As a result of the Pequot War of 1637, New England settlements were receptive to plans for strengthening colonial defenses against the threat of Indian attacks. Leaders in Hartford advanced the idea of forming a defensive alliance among like-minded settlements in the area — a proposal that pointedly excluded the Anglican residents in Maine and the free-thinkers of Rhode Island.
After several years of negotiations, delegates from Connecticut, New Haven, Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colony met in Boston in 1643 and formed The United Colonies of New England, more commonly known as the New England Confederation. The organization was to be composed of two delegates from each of the four member colonies. Six of the eight votes were necessary to adopt any measure. Regular annual meetings were to be held, but additional conferences could be called in cases of emergency.
Member colonies were motivated to join not only because of the fear of Indian attack, but also because of the threats posed by the Dutch in the New Netherland and the French in Canada. It also was hoped that the Confederation would seek solutions to a number of nettlesome boundary issues.
The Confederation was not intended to be a central government for the New England colonies; each retained its own governing institutions.
Powers of the Confederation included the following:
To assess member colonies for the costs of defense; proportionate dues were to be levied on the number of males, ages 16 to 60, residing in each colony.
To require member colonies to participate in the return of fugitives from justice and runaway slaves. The latter requirement anticipated the fugitive slave laws of later times.
Massachusetts Bay, the largest of the colonies, quickly discovered that too much authority had been surrendered to its smaller neighbors. As a result, when the Bay Colony faced an unpopular decision of the Confederation, it simply ignored the instruction. The Connecticut settlements lived in the shadow of the Dutch in the New Netherland and obtained the necessary votes for participation in the Anglo-Dutch conflict of the 1650s. Distant Massachusetts Bay refused to honor the summons to action. Not surprisingly, the Confederation's influence declined sharply from this time forward, but a brief revival occurred during the bitter conflict of King Philip’s War (1675-76).
The original Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England, dated May 19, 1643, included as its second section:
2. The said United Colonies for themselves and their posterities do jointly and severally hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defence, mutual advice and succor upon all just occasions both for preserving and propagating the truth and liberties of the Gospel and for their own mutual safety and welfare.
Perpetuity only lasted until 1684, when the confederation was disbanded.
The New England Confederation was a small first step toward formal cooperation among the colonies. In 1686, the Crown would create the Dominion of New England, a highly unpopular merger of New York and New Jersey with the New England colonies. Later, on the eve of the French and Indian War, seven colonies would give consideration to Ben Franklin's Albany Plan of Union, a proposal for a federated colonial government.