Formed in 1643 (and lasting until 1684), the New England Confederation—also known as the United Colonies of New England—was an alliance between the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven. While it primarily provided military support in case of attack, it also allowed for political and legal discussions among the four colonies. The first move toward formal alliance among English colonies, the Confederation helped pave the way for a later attempt at Albany in 1754 to create an alliance between the Northern colonies and the Iroquois Confederacy. These efforts would eventually influence the creation of the United States in 1776.
The first permanent settlement in New England was Plymouth Colony in 1620, with most New England colonies being established in the 1630s. The most powerful of these colonies was Massachusetts Bay, founded at Boston in 1630. Other colonies included Connecticut in 1634, Rhode Island in 1635, and New Haven in 1638. Fledgling settlements in Maine and New Hampshire were also begun in that decade. Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Haven shared relatively similar religious beliefs, although they jealously eyed one another's landholdings. In contrast, Rhode Island was founded by religious outcasts from Massachusetts Bay. Maine and New Hampshire were settled by both Puritans and Anglicans, resulting in a wider range of religious affiliation than their southern counterparts, aside from Rhode Island. As a result, union between New England colonies was not a foregone conclusion, despite the universal hardships of early settlement.
Another important influence on the New England colonies was their separate relationships with their Indian neighbors. The early stages of settlement saw both English colonies and individual tribes claiming alliances as needed for their own best advantage. Plymouth argued that its relationship with the Wampanoag tribe gave the colony the political identity needed to counterbalance not having a charter. For their part, the Wampanoag believed alliance with Plymouth gave them the political strength necessary for combating the powerful Narragansett and Mohegan tribes to the west.
These individual alliances changed in 1636 when Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies began attacking Pequot allies and burning Pequot villages. While the two colonies were allied with the Mohegan tribe during the Pequot War, they placed the greatest emphasis on their own union. Over the course of the next six years, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut held a series of meetings to decide whether to make the alliance permanent. Eventually, concerns about potential threats from Indian tribes such as the Narragansett in Rhode Island and the Mohawk in Vermont and New York carried the decision, as did equal concerns about the growing numbers of French colonists in Canada to the north and Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam to the south.
Another issue was the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. During that period, at least, the American colonies were largely on their own in North America, with little hope of English assistance in time of trouble.
The New England Confederation was officially founded in 1643, with Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut inviting Plymouth and New Haven colonies to join as well. Representatives John Winthrop and John Dudley from Massachusetts Bay, John Haynes, Edward Hopkins, and George Fenwick from Connecticut, William Collier and Edward Winslow from Plymouth, and Theophilus Eaton and Thomas Gregson from New Haven gathered at a meeting in Boston to make the official arrangements. After much discussion, the representatives created a 12-part document—the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England—which was signed on May 19, 1643.
The Articles of Confederation began by listing the member colonies and outlining their responsibilities. No one colony was given more power than the other; all four were required to provide two representatives each for an annual meeting whose location would rotate among the colonies. Decisions made at these meetings needed at least six votes to pass. If an agreement could not be reached, the issue would go to the colonies' General Courts. In case of emergency, individual colonies could call for assistance, although some form of overall vote was still required.
The primary purpose of the New England Confederation was to provide joint military support in case of attack by Indians or French or Dutch colonists. As it had the largest population, Massachusetts Bay was required to send 100 armed men to any of the three colonies needing assistance; the other three colonies were required to send 45 men. The Articles also made clear, however, that individual colonies should try to avoid provoking war whenever possible.
In addition to outlining military support during conflicts, the Articles of Confederation addressed civil and criminal matters. Individual colonies were required to preserve "peace among themselves," lest enemy neighbors take advantage of internal problems. Fugitive servants or slaves escaping to member colonies were required to be returned to their masters by colony officials. Escaped prisoners were likewise to be returned.
The Articles also addressed the issue of their English colonial neighbors. Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire were not initially invited to join the Confederation. Rhode Island was deemed too religiously heterodox to become part of the Confederation on an equal political footing. Maine and New Hampshire, with their scant populations and proximity to the powerful northern Algonquin tribes, were considered too precarious from a military standpoint. The following year, Rhode Island was invited to join the Confederation, but only if it agreed to merge with one of the larger colonies; Rhode Island promptly refused.
The New England Confederation existed fairly peacefully throughout its first decade, particularly as few or no conflicts requiring assistance arose. Meetings revolved among Boston, Hartford, New Haven, and Plymouth. The only real challenge facing the Confederation was Rhode Island's steadfast determination to remain an independent colony. The New England Confederation as a whole was concerned by Rhode Island's religious tolerance of Quakers, Jews, and Roman Catholics. The colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut also wanted access to Rhode Island's coast and deep harbors; Rhode Island responded to the Confederation's demands that the colony merge with Massachusetts Bay or Connecticut by negotiating a separate charter with the Long Parliament in 1644. In 1650, the Confederation signed a treaty with the New Netherland colony that established clear boundaries between English and Dutch lands. Relations between England and the Netherlands in regard to their North American holdings were strained throughout the 1650s as both sides sought control of the Hudson River and the lucrative fur trade of the north.
These tensions culminated in the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652. Connecticut and New Haven, whose lands bordered New Amsterdam, saw the conflict as an immediate threat to their safety and demanded assistance from the Confederation. As Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth viewed American Indian tribal groups as a greater threat than the Dutch, both colonies flatly refused to commit resources to what they considered to be an unnecessary conflict.
The result was nearly disastrous for the New England Confederation. According to the Articles of Confederation, a majority vote of six was required to carry a measure. With four votes cast in favor of fighting and four votes cast in favor of remaining neutral, the Confederation was at a stalemate. A decision to remain neutral was eventually made, but tensions between the colonies remained through the 1660s.
The New England Confederation would likely have come to a peaceful end in the 1670s if King Philip's War had not broken out in 1675; the conflict resulted in an immediate need for military support throughout southern New England. After several legal and military altercations between Plymouth residents and the Wampanoag in the summer of 1675, the decision was reached on both sides to seek reinforcements. By December, the New England Confederation had raised an army of one thousand men. In August of 1676, the war was declared over in southern New England, with the English colonies as the troubled victors.
Crucial as the New England Confederation was to supporting the war effort, the conflict also served to highlight some of the alliance's problems. From its beginning in 1643, the Confederation's other three colonies had been uneasy about Massachusetts Bay's size and power. The absorption of New Haven into Connecticut in 1662 added to these concerns as it effectively removed two votes from the deciding body. Connecticut had survived King Philip's War relatively untouched and resented having to send soldiers to Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, particularly when those colonies had been unwilling to come to Connecticut's aid during the Anglo-Dutch wars. For their part, Massachusetts Bay residents felt it unfair that they be expected to provide more soldiers than the other colonies. Another problem facing the Confederation in the late 1670s was Rhode Island. That colony had provided the New England Confederation with much-needed military support during the war and now wanted to be admitted as an equal partner. While recognizing Rhode Island's military contributions, the New England Confederation was unwilling to admit Rhode Island as an independent entity for the same reasons it had been unwilling to admit the colony in the 1640s. The Confederation as a whole remained concerned by Rhode Island's religious tolerance. Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut wanted Rhode Island's land and harbors, particularly as that colony now had access to former Narragansett lands around Mount Hope. Tensions between the Confederation and Rhode Island contributed to southern New England's political instability in the late 1670s. This same instability caught the attention of the English Crown in the 1680s, resulting in the creation of the Dominion of New England in 1684—which rendered the Confederation nonexistent.
The political influence of the New England Confederation can be traced into the next century. In 1754, representatives from seven Northern colonies traveled to Albany, New York, to discuss union with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. Two of the seven, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, were original members of the New England Confederation. Another three, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York, were familiar with the alliance's workings. While unification at Albany eventually proved unfeasible, many of its planners, most notably Benjamin Franklin, went on to help draft the formative documents of the United States in 1776. The 40-year history of the New England Confederation amply demonstrated that unity between colonies was both possible and beneficial.
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