English Liberties and Deference
Digital History ID 84
The social history of eighteenth-century America presents a fundamental paradox. In certain respects, colonial society was becoming more like English society. The power of royal governors was increasing, social distinctions were hardening, lawyers were paying closer attention to English law, and a more distinct social and political elite was gradually emerging, as a result of the expansion of Atlantic commerce, the growth of the tobacco and rice economies, and especially the sale of land. To be sure, compared to the English aristocracy, the wealthiest merchants, planters, and landholders were much more limited in wealth and less stable in membership. Nevertheless, there was a growth of regional elites who intermarried, aped English manners, and dominated the highest levels of colonial government.
Yet the eighteenth century also witnessed growing claims of "English liberties" against all forms of tyranny and subservience. A 1705 legal case pitting Governor Joseph Dudley (1647-1720) of Massachusetts against two cart drivers, whom the governor charged with insubordination, offers a vivid example of the mounting challenges to social deference. This case became a landmark in limiting the authority of public officials.
Account of Governor Joseph Dudley:
The Governour informs the Queens Officers of her majesty's Superior Court that on Friday the seventh of December last past he took his journey from Roxbury towards New Hampshire and the Province of Maine for her majesty's immediate service there....[He] had not proceeded above a mile from home before he met two carts in the Road Loaded with wood, of which the Carters were as he is since informed Winchester and Trowbridge.
The Charet [coach] wherein the Governour was had three sitters and their Servants...drawn by four horses, one very unruly, & was attended only at that instant by Mr. William Dudley, the Governour's son.
When the Governour saw the two carts approaching he directed his son to bid them to give him the way having a Difficult drift with four horses & a tender Charet [coach] so heavily loaden not fit to break the way, Who accordingly did Ride up & told them the Gov[erno]r was there, & they must give way. Immediately upon it the second Charter came up to ye first...& one of them says aloud he would not go out of the way for the Governour whereupon the Gov[erno]r came out of the Charet and told Winchester he must give way to the Charet. Winchester answered boldly...I am as good flesh & blood as you. I will not give way. You may go out of the way, & came towards the Governour. Whereupon the Governour drew his sword to secure himself & command the Road & went forward; yet without either saying or intending to hurt the carters or once pointing or passing at them but justly supposing they would obey & give him the way; and again commanded them to give way. Winchester answered that he was a Christian & would not give way & as the Governour came toward him he advanced & at len[g]th laid hold on the Gov[erno]r & broke the sword in his hands. Very soon after came a Justice of the Peace, & sent the Carters to prison...the Gov[erno]r demanded their names which they would not say...nor did they once in the Gov[erno]r[']s hearing or sight pull of[f] their hatts...or any word to excuse the matter but absolutely stood...on each side of the forehorse laboured & put forward to drive upon and over the Governour. And this is averred upon the honour of the Governor.
Thomas Trowbridge's account: I passed through the town of Roxbury in the lane between the house of Ebenezer Davis and the widow Pierpont in which lane are two plain cart paths which meet in one at the de[s]cent of the hill. I being...on the west side of the land I seeing the Governor[']s coach where the paths meet in one...drove leisurely so that the coach might take that path one the east side...which was the best...when I came near the paths met I made a stop thinking they would pass by me in the other.... And the Governor[']s son...biding that it was easier for the coach to take the other path than for me to turn out of that; then did he strike my horse and...drew his sword and told me he would stab one of my horses. I stept betwixt him and my horses and told him he should not if I could help it. He...made several passes at me with his sword which I fended of[f] with my stick. Then came up John Winchester of Muddyriver alias Brookline...who gives the following account.
...I left my cart and came up and laid down my whip by Trowbridge his Team. I asked Mr. William Dudley why he was so rash. He replied this dog won't turn out of the way for the Governour. Then I passed to the Governour with my hat under my arm hoping to moderate the matter, saying may it pleas[e] your Excellency, it is very easy for you to take into this path.... He answered...you rogue or rascal, I will have that way. I then told his excellency, if he would but have patience a minute or two I would clear that way for him. I turning about and seeing Trowbridge his horses twisting about ran to stop them.... The Governour followed me with his drawn sword and said run the dogs through and with his naked sword stabbed me in the back. I facing about, he struck me on the head...giving me there a bloody wound. I then expecting to be killed dead on the spot to prevent his Excellency from such a bloody act in the heat of his passion. I caught hold of his sword and it broke but yet...in his furious rage he struck me divers blows with the hilt and piece of the sword remaining.... I called to the standers by to take notice that what I did in defense of my life.... The Governour said you lie you dog you lie you Devil.... Then said I, such words don't become a Christian. His Excellency replied, a Christian you dog, a Christian you Devil.... I was a Christian before your were born.
I Thomas Trowbridge further declare that...the Governour struck me divers blows then taking Winchester's driving stick and with the great end there of struck me several blows as he had done to Winchester afore. Winchester told his Excellency he had been a true subject to him and served him and had honoured him.... His Excellency said...you shall go to Jail you dogs; then twas asked what should become of our teams. His Excellency said, let them sink into the bottom of the
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
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