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About William Shirley
William Shirley (2 December 1694 – 24 March 1771) was a British colonial administrator who served twice as Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1741–1749 and 1753–1756) and as Governor of the Bahamas in the 1760s. For a few months he also gained experience as a military commander serving as Commander-in-Chief, North America.
William Shirley was the son of William and Elizabeth Godman Shirley, and was born on 2 December 1694, at Preston Manor in East Sussex, England. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge then read law at the Inner Temple in London. In 1717 his grandfather died, and he inherited Ote Hall and some funds, which he used to purchase a clerkship in London. About the same time he married Frances Barker, with whom he had a large number of children. He was called to the bar in 1720. Although his inheritance had been substantial (about £10,000), he cultivated an expensive lifestyle, and suffered significant financial reverses in the depression of 1721. The financial demands of his large family (he and Frances had eight children by 1731) prompted him to seek an appointment in the North American colonies. His family was connected by marriage to the Duke of Newcastle, who became an important patron and sponsor of Shirley's advancement. Armed with letters of introduction from Newcastle and others (but no appointment), Shirley arrived in Boston in 1731.
His early government jobs included that of surveyor and King's Advocate for New England. He was appointed a commissioner in the boundary dispute between Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 1741. During the later years of the contentious reign of Governor Jonathan Belcher, Shirley made common cause with Belcher's enemies to promote himself as a successor to Belcher. Assisted by his wife, who worked in England on his behalf, a group of New England interests opposed to Belcher succeeded in orchestrating Belcher's recall, and Shirley's appointment as governor in 1741. His early efforts to influence the financial policy of the legislature and induce them to grant him a regular salary were unsuccessful.
The road to Louisbourg
Britain captured Acadia from France in Queen Anne's War, but the Treaty of Utrecht left Cape Breton Island in French hands, and did not clearly demarcate a boundary between New France and the British colonies of the Atlantic coast. To protect the crucial passageway of the Saint Lawrence River into the heart of New France, France built a strong fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.
Britain went to war against Spain (the War of Jenkins' Ear) in the early 1740s, but France was not involved at first. France declared war against Britain in 1744, and forces from Louisbourg raided the British fishing port of Canso on the northern end of mainland Nova Scotia before its residents were aware they were at war.
French privateers immediately began preying on British and colonial vessels. The colonies in New England successfully fought back with colonial guard ships and privateers. John Bradstreet, who had been captured at Canso and held prisoner at Louisbourg, returned to New England in a prisoner exchange. Bradstreet's report to Governor Shirley emphasised the weaknesses of Louisbourg. William Vaughn, who owned several businesses in Maine that were vulnerable to raids from New France, toured New England advocating an expedition to capture Louisbourg. Governor Shirley and other leaders in New England and New York looked towards Britain to supply most of the military and naval forces for the expedition. Vaughn and Bradstreet wanted to attack Louisbourg that winter with an all-American force. Shirley doubted the practicality of that plan, but in January 1745 submitted it to the Massachusetts General Court, which declined to support the plan, but did request that Britain undertake an attack on Louisbourg.
William Vaughn continued advocating for a quick all-American expedition, enlisting the support of fishing captains, merchants and 200 "principal gentlemen" of Boston. Governor Shirley called the General Court into session again, and the proposal was submitted to a committee chaired by William Pepperrell. The committee reported favourably on the plan and it was approved by one vote when several opponents were not present.
Governor Shirley appointed a reluctant William Pepperrell to command the expedition, William Vaughn was appointed colonel, but without a command position, and John Bradstreet was appointed as a military advisor to Pepperrell. Shirley requested support for the expedition from Peter Warren, commodore of the Royal Navy squadron in the West Indies, but Warren declined due to the strenuous objections of his captains. Despite the absence of support from the Royal Navy, the New England expedition set out in March 1745 for Louisbourg. More than 4,000 men on more than 90 transports (mainly fishing boats and coastal traders), escorted by half-a-dozen colonial guard ships, descended on Canso, where the expedition waited for the ice to clear from Gabarus Bay, the site near Louisbourg that had been chosen for the troop landing. Starting on 22 April the expedition was joined by four Royal Navy warships under the command of Commodore Warren. Shirley had also contacted the Duke of Newcastle seeking support for the attack on Louisbourg, and Newcastle had sent orders that gave Warren the flexibility to take part of his squadron to support the New England forces.
Siege of Louisbourg
Main article: Siege of Louisbourg (1745)
The more than 4,000 troops from New England started landing on Cape Breton Island on 30 April and laid siege to the Fortress of Louisbourg while the British ships blockaded the harbour. The Americans began suffering battle losses, while the British naval officers, who had a low opinion of American soldiers, grew increasingly critical of the American efforts. Warren tried to exert control over the American army, but Pepperrell resisted him. Louisbourg surrendered on 17 June. The Americans lost 180 men in combat, to disease or at sea during the siege, while the Royal Navy ships had not fired a shot at the fortress, and lost just one sailor. As the victors settled into occupation of Louisbourg, friction grew between the Americans and the British. The terms of surrender guaranteed the French in all of their possessions; there was no plunder for the American troops. On the other hand, the Royal Navy had captured several rich French prizes, and British sailors on shore leave bragged to the Americans about how rich they were going to be from their shares.
The American troops had signed up to capture Louisbourg, and expected to go home after siege ended. The British government, who had believed that the American troops were incapable of capturing Louisbourg on their own, had made no plans to send British troops to take over occupation of the fortress. As it become evident that British troops would not arrive to relieve the Americans until after winter had passed, Governor Shirley travelled to Louisbourg to reassure the troops. His first speech to the troops had little effect, and some troops were close to mutiny. In a second speech Shirley promised to send home more troops immediately, and provide higher pay and better supplies for those who stayed until spring. Honors from the British government were sparse; Pepperrell was made a baronet, and he and Shirley were made colonels in the British Army with the right to raise their own regiments, and Warren was raised to rear admiral.
A new campaign
In 1746, as the American occupation troops were finally able to return home from Louisbourg, the British government decided to attack Canada that year. Word of the plans did not reach officials in America until after the attack was supposed to be launched. Close to 8,000 American troops were quickly recruited. Late in the year the Americans learned that the British government had decided to cancel the attack on Canada.
While Governor Shirley was at Louisbourg trouble had been brewing between the Royal Navy and the population of Boston. The Navy had long sought to press Americans into service on its ships. Impressment was a long standing practice in Britain, but its application in America was resisted by the colonists. In 1702 Fort William on Castle Island had fired on HMS Swift as it tried to leave Boston Harbor with six recently impressed men aboard. As a result of American complaints (reinforced by British merchants), Parliament in 1708 had banned impressment in the American colonies. The Royal Navy argued that the American exemption from impressment had been in force only during Queen Anne's War, which had ended in 1713. In practice, Royal Navy captains had to apply to colonial governors for a license to press men. In late November 1745 a fight between a press gang and some sailors staying in a boarding house in Boston left two of the sailors with fatal injuries. Two members of the press gang were charged with murder and convicted, but were released when the indictment was found invalid.
Two years later Commodore Charles Knowles, who had served as Governor of Louisbourg after its capture, had a large number of seaman from Boston harbour impressed for service in his squadron. A mob of more than 300 men seized three naval officers and a deputy sheriff and beat the sheriff. The mob then went to Governor Shirley's house, demanding the release of the men impressed by Knowles. Shirley tried to call out the militia, but they did not respond. Shirley did succeed in getting the naval officers into his house, and the mob eventually left. Later in the day Shirley went to the Town House. The mob, now consisting of several thousand people, attacked the Town House, breaking many windows in the building. Shirley spoke to the mob and promised to present their demands to Commodore Knowles. The mob left, intending to find a Royal Navy ship to burn.
After Shirley had returned home that afternoon, the mob, which had seized another naval officer and several petty officers, returned to his house. Shirley ordered a number of armed men who were protecting his house to fire at the mob, but William Pepperrell was able to stop Shirley's men from firing and to persuade the mob to leave. In the meantime, Commodore Knowles threatened to bombard Boston with his squadron. It was only after the Massachusetts Council adopted resolutions in support of the demands of the mob that the situation became quieter in Boston. Eventually the mob released its hostages and Knowles released the impressed seamen.
Governor Shirley had become very unpopular. Samuel Adams edited and Gamaliel Rogers and Daniel Fowle published The Independent Advertiser, which regularly criticised the British government and Shirley's administration. The paper published several of Shirley's letters to officials in Britain that were critical of Americans, and regularly called for Shirley's removal from office. William Douglass, a prominent physician in Boston, wrote a series of pamphlets (published by Rogers and Fowle) attacking Governor Shirley, Commodore Knowles and the whole conduct of the campaign against and occupation of Louisbourg. Both Shirley and Knowles sued Douglass for libel, but lost their cases in court.
Compensation and currency
Another issue of contention was compensation to the American colonies by Britain for the costs of the expedition against Louisbourg and the long occupation by American troops until the British Army finally took over. The British government was slow in responding to American requests for compensation While waiting for a response, the question of how to use any compensation was debated in newspapers and pamphlets. Some, such as Samuel Adams, advocated placing the money in London banks to serve as backing for the paper currency issued by the colonies. Others, including William Douglas and Thomas Hutchinson, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, favoured using the compensation to redeem the paper currency and give Massachusetts on a hard currency. In 1748 the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle returned the Fortress of Louibourg to France. Britain continued to withhold compensation from the colonies to obtain their acquiescence in the loss of what had cost them so dearly to capture.
In the meantime, Governor Shirley had been trying to finance a campaign to capture Fort St. Frédéric (at present-day Crown Point, New York), for which he issued more paper money. The campaign was abandoned when the other colones failed to support it, but the resulting inflation helped turn supporters of Shirley, including the prominent merchant Samuel Waldo, against the governor. The loss of Louisbourg increase public dissatisfaction with Shirley, who seen as complicit in British scheming against the American colonies. Even William Pepperrell joined the large number of citizens calling for Shirley's removal. Feeling a need to defend himself in person against the complaints being sent to the British government, Shirley sailed for Britain in September, 1749, just before the long promised compensation reached Boston.
Paris and return
After defending himself against his American critics, Shirley was sent in 1750 to a peace conference in Paris. He was unsuccessful in an attempt to settle the boundary disputes between New England and French Canada to the American colonies benefit, and returned to London in 1752. While in Paris Shirley married his landlord's daughter, who was younger than several of his children. Shirley sought a new governorship, but was sent back to Massachusetts in 1753. He left his new wife in England. The opposition in Massachusetts to Shirley had died down while he was in England and Paris. Shirley soon had to deal with the increasing comflict on the frontier with French Canada, planning an expedition in Maine. In 1755 two British regiments under General Edward Braddock were sent to America. Braddock named Shirley as his second in command, with an assignment to attack Fort Niagara, while Braddock lead his regiments against Fort Duquesne.
Seven Years War
Main articles: Great Britain in the Seven Years War and French and Indian War
Following the death of Edward Braddock on 13 July 1755, with whom Shirley's son William was killed, Shirley was made temporary commander-in-chief of North American forces in addition to his position as Governor of Massachusetts. During this time his troops supported Charles Lawrence in the Great Expulsion, the forcible removal of more than 12,000 Acadians from Nova Scotia. When some of the ships carrying the Acadians entered Boston Harbor in early December 1755, Shirley ordered that they not disembark. For three winter months, until March 1756, the Acadians remained on the ships, where half died from the cold weather and malnutrition.
Shirley's management of the war in 1755 and 1756 was a failure. His expedition against Fort Niagara got no further than the final staging point at Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1755, and the French captured Oswego in August 1756. He was also embroiled in a power struggle with Sir William Johnson, the newly appointed crown superintendent of Indian affairs, over military administration and the management of Indian affairs. Johnson's partisans were successful first in engineering his dismissal as commander-in-chief, and then in getting him recalled to England on charges that he had let critical military information get into enemy hands. On 31 March 1756, the Secretary of War replaced him as commander-in-chief and ordered him to return to England.
Shirley was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general in 1759. In late 1758 he was commissioned as Governor of the Bahamas. This was followed in early 1759 with a promotion to lieutenant general. After a lengthy passage, Shirley arrived in the Bahamas on 31 December, when his ship was wrecked on a reef in the islands. He eventually arrived without incident or injury at Nassau and assumed the reigns of power. His rule was quiet; dealing with smugglers in the islands was the major issue demanding the governor's attention. In part to combat illicit trade he lobbied the London government that Nassau be established as a free port. Although he was influential in this regard, Nassau was not opened until after he left office. He also oversaw renovations to the governor's mansion, and promoted the construction of churches with funding from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In 1765, after his wife's death, he took his children to England so that they could be properly cared for. He returned to the islands, where he had to deal with protests of the recently enacted Stamp Act. When he proposed the use of the stamps on official documents to the local assembly, the reaction was so visceral that Shirley dissolved the body. By the time the next assembly met, the Stamp Act had been repealed.
His health failing, he was finally replaced as governor by his son Thomas, who was appointed in November 1767 and arrived to assume office the following year. Shirley sailed for Boston, where he took up residence in his old house in Roxbury with his daughter and son-in-law. There he died on 24 March 1771. After a state funeral, he was interred in King's Chapel.
Shirley was always a strong supporter of the Crown. On 15 Aug. 1755, he secretly wrote to his superior in London that it would be relatively easy to forestall any threat that the American colonies would declare independence.
"At all Events, they could not maintain such an Independency, without a Strong Naval Force, which it must forever be in the Power of Great Britain to hinder them from having: And whilst His Majesty hath 7000 Troops kept up within them, & in the Great Lakes upon the back of six of them, with the Indians at Command, it seems very easy, provided the Governors & principal Civil Officers are Independent of the Assemblies for their Subsistence, & commonly Vigilant, to prevent any Steps of that kind from being taken."
Family and legacy
His son Thomas would become a major general in the British army, created a baronet in 1786, and was, after his posting to the Bahamas, governor of Dominica and of the Leeward Islands. He died in 1800. Another son, William Jr., was killed in 1755 at the Battle of the Monongahela whilst serving with the Braddock Expedition. Shirley's daughter Anne married the Hon. John Erving, loyalist Governor of Boston, and a member of His Majesty's Council for the Province; their daughter Anne Erving married Duncan Stewart, 6th of Ardsheal a Boston Loyalist and son of the Jacobite rebel Charles Stewart,5th of Ardsheal, and bore him ten children.
He built a family home in Roxbury between 1747 and 1751. He sold it to his daughter and son-in-law, Eliakim Hutchinson, in 1763. Now known as the Shirley-Eustis House, it still stands at 33 Shirley Street. It has largely been restored and is open to the public.
The town of Shirley, Massachusetts was founded during his term as Massachusetts governor. The Winthrop, Massachusetts geographical feature Shirley Point and the former feature Shirley Gut are named for him. Shirley helped to establish a cod fishery in Winthrop in 1753.
Letter to the Duke of Newcastle, with a Journal of the Siege of Louisburg (1745)
Conduct of Gen. William Shirley briefly stated (London, 1758)