Democracy in Troubled Times: Empire and the Politics of the Street

By Sam Harshner

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

Andros led to prison by people of Boston

Governor Edmund Andros being led to prison by the people of Boston. From William A. Crafts, Pioneers in the Settlement of America, Vol. 1 (Boston: Samuel Walker & Company, 1876), p. 442

In the end, Governor Edmund Andros gave up without a fight.  Despite years of running roughshod over the institutions of colonial New England, imprisoning those who stood in his way and arbitrarily imposing taxes, the Andros regime ended without a shot fired.  Indeed, on April 19, 1689, the erstwhile Viceroy sat impotent in his mansion surrounded by retainers and a handful of British soldiers as an army of 2,000 militiamen gathered on the Boston Neck. As the ramshackle army progressed through the town towards the Governor’s Mansion, the people of Boston gathered to their side, destroying customs records and freeing prisoners.  Andros wisely bowed to the will of the people and submitted to arrest without resistance.  The jubilant crowd then escorted the Governor and his comrades to Fort Mary in Boston Harbor where he would await transit to London for trial.

It was an ignominious end to a reign that had granted one man much unfettered authority. In 1686, the Duke of York, soon to be King James II, had appointed Andros as the governor of a new colonial entity called the Dominion of New England.  The Dominion consolidated the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Haven, New York and New Jersey into a single administrative unit headed by a royal appointee.  Colonial charters were abolished and replaced with a new plan of administration that revolved around the almost absolute power of the Royal Governor.

This new arrangement was most controversial in Boston, where traditions of local rule were at the core of the Puritan Commonwealth. Under the Dominion, the colony lost the right to elect its own governor, its powerful colonial assembly was eliminated, and the Boston Town Meeting was abolished.  Further, Andros used his authority to impose a series of measures that drew the colony under the more direct control of imperial authorities. He imposed a poll tax on all adult males and introduced a new property tax on landholdings. Finally he reversed the laissez faire approach to trade practiced by his predecessors.  Piracy, smuggling and unregulated trade with other European powers had been tacitly accepted parts of the Massachusetts economy, but Andros ensured that British mercantile regulations were stringently enforced. He commissioned a squadron of the royal navy to search colonial merchant ships, established a new maritime court to try smugglers, and imprisoned sailors suspected of freebooting.

These reforms produced vociferous public opposition.  Rev. John Wise of Ipswich gave a sermon denouncing Andros and his imposition of taxation without formal democratic approval.  Dominion officials arrested and imprisoned the Reverend, telling him, “you have no more privileges Left you then not to be Sold for Slaves.”  Everywhere the people seethed and resentment grew but armed with the might of the empire, Andros’ position was unassailable.

The governor’s royal patron could not have been more pleased with his colonial proxy. James harbored a deep resentment towards New England, a region that still relished the memory of Cromwell and the regicides that had executed his father King Charles I.   James aimed to loot the colonies as a means of propping up an absolutist regime in England. His foreign policy had been hemmed in by Parliament’s refusal to fund his initiatives and the colonies provided a potential base of revenue independent of Parliamentary interference.  An open Catholic, James distrusted Parliament’s ardently Protestant and potentially republican sentiments.

Likewise, Parliament distrusted the “Papist” leanings of their sovereign monarch.  When a son and legitimate heir was born to James on June 10, 1688,  prominent leaders began to fear the imposition of a permanent Catholic monarchy on Protestant England.  In late 1688, they began plotting to hand the crown to William of Orange, Stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and his wife Mary Stuart, sister of James II.  These negotiations led to an invasion by William on November 5, and James’ subsequent flight from England to France on December 9.  This so-called “Glorious Revolution” established Parliamentary control of the English state, and William and Mary were crowned joint monarchs of England on February 13.

Word of the coup began to reach the colonies early that spring, but Andros attempted to suppress this news until he could verify William’s stance on the Dominion.  Meanwhile, colonial leaders recognized the necessity of presenting William and Mary with a fait accompli.  The call for rebellion began to circulate, resulting in an uprising on April 19, ostensibly in defense of the new monarchs.  Local representatives then sailed to London to plead their case against Andros and hopefully to secure a renewal of the old colonial charter of 1629.

William proved none too willing to grant Massachusetts its former privileges, and the ultimate resolution was a compromise that satisfied neither side.  The Colonial Assembly was reestablished, but the Commonwealth’s right to elect its own Governor was lost forever.  The Assembly was granted authority over taxation, but a royally appointed Governor was given veto power over all legislation.  Finally, while William retreated from enforcing restrictions on trade, he refused to prosecute Andros for his supposed crimes and appointed the former head of the Dominion as governor of the staunchly royalist colony of Virginia.

The uprising’s relationship to American democracy is a complex one.  Certainly the uprising secured the colonies’ right to representative government. Indeed, Calvin Coolidge once identified the resistance of John Wise as one of the inspirations for the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, it is not clear whether this uprising was in fact democratic in implication.  The Massachusetts Charter of 1629 required that all voters be members of a Puritan congregation and the Colonial Assembly had actively persecuted religious groups, such as Baptists and Quakers.  Andros was intent on eliminating these religious qualifications for citizenship.  Further, it is quite clear that the Massachusetts Government held imperial designs on the territory of the Native Americans and French Canadians on their borders without any intention of drawing these peoples into the Commonwealth itself.  Finally, it is difficult to designate any regime as democratic if it sanctioned chattel slavery and extended suffrage only to white male property owners.  While an older brand of colonial history posits these nascent republican institutions as the seeds of American democracy, the assumption that such limited representative institutions lead inevitably to equality before the law belies a naïve faith in progress that is ultimately ahistorical.  As political scientist Rogers Smithsuggests in, the American political tradition is characterized not only by its rhetorical commitment to liberal principles and the expansion of civil rights, but also by a tendency to curtail access to citizenship.

Nonetheless, there is something fundamentally democratic in the forms of political action pioneered in this early rebellion.  In overthrowing Andros, the people of Boston established a tradition of active resistance, or what historian Simon Newman refers to as a “politics of the street,” that was used throughout the colonial period to combat elite political institutions that largely excluded common people from participation.   This tradition of political agitation challenged the kidnapping of sailors for the royal navy, protested the elimination of price controls on basic foodstuffs like meat and flour, and fought the imposition of unjust taxes by the imperial administration in the lead-up to the American Revolution.  Indeed, it was fear of the people in the streets that ensured the establishment of popular power in the American Constitution and withstood calls for elective monarchy by figures like Alexander Hamilton. To quote the slogan of the Boston crowd in the American Revolution: vox populi vox dei.  We need not accept the ascriptive strictures of this nation’s colonial and republican institutions to recognize the liberatory power of these traditions of popular resistance to arbitrary rule.

Sam Harshner is a Visiting Instructor in History and Political Science and assistant director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching, and Outreach.  He is currently completing a dissertation on the connections between popular action, democracy and ideology in the American Revolution.

Further Reading:

Bourne, Russell. Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution. Wiley Press: Hoboken, NJ, 2006.

Lovejoy, David.  The Glorious Revolution in America. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT, 1987.

Newman, Simon. Parades and the Politics of the Street. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1997.

Smith, Rogers. “Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America.” The American Political Science Review 87, no. 3 (Sep., 1993): 549-566

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin Books: New York, 2001.

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