Sir William Phipps

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Sir William Phipps

Birthplace: Bristol, Lincoln County, Maine, United States
Death: February 18, 1695 (44)
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Son of James Phipps and Mary Phipps
Husband of Mary Spencer Phipps
Father of Spencer Bennett Phipps

Occupation: Governor of Massachusetts
Managed by: Jeffrey Edwards Cohen
Last Updated:

About Sir William Phipps

Sir William Phips (or Phipps; February 2, 1651 – February 18, 1695 was a shepherd boy born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a shipwright, ship's captain, treasure hunter, a major general, and the first royally appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He is perhaps best remembered for establishing, and later over-ruling and disbanding, the court associated with the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

Of humble origin, uneducated, and fatherless from a young age, he watched over his family's flock of sheep before apprenticing to a shipbuilder near his home in present-day Maine. He moved to Boston to start a business building ships and soon began to embark on treasure-hunting expeditions to the West Indies. He became famous in London and Boston for recovering a large treasure from a sunken Spanish galleon, a feat that earned him instant wealth and a knighthood.

In 1690, during King William's War, Phips was commissioned as a major general the same day he was first allowed to vote. He led a successful military expedition against Port Royal, the capital of Acadia, followed by an unsuccessful attempt to capture Quebec.

Two years later Phips was appointed as governor. He had successfully straddled a middle political position, cultivating a strong connection to the powerful New England minister, Increase Mather, as well as his royalist opposition on the Board of Trade. Phips and Mather returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England at the height of the witchcraft delusion, after numerous executions in Salem. Phips suspended the court proceedings, pardoned several people sentenced to death, and released more than 100 being held in jail before trial. He became enmeshed in related controversies that resulted in his recall to England to answer a variety of charges. Phips died in London at the age of 44 before the charges against him could be heard.

Early life Phips was born the son of James and Mary Phips, in a frontier settlement at Nequasset (present-day Woolwich, Maine), near the mouth of the Kennebec River. His father died when the boy was six years old, and his mother married a neighbor and business partner, John White. Although Cotton Mather in his biography of Phips claimed that he was one of 26 children, this number is likely an exaggeration or included many who did not survive infancy. His mother is known to have had six children by Phips, and eight by White. His father was poor but his ancestry may have descended from country gentry in Nottinghamshire, at least technically. Constantine Phipps seems to have been a cousin of Phips, five years his junior.

According to Mather, Phips was a shepherd until the age of 18, after which he began a four-year apprenticeship as a ship's carpenter. He received no formal schooling. Despite a keen intelligence, his literacy skills were likely rudimentary. Robert Calef wrote, " will be generally acknowledged, that not withstanding the meanness of his parentage and education, he attained to be master of a Ship..."Once Phips achieved wealth and fame, he relied on a personal secretary and scribes for assistance, as was common for many figures of the time.

After his apprenticeship ended in 1673, Phips traveled to Boston, where he continued to employ his shipmaking and carpentry skills. About a year later he married Mary Spencer Hull, widow to John Hull (unrelated to Massachusetts mintmaster John Hull). Mary's father, Daniel Spencer, was a merchant and landowner with interests in Maine. Phips may have known Mary from an early age. By all accounts, the couple exhibited "genuine affection" for one another, and there is no evidence Phips was unfaithful during his long absences from home.

Phips established a shipyard on the Sheepscot River at Merrymeeting Bay in Maine in 1675 at the outbreak of King Philips War. The shipyard was successful, turning out a number of small boats and building its first large merchant ship in 1676. As he was preparing for its maiden voyage in August 1676, planning to deliver a load of lumber to Boston, a band of Indians descended on the area during the Northeast Coast Campaign (1676). Rather than take on his cargo, he took on board as many of the local settlers as he could. Although he was financially ruined (the Indians destroyed the shipyard and his intended cargo of masts and lumber), Phips was considered a hero among the colonists in Boston.

In the early 1680s, Phips began to engage in a favorite colonial pastime of treasure hunting in the Bahamas. As captain of the Resolution, he was seeking treasure from sunken Spanish ships near New Providence. The expedition is not well documented but seems to have been profitable, returning shares worth £54 to certain low-level participants. New England mint master John Hull was one of Phips' investors. Phips earned a widespread reputation for 'continually finding sunken ships.' Governor of Massachusetts[edit] Soon after returning to England, Phips joined back up with Increase Mather and again supported him in dealing with Whitehall. Increase Mather's diary says they are together on March 25, 1691, and again on March 26.[66] On March 31, they are together as Increase Mather writes a response to the Board of Trade. Also at this meeting is Sir Henry Ashurst. These three—Mather the clergyman, flanked by two knights: Sir Phips & Sir Ashurst—would emerge later as the major proponents of the various compromises that brought about a new charter. Not counting Phips, there seem to have been a total of four agents acting on behalf of Massachusetts in seeking to restore the old charter. The two agents holding official commission papers from the Massachusetts council—Cooke and Oakes—were also the least compromising and the least politically deft. The Board of Trade seems to have sought a policy of pushing through a new charter by cleaving the two knights away from these two agents. July 24, Increase Mather records in his diary that he would "part with my life sooner than [compromise on charter]". Not long after this Increase Mather left London on vacation. August 11, 1691, a letter was written from Whitehall to the King William's secretary: "I must now desire your Lordship to acquaint the King that they are willing to accept their Charter... and no longer Insist upon the Alterations mentioned..."[66][67] This could not have been Cooke and Oakes, as they never wavered in their stance opposing a new charter. Mather's diary entry one week later (August 19) indicates that he is still either unaware or has not yet accepted this move. On August 20, the Earl of Nottingham told a committee that he had been with Sir William Phips who informed him that the New England agents "did acquiesce therein [with the new charter]." By August 27, Increase Mather had decided to participate in the process of shaping this new charter, if reluctantly.

A number of Mather's requests concerning the new charter were rejected, but William and Mary allowed Mather to nominate the colony's Lt. Governor and council members.[66] The monarchs appointed Phips as the first royal governor, with Increase Mather's approval, under a newly issued colonial charter for the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The charter greatly expanded the colony's bounds, including not just the territories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also those of the Plymouth Colony, islands south of Cape Cod including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and the present-day territories of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. It also expanded the franchise to be nearly universal (for males).

Phips and Increase Mather were odd-fellows, without much in common, but they had become politically conjoined to the new charter, and it would be their job to sell it to the people of Massachusetts who were expecting their agents to return with nothing less than the old charter restored.

The Salem witch trials See also: Salem witch trials Phips and Increase Mather reached Boston in separate ships on May 14, 1692. This was a Saturday afternoon, meaning all activity was to cease at sundown according to the old Puritan laws regarding the sabbath. Unlike his arrival in HMS Rose in 1683, when Phips showed little regard for the sabbath, on this occasion Phips was highly deferential toward the theocracy. Phips' elaborate swearing-in ceremony at the meeting house was halted at sundown and delayed until the following Monday. According to one letter writer, Phips presented himself as having no intentions to oppose the ancient laws and customs of Puritan Boston. He promised to rule as a weak governor, according to the tradition of his predecessors. The speech itself had likely been crafted with the care and attention of Increase Mather as they crossed the Atlantic. They seemed to have come to an agreement—you work your side of the street and I'll work mine—whereby Phips would tend to the frontier while Increase Mather and his slate of cohorts would see to domestic affairs.

Unfortunately, their crossing also coincided with the great swelling of the infamous witchcraft delusion. More than 125 people had been arrested on charges of witchcraft, and were being held in Boston and Salem prisons. On May 27, a special Court of Oyer and Terminer was created to hear the accumulated cases. Though Phips officially signed the commission, Increase Mather was likely the architect, as such courts were specifically mentioned in the new charter, and no one had spent more time working on the details of the charter than Increase Mather. Increase Mather's pick for Lieutenant Governor, William Stoughton, a lifelong bachelor, was chosen as chief judge of this new court. There was little then to indicate that Stoughton would proceed with such ruthless conviction. Phips later claimed to have chosen nominations for the court from "persons of the best prudence and figure that could then be pitched upon" and indeed, as Thomas Brattle pointed out, most were well-known and respected merchants from the Boston area.

On June 8, Stoughton ordered a woman accused of witchcraft to be executed only two days later, though tradition had been to allow at least four days between order and execution. The following Monday the clergy were asked to officially weigh in on the issue. This was likely Phips asking for the opinion of Increase Mather, and his son Cotton, and to put it in writing. The response is called The Return of the Ministers, simultaneously urging caution and speedy prosecution. Most importantly it cautioned against, but did not disallow, or discredit, the admission of spectral evidence (accusations of a crime committed by one's "spector", against which there is no alibi possible). The Mathers, father and son, and the other area ministers continued to debate this issue throughout the summer and into the fall, as documented by the minutes of the Cambridge Association. At the end of June, five more women were condemned to die. Phips granted a reprieve to one of these, but was impressed upon "by some Salem gentlemen" to take it back. At this point, Phips seemed to wash his hands of the proceedings, not relishing the idea of gaining the enmity of his own lieutenant governor and the clergymen allied with him, including the fully committed Cotton Mather, and the waffling Increase Mather. There is no record of Phips ever having travelled north to meet any of the "afflicted", or attend a single Oyer and Terminer trial, or execution. Instead, Phips continued to work on recruiting troops and gathering supplies to build a fort in Maine and he left the province at the end of July, and was gone the entire month of August and much of September, officially handing over all executive powers to Stoughton in his absence beginning August 1.

Postcard showing a 1909 reproduction of Fort William Henry French and Indian raids had resumed in the years following Phips' 1690 expeditions, so he sought to improve the province's defenses. Pursuant to his instructions from London, in 1692 he oversaw the construction of a stone fort, which was dubbed Fort William Henry, at Pemaquid (present-day Bristol, Maine), where a wooden fort had been destroyed in 1689. He recruited Major Benjamin Church to lead a 450-man expedition eventually leading to a tenuous peace agreement with the Abenaki people.

By the time Phips returned from Maine on September 29, 1692, twenty persons had been executed and the accusations and arrests continued, including charges against many high-profile individuals, allegedly including Phips' own wife. At this point Phips finally let it be known that the court of Oyer and Terminer "must fall".[citation needed] A new court was formed with instructions to entirely disregard spectral evidence. But Stoughton was once again selected by his peers to be chief justice. In late January 1693, Stoughton ordered eight graves dug in advance of his next round of his execution orders, not realizing that Phips would no longer appeasing him.[citation needed]

All eight were cleared by Phips' proclamations, leading Stoughton to storm from the court. His replacement on the court was more inclined to mercy for the accused. Beginning in February 1693, no more of the accused were condemned to die, and almost all had been released from prison by May.

Recall to London[edit] Phips' leadership was dependent on the support of the powerful Mathers, father and son, as well as their pick to be his lieutenant governor. This strange and disparate coalition had been badly fractured by the witchcraft proceedings, and Phips' resolute and final, if slow, move to shut it down. In a letter written October 20, 1692, Cotton Mather expressed anguish over the ending of the "proceedings" and stated his displeasure with his father's recent call for presumed innocence ("Cases of Conscience"). When Phips stood up to Stoughton, he gained a terrible foe. Furthermore, Joseph Dudley, a Massachusetts native (and former dominion official alongside Randolph) was in London, scheming to replace Phips and in early 1693 Stoughton joined forces with him.

The strain of this seems to have gotten to Phips in a way that so many previous seemingly insurmountable challenges had not. In January 1693, Phips was involved in an embarrassing and unseemly physical altercation with his subordinate captain in the royal navy, Richard Short. Their accusations against each other in letters to Whitehall[78] follow the standard lines of the Tarpaulin vs. Gentleman.[23] Short is called a drunk, corrupt, unwilling to withstand hardships or obey direct orders. His lieutenant captain is accused of cowardice. Phips, as usual, is accused of having only a carpenter's education, poor manners, disregarding standard procedure (reminiscent of the journal of Knepp). Phips pick for a replacement captain, Dobbins, is accused of the same. Phips is also accused of corruption, which was a standard charge, and a standard problem for colonial leadership at this time, but Phips having traded silver for paper after the fiasco of Quebec, and building his own ship to chase pirates in Maine, seems to take the teeth out of this accusation.

Following the dominion government, in which Andros oversaw all of the colonies, there was a good bit of jealousy, border disputes, and jockeying for position between the new governors of the various colonies, and Phips seems to have done as much to inflame these jealousies as to work past them. Phips expressed outrage at the execution of Leisler and harbored enemies of Fletcher[49] and the New York government that replaced Leisler. Phips' ongoing struggles with Usher in New Hampshire continued as before. (In 1695, following Phips' death, Bellomont was placed over Fletcher, Usher, and Stoughton, suggesting Whitehall was unimpressed by the bickering of the three provinces, and unswayed by the particular merits of any of their arguments. Bellomont ordered a posthumous pardon of Leisler.)

Keeping up the longstanding tradition of Massachusetts Bay, Phips fought against the office of custom inspectors, arguing that the port of Massachusetts did not see enough enumerated goods to warrant their presence. Instead Phips attempted to re-establish a naval office, with himself acting as head of the admiralty, thereby doling out favors to gain the support of the powerful merchant class. This was part of an old turf battle between the Admiralty and Customs but it led to an altercation with Randolph's custom inspector, Jahleel Brenton, which seemed to follow the similar embarrassing and unseemly pattern as his altercation with Captain Short. The two altercations weighed together against Phips. Phips was accused of violating the Navigation Acts, as his predecessor had been. Blathwayt was slowly and steadily working to standardize the flow of tributes from the colonies to the Crown, and if Phips was clogging these pipes he would need to answer for it.

By the spring elections of 1693, Phips needed new connections to balance against the dangerous enmity of Stoughton. Elisha Cooke was elected and Phips negatived his seat. For a royally appointed governor to exercise such veto power, granted only by the controversial new charter, was a highly unpopular move and could establish a dangerous precedent. Increase Mather had fought unsuccessfully to keep this veto power out of the new charter, but ironically, he seems to have been the architect of this move.[79] A few weeks later, Phips invited both men to dinner, but was unable to broker a truce. Phips was still trying to maintain a bond of loyalty to Increase Mather. By many counts this move against Cooke was considered poor political calculus. The Mathers, father and son, were a house divided, trying to heal itself.[80] The Mathers had lost much credibility and public trust. Phips seemed slow to realize that Increase Mather should no longer be his trusted adviser. A year later, when Elisha Cooke was again elected, Phips allowed it to stand. But by this time, it was probably too little, too late.

On July 31, 1693, Phips hosted at his house a meeting of the General Council, including Stoughton and four other O&T judges, and read a letter that had arrived the day before from the queen. The letter supported Phips in his ending of the trials, and stated that 'the greatest moderation and all due circumspection be used..[toward those accused of witchcraft]." No doubt, Phips wanted the letter read into the official minutes, but by hosting the meeting at his house, one wonders if he was not trying to provoke, especially if his own wife had been among the accused.

On November 30, 1693, little over a year after Phips had shut down the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Whitehall heard complaints against Phips regarding Short and Brenton, shepherded to London by Stoughton and Dudley. A recall with the internal date of February 15, 1694, summoned Phips back to London to answer the charges. It took months for the letter to reach Boston. On July 4, 1694, Phips received the summons to appear before the Lords of Trade. Stoughton, of all people, was ordered to oversee the gathering of evidence for the hearing, a galling reversal of fortunes for Phips. Phips spent much of the summer in Maine, at Pemaquid securing a peace treaty, and overseeing the frontier defenses near his birthplace.

Phips finally sailed for England on November 17. Increase Mather was asked to go along in support but decided against it, citing the difficulty of the journey, though his diary from the time is full of yearning to return to England. They were still friendly, but it seems their coalition and partnership was in tatters.

As a final stroke, before Phips left he pardoned all those who had been accused of witchcraft.[81] Most had already been reprieved but a pardon ensured they would not be brought to trial in his absence. He sailed from the harbor after sunset on the sabbath, and firing guns from his ship. Samuel Sewall notes the similarity to his "uncomfortable" time of arrival, but the differences are more telling: Phips was no longer sensitive to the customs of the Puritan clergy, he was loudly defying them.

Phips arrived in London in early January, 1695. Upon his arrival in London, he was arrested on exaggerated charges, levied by Dudley, that he had conspired to withhold customs monies. Phips was bailed out by Sir Henry Ashurst but fell ill with a fever and died on February 18, 1695, aged 44, before his charges were heard. He was buried in London at the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth.

Family and legacy

Anonymously printed by Cotton Mather in 1697 William and Mary Phips had no children. They adopted Spencer Bennett, the son of Mary's sister Rebecca,[82] who formally took the Phips name in 1716. He went on to serve as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, including two periods as acting governor.

Phippsburg, Maine is named in his honor.

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Sir William Phipps's Timeline

February 2, 1651
Bristol, Lincoln County, Maine, United States
June 6, 1685
Rowley, Essex County, Massachusetts, United States
February 18, 1695
Age 44
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom