under Charles II in 1660 brought with it renewed attempts to revoke the Mass Bay Charter and also gain control of the other New England settlements. The English government was motivated not simply by a desire to control the colonies, but also to manage its wider efforts against France in North America and its policy toward Native Americans, as well as to regulate international trade. The King sent a commission to investigate the colony in 1665, but the government of the colony refused to cooperate with them. However, by 1685, legal proceedings in England succeeded in revoking the Mass Bay Charter, and a new charter arrived in Boston in May 14, 1686, making Mass native Joseph Dudley the new governor. Shortly after this, Mass Bay was dissolved as a separate colony to become part of the united Dominion of New England, with its capital in Boston and its new governor, Edmund Andros, arriving to take control on Dec. 20, 1686 (New York and the two New Jerseys were added in May of 16, 1688.)

Andros allowed the establishment and building of Anglican churches and the erecting of maypoles; he dissolved and re-organized town governments and abolished many older land titles; he created a new tax structure and enforced the hated Navigation Acts. He brought in “Red Coats” and his rule was harsh. Wider events would soon take him away from Boston, however. In early 1687, the French attacked Iroquois villages in what is now western New York in an attempt to disrupt England’s trade and alliance with the tribe. Andros went to organize defenses and to renew the treaty with the Iroquois. However, in early 1688, Abenaki, allied with the French, began to attack English settlements in southern Maine. Andros then went to Maine to lead English counterattacks. He returned to Boston only to hear of renewed Abenaki raids. However, he refused to allow the settlers of Maine to respond independently, and ordered them to release their Abenaki captives, enraging the Maine settlers. Andros then returned to Maine to organize winter defenses, but came back to Boston in March of 1688.

Charles II had died in 1685, but he was succeeded by his pro-Catholic brother, King James II. People in New England feared that Andros’ policies at the behest of James would lead to an alliance with Catholic France. In an effort to appeal directly to the king, Increase Mather (Cotton’s father) — under house arrest — made a daring escape from the North End to England. Increase Mather was there when William of Orange lead the Glorious Revolution to eventually overthrow King James II in December of 1688.

The people of Boston and the North End had been restless during this time, but made no move against Andros and his government. However, word of the overthrow of James II was heard in the spring of 1689. Andros ordered the arrest of anyone who landed in Boston under the authority of William of Orange, and the arrest of agitators in Boston, among them Cotton Mather. But control was slipping out of his hands. Members of the various town militias were assembling in Charlestown. The Boston leadership, Mather among them, hesitated. They were reluctant to order or encourage armed rebellion. However, they soon heard of the growing demand by the people that Andros be deposed and a provisional government set up. Then, members of the militia arrested many members of the government, with Andros now holed up at Castle Island. After a second summons, he surrendered.

There was a problem, however. The revolutionaries did not want to appear as criminals or brigands. But they had committed an act of insurrection against a legal government. Like the revolutionaries more than a hundred years later, they wanted it known that their actions had been both provoked and justified. Jefferson had been the one they turned to in 1776 to draw up the document to justify their actions; 86 years earlier, the people turned to Cotton Mather to draw up what would be called “The Declaration of the Gentlemen, Merchants, and Inhabitants of Boston, and the Country Adjacent” of April 18, 1689. Mather was not the sole author, but many of the ideas expressed were his. And it was likely written in his home on Hanover Street in the North End. Like Jefferson’s more famous declaration, Mather emphasizes the people’s loyalty to the king and the abuses that they suffered under unjust laws. And he also emphasized that the rebellion had not resulted in bloodshed. But unlike Jefferson, he was not declaring independence from England, but rather the simple restoration of the charter that had been given by a lawful King of England.

A Committee of Safety was set up to lead the Mass Bay Colony as an interim government, and messages were sent to the new King, with Mather’s declaration serving as the basis of their explanation for their rebellion. William of Orange, as a Protestant king, was already sympathetic, and Cotton’s father. Increase, had continued his efforts as well with William. A new charter was granted, restoring some — though not all — of the rights of the colony, and the both Mathers continued as leaders in Massachusetts and Boston into the next century. Cotton Mather had a role in the Salem Witch craze in 1692, as I noted in my previous article. And in 1720 he was at the center of a new controversy, this time due to an outbreak of small pox in Boston, when he defended the use of inoculations to prevent the spread of the disease. His house in the North End would be firebombed before the matter passed.

Cotton Mather’s declaration and his role in the first American Revolution did not have the same lasting impact on American history as those of the men in the second Revolution. But some who took part in the latter did not forget Mather’s role. Same Adams, at least, did not. As David Levin notes, Adams signed one of his own Revolutionary letters using the name “Cotton Mather.”

The Mather family tomb is in Copps Hill Burial Ground, near the Charter Street side; you can read excerpts of Mather’s Declaration here: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/power/text5/BostonDeclaration.pdf

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.