STIRRINGS OF LIBERALISM
IN the days when Sir Edmund Andros was seeking to fasten upon Massachusetts Bay the principles and practice of Stuart prerogative, an event occurred that greatly stirred New England. Taxes having been arbitrarily assessed in Council, the several towns were bidden appoint commissioners to collect them. When the order reached Ipswich, John Wise, minister of the second church, gathered the chief members of his flock together, and it was agreed by them to choose no such commissioner at the town meeting-"We have a good God, and a good king, and shall do well to stand for our privileges," the minister is reported to have argued. Soon thereafter John Wise was summoned before a starchamber court on the charge of sedition. Upon his plea of colonial privilege, the president of the court, Dudley, is said to have retorted, "You shall have no more privileges left you than not to be sold for slaves." "Do you believe," demanded Andros, "Joe and Tom may tell the King what money he may have?" "Do not think," put in another judge, "the laws of England follow you to the ends of the earth." Thereupon with five others, John Wise was thrown into Boston jail, where he lay one and twenty days, and whence he was released only after payment of fifty pounds, giving bond in a thousand pounds for good behavior, and suffering suspension from the ministry. "The evidence in the case," he remarked afterward, "as to the substance of it, was that we too boldly endeavored to persuade ourselves we were Englishmen, and under privileges.' The year following, Andros having been driven out, John Wise brought suit against Dudley for having denied him a writ of habeas corpus.2
Two years later Wise served as chaplain in the ill-managed Quebec expedition under Sir William Phipps. He bore himself well both in council and on the field; went ashore with the storming party; and if he had succeeded in his efforts to instil some of his own force into the leaders, the grand exploit might not have dwindled to such an unhappy ending. In a long account which he sent to Increase Mather, then in London, he did not mince matters, or attempt to throw on the Lord's shoulders blame that belonged elsewhere, but charged the fiasco to the cowardice of Major Walley, in command of the assaulting troops.3 Clearly the Ipswich minister was a fighting as well as a praying parson, whom Cromwell would have delighted in.
Posterity has been too negligent of John Wise hitherto. Although possessed of the keenest mind and most trenchant pen of his generation of New Englanders, he was uninfected by the itch of publicity that attacked so many of his fellow ministers, and so failed to challenge the attention of later times. Called to serve in an outlying portion of the Master's vineyard he discovered little opportunity there and less inclination to magnify his own importance. He was too honest to persuade himself that God's fame was bound up with his own, and he was never forward to push his claims to priority in righteousness. Nevertheless what little we know of him is to his credit. An independent man, powerful of body, vigorous of intellect, direct and outspoken in debate, he seems to have understood the plain people whom he served, and he sympathized heartily with the democratic ideals then taking form in the New England villages. Such liberalism as emerged from the simplicity of village life found intelligent response in his sympathies, and he dedicated his keen mind and wide reading to the business of providing it with a philosophical justification. Some explanation of his democratic leanings may be discovered in his antecedents. His father was a self-made man who had come over to Roxbury as an indented servant-most menial of stations in that aristocratic old Boston world. He must have been of sound and rugged stock, for in addition to a magnificent physique he endowed his son with manly independence and democratic selfrespect, which stood the latter in good stead when, after having made his way through Harvard College, he came to speak for the people against the tax program of Andros, the reactionary ambitions of the Presbyterians, and the schemes of the hardmoney men. In John Wise, Cotton Mather was to encounter an antagonist who was more than a match for him.
With the final overthrow of the theocracy and the lessening of the political power of the clergy, a critical period in the development of the church was reached, and with it a renewal of the old conflict between the Presbyterian and Congregational principles. In the year 1705, under the leadership of the Mathers, the Presbyterian party, which numbered among its adherents most of the ministers of the larger churches, put forth a series of "Proposals," looking to a closer union of the churches, and greater control of the separate congregations by the ministerial association. This was a challenge to the Congregationalists which John Wise could not overlook. The question touched the fundamentals of church organization, and when by way of preparation he turned to examine critically the work of the fathers, he found in it quite another meaning than Cotton Mather found. It was as a liberal that he went back to the past, seeking to recover the original Congregational principle, which, since the conservative triumph in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, had been obscured. When he was quite ready, he published in 1710, his Churches Quarrel Espoused, reissued five years later; and in 1717, his Vindication of the Government of the New England Churches, reissued together with the earlier work in 1777, and again in 1860. The two works were a democratic counterblast to the Presbyterian propaganda, and they stirred the mind of New England profoundly. What Edwards did later for the doctrinal side of Congregationalism, John Wise did for the institutional. His exposition of the Congregational principle was so luminous and convincing that it soon came to be regarded as authoritative, and more than a hundred years after the Vindication appeared the Chief Justice of Massachusetts cited it in support of a judicial decision.
The significance of John Wise in the history of democratic America lies in the fact that he followed "an unbeaten path," justifying the principle of Congregationalism by analogy from civil polity. Seemingly alone amongst the New England clergy of his day, he had grounded himself in political theory; and the doctrine upon which he erected his argument was the theory of natural rights, derived from a study of Pufendorf's De Jure Naturae et Gentium, published in 1672. Locke and the other writers of the English natural-rights school he seems not to have been acquainted with; but Pufendorf he had read closely, and he discharged the new theory against his opponents with telling effect. This was the first effective reply in America to the old theocratic sneer that if the democratic form of government were indeed divinely sanctioned, was it not strange that God had overlooked it in providing a government for his chosen people? Wise was the first New England minister to break with the literal Hebraism of the old school; like Roger Williams he was willing to make use of profane philosophies, basing his argument upon an appeal to history, a method which baffled the narrow Hebraists, putting them in a quandary.
After examining the three regular forms of civil government, and showing how each is related to "the many ennobling immunities" of the subject, Wise turned to the real business in hand, which was to inquire "whether any of the aforesaid species of regular, unmixed governments, can with any good show of reason be predicable of the church of Christ on earth"; whether the monarchical form as exhibited in papacy and episcopacy, the aristocratic form as exhibited in Presbyterianism, or the democratic form as exhibited in Congregationalism, is nearest the divine model as revealed in Scripture and the law of nature?
The gross inadequacy of the monarchical principle appears to him so certain that he concludes his argument with the comment "that God and wise nature were never propitious to the birth of this monster." The inadequacy of the aristocratic principle seems to him equally clear. The principle of stewardship, ideal though it may appear in theory, did not seem to work in practice, and he put his finger shrewdly upon the weakness of oligarchical rule in Massachusetts. Government by a "select company of choice persons" might be justified, if we could be assured they would make the Scripture, and not their private will the rule of their personal and ministerial actions; . . . but considering how great an interest is embarked, and how frail a bottom we trust, though we should rely upon the best of men, especially if we remember what is in the hearts of good men (namely, much ignorance, abundance of small ends, many times cloaked with a high pretense in religion; pride skulking and often breeding revenge upon a small affront, and blown up by a pretended zeal, yet really and truly by nothing more divine than interest or ill nature), and also considering how very uncertain we are of the real goodness of those we esteem good men . . . and . . . how Christianity, by the aforesaid principle, had been peeled, robbed and spoiled already, it cannot consist with the light of nature to venture again upon such perils, especially if we can find a safer way home . . . . In a word an aristocracy is a dangerous constitution in the church of Christ.4
This "safer way home," as he then proceeded to point out, lay in following the broad path of democracy:
But to abbreviate, it seems most agreeable with the light of nature, that if there be any of the regular forms of government settled in the church of God, it must needs be . . . a democracy. This is the form of government which the light of nature does highly value, and often directs to as most agreeable to the just and natural prerogatives of human beings . . . . It is certainly a great truth, namely, that man's original liberty after it is resigned . . . ought to be cherished in all wise governments; or otherwise a man in making himself a subject, he alters himself from a freeman into a slave, which to do is repugnant to the law of nature. Also the natural equality of men amongst men must be duly favoured; in that government was never established by God or nature, to give one man a prerogative to insult over another . . . . Honor all men. 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 to any.5
From which he concludes that
. . . a democracy in church or state, is a very honorable and regular government according to the dictates of right reason, And, therefore . . . That these churches of New England, in their ancient constitution of church order, it being a democracy, are manifestly justified and defended by the law and light of nature.6
A vigorous thinker was John Wise, with a shrewd knowledge of men and their selfishness. He would rule himself, well or ill, and would have others do likewise. Stewards in church and state, he would have none of. "Brethren," he exclaimed, it ye have been called unto liberty, therefore Hold your hold brethren! . . . pull up well upon the oars, you have a rich cargo, and I hope we shall escape shipwreck . . . daylight and good piloting will secure all."' "There is strong and sharp reasoning" in his pages, more solid meat in his two volumes than in all Cotton Mather's muddled effusions. Like a good Englishman and a good Yankee he hated arbitrary power as he hated the devil. "The very name of an arbitrary government is ieady to put an Englishman's blood into a fermentation; but when it comes and shakes its whip over their ears, and tells them it is their master, it makes them stark mad." 8
Naturally so vigorous an advocate of democracy in the church was disliked by the gentlemen whose ambitions he thwarted. Such plebeian views were incomprehensible to Cotton Mather. When The Churches Quarrel Espoused was reprinted in 1713, prefaced with a commendatory letter signed by two wellknown clergymen, the latter wrote to a friend:
. . . A furious Man, called John Wise,9 of whom, I could wish he had, Cor bonum, while we are all sensible, he wants, Caput bene regulatum, has lately published a foolish Libel, against some of us, for presbyterianizing too much in our Care to repair some Deficiencies in our Churches. And some of our People, who are not only tenacious of their Liberties, but also more suspicious than they have cause to be of a Design in their pastors to make abridgments of them; they are too much led into Temptation, by such Invectives. But the Impression is not so great as our grand Adversary doubtless hoped for.10
Two years later, when the Vindication was published, the sulky theocrat noted in his diary:
25 [May. 1717] G[ood] D[evice]. Should not I take into Consideration what may be done for the Service of the Ministry and Religion and the Churches, throughout the Land, that the Poison of Wise's cursed Libel may have an Antidote? 11
Cotton Mather was unable to discover an antidote, and the poison of Wise's democratic philosophy was to prove of surprising vitality." As late as 1772, when his two works were reprinted on subscription, no fewer than 1133 copies were taken. That the argument of Wise was not without influence in the struggle then developing seems reasonable; but that it greatly influenced the thinking of the revolutionary leaders, as Professor Tyler supposes, is scarcely probable. The argument from natural rights was well known in 1772, and it was to Locke and not to Wise that men like Samuel Adams turned for help. Nevertheless, in denying to him wide influence in the later period we are neither detracting from the honor that is rightly his as the first colonial to justify village democracy by an appeal to political philosophy, nor lessening the repute in which he should be held by Americans as the early defender of local self-rule.
The instinctive sympathy of John Wise with the plain people among whom he lived led him to stand with them in another matter that touched the interests of the farming class. The currency question had thrust its provocative demands into political councils, and sharply divided the electorate. City men like Samuel Sewall were jealous to maintain the English metallic currency, partly through custom and partly because its scarcity augmented its value; whereas the plain people of Ipswich, like so many country people, no doubt were impressed with the desirability of a landscript currency. Into this mighty controversy entered John Wise, who in the year 1721, under the pen name of Amicus Patriae, is reputed to have been the author of a book entitled, J Word of Comfort to a Melancholy Country. Or the Bank of Credit . . . fairly defended by a Discovery of the Great Benefit, accruing by it to the whole Province, etc. Humbly dedicated to the Merchants in Boston. It was "a well-managed and witty plea for paper money and `inflation."' With the economics of the problem that he was delving into, we are not concerned; many heads have wrestled with it since; we are concerned rather to point out that the democratic John Wise was on the same side with the democratic Franklin, in espousing paper currency.
After all, the significant thing that emerges .from the life and
work of John Wise, is the unerring directness with which he seized upon the core of primitive Congregationalism, and the breadth and vigor with which he defended it. After a spirited contest lasting three-quarters of a century, theocratic Puritanism yielded to ecclesiastical democracy. For two generations it had remained doubtful which way the church would incline. Dominated by gentlemen, it was warped towards Presbyterianism; but interpreted by commoners, it leaned towards Congregationalism. The son of a plebeian, Wise inclined to sympathize with the spirit of radical Separatism, bred of the democratic aspirations of Jacobean underlings; and this radical Separatism he found justified by the new political philosophy, as well as by facts of the New England village world. The struggle for ecclesiastical democracy was a forerunner of the struggle for political democracy which was to be the business of the next century; and in founding his ecclesiasticism upon the doctrine of natural rights, John Wise was an early witness to the new order of thought.
Great changes, whether liberal or otherwise as the future might determine, were to come to Massachusetts from the new order with its Charter provision establishing a property qualification for suffrage. The venture in idealism was over and economic determinism reasserted its sway. New England was to swing back into the broad current of English political development. Following the Revolution of 1688 a new theory of the political state was rising in England-the theory that the state originated in private property and exists primarily for the protection of property; and this conception, thrust upon New England, was to cut sharply across the cleavages of the old order and create new ones. It substituted the dominance of wealth for the stewardship of righteousness; the stake-insociety principle for the Mosaic code. It set a premium upon acquisitiveness and subordinated the Puritan to the Yankee. It prepared the way for class alignments which must grow sharper with the increase of wealth, and would eventually produce a Tory group with natural longings for titles ,and a colonial aristocracy. How powerful this mercantile-Tory element was to become would depend upon the counter strength of the rising democratic . group, with its freehold tenure of land, its town meeting, its Congregational church, and its distrust of aristocratic orders.
For the present, the world of John Wise was the real New England, thrifty, parsimonious, intensely local, driving straight towards a homespun democracy. The older fashioned New Englander, whatever his social position, did not take kindly to Toryism; and when it made its appearance in the train of the royal officials, swaggering somewhat and a bit insolent, it seemed to the colonial both alien and wicked. English Tory and Puritan Yankee frankly disliked each other; their ideals were incompatible, their manners unlike. A cloud of suspicion surrounded the English official as he walked the streets of Boston: suspicion of the hated church which he promptly set up, though not much given to worship; suspicion of his political motives and the overseas authority which he represented. In a vague way the New Englanders were convinced that he constituted a menace to their most cherished rights and privileges; that he was secretly bent on undermining the traditional liberties. And the English gentleman, with his casual old-world arrogance, unwittingly aggravated the common suspicion.
How great was the chasm that separated the two worlds is sharply revealed by an episode in the career of Joseph Dudley, son of the emigrant, who was made royal governor in 1702. Dudley had lived much in England, had sat in Parliament, and had imbibed prerogative notions of government. He little relished the homely ways of New England and he bore himself somewhat haughtily. One December day in 1705, as he was driving along a country road with high snowdrifts on each side, he met with two loads of wood. The chariot coming to a stop, Dudley thrust his head out of the, window and bade the carters turn aside and make way for him; but they were inclined to argue the matter in view of the drifts. Words were multiplied, and one of the carters cried-to quote Sewall-"I am as good flesh and blood as you . . . you may goe out of the way." In a rage the governor drew his sword and struck at the fellow, who snatched the sword away and broke it. "You lie, you dog; you lie, you devill!" cried Dudley, beside himself. "Such words don't become a Christian," retorted the carter. "A Christian, you dog!" cried Dudley; "a Christian, you devill! I was a Christian before you were born!" and he snatched the carter's whip and lashed him roundly. "Being in a great passion: threatn'd to send those that affronted him to England." He arrested both carters and threw them into jail, whence they were released by the help of Sewall, who took their side though connected with Dudley through marriage. They were of good yeoman families, yet the matter hung on for nearly a year before they were discharged from their bonds. 12
Village New England was becoming surprisingly independent in spirit when plain countrymen stood upon their rights against the Governor-"nor did they once in the Govrs . . . sight pull of their hatts," as Dudley took pains to inform the Queen's justices. Three generations in America were having their effect in the creation of a homespun democracy. "Mr. Dudley's principles, in government, were too high for the Massachusetts people," commented a later Tory, whose own principles were high:
He found it difficult to maintain what appeared to him to be the just prerogative of the crown, and at the same time to recover and preserve the esteem of the country. The government had been so popular [i. e. democratic] under the old charter, that the exercise of the powers reserved to the crown by the new charter was submitted to with reluctance.13
If "the prejudices against him were great," some explanation is found in a letter written by his son, Attorney-General Paul Dudley, to an English friend, which came to the hands of Cotton Mather and was published by him:
I refer you to Mr. - for an Account of everything, especially about the Government, and the Colledge; both which, are Discoursed of here, in Chimney Corners, and Private Meetings, as confidently as can be . . . . This Country will never be worth Living in, for Lawyers and Gentlemen, till the Charter is Taken Jway. My Father and I sometimes Talk of the Queen's Establishing a Court of Chancery in this Country; I have Writ about it, to Mr. Blathwayt: If the Matter should Succeed, you might get some Place worth your Return; of which I should be very Glad.14
If New England had grown restive under the theocratic oligarchy, it had no intention of being toryized by English placemen.
It was during these troubled years that a new force made its appearance in Massachusetts which Sewall noted: "Sept. 25 . A printed sheet entituled publick Occurrences comes out, which gives much distaste because not Licensed . . . ." A week later he added: "Print of the Governour and Council comes out shewing their disallowance of the Public Occurrences"; and the next day, "Mr. Mather writes a very sharp letter about it." This was Increase Mather, who would tolerate no such lawlessness of the press, which must be kept as a private preserve for the orthodox party. Against the Mather conservatism it was impossible to make headway, and the little sheet did not come to a second issue. Not till fourteen years later did Sewall set down a similar note: "April 24 . I went to Cambridge . . . . I gave Mr. Willard the first News-Letter that ever was carried over the River. He shew'd it to the Fellows." So began in America, at first unlawfully, and then with due propriety, the work of making and publishing newspapers. For seventy-two years thereafter, the News-Letter was published continuously, justifying in all its utterances the confidence of Boston conservatism, espousing naturally the Tory side in the pre-Revolutionary quarrels, and coming to a sudden end on the evacuation of Boston by General Gage.
On December 14, 1719, the Boston Gazette entered the field as a
competitor for conservative readers, and two years later, August
17, 1721, the New England Courant appeared, the first organ of the
opposition. It was edited by James Franklin, who possessed
much of the Franklin independence, untempered by the prudence
of Benjamin; and he set himself incautiously to the business of
assailing. the strait-laced authorities of Boston. He got together a
group of brisk young men, known as the Hell-fire Club, who flung
their vivacious satires at the Mathers with such effect as to
lead Cotton Mather to undertake the following "Good Device":
Warnings are to be given unto the wicked Printer, and his Accomplices, who every week publish a vile Paper to lessen and blacken the Ministers of the Town, and render their Ministry ineffectual. A Wickedness never parall'd any where upon the Face of the Earth.15
Although his prayers could not convert the wicked journalists, his warnings availed with the magistrates, who took ,means to put a stop to such disrespect. Twice Franklin was arraigned for contempt, and once he spent four weeks in the common jail. By way of counterblast to so disreputable a sheet, the New England Weekly journal appeared on March 20, 1727, an eminently respectable sheet, edited by Mather Byles and with such notable contributors as the Reverend Thomas Prince. But with the coming of the journal with its staff of writers who modeled their style upon the Augustan wits, we are in the mid-current of the eighteenth century, that was to enlarge the influence of the public press far beyond what could have been foreseen from its small beginnings. It was to penetrate the inland villages and slowly wear away their insularity of temper and outlook, bringing fresh ideas to minds that had long stagnated. On the whole it was not a liberal press, but its final effect was profoundly liberalizing.
1 A similar plea had failed Dr. Church when he offended the oligarchy twenty years before, who quite as arbitrarily had fined him six hundred pounds.
2 See the account in Palfrey, History of Massachusetts, Vol. II, Book XII, p. 327; 118 and in Wise, Vindication of the Government of the New England Churches, Introduction. The current Tory interpretation of the common law of sedition was severe. "In 1679, at the trial of Henry Carr [Care], indicted for some passages in a weekly paper, the Lord Chief Justice Scroggs declared it criminal at Common Law to `write on the subject of government, whether in terms of praise or censure, it is not material; for no man has a right to say anything of government"' (State Trials, VII, 929; quoted in Schuyler, The Liberty of the Press in the American Colonies, etc.)
3 See Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, Second Series, Vol. XV, PP. 283-296.
4 Vindication, edition of 1860, pp. 50-53.
5 Ibid., pp. 54-55.
6 Ibid., p. 60.
7 The Churches Quarrel Espoused, p. 116.
8 Ibid., p. 2o9.
9 A gratuitous insult, as Wise was well known.
10 "Letter to Robert Wodrow, September 17, 1715:" Diary, in Massachusetts Historical Collections, Seventh Series, Vol. VIII, p. 327.
11 Ibid., p. 450.
12 The account with affidavits is given in Sewall, Diary, Vol. II, pp. 144-147.
13 Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. II, p. 148.
14 Sewall, Diary, Vol. II, Introduction, p. 109.
15 Diary, Vol. II, p. 663.