Eal of the Town of Ipswich MA, "Birthplace of American Independence"

The Birthplace of American Independence, 1687 

How Ipswich, Massachusetts, won this inscription for its Town Seal

by John Howard Burnham (1915)

SOMEONE has truly said that every tree in the forest has, under ground, roots which are equal in body to all of its branches above ground. If this is correct, perhaps it can be said with equal truth that the great tree of American Liberty possesses, buried in the remote and distant past, as many roots and rootlets as its beautiful structure of branches exhibits to our admiring gaze.

We sometimes think of liberty’s roots in the Swiss Mountains where William Tell slew the tyrant Gessler, and we often refer to the English Plains of Runnymede where the Barons compelled King John to assent to England’s Magna Charta; but the branches of our own tree of American liberty have been nourished by many very deep growing roots concerning which history is sometimes entirely silent, or to which it has given but niggardly praise, and we can perhaps spend a few moments profitably in tracing one rootlet of our liberty tree, which has not been exactly overlooked by history, but which from the present generation of Americans has attracted little or no general attention.

I was born in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts, in the very school district where the leader in the events I am about to describe was the settled Pastor in the Congregational Church in what was then called Chebacco Parish, but which is now, since 1819, the little town of Essex.

Ipswich, whose Indian name was Agawam, is located on the north side of Cape Ann, about thirty miles from Boston, and fronts on Ipswich Bay. It narrowly missed being the Plymouth home of the Pilgrims in 1620. You will remember that various unforeseen delays prevented the Mayflower from sailing around the stormy point called Cape Cod, until too late in the season to undertake the passage of another Cape, which was Cape Ann, and this delay compelled them to settle on the miserably poor, sandy soil around Plymouth, where the limited harvest of Indian corn almost drove them to seek another location, and where frequent starvation came very near exhausting their determination and perseverance.

Agawam possessed large areas of fertile, cleared acres of rich, black soil, adapted to corn growing, where the Indian tribes had once lived in plenty. It was the intention of the Mate of the Mayflower to land at Agawam, where he vouched for the beauty and fertility of the neighborhood. Had this landing been made, it is probable the whole history of New England would have been vastly different.

In 1687 Ipswich was the second town in wealth and population in the ancient “Province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England,” as all of its legal papers then described the Province, and its residents religiously believed that their New England home was far dearer to them than the old English home which had so bitterly persecuted their fathers and mothers fifty years before.

The people who lived in Chebacco Parish in 1687 must have been a sturdy, patriotic, intellectual class. There are various evidences of this, one of which will here be called to your attention. Another is the fact that in this little community of perhaps five hundred people, almost entirely made up of old English Puritan families, were to be found the ancestors of Joshua R. Giddings, Nathan Dane, Seth Low, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greene Coggswell, Edna Dean Proctor, Joseph H. Choate, and Rufus Choate. The latter was my mother’s first cousin. Since commencing this paper I have discovered that all of the above mentioned persons find among their ancestors of over two hundred years ago some of the same ancestral lineages as are found in my father’s and mother’s families in that ancestral Parish.

The town seal of Ipswich bears this inscription: “The Birthplace of American Independence 1687.” The important events I shall describe were a mere tradition in the town where I was born until recent publications and celebrations brought them to light. The traditions had faded almost entirely out of the minds of the descendants of the actors, and to me it was almost a revelation, when, in later years, I found unquestioned historical records deserving of national attention.

One of the actors was my Grandmother’s Great-Grandfather, thus bringing me within four generations of the event, and I feel a personal interest in calling attention to the importance of the action.

The English Charter, which was granted on March 9, 1629, to the first settlers of Massachusetts Bay,—inhabitants of Boston, Salem, Ipswich, Beverly, Gloucester, and other neighboring towns with good old English names,—was remarkably liberal in its terms in very many respects. Puritan influence prevailed at headquarters in London, and the leading idea of those who procured the Charter was to furnish a safe home to the Puritan Independents or Congregationalists, although it was hoped that mines of precious metals might be discovered, or that the pine forests and the fisheries might yield some return to the Chartered Corporation of the Massachusetts Bay Company. The settlers were given the right to make their own laws, elect their own Legislature and Governor, to make war, if necessary, in their own defense, and to exercise all of the privileges of Englishmen.

James I was King of England, but, between the granting of the Charter and the year 1687, successive changes occurred, from James I to Charles I, who was sent to the scaffold by theCromwellians in 1649, then to Cromwell himself, then to Charles II, and finally, in 1685, to James II. The New England Puritans placed their chief dependence, for the keeping of their liberties, on that sacred charter under which they could, in Massachusetts, at least, keep watch and ward over as much British territory as that paper protected on their own side of the Atlantic Ocean.

During the great immigration of Puritans, which occurred mainly from 1631 to 1640, the population of Massachusetts Bay was increased by over twenty thousand souls, bringing with them property and money to the amount of one million dollars. When the English Puritans began to acquire the strength at home which culminated when Oliver Cromwell came into power, the tide of immigration actually turned backward to Old England, and quite a number of Cromwell’s ablest officers and assistants were Puritans returned from Massachusetts.

During all of this time, however, the ruling element in the Colony was the Massachusetts Congregational Church, which held fast to its faith and jealously guarded its rights under the Charter with a watchfulness that is to us astonishing. We have no space here to follow the famous struggle between the British Government and the Colonists during the years between 1630 and 1680, which consolidated the advocates of liberty and home rule to an extent which we of the present find it impossible to understand.

The Colony kept jealous and zealous agents in London much of that time, where they were aided and assisted by eminent political and religious leaders, careful to ward off the attacks of those who eagerly strove to curb the liberty of the American Puritans. Time and again did these zealous London friends furnish assistance, and, even when Parliament sent over its own Commissioners, the Massachusetts General Court contrived to baffle all attempts at subjugation until the final annulment of the famous Charter in 1684.

We can but admire the statesmanship shown by the hardy republicans of the Colony in tenaciously clinging to their own interpretation of their liberal Charter. It is, indeed, enough to assert that, as the sturdy Cromwellians in England, men of almost exactly the same faith, demonstrated to the world at large the tremendous power of the people, so the progressive and liberty-loving Puritans of Massachusetts Bay demonstrated, to the little world on its side of the Atlantic, the real value of the large share of independence enjoyed by them before their Charter was annulled by the British Court of Chancery, June 21, 1684.

Threatening clouds now began to appear. The British Government demanded that all of the old Colonial laws should be amended and reformed, that all new ones must provide one and one-half years for the scrutiny of the home Government, and that the Governor and principal officers should be appointed by the Crown.

During the fifty years of home rule the New England Colonists had made remarkable progress. They had been confederated together in 1641 for mutual protection against Indian raids. Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven had thus united with Massachusetts, and here we find the germ of our national confederation of a later date. These communities were bound together by almost the same ties of religion. However, the others were much more liberal and moderate than was Massachusetts, and they did not bring upon themselves so much of the hatred and fury of their British rulers as did Massachusetts Bay. They did not feel the loss of their Charters at the end of this period so seriously as did the larger Colony, and in the great struggle of 1687–1689 the brunt of the contest fell almost entirely on Massachusetts.

A dozen years prior to the annulment of the Charter Massachusetts Bay had gone through with a terrible struggle with the Narragansett and other Indians, who, under the lead of the barbarous Philip, caused the death of over five hundred persons. These Indians burned over five hundred houses and utterly destroyed thirteen towns. They brought the frontier to within forty miles of Boston and within fifteen miles of Ipswich. One-half a million dollars was the financial cost, all of it borne in New England mostly by Massachusetts, and, at the end of the war in 1676, the sufferings of the people were enough to appal the stoutest heart. Ipswich furnished its full quota of fighting men and some of the ablest leaders in this terrible war were from Ipswich.

Less than ten years of partial peace and relief from this intolerable condition of warfare gave the Colonists some slight rest and relief, when the loss of their Charter aroused the bitterest resentment, from the Hudson River to the farthest Eastern extremity of Massachusetts.

Charles II, who died in 1685, was succeeded at once by James II, and when, on December 12, 1686, his appointee, Governor Andros, landed in Boston, the full cup of bitterness was now presented to the liberty-loving citizens of Massachusetts Bay.

In carrying on the expensive Indian War without calling on England for assistance, Massachusetts had exercised nearly all of the attributes of sovereignty and independence, and yet felt itself loyal to Great Britain, and its people were fairly astounded at that interference with their Colonial affairs, which was evidenced by King James when he sent Sir Edmund Andros as General Governor to Boston accompanied by the frigate Rose and a company of British Red-Coats.

Political speculations must have been rife in the vicinity of Boston on the arrival of the new Governor, whose coming was apparently to punish the Puritans of New England for their long period of actual intolerance. We must not forget that the Established Church of England had been barely able to maintain one Church in all of this territory, that one being in Boston; that the Quakers and their sect had been rudely and scandalously persecuted in Massachusetts; and that England had some provocation for this demonstration. There were very few lawyers at this time in all of New England and none in the Legislature of the Colony. The Pastors of the Churches were the leading politicians and it had been customary for them to take the lead in defending and maintaining the much-loved Charter, which gave the ruling Church of the Puritans power to protect itself. All of my ancestors were Puritans of the strictest sort, and I can but lament that their intense zeal for their Church led them so often into the advocacy of extreme measures.

Now that Great Britain had actually over thrown the Charter, and had again grasped the governing and legislative authority, what might reasonably be expected to follow? King James had evinced religious toleration in America by the favor and partiality he was showing William Penn, whose Quaker settlement at Philadelphia was now but four years old; but he was suspected of being also in league with the Catholic King of France to overthrow the Protestant religion throughout the realm of England, and our New England church leaders and others were anxiously enquiring of their friends in Old England concerning the signs of the times.

The appointment of Governor Andros in itself, had it been done as a measure of real pacification in the settlement of the serious misunderstandings between Parliament and the various Colonial governments, might have been a wise piece of statesmanship in the hands of moderate, far-seeing statesmen: it might within one-half a century have consolidated the friends of freedom in all of our American Colonies; have taken over later the French Canadians as British subjects; and have been the means of building up an American branch of the British Nation, embracing the whole of the Franco-English-American peoples, and immensely augmenting the influence of the British Nation as a vastly superior world-power. The plan of a Governor-General over all of the Colonies were proposed in 1754 by Benjamin Franklin, just before the French power in Canada came to an end by the peace of 1763.

The Puritans of New England were keenly alive to the threatening aspects of English politics and were quite generally informed as to the affairs of their English friends, but were not yet posted as to their secret plans, which included the assistance of the Protestants in Holland under the leadership of William, Prince of Orange.

The town of Ipswich, then second in population and wealth in Massachusetts, contained quite a number of the ablest religious and political leaders of New England thought, as will soon appear. In connection with their leaders in Boston and other places, they cautiously and jealously watched all of the public moves of Sir Edmund and his British associates. There was at this time no telegraph, no telephone, no local Post-Office, no newspaper, and we can but wonder at their success in keeping their own counsels from being made public.

When the Charter was annulled, in 1684, the Legislature was abolished, and the Governor-General with a Council of eighteen, not elected by the people, were in supreme control and under the orders of the King. In March, 1687, the Governor and Council ordered a tax levy of a penny in the pound for the public revenue of the Colony. This Council assumed to levy taxes which had previously been called for by the Legislature, by and with the advice of the Council and the Governor, and the different towns in the Colony were now arbitrarily ordered to assess this unjust and illegal tax. Boston, Salem, and many other towns obeyed the Governor’s warrant and assessed the tax before the end of July, but Ipswich and some others did not act at once.

The Ipswich Town Meeting was called for August 23, 1687, and here commenced the famous rebellion or revolution of New England. The Pastor of Chebacco Parish was the leader in this movement and was one of the great men of the times. The Encyclopaedia Britannica” has this to say:

“John Wise (1652–1725), a Puritan author deserving better remembrance than he has had, was born at Roxbury, Massachusetts, graduated at Harvard in 1673, began in 1680 to preach in Ipswich, Mass., and passed his life in that charge.”

Here I find sound authority for my attempt to keep this truly great man in remembrance, and we may well thank this good British publication for its sturdy commendation of our early genuine American patriot.

Chebacco Parish contained a collection of rich farms, occupied by prosperous farmers who had, with great difficulty, succeeded in organizing a new parish and building a church but a few years prior to 1687. The church was situated in the school-district where I was born, and Mr. Wise’s residence, which was at first on the parsonage land nearby, was later, in 1703, built by himself on land adjoining my ancestral home, and there his house is still standing in good repair.

On another farm adjoining was my father’s ancestral home, owned in 1687 by his mother’s great-grandfather, Captain William Goodhue, Jr. Captain Goodhue was an able Indian fighter, was Parish Clerk, a Deacon, and the confidential friends of the Pastor.

Mr. Wise, then thirty-five years of age, was of towering frame, a vigorous athlete, an able theologian, and an impassioned orator. The ten-acre field given him by his parishioners at his settlement, about 1681, was on my father’s farm and is called “Wise’s field” to this day. While plowing in this field in 1855 I found an ancient gold mourning ring. Mr. Goodhue died October 12, 1712. On the inside of this ring may be seen a Latin abbreviation for died and some initials and figures as follows: “W. G. Obt, Oc. 12, 1712.”

In all of this time four generations have come between me and Captain Goodhue. I have no doubt but following the ancient custom then in vogue among all well to do English people his widow presented this mourning ring to her Pastor, her husband’s dearest friend, as a tender memento of the friendship and undying love which existed between these two leaders who had suffered together in the great cause we are now commemorating.

I love to think that Mr. Wise must have worn this ring with many touching recollections of his long and intimate association with his parish clerk and church deacon, Captain William Goodhue, Jr.

With his friend Goodhue and some of the Ipswich town officers, about a dozen in all, Mr. Wise held a meeting at Ipswich Village on August 22, 1687, the day before the Town Meeting, and discussed with these and other leading citizens the action to be recommended to the voters when they should assemble the next day. Mr. Wise addressed that Town Meeting in a lengthy and impassioned address and it is deeply to be regretted that no copy of this remarkable speech has been preserved. History informs us that a manuscript copy was afterwards carried to a few other towns and was the means of causing several of them to follow the example of Ipswich. This speech, according to tradition, fairly electrified his audience. Could this manuscript copy, which was read later in other town meetings, be now discovered it might take high rank with the very ablest American documents, not even excepting the Declaration of Independence.

In his “History of American Literature,” Professor Moses Coit Taylor says: “Upon the whole, no other author of the Colonial times is the equal of John Wise in the union of great breadth and power of thought, with great splendor of speech, and he stands almost alone among our earlier writers for the blending of a racy and dainty humor with impassioned earnestness.”

The town records of the memorable meeting where this magnificent speech was delivered quaintly tell us concerning the action of the town after the hearing thereof, as follows:

“That considering the said act doth infringe their liberty as free born English subjects of his Majesty by interfering with the statutory laws of the land, by which it is enacted that no tax shall be levied on the subjects without consent of an assembly, chosen by the freeholders, for assessing same, they do, therefore, vote that they are not willing to choose a commissioner with such an end without said privileges, and moreover consent not that the select men do proceed to lay out any such rate until it be appointed by a general assembly concurring with the Governor and Council. Voted by the whole assembly twice.”

Taxation without the consent of the people was the issue in Ipswich in 1687, just as in 1775 “Taxation without Representation” was the issue on which our War of Independence was fought to a successful end. Macauley tells us that Washington and Franklin were both willing at one time during the Revolutionary War to recommend submission to England, provided this one principle of self-taxation should be conceded by the British Parliament, and this single quotation from Macauley proves that Ipswich stood out the leader in 1687 for the principle upon which was founded our American Independence, and its town seal to this day truly declares Ipswich to be “The Birthplace of American Independence,”—a proud boast, but one which is literally true.

Governor Andros soon took steps to crush this rebellion and caused the arrest of Mr. Wise and a dozen of the town’s leaders, who were imprisoned in the Boston jail ; and six of them were fined as follows:

  • Rev. John Wise, Fine 100£, Bond 1000£,
  • John Andrews, Fine 50£, Bond 500£,
  • John Appleton, Fine 30£, Bond 500£,
  • Robert Kinsman, Fine 20£, Bond 500£,
  • Wm. Goodhue, Jr., Fine 20£, Bond 500£,
  • Thos. French, Fine 15£, Bond 500£.

The other persons who were arrested were dismissed. These heroes were kept in jail at Boston about thirty days when they were released after the payment of all fines and costs, which were afterward repaid by the town of Ipswich.

During their trial Justice Dudley refused these patriots the privilege of Habeas Corpus. Mr. Wise plead in their behalf the statute of Magna Charta, the laws of England, and the laws of the Colony, to show the utter illegality of the action of Governor Andros and his assistants, but one of the Judges of the Court replied to Mr. Wise that he must not think the laws of England followed him to the ends of the earth, and that he and his associates had no more privileges left than not to be sold as slaves.

Governor Andros, in addition to calling for this illegal tax, had taken the high ground that none of the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay had valid titles to their lands, notwithstanding that the famous Charter had granted the land to settlers fifty years before. He argued that as the different towns had assumed title to these lands to which they were not in fact authorized by the English Government, that new titles and new deeds must be furnished by his own officers, after the payment of such patent fees as he and they should order.

No words can express the exasperation of the Colonists, who had in many cases occupied for over forty years the lands of which they were in possession, and all of these impositions and inflictions taken together caused a reign of terror such as has existed in few communities anywhere else in America.

Our Ipswich men must have felt that by their boldness of speech and action they had seriously imperiled the fortunes of the friends and neighbors. They were now in the custody of the officers of King James, charged with treason and rebellion, and we can imagine their position should they still contend in a hopeless cause. Now that nearly the whole Colony had levied the hated tax, there was apparently nothing further to be gained for their cause, and we need not wonder that they apologized and took the oath of allegiance to save their townsmen and friends from further trouble, and that they paid their fines and returned to their homes. To the lasting honor of Ipswich these fines and expenses were all refunded to the sufferers.

It should be remembered that the actors in this ancient drama were generally men of the second generation from the first immigration, that they always boasted of being Englishmen, and that they had not the inspiration we feel in being citizens of another nation. When confronted with the taunt of being little better than slaves, and with the insolent demand for re-payment for new titles to their lands, which they and their fathers had laboriously improved, they were face to face with a dilemna which brought out all of the manhood and resentment of which these independent natures were capable.

History does not fully explain the events of the next few months, but we can readily see that the excitement must have been intense. Our patriots were fully aware that only ten years before this time Sir William Berkely, the Royal Governor of Virginia, had forcibly put down Bacon’s Rebellion, and had executed over twenty of those who had resisted his government, although they appeared to be actuated by nearly the same patriotic motives which had influenced the Ipswich leaders.

The year 1688 was a trying year for our Massachusetts Bay Colony. In England King James was pushing his efforts for the acquirement of absolute power. By the end of June, the historian Green tells us, “He had been deserted by the peerage, by the gentry, the bishops, the clergy, the universities, and every lawyer, every farmer and every trader stood aloof from him. He said, ‘I will win all or I will lose all.'”

Finally James quartered an army of thirteen thousand men near London to over-awe the City and vast numbers of patriotic Englishmen of all classes were organizing for some desperate action. These movements were slowly reported to New England and in some manner, not fully known even to this day, preparations were being stealthily made for possible co-operation in some future attempt to parallel the action in England.

Thus the year dragged along and when, on November 5, 1688, William, Prince of Orange, landed at Torbay in England with a large army, the Great British Rebellion was fairly underway. The want of regular communication between the two Continents prevented the New England people from learning of this event until the next April, a most exasperatingly tedious delay, as it appears to this generation of rapid news-gatherers and news-readers. Merchant vessels brought news or rumors of news occasionally, several months old, throughout that winter, but if Sir Edmund was fully informed he effectually smothered the important information.

When the great news of the Prince’s Protestant Dutch Army arrived in Boston on April 4, 1689, it was at first treated as a mere rumor; but the people could only be controlled for two weeks longer, when New England’s revolution broke out in Boston without official news of Prince William’s landing at Torbay and of the great revolution then going on in England.

On April 8, 1689, the drums beat to arms, the streets of Boston were soon filled with armed men, and several thousand more were on the march within a few miles of town. Now was witnessed one of the marvels of the world, and that was the instant organization of ununiformed, sturdy, fighting men, maddened almost to fury and yet under reasonably good military restraint.

Most of these angry volunteers, who were upon the street in apparent disorder, were seasoned Indian fighters who had so desperately encountered King Philip’s Narragansett Indians a little more than a dozen years before. In carrying on that war the Colony compelled every able-bodied man to furnish and keep in order his own gun and gunpowder, and to private ownership of guns and ammunition in thousands of homes, we no doubt owe the wonderful success of Boston’s revolution in April, 1689, when the people, under the lead of a committee of leading citizens, took the law into their own hands and instinctively obeyed the orders of a few Captains.

The story is now briefly told. King James’ Governor, Sir Edmund Andros, with his two or three hundred soldiers, was no match for these terrible Indian fighters, who fell into military order almost miraculously, and the Red Coats surrendered to them without blood shed. The proud Royal Governor-General and his officers were placed in confinement in Castle William in Boston Harbor, and were very soon sent as prisoners to their homes in England. This appears to have been the first American re-call of a ruler and will ever stand as the most successful re-call in American history.

The people were now free, and in a short time their former government was restored by their own acts, and, upon the final accession, a short time later, of King William and Queen Mary, the Massachusetts Colonists were once more in practical control of their own affairs.

The real loyalty of Massachusetts was given a remarkable test in 1690, one year later, by the dispatch of a home-made and homepaid naval force under Sir William Phipps, the famous New Englander, who captured and destroyed the strong Fortress of Port Royal at Annapolis, in Nova Scotia, and proudly gave to the arms of Great Britain the glory of a most brilliant victory over France, the ally of King James, who was at that time still the defeated claimant to the Throne of England, which he never again occupied.

But we are not yet through with the Rev. Mr. Wise. The article from the “Britannica,” heretofore quoted, goes on to say:

“Gov. Andros, as governor, laid a tax on the Province without consent of the assembly. Wise, in 1687, advised Ipswich not to obey the order, as contrary to Charter rights. For this he was arrested, and pleading Magna Charta, was told by one of the Judges not to think the laws of England followed him to the ends of the earth. He was fined, imprisoned and deposed. After Andros’ fall he sued Judge Dudley for denying him Habeas Corpus. In November, 1705, appeared annoymously Questions and Proposals addressed to the New England Churches and attributed to the two Boston Mathers. Wise saw in it a plot to overthrow laic by clerical control in the Church and answered at his leisure with the ‘Church’s Quarrel Espoused’ (1710).

“Prof. M. C. Tyler says: ‘Its invectiveness, its earnestness, its vision of truth, its flashes of triumphant eloquence simply annihilated the scheme it assailed.’ The topic was further handled in a ‘Vindication of New England Churches (1717),’ which fully evolves the democratic theory. The two pamphlets were re-printed in one volume one-half century later (1772) to do duty in the Revolutionary struggle, and the correspondence of many of the sentences in the Declaration of Independence with the very expressions of Wise in his book are suggestive of something like plagiarism. This volume was reproduced by the Congregational Board in 1860 as an authority upon that polity.”

Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Josiah Quincy were among the members of the famous Committee of Correspondence whose writings influenced Philadelphia, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, and other localities to join the great movement for independence, which movement was underway in 1772 and culminated in 1775. The influence of the clergy upon people of all sects was very strong up to the breaking out of the War of the Revolution, and no doubt ministers of all denominations had been influenced by the patriotic Pastor’s demonstration of Christian republicanism and Christian democracy in these re-published volumes. Adams and his radical friends showed great political shrewdness in this action, and no doubt it was largely through this influence that the ideas of John Wise, which the “Britannica” tells us can be traced in the immortal Declaration of Independence, were distributed throughout the Colonies, until they became almost household words in the early days of our American Revolution. We can thus distinguish very clearly the great influence of that Ipswich town meeting, and see the propriety and justice of that patriotic claim, which will forever be the proud boast of the Town of Ipswich, that here was “The Birthplace of American Independence, 1687.”

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