The concepts of freedom about which Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence came from the pulpit and pen of the Rev. John Wise of Ipswich, Massachusetts.
“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.”– Rev. John Wise, Chebacco Parish of Ipswich (Essex), circa 1700
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”— Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
In 1683 at the age of 31, John Wise became the minister of the church at Chebacco Parish (now Essex). He built his home on the road between Chebacco and the town of Ipswich.
His congregation quickly became convinced that The Rev. Wise was spiritually powerful and that his prayers begat results. When the crew of a ship from his parish were captured by pirates he beseeched the Lord on a Sabbath morning to give them speedy deliverance, and if no other way be possible, for the Lord to help them “rise up and butcher their enemies.” The next day the men arrived back home, having attacked and killed the pirates.
Before Rev. Wise arrived in Ipswich he served for a short time as chaplain in King Philip’s War. He was one of three ministers assigned to serve as chaplain with General Phipps’ ill-fated 1690 expedition in the Battle of Quebec. His services were highly esteemed “not only for the Pious Discharge of his Sacred Office, but his Heroic Spirit, and Martial Skill and Wisdom did greatly distinguish him.” Wise was not a passive observer, but rather a fierce opponent of the enemy, and described the failures of the English forces to be an “unpardonable folly.” When they stalled in the countryside he became “very troubled in mind” and chided the commander, “You are out of your wits– we did not come hither to drive a parcel of Cowardly Frenchmen from swamp to swamp, but to attack Quebec thither!” After much urging from Wise, word was given to march, but he wrote in his journal, “I will assure you things went on with insufferable dullness enough to any men.”
John Wise was of great muscular strength and had a reputation as a superior wrestler. John Chandler of Andover being undefeated, prevailed upon Mr. Wise to a match. The story is told that after reluctantly accepting the match, Wise quickly had the boastful antagonist on his back, then picked him up and pitched him over the fence. Humiliated in defeat, Mr. Chandler asked Mr. Wise if he would mind throwing his horse over in like fashion.
Even more legendary was his intellect and witty if somewhat wordy prose. He took stands against the witchcraft hysteria and stood in support of Dr. Manning, an Ipswich physician who proposed inoculation for smallpox. In the widely read “A Vindication of the Government of the New England Churches,” Wise defended the rights of congregations to be self-ruled.
In 1689, the British Crown revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter and appointed Sir Edmond Andros as governor, who thereupon imposed a Province Tax to be collected in each town. Rev. Wise, John and Samuel Appleton and the selectmen of Ipswich initiated a campaign of resistance.
Wise advised the town not to appoint a tax collector, arguing that the tax violated rights guaranteed in the Charter. For leading the rebellion, Wise and the others were arrested, tried in Boston, imprisoned, and fined heavily. He was deposed from his ministry until he and all but Samuel Appleton conceded. The people of Boston, now greatly encouraged, rose up in resistance and Andros was arrested. The town of Ipswich paid the Reverend’s fine and sent him as its representative to take part in reorganizing the government. Wise personally prosecuted Chief Justice Dudley for refusing him the privileges of habeas corpus while he was imprisoned.
These actions were a precursor to revolts in Boston that led to the American Revolution, and for this Ipswich is known as the Birthplace of American Independence. The Declaration of Independence incorporated principles from John Wise’s memoirs, in which he wrote :
“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.”
As he approached his death in 1725, John Wise observed that he had been a man of contention but upon reflecting on his conduct, he had fought a good fight. He is buried at the Old Burying Ground in Essex. A tablet honoring him, supported with four legs stands over his final resting place.
The Founder of American Democracy
LIKE many great men in the annals of American history, John Wise was of lowly origin. His father, Joseph, came to New England as the serving man of a Dr. Alcock about 1635. These serving men, of whom many emigrated to the New World early in the seventeenth century, were too poor to pay the expense of the voyage across the Atlantic and who there- fore pledged or mortgaged their ser vices to some person better provided, in consideration of being transported to America and supported there until able to buy their liberty.
John Wise was graduated in 1673 and took his master’s degree in 1675. In the interim he had preached at Branford. Connecticut, and in December, 1675, served as chaplain to a company who marched from thence against the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War. After taking his master’s degree he preached for two years in Hatfield, Connecticut, returning to Roxbury in 1678, where he married Abigail Gardner the same year.
Ipswich was at this time the second town in the colony, and its inhabitants were scattered over a wide area, including the present towns of Hamilton and Essex. To serve the spiritual need of the population but one church Present Parish Church, erected 17 was provided, and in order to attend divine service and the Thursday lecture the inhabitants of the more re- mote districts were compelled to traverse miles of forest infested by wolves and Indians.
Dissatisfied with such conditions the residents of that part of the town known as Chebacco, comprising the present town of Essex, took preliminary steps in 1676 toward the establishment of a church and parish of their own, and in 1677 petitioned the General Court for the necessary permission. The petition was tabled, and the petitioners referred to the town, which had already refused to grant the desired separation, and on a second application refused a second time. After a good deal of fruitless negotiation the inhabitants of Chebacco in 1679 decided to erect a meeting house of their own, to be used, if circumstances permitted, as a place of public worship; and for that purpose assembled the timbers for the same and prepared to raise them.
The authorities of the Ipswich church, however, obtained an order from the General Court restraining the men of Chebacco from raising the meeting house — what we should today call an injunction — and thus again brought the enterprise to a standstill. At this critical juncture, when the Chebacco people seemed so successfully thwarted, the women of the neighborhood by a little ingenuity circumvented the Ipswich church and the Great and General Court. Unknown to their husbands, Mrs. Varney, Mrs. Goodhue and Mrs. Martin, after a conference with other women of the neighborhood, set out on horseback through the woods for the adjacent towns of Gloucester and Manchester, and presenting the case to their friends in those towns, soon returned with a small army of men, not of Chebacco, and therefore not restrained by the injunction, who quickly raised the meeting house.
The only punishment resulting from this bold act was that suffered doubtless by the baked punkin’, Injun pudding, beans and hard cider of the well pleased and hospitable Chebacco folk, and this we may be sure was sufficiently severe.
It was to the independent and enterprising parish thus established that John Wise was recommended as pastor by the General Court, and in 1680 he began preaching at Chebacco. In 1683 he was formally ordained, his settlement consisting of an annual salary of £60, “one-third in money and two-thirds in grain at the current price, forty cords of oak wood by the year yearly and eight loads of salt hay.” In addition they assigned to him ten acres of land and agreed to build him a house and barn, “the house to be equal in every respect to Samuel Giddings’ house.”
The last pro-vision was later altered, and Wise in 1703 built his own house, still standing. From 1680 to 1703 he lived in a house, long since gone, which stood a little further to the south. Four years after his ordination at Chebacco occurred an event which made Wise famous throughout the colony, and which alone entitles him to a place among those whose “eternal vigilance” during the colonial era was the price of liberty to their posterity.
Sir Edmund Andros had been for two years and more the Governor of New England. The charters of the several colonies, under which they had for two generations practised self-government, had been abrogated by a characteristic act of the House of Stuart. Andros had already made himself obnoxious by his tyrannical conduct, and in the summer of 1687 added to his malodorous reputation by arbitrarily levying a tax of a penny a pound on property holders indiscriminately. The people had no voice in the matter.
A town meeting had been called in the town of Ipswich for August 23, 1687, to consider the appointment of assessors to apportion the tax thus imposed. The night before the meet- ing, Wise, with several others prominent in the town, attended a caucus at the house of John Appleton near the center, and it was then decided that “it was not the Town’s duty any way to assist that ll method of raising money without a General Assembly, which was apparently intended by Sir Edmund and his Council.”
The next day in town meeting Wise made a speech opposing the appointment of as- sessors for the purpose specified, in the course of which he gave emphatic expression to the sentiment that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” and local tradition has it that on that occasion he not only expressed the sentiment but originated the phrase. As a result the meeting voted unanimously to appoint no assessors, thus setting an example of rebellion which was shortly followed by several other towns in the colony. For this act Wise, William Goodhue, Robert Kinsman, John Andrews, John Appleton and Thomas French, were lodged in jail at Boston, where he remained for three weeks awaiting trial. While there he demanded and was denied the right of habeas corpus in violation of the English constitution, was accused of “contempt and high misdemeanor,” and found guilty by a packed jury, composed principally of aliens.
As of interest to the student of comparative jurisprudence the following extract from the charge of Chief Justice Dudley to the jury may be worth quoting :
“I am glad there be so many worthy gentlemen of the jury so capable of doing the King’s service and we expect a good verdict from you, seeing the matter hath been so sufficiently proved against the criminals.”
At his trial Wise pleaded his privileges under Magna Charta, but the provisions of that instrument were construed as inoperative in America. According to an account of the trial later drawn up by Wise and sent with other charges against Andros to the home govern- ment, one of the judges asserted that “we (Wise and his fellow prisoners) must not think that the laws of England follow us to the ends of the earth,” adding, “Mr. Wise, you have no more privileges left you than not to be sold as slaves,” and no man in Council contradicted.
Wise was fined £50 and costs, was suspended from the ministry and compelled to furnish bonds in the sum of £1,000 for good behavior. The town, however, paid the fine, together with those imposed on his townsmen, and recompensed them for the expense they had incurred during their trial.
It has been asserted that John Wise was the first man in America to thus maintain the just prerogatives of the people in defiance of government. The outcome of the affair had much of poetic justice in it. When in 1688 James II fled from London, his agent Andros attempted to escape from Boston, but was deposed by the people and sent a prisoner to England. Meanwhile Wise was chosen one of two delegates to represent the town of Ipswich at the convention called to reorganize the colony, and later he sued Justice Dudley for denying him the privilege of habeas corpus, and recovered damages.
The Andros incident was not the only one which proves Wise to have been an advocate and exemplar of the “strenuous life.” He was as powerful physically as he was mentally. Tradition represents him as very tall and strongly built, of fine presence, combining affability with dignity. In his day he was famous as a wrestler. It is related that a Captain Chandler of Andover, himself a wrestler of local repute, hearing of the athletic parson, rode over on horseback to Chebacco to test his prowess. Wise at first reluctant to engage in such a contest with a stranger, eventually consented to try a bout and soon laid the confident Chandler on his back. That worthy not being satisfied he repeated the performance, finally depositing him on the other side of the wall, whereat the discomfited Captain scrambling to his feet remarked, that if Mr. Wise would hand his horse over after him, he would take himself home. The stone wall standing within the memory of those now living, in front of the present house, marked, according to tradition, the place of this incident, and its memory is still cherished by the old inhabitants.
On another occasion several of his parishioners were captured by pirates, many of whom at that date infested the coast. The following Sunday he referred to his missing townsmen in his prayer, expressing the hope that if no other alternative was open, they would rise and slay their captors. Faith in the efficacy of prayer among his parishioners was much augmented the following day when the missing men returned and related that on the day preceding they had surprised the pirates, killed them and escaped, thus fulfilling the prophecy of their pastor’s prayer almost at the moment of its utterance.
When Cotton Mather, with whom Wise was not on good terms was making efforts to introduce inoculation to check the smallpox, the Chebacco parson was one of his few supporters, despite the fact that the public mind was so incensed against the innovators that a mob attempted to blow up Mather’s house and made an ineffectual effort to hang Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who dared advocate the unpopular practice.
In 1690 Wise joined the expedition of Sir Wm. Phipps in the disastrous attempt to capture Quebec. Few reaped any honors in that adventure, but Wise, though present only in the capacity of chaplain, distinguished himself by “his Heroic Spirit and Martial Skill and Wisdom.”
It was during the witchcraft delusion of 1692 that Wise most conspicuously displayed his courage. The danger to those who advocated moderation and justice in the treatment of witches is well illustrated by a pamphlet issued in 1693 by Increase Mather, then President of Harvard College and a man with as little to fear from the superstition of the time as anyone in the colony. He endeavored to show in this pamphlet among other things that the so-called “Spectral Evidence” for the detection of witches, was not to be depended upon and he rested his demonstration upon proofs, “All considered according to the Scriptures, History, Experience and the Judgment of many Learned Men.” Mild as was the protest Mather deemed it safer to have it prefaced by a commendatory statement signed by fourteen “influential gentlemen” of whom Wise was one, for the purpose of dis- arming his critics and possible accusers.
The opening sentence of this statement gives evidence of the inflamed state of the public mind : “So Insidious and Abominable is the Name of a witch to the Civilized, much more the Religious part of mankind, that it is apt to grow up into a Scandal for any so much as to enter some sober cautions against the over hasty suspecting, or too precipitant Judging of. Persons on this account.”
Despite the danger implied in such conditions when anyone speaking a word in favor of a witch made himself an object of suspicion, Wise, with several of his parishioners signed an address to the Essex General Court in behalf of John Proctor, a former neighbor and at that time in Salem jail, convicted of witchcraft and awaiting execution. The address was unavailing and Proctor was hanged; but in 1703 another address signed by him, urging that the attainders attaching to the families of those convicted during the delusion be removed, and declaring that “there is great reason to fear that innocent persons suffered, and that God may have a controversy with the land upon that account” was more successful.
An act was passed to the effect that “the several convictions, judgments and attainders be and hereby are reversed and declared to be null and void.” Upham in his “History of the Salem Witchcraft” says of Wise, “He had a free spirit and was perhaps the only minister in the neighborhood or country who was discerning enough to see the erroneousness of the proceedings from the beginning.”
The service for which Wise should be held in veneration by posterity was however not rendered till the latter part of his life. It consisted in the contribution made by him to the theory of church and civil government. Led by the Mathers, a council met at Boston in 1705 and drew up sixteen proposals which were submitted to the various churches for their consideration. The proposals in substance, contemplated a change in the form of church government and placed the control of many matters formerly determined by the separate parishes in the hands of certain councils which were to decide all doubtful points and settle all disputes.
Wise read these proposals and highly disapproved of them as of “something which smells very strong of the Infallible chair” and as containing doctrine subversive of democratic principles. In 1710 appeared a pamphlet from his pen entitled “The Churches’ Quarrel Espoused” in which he took vigorous issue with the authors of the proposals using both exhortation and satire to emphasize his views. Satire was an unusual weapon for a minister to wield in that austere age, but in Wise’s hands it proved so effective as to bring to a halt the campaign of the Mathers, and when in 1717 he published a second pamphlet, “A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches” he established the foundations of Congregationalism so firmly that they have since remained in all essential respects unshaken.
It is upon the theorems contained in his second essay that his claim as the founder of American democracy must principally rest. The essay marks him as the earliest political philosopher in America and in it the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence are expressed in language as clear and as strong as in that of Jefferson’s famous document. What vital principle is to be found in the Declaration of Independence which is not involved in the following extracts from Wise’s argument for free government drawn “from the Light of Nature”? “All men are born free, and nature having set all men upon a level and made them equals, no servitude or subjection can be conceived without inequality.” “The first human subject and original of civil power is the people.” “When the subject of sovereign power is quite extinct that power returns to the people again, and when they are free they may set up what species of government they please.” “The formal reason of government is the will of the community.” “A civil state is a compound moral person . . . whose will is the will of all.” “The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, etc., without injury or abuse done to any.”
Though Wise was the first man in America to express such views so potent in the history of the continent, and probably the first in the world to so clearly express them, his name and his services have been consigned to oblivion by the historians of Democracy. Wise as the originator of the dictum is entitled to the credit which the world unites in bestowing upon Jefferson. In fact the work was a sort of text book of Liberty to the patriots of the Revolution, as indeed it was the obvious intention of those who caused its republication that it should be.
John Wise died in his seventy-third year on the 8th of April, 1725, at his home in Chebacco. On his deathbed he said, to his son-in-law, John White of Gloucester, “I have been a man of contention, but the state of the churches made it necessary. Upon the most serious review I can say I have fought a good Fight: and I have comfort in reflecting upon the same: I am conscious to myself that I have acted sincerely.” Had he not been a man of conten tion the history of the American nation would doubtless have been different. There can be little doubt that through the confidence inspired in the Revolutionary leaders by his work and the sanction it accorded their deeds, he was a critical factor in determining the time and place of the commencement of the struggle for the liberation of the colonies, and in that determination the history of the Revolution and perhaps its immediate issue were involved.
Though John Wise’s deeds have been all but forgotten by his posterity, and his services but obscurely recorded, his character and achievements may none the less be cherished by Americans as a product of the same land and stock of which they are products, and his grave in the old burial ground at Essex may be invested with the veneration accorded to those which hold the dust of America’s more conspicuous, but not more worthy son
Sources and Further reading:
- A presentation by Thomas Franklin Waters to the Ipswich Historical Society, 1927
- John Wise of Ipswich Was No Democrat, by Raymond B. Stearns
- John Wise, A Classical Controversialist, by Richard M. Gummere
- John Wise, the Father of American Independence by Paul Simpson McElroy