By Liz Covart
In late March and early April, state and municipal governments across the United States issued orders for residents to “stay at home” to combat the covid-19 pandemic. As of April 16, 2020, forty-two states, three counties, nine cities, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia had ordered residents to close physical locations for all non-essential businesses and stay at home. But Massachusetts took a different tack.
On March 20, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker issued an “advisory” urging the Bay State’s nearly seven million residents “to use their common sense” and stay at home rather than issuing an executive order requiring them to stay home. What’s the difference? Violating an executive order could carry fines and criminal penalties, but violating an advisory carries no penalty.
So why did Governor Baker issue an advisory to act against the covid-19 pandemic rather than an executive order as many other heads of state and municipal governments did? Whether he realized it or not, cultural and political experiences and inheritances from Massachusetts’s early American past played a role in Governor Baker’s action.
Residents of Massachusetts have been wary of strong governments and strong government actions since they began crossing the Atlantic Ocean during the seventeenth century. Four hundred years ago, a group of separatists settled in Plymouth (one of the colonies that came to comprise Massachusetts) with the explicit goal to be free of government oversight in their practice of religion.
Governance of the Massachusetts Bay colony came in the form of the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629. Granted by England’s King Charles I to the Massachusetts Bay Company on March 4, 1629, the charter empowered the Company to establish a colony in New England, between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers, and required the Company to meet at least four times each year to direct the colony’s trade and governance. Unlike most colonial charters, the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629 did not require the Company stockholders to meet in England. The stockholders used the charter’s language to remove their company to New England, where they created a semi-autonomous, self-governing theocracy largely free of oversight from English authorities.
Massachusetts residents protested efforts to limit their charter freedoms. In 1684, King Charles II tried to exert more control over the colony. He ordered Massachusetts to observe religious tolerance and Christmas. He also ended the New England-based Massachusetts Bay Company’s authority over the colony by revoking the 1629 charter. In the Company’s place, Charles II appointed Sir Edmund Andros to govern Massachusetts and charged him with ousting non-royal office holders, imposing crown taxes, and disallowing public gatherings. Bay Colonists resisted and revolted against this show of strong government action. In 1688/89, just as the Glorious Revolution in England saw the dismissal of James II from the throne, colonists ousted all crown officers and restored their former Puritan leadership. They also sought a new charter from the newly installed English monarchs, William and Mary.
In 1691, William and Mary granted the Bay Colony a new charter, which the Bay Colonists used to challenge and subvert crown authority over their colony. Through the early decades of the eighteenth century, colonists elected members to the General Assembly who refused to vote funding for initiatives sought by the crown and governor. Colonial politicians circumvented the royal governor by seeking royal appointments and military supplies directly from the crown and parliament. Bay colonists also lobbied officials on the Board of Trade to adopt fiscal and commercial regulations favorable to Massachusetts.
As part of this long history of resistance to royal oversight and government, Bay Colonists came to resist royal taxation and regulation measures after the end of the Seven Years’ (or French and Indian) War in 1763.
In an effort to better oversee the governance of its American colonies and to raise money to pay off its large war debt, the British Parliament imposed a series of regulatory and taxation measures on the colonies. These measures included the Sugar Act (1764), Quartering Act (1765), Stamp Act (1765), Declaratory Act (1766), Townshend Duties (1767), Tea Act (1773), and Coercive Acts (1774).
In 1774, Parliament imposed the Coercive Acts specifically on Massachusetts. Bay Colonists had actively, and at times violently, protested Parliament’s acts of regulation and taxation. In August 1765, Bay Colonists staged violent protests against the Stamp Act. In December 1773, they destroyed approximately 340 chests of tea in Boston Harbor to protest the Tea Act. Parliament believed it needed to exercise a strong hand in Massachusetts so in June 1774 it imposed the Coercive Acts with the hope they would end the Bay Colonists’ open defiance of its authority. Collectively, these acts repealed the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1691 and replaced it with military governance of the colony, closed the Port of Boston, required British officials charged with capital offenses to be tried outside of Massachusetts, and expanded the Quartering Act of 1765. Rather than submit to these strong measures, Bay Colonists resisted and protested them by organizing and fomenting armed rebellion between Great Britain and her thirteen North American colonies.
Over the last four hundred years, Bay Staters have created and proudly passed on a cultural tradition of wariness and resistance when it comes to strong governments and strong government actions. Even if many Bay Staters have never openly protested or resisted government authority, they value their heritage of government protest and resistance. Each year Bay Staters proudly mark Patriots’ Day in April to celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill Day in June, and the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party on December 16. They’ll also proudly tell you about the separatists who settled at Plymouth in 1620 to escape government persecution and about the Puritans’ attempts to establish a self-governing “city upon a hill.” Bay Staters revel in their history, which left Governor Baker little choice but to honor the state’s deeply embedded cultural and political traditions in his decision to issue a “stay-at-home advisory” rather than an executive order requiring Massachusetts residents to stay at home during the present pandemic. If Governor Baker had issued an executive order, it’s likely Bay Staters would have protested it on principle. By issuing an advisory and appealing to Bay Staters’ common sense, Governor Baker enlisted them as government partners rather than government protestors.
Liz Covart is a historian and Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. She’s also the creator and host of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History.
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