English Liberties and Deference Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“I am as good flesh & blood as you. I will not give way. You may go out of the way.”

Summary Overview

In the first few years of the eighteenth century, the development of two types of aristocracies in New England came to a head after a violent incident near Boston. Royal Governor Joseph Dudley, Dudley’s son William, and wealthy merchants Thomas Trowbridge and John Winchester engaged in a heated confrontation over the right of way. The defiance of the latter cart drivers against the royal governor led to a legal case, brought by Dudley against Trowbridge. The account of that case, which was later dubbed “English Liberties and Deference,” exemplified the growing sense of American empowerment in the face of established English rule.

Defining Moment

In the early eighteenth century, it became clear that there were two types of upper classes in New England. On one hand, the aristocratic English leadership (namely the royal governors) continued to solidify themselves as the political and social elite in light of their wealth and family social standing in England. Among these people of title and upper-class status was Royal Governor Joseph Dudley and his son William. On the other was a growing field of American entrepreneurs, landowners, and merchants who had amassed sizable wealth and prestige through their business activities. These Americans began to demonstrate the same social customs and manners that the English elite displayed.

The increasing competitiveness between these English and American elites was driven largely by the intellectual movement that became known in English in the mid-eighteenth century as the Enlightenment. This trend, which began in Europe during the Middle Ages but carried well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fostered the notion that government should not dominate over its subjects. Rather, government, according to Enlightenment philosophers, should be responsible to the people. This view would become one of the key motivating factors for the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century. However, in the early eighteenth century, it fostered among the wealthier Americans a sense that they should be entitled to the same “English liberties” that governors had.

On December 7, 1704, Governor Dudley and his son were traveling in their coach along a road in Roxbury, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston). Coming in the opposite direction were Thomas Trowbridge and John Winchester, who were driving two large carts. According to Dudley’s account, Trowbridge and Winchester refused to allow him, the four-horse coach, and his group to pass and then refused to move when approached by Dudley’s son to give way. After a tense standoff that included the drawing of swords and, allegedly, physical violence, Governor Dudley had the two men arrested for insubordination.

The resulting legal case against Trowbridge and Winchester underscored the fact that America’s elite colonists did not see English aristocrats as those to whom they should pay deference. This attitude shocked Dudley, who in the account expressed apparent dismay that these individuals would speak and act in such a manner. The fact that Trowbridge and Winchester returned Dudley’s demands with defiance (and even exchanged insults) demonstrated that the prevailing notion of English rule was starting to wane in the eyes of Americans.

Author Biography

Joseph Dudley was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on September 23, 1647. His father was Royal Governor Thomas Dudley, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s second executive; his mother was Catherine Dighton Hackburn. Joseph Dudley graduated from Harvard College in 1665 at the age of eighteen. In 1672, Dudley, representing Roxbury, became a member of the Massachusetts General Court, the colonial legislature. In 1669, Dudley married Rebecca Tyng, who bore him at least seven children who lived to adulthood, including his son William.

The fact that most of the American colonies were starting to show an independent spirit led King Charles II to begin revoking colonial charters with the intent of reestablishing them as royal provinces. In 1682, Joseph Dudley was appointed to travel to England on behalf of Massachusetts Bay to appeal to the King to reconsider his revocation of the colony’s charter. Dudley, however, is believed to have secretly convinced the king to carry out his plan so that Dudley could become the president of the provisional government in the province, which he did in 1686. In December 1686, Sir Edmund Andros was appointed governor of the Dominion of New England; his appointment ended the provisional government. Andros named Dudley to serve a number of positions once the full-time government had been established. After a period of great tumult surrounding Governor Andros (who had been embroiled in power struggles with the leaders of the New England colonies), Dudley was imprisoned briefly because of his connection to the governor. He was acquitted in London and returned to serve as chief justice of New York from 1690 through 1692. Following his tenure in New York, Dudley returned to England in 1693 to serve as lieutenant governor of the Isle of Wight.

In April 1702, Queen Anne granted Joseph Dudley a commission as governor of Massachusetts. During his thirteen years as Massachusetts’s governor, Dudley successfully raised troops and resources for Queen Anne in the ongoing effort against the French and Indian tribes in Canada during what was known as Queen Anne’s War (part of the French and Indian Wars). After the war, Dudley signed a new treaty with American Indians in Maine who had been part of the war. Outside of these endeavors, however, Governor Dudley’s tenure was largely defined by conflicts with the wealthy colonists of Massachusetts and members of the General Court. Toward the end of his tenure, Dudley was subjected to frequent accusations of illicit activity by his rivals in both Boston and London.

With a new monarch, George I, on the English throne after Queen Anne’s death in 1714, Samuel Shute replaced Joseph Dudley as governor in November 1715. Dudley returned to his home in Roxbury, where he died in 1720.

Document Analysis

During the latter seventeenth century, the English government had become extremely concerned about a growing feeling of independence among its American colonies along the eastern seaboard. In Massachusetts, for example, the Puritan leadership (which had left England in order to escape religious persecution) had become established as the primary representative of spirituality and faith among the colonists. As such, the traditions it espoused became de facto law among its congregation. Although King Charles II maintained rule over the people of the Massachusetts colony, he became aware of the fact that so many Americans saw the church as their primary leader.

Frustrated with the consolidation of power within the church and the reduction of influence in the General Court, Charles II called for the revocation of nearly all of the English colonies in America. These colonies were replaced by provisional royal provinces and headed by governors like Joseph Dudley, who were picked not by the people but by the king. Joseph Dudley, who traveled to London at the time under the auspices of appealing for reconsideration, became the president of the provisional provincial government as well as interim governor of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and King’s Province, part of western Rhode Island. Dudley served in this capacity until December 1686, when the provisional government was ended by the new governor, Sir Edmund Andros. Later, in 1702, Queen Anne granted Dudley the governorship of the province of Massachusetts.

On December 7, 1704, Dudley and a group of others, including his son William, were traveling in a coach from his home in Roxbury, outside of Boston, on their way to New Hampshire and Maine. Within a mile from his point of origin, Dudley came across two carts, loaded with wood, traveling toward them. Neither party wished to move aside for the other, leading to an unruly confrontation. As it reached a head, Dudley had the two cart drivers, Thomas Trowbridge and John Winchester, arrested for insubordination.

The accusation of insubordination was based on the fact that Dudley was considered a member of the social elite. Although he resided in Massachusetts, he, like other governors and government officials who were appointed to their positions by the Crown, was afforded certain “liberties,” which were akin to legal protections within the traditionally stratified society of England. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, English aristocrats, whose titles were handed down through generations, were consistently at odds with the Stuart monarchy, including King Charles II. When the Stuarts were removed from power, the aristocracy became even more powerful. Those who were not of the aristocracy—namely lower-class subjects—were in no position to challenge aristocrats, lest they be subjected to criminal prosecution.

Like other members of the “colonial aristocracy,” Governor Dudley operated under the notion that, as a royal governor, he was afforded the same liberties and stature that he would be afforded in England. Although it was not formally a part of colonial law, life for individuals like Dudley was expected to mirror the life of nobility in England. Therefore, if a person whose social status was considered beneath the level of nobility committed some form of disrespect toward a representative of the Crown, he or she could be arrested for insubordination and prosecuted to the extent of the law. For example, colonists who did not share Dudley’s status would be expected to remove their hats in the presence of their social superiors. Similarly, when approached on a road by a colonial aristocrat, subordinate colonists would need to give way.

Two Versions of Events

During the court hearing, two versions of what took place were offered. According to Dudley, the carts were too weighed down by their cargo as to provide a clear path. Dudley therefore prompted his son to ride up to the carters and ask them to give way. When William approached the men with the request (adding that one of the people in the carriage was Governor Dudley), Trowbridge and Winchester became defiant, ordering Dudley to give way to them. Governor Dudley exited the coach, identifying himself and his status to the men. Trowbridge and Winchester both responded with disrespect, with Winchester stating, “I am as good flesh and blood as you. I will not give way.”

At this point, the confrontation became even more heated. Dudley claimed that he drew his sword not to hurt anyone but rather to ensure his own safety and the security of those who rode with him. He then instructed his driver to begin moving forward. Neither Trowbridge nor Winchester yielded; instead, Winchester physically accosted the governor. Dudley claimed that Winchester simply advanced upon him, threatening him physically and claiming to be of equal social standing as the governor. The governor stabbed Winchester in self-defense, but Winchester broke Dudley’s sword. After breaking Dudley’s sword, the men remained defiant. A magistrate arrived and took the two men into custody, but Trowbridge and Winchester continued their defiance, refusing to provide their names or remove their hats in the presence of the governor. In fact, according to Dudley, before they were arrested, Trowbridge and Winchester each attempted to move Dudley’s horses in an attempt to drive the carriage aside.

Dudley’s account painted him as an even-tempered individual who clearly had the right of way in light of his status as a governor. Despite his diplomatic overtures to the two men, Dudley argued that Trowbridge and Winchester both seemed determined to intimidate their political leader. The image he presented to the court was one in which he was a victim not only of insubordination but of a physical threat as well. Although he attempted to remain civil, the two carters continued their verbal and physical assaults on Dudley and his family before and after the authorities arrived and place them into custody.

The accounts offered by Trowbridge and Winchester are decidedly different from that which Dudley offered. The two alleged that Dudley and his son were far more disrespectful and belligerent, ultimately causing them physical injury despite the fact that Winchester and Trowbridge attempted to remain civil in the face of an increasingly confrontational governor.

According to Trowbridge’s testimony, he was passing through Roxbury along one of two cart paths. The governor and his party were traveling along the second path. Unfortunately, the two paths became one at the base of a hill. Trowbridge claimed that he saw the governor’s coach coming down the other path. Since he knew that the two paths would meet, Trowbridge opted to drive his cart at a “leisurely” pace so that the governor would keep clear and take the other path. This other path, Trowbridge maintained, was the most viable option for the governor—Trowbridge naturally assumed that Dudley would follow the proper course.

Unfortunately, according to Trowbridge’s account of the incident, the governor’s son approached Trowbridge to move onto the other path. In fact, Trowbridge recalled that William Dudley was immediately belligerent to Trowbridge about moving his vehicle and giving way to the governor. Trowbridge alleged that William Dudley immediately drew his sword and threatened to stab Trowbridge’s horse, at which point Trowbridge stepped in between Dudley’s sword and his own horse to prevent the attack. A physical exchange occurred, with Trowbridge fending off Dudley’s sword.

It was at this point that, according to Trowbridge, John Winchester interceded, hoping to avoid violence between Trowbridge and the governor’s son. Winchester testified at the hearing that he heard William Dudley threatening to stab Trowbridge’s horse—and even Trowbridge himself—if he did not yield. Winchester claimed that he wished to mediate the dispute and asked why Dudley was behaving in such a manner. Dudley allegedly told Winchester that Trowbridge (whom he called a “dog”) refused to give way to the governor. Winchester then recalled that he put his hat under his arm (as a sign of respect) and approached Governor Dudley, asking him to move, as the other path would have been far more convenient to the governor.

According to Winchester, Joseph Dudley became unreasonably strong in his next comments. He referred to Winchester as a “rogue or rascal,” demanding that the two carters yield. Winchester reported that he asked the governor, with all respect, to have the patience to wait a short time while Winchester cleared the path for him. Winchester then claimed that as he turned his back to the governor to walk down to Trowbridge and his horses, the governor ordered his people to “run the dogs through” and stabbed Winchester in the back and struck him on the head when he turned around. Winchester claimed that the wound was bloody and that he expected to be “killed dead on the spot.” In order to prevent Governor Dudley from killing him, he grabbed the sword and broke it.

Winchester then said that Governor Dudley continued his assault. Using the broken sword’s handle, he savagely beat Winchester. Winchester appealed to the people who had gathered to witness the incident, saying that he was an innocent victim and that he was only defending himself against Dudley’s attack.

The response that Winchester claims to have heard from Dudley was one of spite. He called Winchester a liar, a dog, and a devil, even as he continuously laid blows to him. Winchester replied that Dudley’s words were unbecoming a Christian. Such a statement was both an appeal to Dudley and those who witnessed the event—by calling into question his Christian values, he may have been attempting to calm Dudley; however, it is more likely that this comment was an overt attempt to demonstrate to the uninvolved that Dudley’s behavior was a clear illustration of the fact that Dudley was not worthy of being called a member of the elite.

Trowbridge corroborated Winchester’s account of Dudley’s physical brutality. Following Winchester’s account of the fight, Trowbridge further reported that he too was struck by Dudley. In fact, Dudley allegedly used Winchester’s walking stick on Trowbridge after using it to beat its original owner. According to Trowbridge, Winchester made one more appeal to the governor before the two men were taken into custody.

This time, Winchester said that he “had been a true subject” to the governor and had “served him and honoured him.” This comment was again an attempt to highlight the behavior of the governor, who was supposed to be a member of the highest levels of society. The governor likely responded in the way the carters had hoped—by continuing to insult Winchester and Trowbridge. As Trowbridge testified, Governor Dudley thereafter told the authorities to arrest and jail the two men, adding a final comment, that the carters’ two teams should be left to “sink into the bottom of the earth.”

Contributing Factors

It is uncertain as to which side of the story was in fact the truth. Two important factors, however, likely contributed to both the incident itself and how it would later be reported. The first of these is the fact that Governor Dudley was known to have a confrontational attitude. Throughout his tenure as governor, he had a history of conflicts with members of the General Court. Although he did achieve some modest successes as the executive of the colonial government, his insistence on receiving a regular fixed salary from the General Court rather than the traditional annual grant resulted in the legislature’s frequent refusal to support Dudley’s agenda.

It is also possible that Dudley’s negative reputation among the colonists was a major contributing factor. Dudley was received as governor with almost instant opposition. At first, this negativity was the result of Dudley’s association with Governor Andros, an extremely unpopular figure who was ousted during Dudley’s early career in colonial America. He had also fallen out of favor with the Puritan leadership, who viewed him a renegade who had failed to uphold conservative Puritan ideals.

Furthermore, Dudley was known as someone more concerned with meeting his own interests and gaining power. This reputation stemmed in part from rumors of his secret arrangement to have the Massachusetts Bay charter revoked so the colony could be reestablished with Dudley as its leader. It was also based on allegations that he secretly brokered deals (from which he personally profited) with the French and Indians in Canada instead of engaging them as threats to New England’s borders. On the local level, he was viewed as a shrewd politician who, although dedicated to New England, demonstrated a will to gain honor and power for himself through the colony’s success.

Dudley was, based on his reputation and his rivals’ allegations, a likely target for challenges to English deference. In fact, this incident is viewed by historians as one of the most prominent early examples of a growing trend in New England. The drive among prominent and wealthy colonial Americans for what were dubbed “English liberties” likely began in the latter seventeenth century as a result of the Enlightenment. It was during this period that an increasing number of people questioned the need for a government that was dominated by a church. In fact, many people of the time found themselves doubting the need for any form of tyranny, theocratic or otherwise.

Fervent anti-English and pro-liberty sentiment, as prompted by the ideals espoused during the Enlightenment, would truly take shape by the mid-to-late eighteenth century, culminating in the American Revolution. However, doubt among the New England colonists concerning the viability of the English ruling class began to surface at the turn of the century. This doubt became manifest and was also complicated by the attitude of the colonies’ wealthier citizens, who believed that, by virtue of their growing wealth and status in comparison to other colonists, they should be afforded rights and liberties equal to those enjoyed by English aristocrats.

By the time Joseph Dudley, Thomas Trowbridge, and John Winchester had their confrontation, aristocratic English émigrés to New England had brought with them the social standing and elitism they had been afforded in their native land. In essence, they assumed all titles and liberties afforded to them under English law, which they tried to maintain in New England. Meanwhile, local business leaders began to view themselves in a similar light. As the colonies’ civilian merchants and entrepreneurs took advantage of trade with England and other European regions, their wealth and social status increased. As a result of this stature, these “colonial aristocrats” demonstrated an expectation of liberty and deference in the same manner that other aristocrats enjoyed.

“English Liberties and Deference” represented one of the first cases in America in which the rule of the Crown was challenged. People like Joseph Dudley, although born and raised in Massachusetts, clung to and took advantage of the legal and social benefits of being a subject of the English monarch. Winchester and Trowbridge, like many of their contemporaries, saw themselves as members of the colonies’ upper class and, as a result, believed that they should have access to the same rights and benefits the English nobles did. More than half a century later, the First Continental Congress would echo this point: The final set of resolutions passed by the 1774 Congress stated that the made clear that English liberty is a concept that should be made available to all English colonists.

Essential Themes

“English Liberties and Deference” serves both as an interesting legal case and as a clear illustration of the changing social order in early eighteenth-century New England. On one hand is the fact that the case, ostensibly about a confrontation between two parties along a narrow road, calls into question the actual legal standing of both parties. Governor Dudley, although much maligned among his colonial adversaries, still believed that the aristocratic standing he enjoyed in England applied in Massachusetts. According to this social status, those of a lesser social standing should take off their hats, speak in a respectful tone, and—in this case—give way when approached on a road. If an individual failed to show such deferential treatment to a person like Dudley, he or she could be prosecuted.

On the other hand, both John Winchester and Thomas Trowbridge were by their own means wealthy and of high social standing. These two men were under the impression that they did not need to show an excessive amount of deference to the governor, whom they and many other colonists considered a servant of the people rather than an extension of nobility or royalty. According to their individual testimonies, both Winchester and Trowbridge demonstrated a degree of respect toward Governor Dudley but did not immediately give way to the governor—nor accept his wrath for failing to do so. These two men were of the mindset that the governor should have paid them respect, as they deserved the same liberties and deferential treatment that were afforded men like Dudley.

In addition to its legal implications, the case provides a demonstration of the changing attitudes among the American colonists regarding the English. In light of the spreading ideals of the Enlightenment, more and more people in New England (and Massachusetts in particular) viewed the English government with skepticism. To be sure, the revolutionary fervor that drove the American War for Independence would not truly intensify until several decades later. Still, the Enlightenment generated the notion of government as a system that is ruled by the people, not vice versa. The subsequent assumption held by Trowbridge, Winchester, and other wealthy American merchants was that they should enjoy at least the same degrees of liberty and respect that were afforded to royal government officials. This mentality explains both the sheer defiance demonstrated by the two carters and Dudley’s apparent shock at that lack of deference, both elements that contributed to the violent confrontation that ensued.

  • Brians, Paul. “The Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment. Washington State University, 18 May 2000. Web. 30 May 2012.
  • Burg, B. R. “Dudley, Joseph 1647–1720.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2010): 1. Biography Reference Center. Web. 30 May 2012.
  • “Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress.” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2012. Web. 30 May 2012.
  • Dudley, Joseph. “English Liberties and Deference.” Digital History. Steven Mintz, 2011. Web. 9 May 2012.
  • “First Continental Congress: Proceedings of the First Continental Congress.” US History. Independence Hall Association, 2011. Web. 30 May 2012.
  • Parkman, Francis. A Half Century of Conflict. 1894. New York: AMS, 1969. Print.
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Additional Reading
  • Hemphill, C. Dallett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
  • Kimball, Everett. The Public Life of Joseph Dudley: A Study of the Colonial Policy of the Stuarts in New England, 1660–1715. 1911. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010. Print.
  • McManus, Edgar J. Law and Liberty in Early New England. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2009, Print.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. “The Aristocracy in Colonial America.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 3rd ser. 74 (1962): 3–21. Print.
  • Yirush, Craig. Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of American Political Theory, 1675–1775. Cambridge: U of Cambridge P, 2011. Print.

Categories: History