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  William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch
Dissent Grows: The Call for Greater Democracy

While William wrestled with the controversy over the Second Church of Scituate, he was also closely involved (though not in a public manner) with controversies which arose in Hingham, a nearby town across the border in Massachusetts Bay colony. [For a more complete discussion of the Hingham issues, see William Vassall and Dissent in Early Massachusetts [pdf] by Dorothy Carpenter.]

In 1643, a confederation was formed among the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the colonies of Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut. (Piscataqua and Providence were left out because of religious nonconformity, and Rhode Island because it refused to become part of Plymouth.) It was clear from the star that Massachusetts Bay Colony was going to drive the confederation, seeking to impose its more drastic, Puritan, authoritarian laws on other communities in the confederation. Vassall was savvy enough to see the writing on the wall and, in the Hingham case, tried to work behind the scenes to bolster democratic and pluralistic law.

"The issues which the town of Hingham was fighting for were the same issues which Samuel Vassall had been fighting for a decade before in England—the right to petition the government, and the right to speak out against unjust taxation and fines. Here they were fighting also for the freedom of the local church from domination by a state church, as well as the right of the towns to carry on with their own elections of military officers without outside interference. Moreover, a greater battle…was being fought, too—over the rights of the freemen to share equally with the magistrates in affairs of the government."

Local citizens presented a petition to Hingham magistrates in support of their cause. The magistrates rejected the petition, saying,
"1. That the petition was false and scandalous; 2. That those that were bound over, &c. and others that were parties to the disturbance at Hingham, were all offenders, though in different degrees; 3. That they and the petitioners were to be censured; 4. That the Deputy-Governor ought to be acquit and righted."
William had advised the dissenters and was probably involved in the drafting of the petition. Because he did not make his involvement public (though it was certainly known of), he escaped the heavy fines which the dissenters were forced to pay. But he felt strongly enough about the issues at stake to consider taking the case to Parliament "in order to affirm that English law, not arbitrary colonial law (established by the magistrates alone) would be supreme in the Colonies."

During this time, William turned often to his friend, colleague, and relative (via Judith and Resolved's marriage), Edward Winslow. They had worked closely in business and government affairs. Winslow was one of the most erudite of the Plymouth colony (he was often selected by the colony to represent it in dealings back in England) and had been part of the Leyden congregation, whose pastor, John Robinson, had extolled the virtue of tolerance. Winslow must have seemed the perfect ally. And indeed, if Winslow had stood up to Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop and his Puritan cronies, the course of American history might have been different. But William discovered that Winslow was not interested in checking the authoritarian tendencies of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, in fact, was sympathetic to them. In perhaps the most tragic turn of the story, Winslow became William's chief opponent in the struggles ahead.

Vassall hoped, as we have said, that Winslow would share his belief in tolerance. Winslow says of him in The Salamander, “Our Salamander [Vassall] having labored two years together to draw me to his party and finding he could no way prevail, he then casts off all his pretended love, and made it a part of his work to make mee of all men most odious, that so whatever I did or said might be the less effectual.” However, in fairness to Vassall, we must point out that by this time Winslow had elected to join the side of that enemy to tolerance, John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay. And Vassall, at least, wrote no unpleasant words about his neighbor, nor did he manufacture a disparaging nickname for Winslow as the latter did for him.


Part V: Open Dissent: The Child Petition >

< Part IV: Dissent Grows: The Call for Greater Democracy

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