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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. Virtualology.com warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor

 



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Samuel Gorton

Samuel Gorton - A Stan Klos Biography
The "cantankerous", "contumacious" and "obnoxious" Samuel Gorton has been subject to misrepresentation by the historians of four centuries. He is most commonly described as "bewitching and bemadding" not only Providence but the whole of southern New England.  Edward Winslow's contemporaneous Hypocrisie Unmasked is the usual starting point for those seeking an introduction to Samuel Gorton, appearing as it does to consist of testimony from several sources, including John Winthrop, of Gorton's "mutinous ...seditious ...uncivil ....riotous" and "licentious" behaviour. But Hypocrisie Unmasked was composed at the specific request of the government of Massachusetts with the expressed purpose of discrediting Gorton before the English government. Gorton's own testimony in Simplicities Defence and elsewhere tells a different story, which whilst not was never contradicted in his lifetime, or since, has not been thoroughly researched in its own right. Far from being the "dangerous" and "crazed thinker" of tradition Samuel Gorton was in fact a "strenuous beneficent force", whose importance to the independence of the colony of Rhode Island, and his courage in securing it, was matched only by Roger Williams.
 
Samuel was born and raised in the village of Gorton, south-east Lancashire. His baptism is recorded in the registers of the parish church in Manchester, 12 February 1593. His parents were Thomas and Ann Gorton and contrary to several reports Thomas was not a London merchant but a Gorton husbandman (a small-scale tennant farmer ), recorded only in the Manchester area. However, like many of his peers and contemporaries in the region, Thomas was clearly prosperous in other fields as this was a man able to provide for the apprenticeship premiums of at least two of his four sons, Samuel and Edward (a carpenter), and the informal education, probably by private tutor, of at least one - Samuel. His later career would demonstrate his knowledge of rhetoric, logic and English common law. Such provision was beyond the abilities of a simple husbandman. (At least one of his daughters married into the local yeomanry.) Samuel was most likely apprenticed to a Manchester clothier (cloth merchant) at around the age of nineteen and as such contracts often resulted from existing commercial relationships it would not be unusual if Thomas was opperating as a carrier of goods by pack train for a merchant (or merchants), albeit with a low profile for tax purposes.
 
Like many English people Samuel did migrate to London, probably on completing his apprenticeship, being first recorded there with his marriage to Mary Maplett, daughter of John Maplett, a prosperous haberdasher. By this time Samuel had established himself in the clothing trade. The couple were married at the church of St Mary Magdalen, Old Fish Street, 20 May 1628.  Mary was remarkable not least in the posession of both reading and writing skills, unusual for a woman of the age. (She would bear Samuel nine surviving children, most of those births being under the most difficult frontier conditions.) In 1637 Samuel, his brother (Thomas junior) and their families joined the "Great Migration" of English Puritans (1630-1642), although he may have originally intended to sail in the same party as William Dyer and his wife Mary (the Quaker martyr) c.1634. William Dyer had lived and worked in the cloth trade in the same part of London.
 
Having arrived in Boston at the height of the Ann Hutchinson affair (the "Antinomian Crisis")  the Gortons rejected that oppressive society and moved on to Plymouth where it is reported that Samuel "began drawing away part of the congregation to a separate meeting"; but there is no evidence of this. His household obediently attended the compulsory Sabbath church services whilst Samuel was also holding his own twice-daily meetings. Religious instruction in the home was expected of the godly householder but Samuel attracted outsiders, including those not granted a voice in the formal church - women and young people. It is also commonly reported that his religious opinions were "obnoxious" to the people of Plymouth. Recent research suggests he was in fact close to the original beliefs of the Pilgrim Fathers, but that by 1638 Plymouth Colony was moving away from the principles shared by the Mayflower Pilgrims and religiously closer to their less tolerant and economically dominant Massachusetts neighbours, who had recently expelled Ann Hutchinson and her supporters. Regular attenders at the Gorton religious gatherings were a maid in the household of the serving minister John Reynor, and the wife of the previous incumbent, Ralph Smith, who was also the Gortons' landlord. Mary Smith told Samuel "how glad she was that she could come into a family where her spirit was refreshed in the ordinances of God as in former days". Mary and her first husband, Richard Masterson, had been members of John Robinson's congregation in Dutch exile, from which the Pilgrim Fathers had emerged, suggesting Gorton's beliefs were not so outrageous to others as has been claimed.  As the Hutchinson crisis began in similar private meetings (conventicles) in Boston, the Plymouth authorities grew suspicious.
 
Probably at the instigation of those authorities Ralph Smith, to whom Smith was beholding for allowing him to retain his large house when replaced in the ministry, now attempted to withdraw the Gorton lease.  When Samuel resorted to mutually agreed arbitration private papers were confiscated by Governor Thomas Prence. Then, a maid in the Gorton household was threatened with deportation for "smiling in congregation" and Samuel appeared on her behalf, only to find himself defending his lease. He challenged the court for abusing procedure and appealed to the people to "stand for your liberty". For this he was accused of "sedition" and "mutiny", fined £20 and banished. But the deputies of the court protested against both the sentence and the conduct of the magistrates, particularly in their refusal to allow them the vote on the question of Gorton's guilt. Nine refused to attend the next sitting of the court and seven were fined 3 shillings as many as three times for continuing their protest. The Gortons were turned out of their home at the height of the worst blizzard so far experienced by the New England settlers. John Winthrop recorded at the time: "Five men and youths perished between Mattapan and Dorchester, and a man and a woman between Boston and Roxbury". The women and children were taken in by friends but Samuel, Thomas and John Wickes were forced out into the wilderness, through knee-deep snow with several rivers to cross.
 
They eventually made their way to Aquidneck Island (Newport) where Anne Hutchinson and her supporters had settled. Here they found that William Coddington was abusing his power as Governor and "Judge" of the community to establish his own "feudal fiefdom".  After new elections in which the franchise was broadened Coddington was deposed and a new government formed under William Hutchinson, husband of Anne, and Samuel Gorton. They changed the name of their town from Pocasett to Portsmouth and continued what has been described as the first "experiment in civil democracy" in America. But Coddington had taken the town records and land-title with him in removing south to found the town of Newport, which meant the "Gorton government" could not legally apportion land to newcomers. Coddington eventually returned to power and set about removing those who had opposed him. Having committed no offence Samuel Gorton was tricked into court by a repeat of the Plymouth tactic of prosecuting one of his employees. The "snare" was successful and when he accused the court of manipulating witnesses, and the law itself, a brawl broke out in the court room when Gorton was ordered to be seized and taken away. Samuel Gorton took no part but William Coddington did. Anticipating popular support for Gorton Coddington had stationed armed men nearby and Gorton and his supporters were arrested. He was again banished but this time after a public whipping. After receiving his "stripes", still half naked and bleeding from the lash, he dragged his chains behind him to pursue Governor Coddington as he rode away, promising to repay him in kind. After the death of William Hutchinson Coddington harried Ann from the island, threatening to return her to Massachusetts for further punishment. She and her extended family removed to Long Island, where they were massacred by Indians in 1643. Opposition to his rule continued and Coddington returned to England in 1651. Dishonestly claiming to have discovered and purchased the island himself, he fradulently acquired a patent for Aquidneck in his sole name. He was in fact only one of twelve original joint purchasers.
 
Samuel Gorton was attracting followers who appreciated both his own less extreme religious opinions and radical political views. In terms of religion,  he denied the necessity of a professional  ministry - insisting that each man and woman was his or her own priest- and rejected literal interpretations of Old Testament stories in favour of interpretation for the age, and greater emphasis on the actual teachings of Christ - The Word. Gorton preached that Christ was already risen, was here and now, and heaven was attainable on earth. His controversial political beliefs were that, all men being equal under Christ, the courts of men were not fit places to question religious opinions. Church and state should be kept apart: "any erection of authority of the State within the Church, or the Church within the State, is superfluous and as a branch to be cut off". Like Roger Williams, he was a champion of "Soul Liberty". Several of his supporters were banished from Aquidneck with him for sharing these beliefs and this growing party next settled in Providence with Williams. Here it soon became apparent that a faction among the original proprietors, led by William Arnold, were exploiting newcomers in the Pawtuxet area by selling them land then denying room to expand and rights to common grazing. This faction also controlled the town government. newly erected buildings were torn down and straying cattle impounded "until satisfaction were made". In some instances, Gorton claimed, ropes restraining the cattle had been deliberately cut. There is evidence that "Gorton's followers" at this time "outnumbered those of Roger Williams" and that he became spokesman for the majority of settlers, many of whom were not represented on the town council. The exploited began to resist the exploiters and when cattle belonging to Francis Weston were seized a melee ensued and injuries suffered by both sides. With their position of privilage and power under threat the Arnolds appealed to be taken under Massachusetts jurisdiction. In a letter to the Boston government they accused Gorton and his associates of all kinds of "uncivil" and "riotous" conduct; but while claiming to represent the majority themselves they were tellingly obliged to add "or very nearly". As many of the Providence settlers were already expelled from Massachusetts for their religious beliefs, subjection to Massachusetts authority would have meant they would again be banished from their own lands, convenient for the Arnold coterie and for Massachusetts, who had designs on Narragansett Bay. Roger Williams returned to London to lobby for a patent for what would eventually become Rhode Island, an independent colony in its own right. 
 
Hearing that Massachusetts was now making threats against his life because of his religious teachings and political popularity, Gorton and a party of twelve families removed to Shawomet, thirty miles beyond the Massachusetts border, where "both the Massachusetts and Plymouth confessed us to be outside of the confines of their Patents". But Shawomet was in the region where the Arnolds, Indian traders on behalf of Massachusetts and now "official representatives of the Bay", had their strongest links with local Narragansett tribes. The Gorton party had purchased their lands from the chief sachem, Miantonomo, who had also aided Roger Williams and the Hutchinson party - all outlawed by Massachusetts. Miantonomo was called to Boston where he was humiliated before the court. Within weeks of selling the land to Gorton he was dead, murdered by his Mohegan rival, Uncas, with the direct complicity of Massachusetts and Connecticut in what has been termed "a clear case of judicial murder". When two minor sachems, Pumham of Shawomet and Socononocco of Pawtuxet, trading partners of the Arnolds, also requested to be taken under Massachusetts jurisdiction they were accepted as "praying Indians" even though "Massachusetts had hitherto shown no interest in Christianising the Indians". Under the Arnolds' orchestration and Boston's sanction they proceeded to mount a campaign of harassment and intimidation against newly founded Shawomet. Houses were broken into and ransacked while the occupiers were working in the fields, stones were thrown at women and children when the men were absent and other acts of robbery were common. The settlers' precious cattle were a prime target. They had not been settled long enough to establish a cycle of crops and English traders were forbidden to trade with them. And all the while Massachusetts was demanding they travel the sixty-plus miles to Boston to defend their ownership of Shawomet in a court that had no jurisdiction over the territory, the same court that had humiliated Miantonomo in telling him he had no right to sell his own land to heretics.
 
Before leaving Providence Gorton had written a lengthy and highly critical letter to Massachusetts, attacking their government and intolerant religious practices, and refusing to obey summonses to the Boston court. Until Roger Williams returned with the patent, Gorton told them, the only colonial government recognised in Shawomet was that agreed amongst its own inhabitants. The following year, after months of suffering at Shawomet, having recently learned of the fate of their friends the Hutchinsons on Long Island, and on the day another cow returned with arrows piercing its sides, a second letter was sent to Boston. Containing the often quoted lines "If you present a gun, make haste to give first fire: for we are come to put fire on the earth, and it is our desire to have it speedily kindled", this letter provided the image of Samuel Gorton as the "dangerous firebrand" he is often represented to be. But, although containing another attack on Massachusetts's integrity, the letter was an understandable response to the frustration, deprivation and stark terror being endured in Shawomet, and was in fact written by Randal Holden. It is often cited in mitigation of Massachusetts's actions in sending a band of forty musketeers "and many Indians" to sieze the "dangerous incendiary" Samuel Gorton dead or alive. However, Massachusetts had not received the letter when despatching its forces.
 
Panic broke out when the Massachusetts troops attacked and two women died from exposure as a result of fleeing into the woods when unable to reach the boats intended to take the women and children to safety in Providence. The men occupied a blockhouse and barricaded themselves in, from where they non-violently resisted attempts to burn them out. On the final morning of the seige alone over four hundred rounds were fired at the blockhouse by the soldiers, "according to the emptying of their bandoliers". During the entire siege the Gorton party fired only two shots in return, "at random and in the night, to keep them from working their trenches near unto us"; Gorton's preferredweapon was hunour, calling out to the ofiicer commanding  - Captain George Cooke  - that the wheels were coming off his chariot of war. After failing to dislodge the defenders Cooke tricked his way into the house. Having agreed, in the interest of avoiding bloodshed, to Gorton's suggestion that he and his party would go to Boston, but as free men, Cooke ordered the Gortonists to be seized. Nicholas Power and Richard Waterman escaped in the confusion, John Greene having already slipped away in the night in search of his wife Alice, one of the two women later found dead. The rest of the Gortonists, their homes ransacked and cattle taken as reparation, were dragged to Boston in chains.
 
They were placed on trial, the charge being blasphemy, although Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop admitted in his famous Journal that the fertile lands and natural harbours of the Narragansett territory were "like to be of use to us".  The prisoners were offered the chance to gain their freedom by denouncing Samuel Gorton's teachings, as contained in the two letters. All the prisoners stood by the opinions expressed there. After a trial in which Gorton confounded the charges of blasphemy they were nonetheless pronounced guilty by a nine to three majority of the magistrates, voting in favour of death by hanging. As in Plymouth, the colony deputies - representatives of all the towns in Massachusetts - refused to ratify the sentence. Winthrop grew concerned at growing levels of support for the prisoners in Boston, even some of the soldiers sent to arrest them were now sympathetic. In the absence of a unanimous verdict the final decision rested with him and he chose to sentence the prisoners to hard labour in chains at "the pleasure of the court" - indefinitely. Gorton and six others were dispersed to as many towns across Massachusetts. The clergy continued to preach against the Gortonists and some even urged the people to whom they were impressed to starve them to death. Francis Weston died in Dorchester as a result of the hard treatment he recieved. Elsewhere across the colony, however,  the prisoners attracted sympathy. They were, after all, otherwise ordinary settlers whose land had been seized illegally, and they were by no means the first to criticise the Boston government. Winthrop began to hear disturbing reports of broader support for the prisoners, particularly in Salem, where Randal Holden was held, and closer to Boston in Roxbury and Charlestown, where Richard Carder and Samuel Gorton were serving their sentences. Although forbidden to speak to anyone not authorised by the General Court their case was nonetheless being circulated and well received.
 
The terms of their confinement had stated that any breach of the order forbidding them to speak would be punished by death, but the government now found itself powerless to proceed in the face of popular opinion. The prisoners were released and regrouped in Boston where, to the further embarrasment of the church and civil authorities, they were welcomed "joyfully" by many of the people. A warrant was issued ordering them to leave the town by noon and banishing them from Massachusetts. The party made their way to Aquidneck, where Coddington's government found they were similarly powerless to enforce the existing orders banishing them from the island. Samuel Gorton was even reinstated as magistrate in Portsmouth. Massachusetts stepped up its attempts to absorb the Narragansett region and those who would eventually become Rhode Islanders continued to resist. In one clash Gorton arrested the duplicitous Captain Cooke, who was then serving with the Massachusetts force harassing the Providence area.  Although Williams had by now obtained the patent from the English Parliament Massachusetts and Plymouth were refusing to honour it, and it became clear that a further mission to London was required to have the patent ratified, and to have Shawomet - not established when Williams departed and so not named in the patent - formally included. Gorton, John Greene and Randal Holden departed for London, probably in the late summer of 1645. Forbidden to enter Boston on "pain of death" they were forced to travel to the Dutch territories in New York to gain a passage for Amsterdam, and from there to London.
 
In August 1646 Randal Holden returned to Rhode Island with ratification of the Williams patent, and a letter of safe conduct through Boston. The Shawomet people changed the name of their town to Warwick in honour of the Earl of Warwick, Parliamentary "Governor for Foreign plantations", who confirmed the validity of the patent. But Edward Winslow arrived in England to oppose it on behalf of Massachusetts and Plymouth, to challenge and discredit Samuel Gorton, and request that he be prevented from returning to New England. His Hypocrisie Unmasked  had been composed at the request and with the assistance of John Winthrop from 'evidence' supplied by Coddington, the Arnolds, Winslow and Winthrop himself. As Plymouth was now claiming the Narragansett region for herself the testimony it contained was provided by all of  those who stood to gain from Gorton's removal from New England. In all, Gorton appeared three times before the Warwick Commission for Foreign Plantations, defending attacks on both his and his settlement's integrity; on each occasion he was successful. He also appeared before another committee and was satisfactorily examined on his fitness to preach. Despite the efforts of Winslow, and the delaying tactics employed by Massachusetts's agents in having him arrested on board the ship that was to take him home, on the eve of departure (and on a false charge of unpaid debts), Samuel Gorton finally returned to Rhode Island in May 1648.
 
It is commonly reported even today that Samuel Gorton would accept no government or magistracy. Yet he served as a magistrate in Portsmouth and as a member of the General Court of the new colony of Providence Plantations and Rhode Island that in 1652 forced William Coddington to publicly confess his fraudulent actions in claiming Aquidneck for himself.  The occasion must have given Gorton great personal satisfaction in witnessing his former persecutor's humiliation. He went on to serve the colony as President in 1651 and as a magistrate until he retired from public office, aged seventy-eight, in 1670.  In 1657 he was the author of the first protest against slavery in America.  His religion was first and foremost humane, and tolerant towards the opinions of others. As with the early Quakers to whom he offered unconditional sanctuary, he may have disagreed with them but they were welcomed as equals and neighbours. Indeed, more than any other figure in New England his enlightened approach resembles what we recognise today as modern Christianity.
 
The story of Samuel Gorton is central to the history of Rhode Island, and the story of Rhode Island central to the history of New England. In this case, history was not written by the victors; it was written by those who had the only printing press, who were also the founders of New England's first seat of learning at Harvard. Over the centuries the stories of those men and women - Roger Williams, Ann Hutchinson, Samuel Gorton, Mary Dyer - who opposed the excesses of the Puritan founders were ignored and then forgotten. Both Williams and Hutchinson have been subject to fitting historical revision and rescued from the margins they had been consigned to. The same cannot be said of Samuel Gorton, study of whose career in pursuit of the right to free speech and freedom of religion reveals nothing more sinister than the "middling sort" of Englishman evolving into the proto-American.
 
 
Based on the recently completed thesis, ' "A strenuous beneficent force": The Case for Revision of the Career of Samuel Gorton, Rhode Island Radical', submitted by G. J. Gadman in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Manchester Metropolitan University for the degree of Master of Philosophy (History), awarded February, 2004.
Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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