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  William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch
Open Dissent: The Child Petition

In the summer of 1645, the Bay Colony magistrates tried to extend a law to all confederate colonies—the law banning Anabaptists (another Protestant sect). This was the catalyst for William to leave the shadows and protest openly against the government, and which led eventually to his leaving New England forever.

It was at a small meeting of the Court of Assistants in Plymouth where the act was first proposed. Governor William Bradford was present, as were Edward Winslow and two other Assistants. The act was “a recommendation to the General Courts of the Colonies, for the exclusion from membership in any of their churches, of all persons who do not hold particular tenets, and bind themselves by covenant to observe the laws and duties of the spiritual corporation; for refusing baptism to all but such members and their immediate seed; and for ‘the seasonable and due suppression of Anabaptists, Familists, Antinomians, and all other like errors, which oppose, undermine, and slight the Scriptures, &c....under the deceitful color of liberty of conscience.’”

After studying the proposal, the members decided to postpone the issue to the next General Court, where all the Assistants would be present. The next General Court turned out to be the Court of Elections, where William Vassall was in attendance as Scituate's deputy.

At the Court of Elections, the proposal caused an uproar, resulting in a "whole day's agitation." William was not the only one who objected strongly to the act. But at the end of the day, the act passed with only one dissenter: William Vassall.

The one bright spot of the new law was that it allowed any man to petition the government. William was ready to test that right, though he certainly must have known what it might cost him. He drew up a petition for religious tolerance in the colonies, "to allow and maintain full and free tolerance of religion to all men that would preserve the civil peace, and submit unto Government; and there was no limitation or exception against Turk, Jew, Papist, Arian, Socinian, Nicholaytan, Familist, or any other, &c."

Even today the scope of his view is breathtaking. As long as citizens were law-abiding, they could practice whatever religion they chose. This right to religious freedom was not fully established until the Bill of Rights was passed almost 150 years later. Pretty heady stuff in an era where Quakers and Anabaptists were hounded out of the colonies and even put to death.

William took his petition to the Plymouth General Court, presided over by Governor William Bradford and where Edward Winslow acted as magistrate. Many of the town deputies and Assistants were in favor of the petition (Plymouth had long been a bright spot of tolerance in comparison to the radicalism of the Bay Colony) and it appeared a majority would vote in support. But rather than let it come to a vote, Bradford pulled a parliamentary move to defer the petition in order to give his side (the conservatives, including Winslow) time to defeat it.

But William would not be silenced. The law, freshly inked, said every man had the right to petition the government. He was determined to exercise this right, even in the face of massive opposition from the Bay Colony. He joined forces with Boston freemen who had other grievances against the government. The resulting petition is known as "the Remonstrance of Doctor Child," after the petition's author, Richard Child. It was the last major attempt in the seventeenth century to stem the authoritarian, Puritan tide in New England.

The Child petition was presented to the Boston court under the name of Child and six others. William did not add his name to it, in order to be free to carry the petition to his brother Samuel in Parliament. He also was preserving himself from possible charges of treason.

The same Body of Liberties which gave every man the right to petition the government also listed capital offenses; one of these was sedition. In the eyes of Massachusetts magistrates, petitioning the King (in effect, going over their heads), was treason, punishable by death.
One of the more interesting points in Child's petition is the assertion that the colony was experiencing a severe economic depression due to the intolerance of the government. Immigration to New England had slowed to a trickle by this point and many felt the increasingly strict religious atmosphere was choking the life out of the colonies.

As expected, the petition was denied by the court. It was time to appeal to Parliament.

Part VI: Last Stand >

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

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