Confederation of the United Colonies of New England Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven joined with the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to form a military alliance. Although not always free from disputes, the early cooperation among the colonies embodied in their treaty set a precedent for their 1686 union.

Summary of Event

In 1607, a shipload of English settlers arrived in the New World and established Jamestown Jamestown , in what is now Virginia. The next English colonial settlement was founded in 1620 at Plymouth Plymouth Colony , in New England, by the Pilgrims, religious separatists who had been persecuted in Britain. They had intended to settle in Virginia as well, but when their ship, the Mayflower, was blown off course and arrived farther north than expected, the Pilgrims decided to create a new community there. [kw]Confederation of the United Colonies of New England (Sept. 8, 1643) [kw]Colonies of New England, Confederation of the United (Sept. 8, 1643) [kw]New England, Confederation of the United Colonies of (Sept. 8, 1643) [kw]United Colonies of New England, Confederation of the (Sept. 8, 1643) Government and politics;Sept. 8, 1643: Confederation of the United Colonies of New England[1520] Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 8, 1643: Confederation of the United Colonies of New England[1520] American Colonies;Sept. 8, 1643: Confederation of the United Colonies of New England[1520] New England;confederation of the United Colonies of United Colonies of New England Collier, William Dudley, Thomas Eaton, Theophilus Fenwick, George Haynes, John Hooker, Thomas Hopkins, Edward Winslow, Edward

As New England settlement expanded north, south, and west during the 1630’, territorial conflicts became inevitable. Not only did the Puritan colonies attempt to encroach upon one another’s territory, but they also came into hostile contact with American Indians, the Dutch, and the French. Although the English nearly destroyed the native population of New England in the brief Pequot War of 1636-1637 Pequot War (1636-1637) , the lack of coordinated effort in that war convinced the British that some form of intercolonial cooperation was necessary to determine military policies, ensure participation, arbitrate territorial disputes, and regulate trade. Religious and political turmoil in England in the 1630’s and 1640’s prevented the mother country from supervising colonial affairs directly, and the colonies preferred it that way. In the absence of formal control from above, however, the Puritan colonies recognized a need to defend their expanding boundaries against foreign aggression.

The joint action between New England’s colonies in the Pequot War apparently had fostered a feeling of unity among the Puritan colonies. Furthermore, the leaders of the smaller, weaker colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut Connecticut , and New Haven New Haven realized that if they could enter into an agreement with the Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts Bay Colony as political equals, they would be free from that powerful colony’s attempts to encroach upon their territory. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, in turn, would profit from such a union by gaining legal approval from the other member colonies for its efforts to annex territory in Maine.

In the late summer of 1637, a synod of New England church leaders meeting in Cambridge seriously broached the subject of union for the first time, but disagreements marred that and several other attempts to achieve union during the next few years. Fear of an American Indian uprising in 1642, however, spurred Plymouth to send representatives to negotiate with the Massachusetts Bay Colony about their mutual defense. About the same time, Connecticut also sent a proposal for mutual defense efforts to Massachusetts. The Massachusetts General Court, therefore, ordered the magistrates to meet with the deputies of Connecticut, Plymouth, and New Haven on the matters of unification and defense.

Meeting in Boston on May 29, 1643, the American colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth formed a military alliance. The members of the alliance agreed to coordinate their military operations while retaining independence in internal affairs. The representatives “readily yielded each to the other, in such things as tended to the common good,” and drew up articles of confederation. When the last of the four General Courts ratified them on September 8, 1643, these articles of confederation became binding. The newly established United Colonies of New England encompassed all the settlements along the coast and rivers from Long Island to New Hampshire. Rhode Island, which the Puritans disdainfully considered anarchical, and Maine were not included.

As stated in the preamble to the articles of confederation, the purposes of the confederation were to preserve the purity of the Puritans’ religion and their ability to worship free of interference, to promote cooperation, and to provide for defense. The articles themselves specified the duties and powers of the confederation’s commissioners, the structure of the confederation, and the rules of procedure. Because there was no judicial authority over all the members, each colony could interpret the articles of confederation to its own liking—a situation that was to cause problems later.

The governing body of the confederation was to consist of two annually chosen commissioners from each colony. The only qualifications demanded were that they be church members and that they bring full power from their general courts. The commissioners—William Collier, Collier, William Thomas Dudley, Dudley, Thomas Theophilus Eaton, Eaton, Theophilus George Fenwick, Fenwick, Geroge John Haynes, Haynes, John Thomas Hooker, Hooker, Thomas Edward Hopkins, Hopkins, Edward and Edward Winslow Winslow, Edward —were to convene each September and meet in each colony successively. Anyone who had advice to offer was welcome to speak before them. Three magistrates from any colony could call a special meeting if necessary. Approval of a matter required the votes of six commissioners, although war could be declared by only four during a state of emergency. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Colony could not veto the wishes of the other three colonies if they were united.

The United Colonies of New England did not consider themselves a nation, but rather individual governments allied by a treaty. Each commissioner actually served as one of his colony’s ambassadors to the others. In matters of military preparation, declaration of war, and arbitration, however, the four colonies did surrender to the commissioners their individual powers to act. Although the confederation’s commissioners, in theory, possessed vague executive and judicial powers, in actuality they had only advisory powers in most areas.

The articles of confederation specified that each colony’s military obligation should be in proportion to its means and population. Each colony was expected to send aid if one of the other three colonies should be invaded and was to participate in all just wars. The commissioners were empowered to decide if the confederation should wage an offensive war, and no colony could do so without their approval. Military;New England

Apart from military affairs, actual power rested with the general courts of the member colonies. The commissioners could not pass legislation binding on the general courts, nor were they directly responsible to the people. They could neither levy taxes nor requisition supplies. Because the commissioners had no powers of enforcement, a colony that disagreed with a particular decision could nullify it simply by refusing to comply. To avoid conflict, the remaining colonies usually compromised.

Although lacking in power, the Board of Commissioners did perform numerous important services for the four participating colonies. It established various civil agreements of interest to all four colonies and arbitrated intercolonial disputes. Policies concerning American Indians and regulations governing runaway slaves and the extradition of criminals were also within its domain. In the judicial realm, the commissioners established uniform standards for probating wills and served as an admiralty court. Other duties included fund-raising for Harvard College, settling tariff disputes, and promoting religious orthodoxy.


The major specific achievement of the military alliance of the confederation was the successful cooperation of its members in Metacom’s War Metacom’s War (1675-1676)[Metacoms War (1675-1676)] (King Philip’s War) of 1675-1676, in which the colonies crushed an uprising of Wampanoag Wampanoags Indians. On a less tangible but more significant level, the confederation of the United Colonies of New England was essential to the colonies’ survival in the colonies’ early years and, despite its flaws, offered a means of coordinating intercolonial resources and resolving disputes.

The confederation was hampered in the successful achievement of some of its aims, however, when bitter rivalries developed among the member colonies. Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, attempted to win a predominant position within the confederation on the grounds that it had the largest population; failing in this attempt, it refused, in 1653, to participate in a projected war against the Dutch colonies in America. In 1684, shortly after the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was revoked by the English government, the confederation was dissolved.

Unquestionably, serious flaws were inherent in the confederation of the United Colonies of New England. The illusion of power survived only for the first decade of its existence. It was, however, the longest-lived interstate confederation in American history. The leadership that the confederation provided was essential to the existence of the colonies in their early years. It concentrated the colonies’ resources in military emergencies and protected the three weaker colonies from encroachment by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most important of all, it preserved the peace in New England.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Charles M. The Settlements. Vols. 1 and 2 in The Colonial Period of American History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. The chapters on the New England colonies contain frequent references to the affairs and problems of the Confederation of the United Colonies of New England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, Mark. Governors and Settlers: Images of Authority in the British Colonies. London: Macmillan, 1992. Discusses administration and cooperation in the early New England colonies and provides historical background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, Gary. Ambivalent Anti-Colonialism: The United States and the Genesis of West Indian Independence. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Provides a detailed discussion of the early history of the colonies and British relations with the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Explains the models of English colonization from 1600 to 1660.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lister, Frederick K. The Early Security Confederations: From the Ancient Greeks to the United Colonies of New England. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Describes the development of security confederations from their inception in ancient Greece through creation of the United Colonies of New England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osgood, Herbert L. The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1957. Provides an institutional history of England’s mainland colonies, focusing on the commercial relationship between Great Britain and America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Harry M. The United Colonies of New England, 1643-1690. New York: Vantage Press, 1961. Examines the ideas that influenced the Founding Fathers and explains what prompted attempts at unification.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

William Bradford; Thomas Hooker; Anne Hutchinson; Miles Standish; Roger Williams. New England;confederation of the United Colonies of United Colonies of New England

Categories: History