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A Step Toward Self-Government: The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Today is the 385th anniversary of the Cambridge Agreement signed by the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company.

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A depiction of the three lead ships in the Winthrop fleet, painted around 1880 by William Halsall.

The first English attempts to plant colonies in the New World were managed by landed gentry such as Sir Walter Raleigh, who was given an undefined grant of land in America by the Queen Elizabeth I, in effect a license to send adventurers there to claim and settle what they could, returning to the crown a portion of any gains reaped through mining or other enterprises. Raleigh’s attempts between 1584 and 1587 failed, in part  because, like others of his courtier class, he lacked the funds to sustain it. Beginning in 1606, the English crown began granting the right to form colonies in the New World to joint-stock companies—groups of private investors, many of them merchants, who were willing to undertake the expense and risk of these enterprises.  The colony of Virginia and a series of others were planted by this means.

Those who underwrote the founding of Massachusetts made an arrangement for the government of the colony that earlier joint-stock companies had not. A group of Puritans within the Massachusetts Bay Company pledged to travel to and settle in the new colony if given the charter to carry with them. By buying out the other shareholders, those who were actually going to live in the colony insured that they retained control of the colony‘s management. This was an unintended first step toward self-government in America; the royal charter they were given, which became colonial Massachusetts’ constitution, stipulated that the colony be governed by “one Governor, one Deputy Governor, and eighteene Assistants of the same Company, to be from tyme to tyme constituted, elected and chosen out of the Freemen of the saide Company . . . .” On August 26, 1629, the group of Puritans undertaking the voyage met in Cambridge to sign a legally binding agreement. 

 

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