This time, as our country’s founding principles are seemingly ignored or forgotten, I find a man in Salisbury, Massachusetts whose actions offer a clear example of the values that formed this democracy.
Robert Pike by all appearances was a pious Puritan, a militia officer and landowner respected by his neighbors in Salisbury, Massachusetts, who elected him to be their representative to the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had popular support when he spoke out against injustice, which he did in 1653 and again nine years later. Pike’s biographer set the scene for his actions:
Pike did just the opposite. A member of the General Court, he criticized a law aimed at non-Puritan preachers in 1653 and he was fined and kicked out of the court. Quakers at the time were widely hated by the Puritans and a statute condemning them in 1656 described a “cursed sect of heretics.” In 1660, three Quakers were hung in Boston Common after refusing to renounce their beliefs. Even ship captains were fined for transporting Quakers to America.
In Dover, N.H. an arch-pious Puritan aptly named Hatevil Nutter got people to sign a petition “humbly craving relief against the spreading & wicked errors of the Quakers among them.” They appealed to the local magistrate to take action and he didn’t hesitate to expel them from Dover.
Magistrate Richard Waldron ordered the women to walk to Boston and demanded that the constables whip them in each of the eleven towns they passed through.
A local man, George Bishop, described how the women were punished on a cold December day in 1662:
After a forced march through snow and ice of some 20 miles, they arrived in Hampton where they were whipped on their bare backs again.
It is hard to imagine how the women suffered, walking through snow drifts to the next town where they were whipped again.
When the Salisbury, Massachusetts constable, Robert Pike, got wind of what was happening he took a stand and freed the women. He deputized Walter Barefoot, a doctor, who dressed their wounds and put them on a boat north to what is now Maine.
Hatevil Nutter must have been shaking with rage when the women returned months later to Dover and began preaching to the local citizens again. By the next century about one-third of the original Dover inhabitants had adopted the Quaker creed.
Robert Pike’s dissent against injustice helped shape the founding principles of this nation. His first scuffle with authorities back in 1653 led to the establishment of a principle enshrined in the Bill of Rights: the right to petition the government for grievances.
After Pike’s censure by the court, his supporters signed a petition questioning the action. Court officials were outraged and demanded retractions from the signers who dared question their authority. Fifteen of these men were hauled into court for their defiance, yet the court didn’t have the means to strike down their petition. From then on the right of petition has been a cornerstone of American democracy.
Even in his 80s, Pike intervened when he perceived injustice. During the Salem Witch Trials, he wrote a letter to the judge in Salem criticizing the validity of the trials. His protest is widely seen as a major impetus for ending the prosecutions for witchcraft.
So, did Robert Pike’s life exemplify at least some of the principles that guide this country? I’d like to think so.