Early Modern Corporatism, Part III: The British King and His North American Companies
English monarchs used revenues from corporate charters to work around parliamentary control of the power to tax.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
What the monarch giveth, the monarch may taketh away–Such was the way of the world prior to the modern era, and perhaps it remains true despite the proliferation of nominally democratic regimes over the last few centuries. As we have seen, the transition from the feudal to the early modern periods was marked by cessions of royal prerogatives, rights, and privileges to legally incorporated bodies of individuals. These new corporations pooled capital to perform the task of governing the realm in a far more efficient, cost‐effective, and transformative way than the singular king ever could. Having opened so much of the world to greater degrees of competition and free exchange, monarchs emptied a veritable Pandora’s Box of social, economic, cultural, and political changes which eroded the very foundations of monarchy over successive centuries. The exchange of royal rights for corporate money benefitted both parties in the short and medium terms, but in the long run it was capital that dominated over kingship.
The struggle took a particularly violent and generative tone in England. Though English monarchs had dispensed corporate charters for some centuries, by the early 1600s colonial projects were becoming increasingly more important for state expansion. The Stuart monarchs James I and Charles I followed their Tudor predecessor Elizabeth I in granting corporate charters to colonial companies which promised to expand England’s military and trading reach while they directly contributed to the kings’ coffers. The corporate‐monarch relationship became especially important as Charles I crusaded against his own parliament, seeking money wherever he could to fight the Thirty Years’ War on the continent. Parliament refused to tax the people so Charles could build his ships and pay his mercenaries. The contest between king and parliament forced a renewal of the ancient battle between Saxon liberties and continental (monarchical) power. In the following selection of New World corporate charters, we witness the contest between Charles and his parliament reflected in New World political structures.
The first document shows the thoroughness with which kings granted away their right to rule over their lands. Virtually all aspects of economic life in the Swanckadocke country are batch‐granted as the personal property of Thomas Lewis and Richard Bonighton, so long as they pay 20% of all gold and silver discovered there to the Crown and 20% to shareholders. In the second item, the Council for New England petitions the crown to dissolve their charter and reconstitute the colony as a Crown settlement. With a new royal charter in place, the king appointed Sir Fernando Gorges governor of the colony in 1637. Gorges was by then one of the most important and long‐standing figures in the history of English colonization, and though a staunch royalist, he and his son Robert (a former Governor‐General for New England) wished the colonies to remain under private control. For all the work and wealth emptied into the colonies from private capitalists and their precious few colonists, kings would apparently strip them of their rights at will if his pocketbook or honor demanded as much. For both the growing class of powerful capitalists and the religious dissenters planning God’s Kingdom in the New World, it seemed that the monarch’s continued power and presence threatened the entire Early Modern project. For the children to succeed, they would have to dethrone their Great English Father. He would have been lucky, in fact, to receive a simple dethroning. When the battle between capital and Crown developed to the fullest, Charles lost his head and England lost much of its mind.
Whereas King James…by his Highness’ letters patent and royal grant…did absolutely give, grant, and confirm to the said Council for the affairs of New England in America, and their successors forever, all the land of New England lying and being from forty to forty‐eight degrees of northerly latitude and in length by all that breadth aforesaid from sea to sea throughout the main land, together with all the woods, waters, rivers, soils, havens, harbors, islands, and other commodities whatsoever thereunto belonging, with diverse other privileges, preeminences, profits, and liberties by sea and land, as by the said letters patents among other things contained…For the good of his Majesty’s realms and dominions and for the propagation of Christian religion among those infidels, and in consideration also that the said Thomas Lewis together with Captain Richard Bonighton, and also with their associates and company, have undertaken at their own proper costs and charges to transport fifty persons there within seven years next ensuing to plant and inhabit there to the advancement of the general plantation of that country and the strength and safety thereof among the natives or any other invaders, also for the encouragement of the said Thomas Lewis and Captain Richard Bonighton, and other considerations the said council thereunto moving, have given, granted, enfeoffed, and confirmed, and by this present writing do fully, clearly, and absolutely give, grant, enfeof, and confirm to the said Thomas Lewis and Captain Richard Bonighton, their heirs and assigns for ever, all that part of the main land in New England in America, aforesaid, commonly called or known by the name of Swanckadocke…To have and to hold all and singular the said lands and premises with all and singular the woods, quarries, marshes, waters, rivers, lakes, fishings, fowlings, hawkings, huntings, mines, minerals, of what kind or nature soever, privileges, rights, jurisdictions, liberties, royalties, and all other profits, commodities, emoluments, and hereditaments whatsoever before in and by these presents given and granted, or herein meant, mentioned, or intended, to be hereby given, or granted with their and every of their appurtenances and every part and parcel thereof…Yielding and paying to our sovereign lord the King, one‐fifth part of gold and silver ore, and another fifth part to the council aforesaid and their successors, to be holden of the said council and their successors by the rent hereafter in these presents reserved…
Grant of Land North of the Saco River to Thomas Lewis and Richard Bonighton by the Council for New England: February 12, 1629
Declaration for Resignation of the Charter by the Council for New England: April 25, 1635
Forasmuch as we have found by a long experience that the faithful endeavors of some of us that have sought the advancement of the plantation of New England have not been without frequent and inevitable troubles of companions to our undertakings from our first discovery of that coast to the present by great charges and necessary expenses, but also depriving us of diverse of our friends and faithful servants employed in that work abroad while we at home were assaulted with sharp litigious questions before the lords of his Majesty’s most honorable Privy Council, by the Virginia Company, and that in the very infancy thereof, who finding they could not prevail in that way they failed not to prosecute the same in the House of Parliament, pretending our said plantation to be a grievance to the Commonwealth, and for such presented it to King James of blessed memory, who, although his justice and royal nature could not so relish it, but was otherwise pleased to give his gracious encouragement for prosecution thereof, yet such was the times, as the affections of the multitude were thereby disheartened…[After a renewed parliamentary commitment to settler colonies,]…Captain Robert Gorges…who, being made governor of those parts, went in person and took an absolute seizure and actual possession of that country by a settled plantation he made in the Massachusetts Bay, which afterwards he left to the charge and custody of his servants and certain other undertakers and tenants belonging to some of us, who were thrust out by those intenders that had exorbitantly bounded their grant from east to west…three thousand miles in length…But herewith not yet content, they labored and obtained unknown to us a confirmation of all this from his Majesty, and unwitting thereof by which means they did not only enlarge their first extents to the west limits spoken of, but wholly excluded themselves from the public government of the council authorized for those affairs, and made themselves a free people, and for such hold themselves at the present. Whereby they did rend in pieces the first foundation of the building and so framed to themselves both new laws and new conceits of matters of religion and forms of ecclesiastical and temporal orders and government, punishing diverse that would not approve thereof, some by whipping, others by burning their houses over their heads, and some by banishing and the like, and all this partly under other pretences, though indeed for no other cause save only to make themselves absolute masters of the country, and unconscionable in your new laws. So as those complaints posting first to ourselves that had no sufficient means to redress or give satisfaction to the persons aggreived, they were at last of necessity petitioners to his Majesty who, pitying their cases, referred them to the lords to examine the truth thereof, and to consider of the means of reformation, who calling some of us to give account by what authority or by whose means these people were sent over, and conceiving some of us to be guilty thereof, we were called for from our houses far remote in the country at unseasonable times to our great charge and trouble. But as innocence is confident, so we easily made it appear that we had no share in the evils committed, and wholly disclaimed having any hand therein, humbly referring to your lordships to do what might best sort with your wisdoms who found matters in so desperate a case as that they saw a necessity for his Majesty to take the whole business into his own hands, as otherwise we could not undertake to rectify what was brought to ruin. But, finding it a task too great for us to perform, we rather chose to resign all into his Majesty’s hands to do therein as he pleased, to whom we conceived it did principally belong to have care of a business of so high a consequence as it is now found to be.
After all these troubles and upon these considerations, it is now resolved that the patent shall be surrendered to his Majesty with reservation of all such lawful rights as any is or has been seized with either before or since the patent granted to those of the Bay of Massachusetts. And that it may please his Majesty to pass particular grants to us of such proportions of lands as we have mutually agreed upon and are recorded before in this book that we, having his Majesty’s grants of the same under a settled government, may the more cheerfully proceed in the planting of our several provinces, and with the better courage and assurance prosecute the same to a full settling of the state of those countries, and a dutiful obedience of all such as shall come under us to his Majesty’s laws and ordinances there to be established and put in execution by such his Majesty’s lieutenants or governors as shall be employed for those services to the glory of Almighty God, the honor of his Majesty, and public good of his faithful subjects. And thus much we have thought fit to be recorded and, in convenient time, published that posterity may know the reasons and necessities moving us to quit ourselves of these inconveniences and dangers that might have fallen upon the plantations for want of power in us to reform the same.
Commission to Sir Ferdinando Gorges as Governor of New England by Charles: July 23, 1637
Manifesting our royal pleasure for the establishing a general government in our territories of New England for prevention of those evils that otherwise might ensue for default thereof, forasmuch as we have understood and been credibly informed of the many inconveniences and mischiefs that have grown and are like more and more to arise amongst our subjects already planted in the parts of New England by reason of the several opinions, differing humors, and many other differences springing up between them and daily like to increase, and for that it rested not in the power of the Council of New England by our gracious father’s royal charter established for those affairs to redress the same, without we take the whole managing thereof into our own hands and apply thereunto our immediate power and authority, which being perceived by the principal undertakers of those businesses, they have humbly resigned the said charter unto us, that thereby there may be a speedy order taken for reformation of the aforesaid errors and mischiefs. And knowing it to be a duty proper to our royal justice not to suffer such numbers of our people to run to ruin and so religious and good intents to languish for want of timely remedy and sovereign assistance, we have, therefore, graciously accepted of the said resignation and do approve of their good affections to a service so acceptable to God and us. And we have seriously advised with our Council both of the way of reformation and of a person meet and able for that employment by whose gravity, moderation, and experience we have hopes to repair what is amiss and settlement of those affairs to the good of our people and honour of our government. And for that purpose we have resolved with ourself to employ our servant Ferdinando Gorges, Knight, as well for that our gracious father of blessed memory as we have had for a long time good experience of his fidelity, circumspection, and knowledge of his government in martial and civil affairs, besides his understanding of the state of those countries wherein he has been an immediate mover and a principal actor to the great prejudice of his estate, long troubles, and the loss of many of his good friends and servants in making the first discovery of those coasts, and taking the first seizure thereof, as of right belongs to us our Crown and dignity, and is still resolved according to our gracious pleasure to prosecute the same in his own person, which resolution and most commendable affection of his to serve us therein as we highly approve, so we hold it properly of our princely care to second him with our royal and ample authority, such as shall be meet for an employment so eminent and the performance of our service therein. Whereof, we have thought it fit to make public declaration of our said pleasure, that thereby it may appear to our good subjects the resolution we have graciously to provide for the peace and future good of those whose affection leads them to any such undertaking, and withall to signify that our further will and pleasure is that none be permitted to go into any those parts to plant or inhabit but that they first acquaint our said governor therewith, or such other as shall be deputed for that purpose during his abode here in England, and who are to receive from him or them allowance to pass with his or their further directions where to set down most for their particular commodities and public good of our service, saving and reserving to all those that have joined in the surrender of the great Charter of New England and have grants immediately to be holden of us for their several plantations in the said country free liberty at all times hereafter to go themselves and also to send such numbers of people to their plantations as by themselves shall be thought convenient. Hereby strictly charging and commanding all our officers and others to whom it shall or may pertain, to take notice of this our pleasure and to be careful the same be firmly observed as they or any of them shall answer the same at their utmost peril.