An irony of the 2016 presidential election was that millions of people who felt abandoned by the government and today’s economy, somehow chose as their president a wealthy narcissistic sociopath as their president.
This brought me to reflect on the word “commonwealth,” defined as a state or collection of states in which supreme authority is vested in the people. The expression is rarely used in everyday speech today, but in the 17th Century it was the radical philosophy that work and the proceeds thereof should be shared by the people, and it dictated Puritan self-government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the sixty-three years of its existence. Founded as a trading company, the Massachusetts Bay Colony transformed into a self-governing commonwealth, treating its charter as if it were the constitution of an independent state.
Meanwhile, Civil War broke out in England between the Royalists of King Charles I and the Parliamentary army. The king was beheaded, and agitator Oliver Cromwell, a self-styled “Puritan Moses” became Lord Protector of the united “Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.” With Cromwell’s death in 1659, the Protectorate came to an end along with the short-lived Commonwealth. His religious extremism and military ruthlessness while in power had been so excessive that Charles II was invited back from exile, returning on May 29, 1660 to be instated as king under a restored monarchy. Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey so that it could be subjected to the humiliation of a posthumous execution. Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday, “to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government.” Known as Oak Apple Day, it is still celebrated in a few English communities.
King Charles II wished to bring the American colonies and their growing wealth back under British rule, and in 1684 revoked the contract of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edmund Andros was appointed governor of a new “Dominion of New England” in 1686 and a tax was imposed, leading to the revolt for which Ipswich is known as the Birthplace of the American Revolution. Ninety years later during the American Revolution, the colonies of Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania declared themselves “Commonwealths,” indicating that they were independent republics no longer governed by the British monarchy.
The concepts of freedom that gave birth to the American Revolution were first expressed from the pen of the Rev. John Wise of Chebacco parish in Ipswich, Massachusetts, who wrote in 1700, “The first human subject and original of civil power is the people…and when they are free, they may set up what species of government they please. The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all, and the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, etc., without injury or abuse done to any.”
In 1777, the Massachusetts legislature announced that the next legislature would draft a new constitution which it would then submit to the voters for approval. The legislature’s proposed constitution was rejected. In 1779, the legislature issued a call to the towns for every male inhabitant to elect representatives to form a Convention for the sole purpose of framing a new Constitution. It went into effect the following year, and served as a model for the Constitution of the United States. Part Two of the Massachusetts Constitution reads, “that the people … form themselves into a free, sovereign, and independent body politic, or state by the name of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
The Massachusetts Constitution was drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin, and is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution.
James Bowdoin served from 1775 to 1777 as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’ executive council, which acted as head of the Massachusetts government. He served as president of the Massachusetts constitutional convention and in 1785 was elected governor after losing his first bid against populist John Hancock. He was defeated by Hancock a second time two years later. James Bowdoin died on November 6, 1790. Bowdoin Street, Bowdoin Square, and the Bowdoin MBTA station are named for him.
Samuel Adams was the most rebellious of the three. He wrote in his master’s thesis at Harvard College in 1743 that it would be “lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.” In 1789, Adams was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and upon Governor Hancock’s death in 1793, became acting governor, continuing for four terms as governor in his own right. He was the leader of the state’s Jeffersonian Republicans, who were opposed to the Federalist Party. Samuel Adams died on October 2, 1803, and was eulogized by Boston’s Republican newspaper the Independent Chronicle as the “Father of the American Revolution.”
Samuel Adams’ cousin John Adams was a frequent visitor to Ipswich as a young lawyer, served under George Washington as vice-president, and succeeded him as the second president of the United States, the only Federalist to be elected to that position. John Adams believed strongly that a stable and democratic government required the consent of the governed and the separation of powers. He wrote in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States,
“There is, however, a peculiar sense in which the words republic, commonwealth, and popular state, are used by English and French writers; who mean by them a democracy, or rather a representative democracy; a government in one centre, and that centre the nation; that is to say, that centre a single assembly, chosen at stated periods by the people, and invested with the whole sovereignty, the whole legislative, executive, and judicial power, to be exercised in a body, or by committees, as they shall think proper.”
Perhaps it was Adams’ tediously boring writing style which caused him in 1800 to lose his bid for re-election to an elite populist, Thomas Jefferson, candidate of the Democratic-Republican Party which had formed in opposition to the centralizing policies of the Federalist Party. Adams retired to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Jefferson spent the final years of his life in debt, caused in no small part by his 40-year obsession with building Monticello, a 5000-acre plantation with hundreds of slaves. The former friends did not speak until Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1812.They both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
The American experiment with democracy is replete with warnings and lessons for our nation today. In the wake of two stressful presidential elections, perhaps we can learn from the reconciliation of Jefferson and Adams two centuries ago that despite all our differences, we have much more in common. Our country is best served when we communicate and treat each other respectfully, working together to create the Common Wealth.
- The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of Author, Notes and Illustrations. Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850-56, vol. 5, p. 454)
- Massachusetts Secretary of State
- Founding of New England