- Historic Sites
William Phips and the Big Jackpot
Maybe the American success myth began with this carpenter’s helper who rose to riches, a title, and a governorship
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Here he either made or renewed the acquaintance of Increase Mather, the formidably learned pastor of North Church in Boston and president of Harvard, who was in England as the agent of Massachusetts, attempting to get from the King a restoration of the colony’s charter, which had been revoked for “disobedience” in 1684.
Mather, a shrewd combination of scholar, minister, and politician, either liked the blunt, middle-class sailor or found in him an instrument for his purposes. The two men joined hands in lobbying for return of the charter. Phips went back to Boston in the summer of 1688 to build the “fair brick house” for his wife, who had seen precious little of him in five years. Then he enjoyed a further harvest of triumph.
On March 22, 1690, the Massachusetts legislature voted to raise a force and march against the French province of Acadia, now Nova Scotia. The command was given to Sir William Phips, who had offered his services. A month later Phips sailed at the head of an expedition to Port Royal. His luck was running high. The garrison was outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly surrendered. The rest of the province fell swiftly into Phips’s hands. On May 30 he returned to Boston and delivered Acadia, captured in one month, to the provincial officials.
Now Phips was chosen one of a committee to manage an attack on Quebec. An expedition of 32 vessels and some 2,000 men was sent out, but Quebec was well defended and the assault was beaten off. Early in 1691, therefore, Sir William sailed for England with a new promotion scheme under his hat. He wanted to talk the King into supporting a full-dress campaign to drive the French from Canada.
The King was not ready to do this, but meanwhile a new charter had been prepared for Massachusetts, and the throne was about to select a governor for the colony. A request for recommendations was made to that most influential and scholarly American-about-London, the Reverend Increase Mather. Mather named his good friend, Sir William Phips, who was presently appointed “Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Province of Massachusetts-bay in New England,” as well as captain-general, or chief military officer, of the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Phips had come far. King Charles had made him commander of a ship of the royal fleet, King James had made him a knight, and now King William had made him a governor.
Unfortunately, success stories do not stop at the instant of culmination. In history the winner lingers on the scene to pay the price. Phips was not at all popular as governor.
The new charter placed the colony under tighter administrative restrictions than it had previously known, and in order to carry on the war with the French, he had to undertake military expenditures which raised the tax burden, always a favorite subject of complaint. The witchcraft hysteria that gripped the colony raised further problems, only solved after a year of excesses when Phips finally dismissed the panel of judges he had appointed.
The real touch of sadness, however, lies in the human story of the inability of the man to live up to his new station. Undoubtedly he was magnetic, but like most self-made men he was aggressive, opinionated, and something of a roughneck. The onetime manual laborer could not play milord governor.
In 1693 Jahleel Brenton of Rhode Island took over as collector of the port of Boston. When, in spring of 1694. Brenton seized a cargo owned by a merchant who was a friend of the governor, Phips took the kind of action natural to him. “The governor went to the Wharf,” says a history written some seventy years later, “and after warm words, on both sides, laid hands upon the collector.”
Phips’s temper was to get him into even worse trouble. A quarrel sprang up between him and a Captain Short of a naval vessel, the Nonesuch, first over the governor’s decision on the distribution of certain prize money, and then over Short’s refusal to undertake a mission on which Phips ordered him. Whence it happened that “meeting Captain Short in the street, warm words passed, and at length the governor made use of his cane and broke Short’s head.”
The colonial governor was the symbol of the Crown’s majesty in America, and a royal executive who personally beat up commissioned officers was in for trouble. On the seventeenth of November, 1694, Sir William proceeded to England to answer suit brought against him by Brenton and Short. He was acquitted of any technical misdemeanors, but no move was made to restore him to the colony.
Restless and idle, Phips saw his glory fading. He took the path of so many overnight sensations whose hour had passed. He turned back to the old dreamthe bitter quest to relive the great moment once again. Phips began to inquire about a patent to look for treasure once more in the Indies. But in February, 1695. a sudden fever killed him, almost eight years to the day after the find of the “sow” of silver.
Perhaps he was spared years of frustration and the cruelest pain of all—the knowledge that he was being forgotten. For this man, the first American to strike it rich, the fever may have been a final winning hand.