At the Town-House in Boston and Boston Declaration of Grievances Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We judge it necessary You forthwith Surrender, and deliver up the Government and Fortifications to be preserved, to be Disposed according to Order and Direction from the Crown of England . . . ”

“At the Town-House in Boston”

“We do therefore seize upon the Persons of those few Ill men which have been (next to our Sins) the grand Authors of our Miseries; resolving to secure them, for what Justice, Orders from his Highness, with the English Parliament shall direct . . . ”

“Boston Declaration of Grievances”

Summary Overview

“At the Town-House in Boston” and “Boston Declaration of Grievances” suggest that seventeenth-century colonists regarded Massachusetts as a political and commercial entity discrete from, and yet dependent upon, the Crown. Sir Edmund Andros, governor of the Dominion of New England, surrendered to local leaders of New England in Boston on Thursday, April 18, 1689. His arrest and detainment concluded a chain of events initiated by the religious and commercial leaders of Boston to reassert their own autonomy as governors of Massachusetts.

Andros’s overthrow signaled the colonists’ rejection of the English Crown—the House of Stuart, at the time—and its attempts to centralize the administration of the English colonies into one dominion. It also served as an occasion to indict King James II’s Roman Catholicism and offer a gesture of support for William III’s Glorious Revolution, which swept the Stuarts from the throne of England in November 1688 and restored legislative power to Parliament.

Defining Moment

The revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1684 provided a primary justification for the rebellion against Andros in 1689. From an official standpoint, revoking the charter was intended to facilitate a more efficient administration of imperial law, military, and trade in Massachusetts. However, it was also a response to the religiously isolated and relatively independent political and commercial character of New England. While vacating the original charter of 1629 brought the governance of Massachusetts into closer compliance with the Crown’s prerogatives, it also diminished the colony’s capacity to rule itself in ways that had traditionally overlooked royal interests. For instance, the colony had been lax in its observance of the Navigation Acts (first enacted in 1651, over twenty years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), while simultaneously demanding certain entitlements, such as appealing for royal protection of merchant ships.

The situation was further complicated in 1685 when King James II, a relatively autocratic Catholic ruler, ascended to the throne. As a staunch proponent of the divine right of kings, James II relied less upon parliamentary collaboration than his brother and predecessor, Charles II, had. As a result, colonial representation at court decreased as fears of a conspiracy to enforce Roman Catholicism as the official religion in the colonies grew.

Further fueling the unease in New England, the new monarch pressed forward with the centralization of the colonies begun by Charles II in the early 1680s. In 1686, James II began to formalize the Dominion of New England in America, which ultimately attempted to bring Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, East and West Jersey, and what is now Maine under a single administrative jurisdiction. James II commissioned a former governor of the Province of New York and a key player in King Philip’s War—Edmund Andros—to govern the newly unified territories.

As “Boston Declaration of Grievances” makes clear, Andros was unpopular with the colonists for several reasons. Most significantly, he appointed fellow loyalists and Anglicans to crucial advisory and governing roles, overlooking prominent New England leaders in the process. Andros added insult to injury by insisting on using Puritan churches in Boston for Anglican worship until a chapel suitable for Anglican observance was built. He also enforced English revenue and land title legislation contrary to colonial custom. When rumors of William of Orange’s November 1688 overthrow of James II were confirmed in early April 1689, colony leaders in Boston seized an opportunity to demonstrate and declare their support for the Calvinist king of England, William III, by removing Andros and so putting to an end the tyranny of the Stuart policies and the threat of state religion he represented.

Contemporary scholars of the Boston Revolt of 1689 seem to agree that Andros was a victim of his own successes as a governor. Decisive and efficient, Andros took his role seriously as the king’s surrogate in New England. If anything, he was too effective. As an experienced military and civic leader in the colonies, Andros appears to have privileged implementing big picture solutions such as bringing colonial laws in line with English legislation, reforming land title practices, and expanding the dominion over observing the nuances of New England social and civil customs. Arguably, rebellion against Andros had as much to do with his notoriously curt and cold manner as it did with the decisions he made on behalf of the Crown.

Author Biography

The names attached to the letter “At the Town-House in Boston” represent many prominent figures among Boston’s colonial elite. Many of them—Thomas Danforth, Bartholomew Gidney, John Richards, and William Stoughton—will be familiar to scholars of the notorious Salem witch trials of the early 1690s. Others, especially Isaac Addington and Adam Winthrop, stand out as connections to some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In this regard, perhaps the most august name on the list is that of Simon Bradstreet.

Most likely born in 1604 in Lincolnshire, England, Bradstreet was the son of a minister. In his native Lincolnshire, Bradstreet attended grammar school and eventually entered Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. He became attached to the household of the fourth Earl of Lincoln. Through this connection, Bradstreet worked with Thomas Dudley, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In April 1630, Bradstreet, along with his wife, Anne, sailed to Massachusetts under the leadership of John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony. Along with Winthrop and Dudley, Bradstreet participated in the founding of Boston, the Massachusetts Bay capital. He was appointed the colony’s secretary.

Bradstreet fulfilled many crucial judicial, organizational, and diplomatic roles in the colony’s governance over several decades. In the early 1680s, Bradstreet served as governor of the colony, a position that brought him into direct conflict with colonial representatives of the Crown. Arguably, Bradstreet’s heavy-handed adherence to the privileges and prerogatives outlined in the original Massachusetts Bay charter, especially regarding enforcement of the Navigation Acts and other legislation that produced revenue for the Crown, contributed to the charter’s annulment. As the last governor of Massachusetts to serve under the colony’s founding charter, Bradstreet’s name on the Town-House letter surely leant authority and a sense of continuity to the actions that took place on April 18, 1689. The addition of the names of the deputy governor under Andros (Danforth) and members of the governor’s council (Addington, Richards, and Elisha Cooke) further underscored the document’s credibility.

In contrast to the multiple persons represented on the Town-House letter, the authorship of “Boston Declaration of Grievances” remains a mystery; it bears no name. Historians seem to agree, however, that the prolific Puritan churchman Cotton Mather most likely wrote a majority, if not the entirety, of the piece. If scholars are correct, Mather wrote this declaration early in his career, at the age of twenty-six. He had been ordained only four years earlier and was beginning to gain notoriety for his recently published book on the supernatural, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689). His father and senior minister at Boston’s North Church, Increase Mather, was in England at the time attempting to convince James II, and later William III, to issue a charter for the Massachusetts, a situation alluded to in the ninth section of the declaration.

Document Analysis

The tension between royal compliance and colonial autonomy characterized much of the interaction between the English Crown and its plantations in the seventeenth century. William of Orange’s overthrow of the Stuarts in 1688 offered the Massachusetts colonists an opportunity to more fully forge an alliance with a sovereign who—as a Dutch Calvinist with a legitimate link to the English throne (his wife, Queen Mary II, was James II’s daughter)—might have been more sympathetic to their Separatist religious views, as well as their robust commercial and landowning interests. In addition, military protection was chief among the benefits provided by Crown sponsorship. “At the Town-House in Boston” and “Boston Declaration of Grievances” advance the notion that rebelling against and removing Sir Edmund Andros complied with royal interests. This idea is both ironic and audacious in light of Andros’s status as a royally appointed colonial official who ran afoul of colonists by attempting to enforce the Crown’s policies. Both documents address and explore this irony in different ways.

“At the Town-House in Boston” is a letter addressed to Edmund Andros, but it is not a personal piece of correspondence. Rather, it briefly outlines and recommends a course of action for the governor to take in order to minimize the prospect of bloodshed at the hands of the rebellious Bostonians. More significantly, it encourages a peaceful transfer of power and the administration of colonial forts and militias to a council composed in part of the letter’s signers, all of whom played significant roles in New England government, trade, and military administration before the revocation of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1684. Andros’s ouster, they suggest, would clear the way for the colony’s own restoration.

Reminiscent of a colonial sermon, “Boston Declaration of Grievances” is the text of a speech likely composed by the popular Puritan preacher and theologian Cotton Mather and delivered at the Boston Town-House on April 18, 1689. While it presents many challenges to readers because of its rambling and allusive narrative, it is easy to imagine how it may have rallied Bostonians critical of Andros. This document establishes the historical, civic, and religious justifications for taking Andros into custody and, in so doing, promotes New England’s status as a sovereign entity with laws, rights, and traditions equal to and independent from those of England. Both texts were printed and widely distributed after delivery in their original formats.

“At the Boston Town-House”: The Case for Boston

While the Town-House letter is directly addressed to Andros, it was composed with a wide readership in mind. The number of prominent Bostonians who attached their names to the document suggests that the elite expressed the will of the masses for a peaceful settlement to an intolerable situation. If Andros surrendered, the New Englanders imply, he would for once act in good faith toward the colonists and perhaps even avert bloodshed, thus assuring the safety of the whole community, loyalists and colonists alike. This letter reinforces not only the signers’ influence to quell, at least for a time, imminent violence, but also their sovereignty as the rightful governors of Massachusetts. The letter’s tone emphasizes this idea by adopting the language of royal decree.

Readers may argue that the use of a collective pronoun on a document signed with multiple names does not amount to the use of a majestic pronoun. Yet, the letter does convey a certain sense of urgent officialdom. Words such as “exigence,” “necessity,” “imminent,” “necessary,” and “suddenly,” for example, amplify the timeliness of the choices before Andros. In addition, by distinguishing themselves from the people who had taken up arms (“Our Selves and many others . . . being surprised with the Peoples sudden taking to Arms”), the letter’s signers allude to the prospect that the influence of their reasonableness and good grace was limited and could not be counted on to prevent any violence that might befall Andros or his council, soldiers, and fellow Anglicans if he did not surrender. The letter opens and closes with allusions to the possibility of mob violence, and whoever penned the document surely took pains to frame the appeal to Andros in a way that would force him to seriously consider complying with the colonists’ will.

The mention of the “Crown of England” in the latter half of the document further limited Andros’s options and inflated the status of the letter’s authors. In respect to Andros, a Stuart loyalist, any ambiguous reference to the institution of the Crown as opposed to the figure of the king might have confirmed rumors of William III’s overthrow of James II. In addition, citing the Crown’s authority in this way ironically inverted the colonists’ hostility toward the previous Stuart monarchs into support for the new Stuart succession. By the letter’s end, the colonists portrayed themselves as stewards of royal institutions and property (“Government and Fortifications”) and Andros as the usurper. Like his king, Andros had been overthrown.

In keeping with the regal tone adopted throughout the Town-House letter, the authors regard Andros formally and with respect in the document. Addressed as “your Excellency” and acknowledged for his knighthood, the language of the document reinforces that Andros has retained his status as a political equal to his adversaries despite his dim prospects.

“Boston Declaration of Grievances”: The Case against Andros

In “Boston Declaration of Grievances,” by contrast, the presumed author, Cotton Mather, assumes a hostile attitude toward Andros and, at times, caricatures him as an almost satanic figure. Indeed, the declaration is a mix of fact and fiction, sweeping in scope and touching on a range of historical grievances, current events, speculations, and hearsay. While Mather exhibits profound oratorical gifts and a vivid imagination, it remains difficult for readers to follow a coherent narrative thread among the rhetorical tangents and circumlocutions that tangle this account. It is important to remember that, unlike the Town-House letter written to placate and sway Andros, the declaration is the text of a speech that was read from the Boston Town-House balcony around midday on April 18, 1689, to throngs of rebellious Bostonians as well as Crown loyalists and Andros sympathizers. This fact yields crucial insights into the declaration’s organization and language.

As a text, “Boston Declaration of Grievances” displays some semblance of order despite its ornate language and convoluted web of literary and biblical imagery and allusions. It consists of twelve sections, and close reading reveals a design to their arrangement. The first three sections, for example, recount the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s historically troubled relationship with the English monarchy and affirm the integrity of their religious and economic separateness despite various attempts to undermine it: the Popish Plot, the revocation of the colony charter, and the king’s commission to rule the colony with his own representative government. In sections IV–VI, the author warms to the matter of Andros’s particular evils and first focuses on the royal governor’s extremism (maligned as “yet more Absolute and Arbitrary” than the commission’s) and his various abuses of power, including appointing Anglicans and loyalists to key government posts formally held by colonial leaders and denying colonists due process (“Packt and pickt Juries have been very common things among us”). The following three sections elaborate on Andros’s most severe transgressions: his ignorance and rejection of colonial traditions in civic matters.

Section VII lays the groundwork for this charge with a description of Andros’s demand that anyone taking an oath would do so with one hand on the Bible according to English tradition, a practice that ran counter to the colony’s custom of swearing oaths: “Multitudes of pious and sober Men through the Land, scrupled the Mode of Swearing on the Book, desiring that they might Swear with an uplifted Hand, agreeable to the ancient Custom of the Colony.” Here, Mather’s hyperbolic language (“Multitudes,” “pious and sober,” “ancient Custom”) exaggerates the depth of the Massachusetts Colony’s history and the scale and character of its populace to draw a stark contrast between the beliefs and practices of the original Puritan settlers and those of the Crown’s representatives. Mather underscores this difference by concluding the section with an account of the punishments incurred by those who refused to follow Andros’s decree: “many of them were most unaccountably Fined and Imprisoned.”

Mather expands this nativist depiction of the colonists in the next two sections of the declaration. In so doing, he further underscores Andros’s foreignness by highlighting the legitimacy of colonial self-governance. Ironically, one of Mather’s justifications for colonial nativism is the historic property negotiations and agreements between English settlers and American Indians (“our purchase of [lands] from the Natives”). Despite these precedents for land ownership, Andros proceeded to issue royal writs of intrusion. Again, by enacting the Crown’s prerogatives, Andros upended and potentially destroyed the traditional entitlements of the New Englanders. Mather goes on to imply that Andros actually abuses his role as the king’s representative by using his royal commission to enrich himself and his supporters, claiming, “The Governor caused the Lands pertaining to these and those particular Men, to be measured out for his Creatures.” As a result, suggests Mather, the governor ultimately undermines his own credibility. Mather underscores this idea by contrasting the men of the colonies with the “Creatures” affiliated with Andros; the governor’s associates are merely his familiars, neither free nor self-actualized, servants of a servant.

This last point is central to Mather’s argument that Andros and his English allies do not belong in Massachusetts. Commissioned by James II to govern the colonies with royal approval, Andros represents the oppressions the Puritans fled in the 1620s. Mather alludes to a fundamental interdependence between the colonies and England throughout “Boston Declaration of Grievances,” especially in the third section. But in the ninth article of this speech, Mather illustrates the relationship with an anecdote about his father’s voyage to England in 1688 to seek redress for the voiding of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1684 during the reign of Charles II. Mentioning Increase Mather’s journey to England ironically inverts and provides a countermeasure to the disproportionate abuses of Andros; an esteemed representative from the colonies travels to England in order to seek relief for the “ill Actions” caused by England’s surrogate in the colonies. While he has referred to New England as a country throughout the text, in this section Mather drives home the point that the Puritans at least view New England as a diplomatic sovereign with its own laws rooted in its own traditions and its own statesmen to speak on its behalf. The anecdote about Increase Mather’s voyage underscores the parity between the colonies and the Crown.

Increase Mather’s mission, suggests the author, was from the beginning fraught with danger and almost thwarted by Andros and his minions: “When these Men suspected him [Increase Mather] to be preparing for [the journey], they used all manner of Craft and Rage, not only to interrupt his Voyage, but to ruin his Person too.” The last clause in this sentence amplifies the matter at the heart of the colonists’ grievances against Andros. According to this account, the governor’s behavior suggests that honoring the essential compacts between England and the colonies is insufficient. Andros desires, according to his critics, nothing less than the destruction of the settlers themselves.

Mather pursues this idea in the declaration’s tenth section, which alludes to historically false accusations against Andros regarding his alleged attempts to incite war with the Indians: “We cannot but suspect in it [Andros’s collusion with the Indians] a Branch of the Plot to bring us low.” In addition, rumors also swirled that Andros had promoted Anglicans and Roman Catholics to high-ranking military and civil posts in order to prepare the way for Roman Catholic influence in the colonies (“for in the Army as well as in the Council, Papists are in Commission” ). As an Anglican, Andros was still too popish for the Puritans. Andros’s various campaigns, according to Mather, seek to weaken and slowly kill off the colonists in order to eliminate resistance to his schemes, which exceed even the Crown’s historical tyrannies.

The last two articles of the declaration develop the notion that the colonists’ righteousness has remained resilient even under Andros’s corrupt and overreaching rule. For Mather, this righteousness manifests itself as religious and civic piety; the Puritans humbly defer to both God and Crown. Even so, some earthly reigns are preferable to others, and news of William III’s potential accession offers the possibility that the colonies will be “better guarded, than we are like to be while the Government remains in the hands by which it hath been held of late.” Given Mather’s earlier allusions to the colony’s equality with the Crown, his claim that “in compliance with which Glorious Action [William III’s Glorious Revolution of 1688], we ought surely to follow the Patterns” of overthrowing the existing order justifies Andros’s removal as both a pious act corresponding to “the noble undertaking of the Prince of Orange” and a civic duty.

Mather concludes the document by reaffirming the notion that arresting Andros accords with the dispensation of divine justice. Furthermore, if William III’s recent successes in England prove divine favor for the replacement of Roman Catholic sovereigns with Protestant rulers, then seizing Andros contributes to the fulfillment of some providential design. Even so, Mather encourages caution in the event that the rumors about William III’s victories prove unfounded or the colonies are attacked before the new king can intercede on their behalf: “We do therefore seize upon the Persons of those few ill Men which have been (next to our Sins) the grand Authors of our Miseries; resolving to secure them, for what Justice, Orders from his Highness with the English Parliament shall direct . . . before such Orders can reach unto us.” By invoking the king and Parliament together, Mather not so subtly contrasts King James II’s autocratic reign, and by extension Andros’s rule, with a preference for a more representative partnership between the colonies and the Crown.

The last article of Mather’s declaration basically echoes the text of the “At the Town-House in Boston” letter. It is significant to observe, however, that the letter opens and closes with allusions to the possibility of violence. In contrast, the twelfth article of “Boston Declaration of Grievances” opens and closes with appeals to justice “for the Defence of the Land.” This distinction is important because the letter recognizes and cautions against the unpredictable nature of vigilante justice carried out by individuals who share a sense of injury, while the declaration finally advocates for the restoration of institutionalized justice that serves the commonwealth and, in so doing, fortifies the commonwealth as an equal partner in the empire.

Essential Themes

The legacy of the Boston Revolt of 1689 resonates throughout the history of the United States not least because of the enduring influence of the ideas put forth in “At the Town-House in Boston” and “Boston Declaration of Grievances.” In particular, recognition that the colonies were becoming more autonomous and independent from the Crown became deeply entrenched in the colonial political imagination. Eventually, even the restoration of Parliament’s influence during the reign of William and Mary would be insufficient to support colonial interests in England, and the passage of several revenue-generating parliamentary acts during the 1760s, especially the notorious Stamp Act of 1765, provided the impetus for American independence.

In addition to the documents addressed here, several eyewitness accounts of the events of April 18, 1689, were widely printed and distributed. Nathanael Byfield’s “An Account of the Late Revolution” and the “Letter of Samuel Prince” remain valuable sources for understanding what occurred. Because these works and others were widely available in print shortly after composition, they were well-known and influential texts throughout the colonies. Mather’s declaration, especially, was quoted and even imitated by Revolutionary figures such as George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution.

Bibliography
  • Arch, Stephen Carl. “The Glorious Revolution and the Rhetoric of Puritan History.” Early American History 27.1 (1992): 61–74. Print.
  • Boas, Ralph, and Louise Boas. Cotton Mather: Keeper of the Puritan Conscience. New York: Harper, 1928. Print.
  • Breitweiser, Mitchell Robert. Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.
  • Ferguson, Henry. “Sir Edmund Andros.” Essays in American History. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1969. 111–51. Print.
  • Haffenden, Philip S. New England in the English Nation, 1689–1713. London: Clarendon, 1974. Print.
  • Levy, Babette May. Cotton Mather. Boston: Hall, 1979. Print.
  • Lewis, Theodore B. “Royal Government in New Hampshire and the Revocation of the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1679–1683.” Historical New Hampshire 25.4 (1970): 2–45. Print.
  • Lustig, Mary Lou. The Imperial Executive in America: Sir Edmund Andros, 1637–1714. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002. Print.
  • Mather, Cotton. Selected Letters. Comp. Kenneth Silverman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1971. Print.
  • Middleton, Richard, and Anne Lombard. Colonial America: A History to 1763. 4th ed. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
  • Pole, J. R. Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic. London: Macmillan, 1966. Print.
  • Steele, Ian K. “Origins of Boston’s Revolutionary Declaration of 18 April 1689.” New England Quarterly 62.1 (1989): 75–81. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Andrews, Charles M. Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675–1690. New York: Scribner, 1915. Print.
  • Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
  • Lenman, Bruce. Britain’s Colonial Wars, 1688–1783. Harlow: Longman, 2001. Print.
  • Nellis, Eric. An Empire of Regions: A Brief History of Colonial British America. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2010. Print.
  • Stone, Lawrence, ed. An Imperial State at War: Britain from 1689–1815. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  • Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676, the End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984. Print.

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