New England Confederation — the First Union in Colonial America

1643–1686

The New England Confederation was an alliance formed by Puritan colonies in New England. The Confederation is most famous for being the first attempt at military and political unification by the American Colonies. The New England Confederation also claimed victory in King Philip’s War.

John Winthrop, New England Confederation Governor, Portrait

John Winthrop was the first President of the New England Confederation. Image Source: Wikimidia.

What was the New England Confederation?

The New England Confederation — also known as the United Colonies of New England — was an alliance formed between the Puritan Colonies — Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven, and Massachusetts Bay — in 1643. After the events of the Pequot War, leaders from those colonies believed it was necessary to coordinate their defenses against attacks from various threats, including Native American Indian Tribes, the French, and the Dutch. The Confederation marked the first attempt made by any of the English colonies in North America to unite for mutual benefit.

New England Confederation Facts

  1. The New England Confederation was also called the United Colonies of New England.
  2. The New England Confederation was established in May 1643 and went into effect in September 1643.
  3. Four Puritan colonies were members — Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven.
  4. The Confederation was the first attempt by English Colonies in America to form any type of political or military union.
  5. New Haven was absorbed by Connecticut, which required the Articles of Confederation to be revised.
  6. The New England Confederation organized military forces and won King Philip’s War (1675–1678).
  7. The existence of the New England Confederation likely saved Plymouth from being destroyed during King Philip’s War.
  8. Massachusetts grew in power during the era of the New England Confederation.
  9. The New England Confederation created a sense of unity that persisted through the American Revolution and the American Revolutionary War.
  10. The New England Confederation was replaced by the Dominion of New England.

Origins of the New England Confederation

In 1637, during the trial of Anne Hutchinson, Puritan leaders suggested an annual meeting to discuss religious and political issues. Discussions continued, for several years, but no action was taken until 1640. 

It was in that year Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Haven became concerned about another series of attacks from Indian tribes. The three colonies approached Massachusetts about forming an alliance. Massachusetts declined because it refused to cooperate with Rhode Island because it was tolerant of other religions.

In the fall of 1642, Plymouth Colony proposed an arrangement to the other Puritan colonies and they agreed to meet in Boston in May 1643.

Founders of the New England Confederation

On May 19, 1643, Puritan leaders from four New England Colonies agreed to the “Articles of Confederation between the Plantations under the Government of the Massachusetts, the Plantations under the Government of New Plymouth, the Plantations under the Government of Connecticut, and the Government of New Haven with the Plantations…”

The delegates who attended the meeting were:

  1. Connecticut — John Haynes, Edward Hopkins, George Fenwick, Increase Nowell
  2. MassachusettsJohn Winthrop, John Dudley
  3. New Haven — Theophilus Easton, Thomas Gregson
  4. Plymouth — William Collier, Edward Winslow

It was the first attempt by the English Colonies in North America to form any type of political or military union.

Causes of the Formation of the New England Confederation

The colonies that formed the New England Confederation sought to defend themselves from political, military, and religious threats.

Pequot War

The Confederation was formed in the aftermath of the destructive Pequot War (1636–1638), where New England colonists and their Indian allies defeated the Pequots. The 1638 Treaty of Hartford concluded the war, and most of the surviving Pequots, around 200, were sold as slaves to the victorious Indian tribes. The member colonies looked to better prepare themselves for future conflicts with New England’s Indian tribes.

Endecott and Massachusetts Troops Land on Block Island, Pequot War
This illustration depicts John Endecott and Massachusetts troops landing on Block Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New England Expansion in Connecticut

The English also took the land of the Pequots and forbade them to return. The Mohegans and Narragansetts also agreed they would not move into the territory, which opened up southeastern Connecticut for more New England settlers. The Puritans wanted to control the expansion and ensure their version of Protestant Christianity was observed in any new settlements.

English Civil War and Instability in England

Two years later, the English Civil War started, which created more concerns about the safety of the colonies that were members of the Confederation.

The Civil War started during the reign of King Charles I, who tried to assert his authority over Parliament. Charles I led a faction that was known as “Royalists” or “Cavaliers,” while supporters of Parliament were known as “Parliamentarians.” 

Charles I was deposed in 1651 and replaced by a Puritan faction led by Oliver Cromwell, who established The Protectorate. During Cromwell’s reign, The Protectorate continued to expand England’s mercantilism policies, which included the passage of the first Navigation Act. This institution lasted for more than a decade but was weakened when Cromwell died in 1658.

King Charles II, Crowned at Westminster Abbey
King Charles II. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Upon his death, the Cavaliers worked to restore the monarchy. Charles Stuart, the son of Charles I, was crowned Charles II  in 1660, in what is known as the Stuart Restoration. During his reign, several important events took place that affected the New England Confederation, including:

  • He went to war with the Dutch in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) and Second Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674), which caused conflicts with the New Netherland Colony and led to its takeover and conversion to the Province of New York.
  • He granted new charters for Carolina, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which allowed more non-Puritans to emigrate to America.
  • In the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, Spain recognized British possession of Jamaica and settlements in the Americas.
  • Charles II extended the Navigation Acts in 1663 and 1673, restricting the North American colonies, including the members of the New England Confederation, to trade with Great Britain.
  • Customs agents were assigned to colonial ports to enforce the Navigation Acts. This created resentment in the New England Confederation and increased smuggling.
  • He issued a new charter for Connecticut that gave it jurisdiction over New Haven, forcing the New England Confederation to alter its Articles of Confederation.
  • The Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantation were created in 1675 to oversee the English colonies, which added another layer of bureaucracy to the English government.
  • Charles issued a proclamation and sent English troops to Virginia in 1676 to restore order in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion.
  • In 1670, he sold Dunkirk to France in the Treaty of Dover. He also agreed to convert to Catholicism.

For the next 15 years, the New England Confederation continued to operate but was wary of the continuous expansion of English authority and the threat of a Catholic government. During this time, Massachusetts became a dominant force in New England.

James II, a Catholic, succeeded Charles II in 1685. James sought to gain more control of the government and issued the Declaration of Indulgence, which allowed Protestant non-conformists, such as Quakers and Catholics, to hold public offices and military commissions.

These actions and others led to a confrontation between James II and his political opponents. In England, James raised standing armies to put down challenges to his authority. In America, he revoked the charters of Massachusetts and some of the other New England colonies and merged them under one government called the Dominion of New England.

King James II of England, Portrait
King James II. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Threats to Puritanism

Puritan leaders felt the necessity to unite for protection against Puritan nonconformists, including the Indians, French Catholics, secular Dutch, and the various religious denominations in Rhode Island. As new colonies were established, the threat to the Puritan way of life increased.

Interesting Facts About the New England Confederation

Purpose of the New England Confederation

The primary purpose of the New England Confederation was to establish a system of military protection for the member colonies. 

Colonial officials from the four colonies looked for protection against attacks from Native American Indian tribes and rival European nations, including France and the Netherlands.

The Confederation was also created to resolve boundary conflicts among member colonies and Native American Indian tribes and to keep peace between all parties.

Limited Authority of the New England Confederation

The Confederation did not have authority over member colonies and did not interfere in their internal affairs. Further, the confederation did not have the power to force any member colonies to cooperate with any military expeditions or plans.

Membership was Restricted to Puritan Colonies

Religion played a significant role in the formation of the New England Confederation. All four member colonies were controlled by Congregationalist Puritans who viewed themselves as agents of God in the New World and wanted to distance themselves from non-conformists.

New Hampshire was under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts and was a member of the Confederation under that condition. 

Because of this, the members refused to allow non-Puritan colonies to join, such as Rhode Island. Maine was also excluded.

Roger Williams, Banishment, Painting
Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after he was banished from Massachusetts. Image Source: Wikimedia.

History of the New England Confederation

From 1643 to 1664, the Confederation commissioners continued to meet. Although the Confederation continued, it was a relatively weak organization and threats from Indian tribes persisted.

Prominent Commissioners Who Served the New England Confederation

A number of prominent Puritan leaders from the Colonial Era served as commissioners to the New England Confederation, including:

  1. William Bradford, Plymouth
  2. William Bradford the Younger, Plymouth
  3. Simon Bradstreet, Massachusetts
  4. Elisha Cook, Massachusetts
  5. James Cudworth, Plymouth
  6. Thomas Danforth, Massachusetts
  7. Daniel Denison, Massachusetts
  8. John Endecott, Plymouth
  9. William Hathorne, Massachusetts
  10. Thomas Hinckley, Plymouth
  11. John Leverett, Massachusetts
  12. William Pitkin, Connecticut
  13. Thomas Prence, Plymouth
  14. William Stoughton, Massachusetts
  15. Robert Treat, Connecticut
  16. John Webster, Connecticut
  17. Thomas Welles, Connecticut
  18. Josiah Winslow, Plymouth
  19. John Winthrop the Younger, Connecticut
  20. Wait-Still Winthrop, Connecticut
John Winthrop the Younger, Portrait
John Winthrop the Younger. Image Source: Wikimedia.

First Anglo-Dutch War

In 1653, tensions with the Dutch in New Netherland peaked during the First Anglo-Dutch War.  Massachusetts Bay refused to participate in a military expedition, which nearly led to the Confederation’s near collapse.

Connecticut Expands

In 1655, New Haven merged with Connecticut.

King Philip’s War

20 years later, in 1675, an incident in Plymouth Colony initiated King Philip’s War. The New England Confederation responded by calling out militia forces and attacking Narragansett settlements in Rhode Island. 

The Wampanoag and Narragansett launched a counter-attack on the New England colonies and burned Providence. The New England Confederation forces retaliated and overwhelmed King Philip’s forces. King Philip was killed at his stronghold, Mount Hope, on August 12, 1676. The New England Confederation and its Indian allies won the war but at a great cost to both sides. The Wampanoag and Narragansett were almost exterminated. English villages and towns suffered severe damage and roughly a tenth of the men who fought in the war died.

Rhode Island blamed the New England Confederation for the destructive war.

King Philip's War, Attack on Brookfield
This illustration depicts on attack on Brookfield during King Philip’s War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Provisions of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation outlined plans for joint military actions and defense, along with raising and funding troops based on colony resources and manpower. 

Two commissioners from each colony were appointed who were responsible for coordinating military efforts and attending meetings.

End of the New England Confederation

In 1686, King James II of England, the Privy Council, and the Lords of Trade decided to merge the colonies in New England together under a single government. Under the new arrangement, the colonies were known as the “Dominion of New England.” 

New England Confederation APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the New England Confederation, the New England Colonies, and the Colonial Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

New England Confederation APUSH Definition

The New England Confederation was an alliance formed in 1643 among several English colonies in the New England region, including Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven. The purpose of the confederation was to provide mutual defense against Native Indian American threats and to coordinate intercolonial affairs. While the confederation was initially successful, it was eventually replaced by the Dominion of New England.

A History of the New England Confederation

The following is taken from The Pilgrims by historian Frederick Alphonso Noble, and was published in 1907. Please note that some typographical errors have been corrected, and section headings and spacing have been added to improve readability.

Population of New England when the Confederation was Formed

Massachusetts Bay, the colony of the Pilgrims, and the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven, entered into a confederation. The name given to the organization was The United Colonies of New England. At that time the Plymouth colony numbered about three thousand inhabitants. Massachusetts had five times as many. Connecticut had about the same number as Plymouth; and New Haven five hundred less. There were eight towns in the Old Colony.

The Main Objectives of the New England Confederation

The leaders in the movement had three main objects in view in bringing about this union. One was that there might be a prompt and satisfying way of adjusting disputes over boundaries, and amicably settling such other differences as might arise between the parties concerned. Another was the promotion of their mutual interests by encouraging each other in “preserving and propagating the truths and liberties of the gospel.” It was a “cosociation for mutual help and strength;” and they hoped by means of it to increase their chances of “advancing the Kingdom

of Jesus Christ.” How the underlying concern of these men — Pilgrims and Puritans alike — for the deep things of God and the soul crops out at every turn! Still another, the most obvious and commending, was the common defense.

An Early Attempt at Union Failed

Five years before the date just named a serious effort had been made to establish a league of this sort; but the time had not come when all could see eye to eye, and realize the importance of standing together in an alliance which, in emergencies, would make each a vital part of the whole, and the whole much more weighty and efficient.

Puritan Fears Led to the Forming of the New England Confederation

At the date first mentioned, however, 1643, and after much agitation of the question, public opinion was ripe for the advance step. Concert of plan and action had become a necessity. Indian matters in particular were assuming grave and threatening aspects and awakening most serious apprehensions. The disturbed condition of things in England greatly increased the peril from this source. If revolution was to be inaugurated, if the home government was to be overturned, if the authorities were to be obliged to devote all their attention to securing or holding their places, there would be small chance of receiving help from over the seas in case savage plots were hatched and massacres were attempted. With jealous nations alert, and rival colonies of other speech and faith ready to act on hints from intriguing politicians, wily chiefs of the forest tribes would be promptly apprised of the situation, and know well when and where to strike their deadly blows. So it was feared; and this fear became a spur to union.

Still, while this was a ground of alarm and a reason for coming together, there was to be no wanton aggression on the Indians. The ninth article of the terms of union was carefully drawn, and made as clear and strong as possible, with the specific end in view of preventing any one of the colonies from acting on its own responsibility, either in resisting threatened attacks, or making assaults, or in avenging wrongs done by the Indians. They were to receive kindness and open-handed justice.

Commissioners of the New England Confederation

The basis of the union was the political equality of the colonies, and the right of each to be represented by two delegates in the conferences. These delegates, or representatives from the colonies, were called commissioners. Under the provisions of the union there could be only eight of them at most; but they constituted a legislative assembly.

President of the New England Congress

They were a federal congress. One of its own number was to be chosen to preside over the deliberations of the body; though the president’s vote on any measure up for adoption counted no more than the vote of any other member. 

Requirement to Pass Motions

On questions of peace and war it required, save in “sudden exegencies,” six votes to pass a motion and make it binding. If propositions of weight were presented which could not command the six votes needed for their adoption, they were referred to the general court of the several colonies. 

Military Apportionment for the New England Confederation

The apportionment of forces and the meeting of expenses in case of war were to be according to the numbers and financial strength of the several colonies. 

Massachusetts, for instance, was to furnish men in the ratio of one hundred to forty-five for each of the other jurisdictions. This proportion, however, which was so fixed in one of the articles of the compact under which the confederation had been formed, was altered at the first session of the commissioners, and Massachusetts was set down for one hundred and fifty, Plymouth and Connecticut for thirty each, while New Haven was required to raise only twenty-five. This shows what forward strides the Bay colony was making in those early years. 

Frequency of Meetings

The meetings of the commissioners were to be held once a year — though when occasion called there might be emergency meetings — and in each of the colonies in turn. The best men were sent to this little congress. 

Prominent Participants

John Winthrop was the first president in a line of presidents which would have done honor to any legislative body in the world. Bradford was four times elected a commissioner; and he was twice chosen to preside. 

The men, however, who were most frequently sent to represent Plymouth, while the colonies were acting under the first articles of union, were Thomas Prince, John Brown, Josiah Winslow, and Thomas Southworth.

New Haven Merged with Connecticut

In 1662, through the influence of John Winthrop, the younger, a charter of remarkably liberal provisions was obtained from Charles II, for Connecticut. This charter was found to cover New Haven. 

Three years later, after not a little bitter controversy and much against the will of many of the leading citizens, the colony of Davenport and Eaton became merged in that of Haynes and Hooker. 

Revised Articles of Union

This reduced the colonies which were in the confederation from four to three, and called for a reconstruction of the articles of union. It took many conferences and a number of years to bring this about; but in 1672 the revised articles were ratified and the confederacy set out anew.

The important changes were that henceforth it would require five out of six, instead of six out of eight, of the commissioners to make an action binding; the meetings were to be not annual but triennial — though provision was made for calling and holding extraordinary meetings when occasion demanded; wars were not to be undertaken except by authorization of the general courts of the several colonies; men were to be raised for the common defense, and expenses met for military operations, on the basis of a new apportionment by which Massachusetts was to contribute in the ratio of one hundred to sixty for Connecticut and thirty for Plymouth. 

There were other alterations, but these were the main ones. 

It was under this second constitution that the colonies lived and carried on their joint operations, until Plymouth was finally annexed to Massachusetts and became extinct as an independent jurisdiction.

Plymouth and the New England Confederation

What did the confederacy do for the Plymouth colony? There are several answers to this question. In a general way, it may be said that it did for the Plymouth colony just what was expected of it when the confederacy was formed. 

  • It gave new heart and new hope to the people. 
  • It removed the sense of isolation which had sometimes been so weakening and oppressive. 
  • It imparted the confidence which it derived from an increase In the numbers of those who have interests in common and are moved by a common spirit and purpose. 
  • It increased the resources, both of strength and wisdom, available in case of contest. 

To a single strand, three strands were added; and it made a cord which, to say the least, could not be so easily broken. It was a tie that bound In a wider fellowship. It was a rift in the clouds of a threatening sky.

The New England Confederation Resolved a Border Dispute Between Plymouth and Massachusetts

But, In addition to a general service of this kind, it rendered specific services of great worth along the lines had in view when the confederacy was formed. 

To cite a single Instance, It may be said that title to the ownership and jurisdiction over a tract of country lying on the border between the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies was satisfactorily adjusted and the boundaries definitely fixed. 

For a number of years, beginning with 1640, Seekonk, a portion of which is now known as Rehoboth, was a bone of contention between the two colonies. The Bay colony claimed it, apparently because she wanted it; and the Old Colony asserted her right to It in virtue of some sort of patent. 

So long as the colonies remained separate, there was no way of dealing with the question in dispute except for each to state Its position and urge its claims, and there leave the matter. 

The confederacy furnished a court of appeal, and cases could there be pushed to a finish. Precisely that Is what was done in this instance. The facts were laid before the commissioners, and the claims of each side were presented; then those members of the commission who were not parties to the controversy, and to whom the case was referred for decision, made answer in favor of Plymouth. 

Thus a long and irritating contention was brought to an amicable conclusion. 

There were other differences of like nature in which the other colonies were concerned and which were brought to happy adjustments by the board of commissioners, but this instance is mentioned because it had to do with Plymouth, and answers our questions by showing how the peace and welfare of Plymouth were promoted by the confederacy.

The New England Confederation Encouraged Education

For another instance and in another sphere it may be said that the Pilgrims were encouraged to take a freshened interest in education, and to put more zeal into the support of ministers and churches, in consequence of influences brought to bear on them through the confederacy.

When the confederacy was set up the Plymouth colony had been in existence for more than twenty years. While the fires of devotion to high ideals still burned upon the altar, it is not strange that there was a little less heat and glow in the flame than in the earlier times. 

The struggle to gain a permanent footing in the land had been a hard and wearisome one. New settlers were coming in upon them, but some of them were on the ground simply for gain, and so far as the higher interests of the colony were concerned they were rather a hindrance than a help. 

Elder Brewster, always an appreciable and unfailing moral and spiritual force in the community, was near the end of his beneficent career. Without any marked degeneracy of the people, though the outlook was somewhat alarming to Bradford; and without any decided lowering of the tone of devotion to the ends of instruction and religion, it was only natural for enthusiastic outsiders to feel that the time had come when a little wise counsel and encouragement would do the colony good, and for the colony to feel that it needed just this kind of wholesome stimulation. 

In this spirit counsel was given and received. There was no patronizing intrusion, and there

was no irritation. Everything was in good temper; and the moral life of the colony was helped by this association with other members of the confederacy and the suggestions which reached the colony through the confederacy.

It was through the urgent recommendation of the commissioners that Nathaniel Morton was encouraged to write his “New England’s Memorial.” Though this is far from being a full and perfect account of things in the colony for the first forty years and more, it is yet invaluable.

The Plymouth people had their vision enlarged and their interest in the training of youth increased by the appeals which reached them through the confederacy in behalf of the little college at Cambridge. The help sought was small, but it was given; and the effect was, not only to aid a young and struggling institution, but to stimulate interest in their own schools. The determination and energy with which Massachusetts resisted assaults on religion, or the views and statements and customs which her rulers identified with religion, were not always wise, nor was the counsel which she pressed on her sister colonies always the best; but Plymouth felt the impulse imparted by Massachusetts, and the purpose of the Pilgrims to foster sound learning was intensified, and their zeal in maintaining the truth, in supporting churches, and in strengthening the hands of the ministers, was very much quickened. 

The New England Confederation was a Benefit to Plymouth Colony

In some instances, harm was done by this outside urgency, but the good was more than the harm, and the good was abiding. Plymouth gave, but she also received; and the people of the Old Colony were wider-visioned and more earnest in their loyalty to truth and duty because of the ideas and influences which reached them through the channels of the confederacy.

Plymouth Survived King Philip’s War Because of the New England Confederation

Important, however, as the confederacy was to Plymouth in other particulars, it was indispensable in the hand bitter conflict with Philip. 

The war had to do primarily with the Plymouth colony. Some have thought that the Plymouth colony was wholly to blame for bringing it on; and that a little more tact and patience on the part of the leaders would have prevented it altogether. 

Be this as it may, the other colonies were very soon involved in the terrific wrestle, and the fight became a fight for the life of them all. 

Had it not been for this union of the Pilgrim colony with the other colonies, it is difficult to see how the oldest settlement of the league could have maintained its existence. In all human probability, it would have been swept from the earth. 

The account of this conflict will appear more in detail in a later chapter. Here and now it is enough to say, as has just been hinted, that so far as can be gathered from the known facts of the case, if the confederacy had not been formed in 1643 and renewed at a subsequent date, the obituary of the Plymouth colony would have been written in 1675.

Additional Benefits of the New England Confederation

In addition to the advantages just enumerated — some of them general, and some of them specific — which the confederacy conferred upon the Plymouth colonists, there were some benefits derived from the union which were not nominated in the bond. They were incidental benefits, but they were real. For the confederacy afforded opportunity or occasion to the Plymouth people to exhibit qualities which, though known to exist, could not otherwise have been brought out and shown so distinctly.

The Importance of Local Rights in New England

For one thing, the union served a purpose in making clear the tenacity with which the Pilgrims held to their local rights. They guarded their democracy with a jealous eye. At the outset, they were watchful lest. they yield too much in the organization of the league. Then, as measures were introduced from time to time and discussed in their tiny parliament of eight commissioners, they were ever alert in the interest of their cherished local control. In the union and out of the union they had a passion for both equal rights and local rights.

The Ongoing Value of Local Rights

To a large extent, this is true, indeed, of all the New England colonies. It is true of all the groups of early settlers, east and west, north and south, who laid the foundations of our Institutions; and It remains true to this day. 

Local Rights Extend to Everyone in the Locality

The late Senator Hoar once said to me that one of the reasons why the general government has been so reluctant to exercise its power in behalf of the disfranchised negroes is the traditional unwillingness there is in this country to override, or seem to override, local self-government. 

When it is remembered that blacks as well as whites belong to the locality, and, therefore, by the very terms of the statement ought to be Included in the list of those who have right to a share in the management of the affairs of the locality, the argument would seem to have little weight. It is preeminently local self-government which is disregarded and trampled in the dust by this outrage on justice.

Plymouth Feared Subjugation to Another Colony

But the sentiment was pronounced in the Plymouth colonists; and the questions which came up in connection with the confederacy, and the management of affairs under the terms of the union, helped, not only to develop this sentiment, but to make it more and more evident. It will be recalled that candidates for full citizenship in the colony had to have strong local backing before they could be made freemen. 

Plymouth was Hesitant to Join the New England Confederation

Acting in the larger sphere of the confederacy the Pilgrims still clung to this idea. When the articles of union had been drawn up and practically agreed upon at Boston in May, 1643, Edward Winslow and William Collier, the delegates from Plymouth, refused to sign them “for want of sufficient commission from their General Court.” 

The Second Constitution Allowed More Local Control

When the old confederacy was abandoned and a new one was formed, there was a marked drift towards less power in the larger organization and more in the local jurisdiction. It was reserved for the Massachusetts colony, at one stage in the career of the confederacy, to fall back on the extreme doctrine of state rights; but the Plymouth men, while faithful to the obligations which they had assumed in entering the union of the colonies, were never wanting in distrust of centralized power.

Soldiers Permitted to Choose Their Commanding Officer

Even in a life-and-death struggle like that between the colonists and Philip, the general court of Plymouth passed an order permitting soldiers going on an expedition to choose their commander, and also advising commanders to consult their soldiers as to what should be done. Only men like the Pilgrims and their successors could be led to victory under this sort of discipline. 

Plymouth Resisted Massachusetts

In cases of importance, the commissioners to the confederate conferences insisted on knowing the feelings and opinions of the general court before they would consent to act. With all the resources at her command Plymouth resisted absorption into Massachusetts. 

The pride of the people was wounded, of course; but the chief thing was that they wanted to manage their own affairs and safeguard their own interests. The last act of the general court of the Old Colony was, in view of the disaster which had befallen them in losing their separate political existence, to appoint a day of “solemn fasting and humiliation.” 

In the state of feeling which then existed amongst them we may be sure that the day was duly observed. New Haven and Plymouth — both settlements strenuous for self-government — had to pass through the humiliating experience of being absorbed in another jurisdiction.

The Rise of New Leadership in Plymouth

Another one of these incidental advantages afforded by the confederacy to the Plymouth men was the chance it gave them to show the surprising ability which they possessed, and their capacity to meet grave questions as they arose. Anyone who reads the story will not fail to be impressed with the way in which they kept up their end in the discussions and negotiations which were carried on between them and their associates in the management of their common affairs.

There is a prevailing notion that the successors in office of the earlier leaders of the Pilgrims, and the children who were born to them, as well as those who from time to time were added to their number from the outside, were greatly inferior to the Mayflower company in intellectual capacity and moral fiber. 

The Second Generation of Leaders

It is quite true that the first comers were a remarkable group. No later names in the Pilgrim line will ever shine with a luster to equal that which attaches to the names of Carver and Bradford, Brewster and Standish, Winslow, Alden, Hopkins, and Rowland; but the men who came after them in leadership, or who sprang from their loins in the second and third generation, were by no means wanting in brains and pluck.

  • Thomas Prince, who joined the colony in 1621, having come over in the Fortune, but who in the earlier part of his career was largely overshadowed by the more conspicuous figures of the Mayflower.
  • Josiah Winslow, the son of Edward.
  • Thomas Hinckley, who came with his father and mother from England to Scituate, and ten years later removed to Barnstable, and who was the dominating influence at Plymouth during the closing years of the independent political life of the jurisdiction.
  • Benjamin Church, a Plymouth boy, born in 1639, was the military leader at a time when military leadership of a high order was at a premium. 

All of them were able men.

Thomas Prince

Prince was governor for eighteen years. Sixteen of these years followed the death of Bradford and were without a break. He had his faults and he made mistakes, but there was light in his brain and grip in his hand. He was a warm advocate of schools and churches, and he did what he could to foster these institutions. 

Josiah Winslow

Winslow followed Prince and was the chief executive for the seven years which included the trying and triumphant war against Philip.

Thomas Hinckley

Hinckley held the reins of power for twelve years — counting the time when Andros was doing all the ruling and local governors were of no consequence — and in his difficult position he showed both discretion and courage. 

Benjamin Church

It is enough to say of Church that he grasped the situation and measured up, so far as he was permitted to do so, to the full demands of the hour when the awful storm of concerted and savage wrath suddenly blackened the sky and broke on the devoted heads of the colonists.

Captain Benjamin Church
Benjamin Church played a key role in King Philip’s War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Plymouth Leaders Were on Par with Other Leaders

One has only to observe the attitude and actions of the Plymouth men during the years in which their colony was in the confederation to see that in good temper, in intelligent comprehension of conditions, an ability to state a case, in pluck in standing up for their just claims, in diplomacy, in willingness to bear their fair share of the common burdens, and in skill and bravery in war, they were the peers of the representatives of the other colonies. 

Controversy Over King Philip’s War

One who reads the correspondence between the representatives of the Massachusetts government and those of Plymouth on the question whether the commissioners by their action could bind all the colonies to support an offensive war, will see that in comprehension of the question at issue, in clearness of statement, and in cogency of reasoning, the Plymouth advocates had the better of it. 

Massachusetts Eventually Decided to Participate and Support the New England Confederation

It was much to the credit of Bradstreet and Dennison of the Bay colony, who took the rope-of-sand view of the articles of confederation, that they yielded gracefully at last; but it is quite evident that they yielded because they had to do it. They had not only the weaker side, but they were the weaker contestants. 

Plymouth Cedes Power to Massachusetts

The Plymouth statesmen stood as stiffly for local rights as the Massachusetts statesmen; but for the moment, in the crisis which was then upon them, the former saw more clearly than the latter that the way to preserve local rights was, for the time being, to surrender some portion of them to the wider authority of the whole community. 

These after-years have seen that same question debated in senate chambers by the intellectual giants of the nation, and on many a bloody battle-field where graves and monuments mark the sacrifices of the strife, but the final settlement had been in line with the contention of those humble but far-seeing representatives of the type of democracy which now dominates the nation.

At the end of three-quarters of a century, there was less moral enthusiasm among the people, less unity of spirit and purpose, more ambition, more worldliness, and more vice and crime; but there was no moment in the independent life of the Plymouth colony when the leadership of affairs was not in the hands of men of ability and character.

The Foundation of Unity in New England

There is another particular in which the Plymouth colony was benefited by this confederation, but it is a particular in which all the colonies were helped. 

Hence, while the mention of it has a place here, it ought not to stand out by itself as if applicable only to the Plymouth people. This union of hearts and hands prefigured and prepared the way for another union of hearts and hands which was to mean much to the dwellers in this land, and to the dwellers in all lands in the time to come. When the hour had struck for a united front against, not an Indian chief, but a British sovereign, the New Englanders were ready; for their ancestors had taught them how to stand together and work together in a cause which meant life or death.

This union was organic. It was a federal government. The states were small: but it was a confederacy of states. It was not a mere flocking together in a loose alliance of independent sovereignties, but an organization clothed with central and superior authority. 

As we have seen, Plymouth was slow to yield so much power as seemed to be necessary to the confederacy — though it stood up for it bravely and successfully when the test came; and Massachusetts drew back in an emergency — though it bowed gracefully to the inevitable when the pressure became too much to withstand. Breaches of the terms of the union were not tolerated. When one member of the compact refused to comply, the others asserted the right of the body to have its way. 

A Precursor to the Union of the 13 Original Colonies

The union of the four colonies was prophetic of the union of the thirteen colonies, and it was educational. Both unions looked forward to a mighty union of independent states. However crude the arrangements, here was the clear foreshadowing of e pluribus unum, and of a government where sovereign authority must be recognized, and whose laws no single state might nullify.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title New England Confederation — the First Union in Colonial America
  • Date 1643–1686
  • Author
  • Keywords New England Confederation, Massachusetts Colony, Plymouth Colony, Connecticut Colony, New Haven Colony, King Philip's War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 9, 2024

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