Our story of Cotton Mather and Joseph Dudley begins in 1686. Cotton Mather has just assumed leadership of the Second Church of Boston, lifting the burden from his father, Increase, just named president of Harvard College.
Increase Mather was one of the most powerful Puritan ministers of his day. Cotton wanted to make a name for himself and rise to the level of influence of his famous father. He also had prominent grandfathers, Richard Mather and John Cotton.
King James II had thrown the colony into turmoil that year. He had revoked its charter, which had allowed the colony to choose its own leaders and largely govern itself. James replaced the government with his hand-picked appointee, Edmund Andros. Andros had a second in command, Joseph Dudley. Dudley governed on an interim basis in 1685 while Andros awaited finalization of his appointment.
Andros issued offensive new rules. He banned town meetings, levied new taxes and tried to give away public lands. Dudley enforced his decisions as judge.
Dudley was the son of Thomas Dudley, a devout Puritan who arrived in the new world in 1630 and served four terms as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Dudley, like his father, embraced Puritan beliefs.
Andros did not like the Puritans . Not only did he curtail the functions of local government, but he also began extending protections to people of other churches.
Dudley believed in the legitimacy of royal power. Even if he disagreed with Andros, as an agent of the king he would not have challenged his authority.
As Andros tried to establish his power, the colonists began to rebel. The Rev. John Wise of Ipswich led a group of men who declared increased taxes could not be collected without town meeting. The men were arrested and hauled before Dudley, determined to show the colonists once and for all that they no longer had the power to set policy on tax issues. When Wise objected, the high-handed Dudley replied: “Mr. Wise, you have no more privileges left you than not to be sold as slaves.”
The remark would haunt Dudley.
Witch Trials and Strange Bedfellows
Against this backdrop, in 1688, Cotton Mather was called upon to pray for the health of the children of one of his parishioners, John Goodwin. Goodwin employed a cleaning woman, Ann “Goody” Glover. Originally from Ireland, she had come to the United States via Barbados. She and her family belonged to the thousands of Irish that the English government forcibly deported to the West Indies as indentured servants in the 1640s.
By 1688, she was an elderly cleaning woman, widowed and living in Boston. She had an altercation with one of the Goodwin children over some missing cloth. Shortly thereafter the children began feeling ill.
A doctor came to see the children, and he diagnosed them as suffering from witchcraft. Cotton Mather and Joseph Dudley served as accuser and judge, respectively. The two oversaw Glover’s conviction. She was hanged for witchcraft, but her real sin was her Catholicism. Had she renounced her Catholicism, they likely would have spared her.
The case foreshadowed the 1692 witch hysteria in Salem, in which the Mathers played a role. Cotton Mather famously, in the Salem case, wrote that spectral evidence could be used, but should not be the sole reason for convicting someone.
The Overthrow of Andros
The alliance between Cotton Mather and Joseph Dudley didn’t last long. In 1689, news of the overthrow of King James II reached Boston. Angry colonists then arrested Andros, Dudley and other appointees of the King. The colonists shipped them off to London to answer charges of 119 illegal acts. Those included attempted theft of public lands, stolen customs payments and arbitrary exercise of power..
Andros was replaced with the previously elected government. The Puritans then began lobbying for a permanent return of democratic government.
Dudley denied the charges levied against him by Cotton Mather and blamed Andros. Though seven colonists had leveled charges, they had no agent in London to prosecute. And so Dudley went free, a loose cannon.
Soon Dudley was back in America, this time serving as judge in New York. Here, support for James II was stronger and democracy not well established. Colonists, led by Jacob Leisler, revolted against the colonial governor, but they didn’t have unanimous support.
When the new king, William, sent his instructions to the colony, Leisler was arrested. Dudley won a judgeship in New York and presided over the trial that sentenced Leisler to death. Mather then charged Dudley with being bloodthirsty and high handed in advocating the death penalty, though Dudley disputed that.
In 1693, Dudley – universally unpopular – returned to England. He began building a case for his appointment as governor of all of New England. The idea that Cotton Mather would become his most important ally in regaining power might seem preposterous, but that is exactly what happened.
Dudley’s Return to Power
Increase Mather had served as Massachusetts’ envoy to England in 1690i. He had tried to lobby the new king to restore the original colonial charter that allowed Massachusetts citizens to elect their own governments. He lost support back home when he acquiesced to a replacement charter that reserved more rights for the king.
Increase lobbied his friends to return him to London, but he was blocked. Dudley, meanwhile, living in England and acting as deputy-governor for the Isle of Wight, pulled every string he could to win his way back to New England.
He succeeded in having the Mathers’ hand-picked governor, William Phips, arrested and brought to England to face dubious corruption charges. Phips died before he could clear his name. But still Dudley’s reputation was so blackened that he could not win the king’s appointment to govern New England. Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont won the appointment in 1695.
Dudley chanced on an idea, however. Hearing of Increase Mather’s difficulties in returning to London, he reached out to Cotton Mather with a promise to advocate for his father’s return. The Mathers both desperately wanted this and thought Dudley was now an ally and controllable. Cotton Mather wrote a letter in support of Dudley’s return to Massachusetts as governor.
With Lord Belomont’s death in 1701, and the Mathers now in his pocket, Dudley sought and received the appointment he coveted – a return to New England as its governor.
Cotton Mather and Joseph Dudley Feud Again
It would not take long before Cotton Mather recognized his mistake. Almost immediately Dudley double-crossed the Puritan minister. Mather had advised Dudley who he should take advice from and who he should not trust. Dudley immediately passed on Mather’s opinions to his enemies, infuriating all involved.
Mather also sought appointment as president of Harvard to replace his father. But Dudley declined to give it to him and chose John Leverett instead.
The high-handed treatment of Mather was completely in character for Dudley. But whatever joy he found in the double cross was certainly tempered by the storm of controversy he brought down upon himself.
Both Mathers now took up their pens and pulpits and began railing against Dudley. He was a murderer (in the case of Leisler), they charged. A thief of public funds. He illegally traded with France, they alleged. He smuggled and usurped fishing rights from the colonists. The list of grievances was enormous.
Many of the charges against him were flat out fabrications and exaggerations, but Dudley spent considerable time in rebutting them. He ended up traveling to England for a hearing with the Board of Trade.
Dudley would retain his post until 1715. Finally, however, Dudley was undone. A group of businessmen wanted to print money to back a bank proposal, and Dudley thwarted them. Instead he argued the colony should fund the proposal by borrowing and thus protecting the value of currency already in circulation.
This decision added too many people to the list of enemies who hated Dudley and, with much lobbying, he was replaced as governor. The animosity between Dudley and the people would set the tone for relations with the government in New England for the next 50 years, long after Dudley died in 1720 at his Roxbury home.
Images: Joseph Dudley By Attributed to Peter Lely – http://www.eldreds.com/sales/detail.php?itemID=97915, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14855236. This story was updated in 2023.