Belchertown, Massachusetts:

Namesake of Governor Jonathan Belcher

The Man Behind the Namesake

    The New England town that is Governor Jonathan Belcher's namesake is Belchertown, Massachusetts. Residents need to know that their town was named for a very special colonial governor who played a unique role in the history of the American founding era. He truly lived up to the meaning of his name, "Good cheer" ("Bel" meaning "good", and "cher" meaning "cheer"), for he helped bring liberty, Christianity, and education that would eventually benefit the whole United States.

The Legacy of Governor Jonathan Belcher

    In the year 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--the "charming city" where Governor Jonathan Belcher had so often spoken with the "gentlemen of good virtue, sense, and learning"-- the influential gentlemen, lawyers, merchants, planters, and educators who made up the assembly of delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Independence Hall to prepare a Constitution for the federal government of the existing confederation of independent American states. The Constitution knitting the confederation of states into one sovereign nation opened with this preamble: "We, the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect Union, . . . promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The Constitution, which came into effect in 1789, formed the main cornerstone of United States laws and government.

    It was a government whose best origins sprang from the traditions and tenets of the British-ruled American colonies' first settlers--those who were, as Governor Jonathan Belcher stated, "men of religion, good knowledge, and substance." Their numbers included those by the name of Belcher. The beliefs and heritage of the Christians whom some label as Puritans and Pilgrims originally formed the basis of American culture--the foundation upon which any future American populations must stand. One of those patriarchs, a founder of Boston, Massachusetts and the first of the Belcher name to pioneer America in 1630, was named Edward Belcher.

    The movement toward the prototype representative government of "we, the people," with privileges safeguarded by the Bill of Rights, underwent a growth spurt during the middle 1700's, concomitant with the increase of emphasis on individual freedoms.

    During the terms of Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher (1730-1741 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire; 1746-1757 in New Jersey), those colonies, especially with regard to Massachusetts, greatly advanced religious liberty. (See Governor Jonathan Belcher, Champion of Civil and Religious Liberty.) Governor Belcher's perspective of government--which Revolutionary leaders also embraced--was that a leader should be, as he stated it, a "father to [his] country." "It is the duty of governors and rulers," said Governor Belcher, "to stand upon the watch towers and warn the people of their danger...." It was no wonder that poet Isaac Watts welcomed Jonathan Belcher's appointment as governor with verse proclaiming that Belcher's name "unites" his "prince's honors" and his "people's rights" (see Poems About Governor Jonathan Belcher), and Dr. Benjamin Colman addressed the following to Governor Belcher in an election day sermon: "The Lord God of our Fathers, who has spread our Heavens, and laid the foundations of our earth, make you a PILLAR to us both in the state and church" (see Government the Pillar of the Earth).

    Therefore, the leader, governor, or president of the colony, state, or nation should be the pillar--the central supporting element of the society. In an election sermon delivered during Governor Belcher's administration, minister Edward Holyoke presented a belief that both he and Governor Belcher had in common: "For as the body not one member but many, so it is also in the body politic, and God has set the members every one in this body (as well as the body natural) as it has pleased Him." Thus Governor Belcher recognized that "it has pleased God in His providence to set me in the station of a father to my country."

    The phrase "father of my country" is all too familiar to Americans today due to its frequent usage by leaders of the American Revolution and its propagation by subsequent Americans. But Governor Belcher was expounding this idea even before the Revolution.

    One of the factors attracting the attention of public-spirited Governor Belcher to Edward Holyoke was the latter's fundamental ideas exemplified by his proclamation in the same election day speech that "All forms of government originate from the people." As a father of such a government, Governor Belcher's aim to advance the best interest of the society and its individual citizenry shone forth consistently. (See Governor Jonathan Belcher, Champion of Civil and Religious Liberty.) A royal governor had his duty to his king, but he must also safeguard the interests of the people of his native land--or in Governor Belcher's words: "I will as much as I am capable conduct my administration to the king's honor and interest and at the same time with a tender regard to the liberties and welfare of the people."

    Indeed, Governor Belcher played a unique role of extremely great importance in the history of the future United States. He governed during a turning point in that history. What historians have recognized--and modern historians are beginning to admit--is to what great extent Governor Belcher, through his wise and prudent actions, held together the framework of colonial society during that crucial time period before the American Revolution. Even before he became governor--long before he became governor--Jonathan Belcher was instrumental in securing the liberties of the people by playing a key role in safeguarding the Massachusetts Charter (that colony's colonial "constitution").

    Governor Jonathan Belcher was a powerful governmental figure in high office during that era, first in New England, then in New Jersey. Moreover, he had a connection to almost every prominent person of his time. James Madison, generally known as the "Father of the United States Constitution," was one of the nine delegates to the Constitutional Convention who were graduates of Princeton University, which Governor Belcher had founded. Madison's advocacy of the Constitution was largely achieved by means of co-authoring The Federalist Papers. The other co-authors were John Jay and Alexander Hamilton--the latter of whom, on the occasion of the wedding of Catherine ("Kate") Smith, daughter of Jonathan's good friend William Peartree Smith, spent an evening in the New Jersey mansion formerly owned by Governor Belcher. And during James Madison's studies in logic and political theory, Madison looked at some of the nearly five hundred books Governor Belcher bequeathed to the library of the New Jersey college later called Princeton University--books by authors such as John Locke and of course, Isaac Watts. Locke's political theories are considered to be a major source for the political ideas underlying the United States Constitution. So, basically, Governor Belcher's preferences in literature and political theory formed the basis of the Princeton College library that the Princeton students had available to read-- thus influencing the formation of their own student theories, as well. Though he was dead, Governor Belcher's influence still lived on through the Princeton students who read his own personal reading selections. Most likely the volumes by John Locke that James Madison read as a student were volumes that had also been read by Governor Jonathan Belcher. Indeed, "A Catalogue of Books Belonging to His Excellency Jonathan Belcher" is referenced as a source for James Madison's college readings. As a college student, then, Madison read the books that had been touched by the hand of Governor Belcher.

    Benjamin Franklin was one of Governor Belcher's printers during the pre-Revolutionary days. Franklin recorded in one of his letters that he arrived at Elizabethtown, New Jersey and dined with Governor Belcher. (The two also corresponded with each other.) Jonathan Belcher, using his power as colonial governor, additionally helped Franklin by introducing him to his friend, Harvard professor John Winthrop (1714-1779). (Incidentally, one of the founders of Boston, Edward Belcher (a relative to Governor Jonathan), had come to New England with Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649) during the Puritan Migration.)

    Interestingly, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were appointed members of the first committee to prepare a device for the Great Seal of the United States, which in its final form bears such a strong resemblance to the Belcher coat of arms. The instrumental person on the third committee to create this final design was young lawyer William Barton, a member of the Franklin-founded American Philosophical Society. It is evident from illustrations of the Belcher coat of arms that its "pales" and blue "chief" were reproduced in the pales and blue chief of the Great Seal of the United States. (See The Great Seal of the United States and the Belcher Coat of Arms.)

    The United States is a republic, "one nation under God," with a Great Seal derived from the Belcher coat of arms.

    Thus the legacy of Governor Jonathan Belcher lives on.

Belchertown, Massachusetts

    Another legacy of Governor Jonathan Belcher is the town in west-central Massachusetts that was named in his honor. Located in the general region of Holyoke, Amherst, and Northampton, Massachusetts, the 1731 settlement was named Belcher's Town (or Belchertown, as it was later written) in 1761 out of respect for Governor Belcher (1682-1757). Not only was Jonathan Belcher the governor when the town was officially settled, but he was also one of the original main owners of the territory in Belchertown. Thus it is fitting that the town be called after his name.

    Northampton, a town in the vicinity of Belchertown, at one time had as its pastor the famous Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening minister who was also a good friend to Governor Jonathan Belcher. (The two were also relatives through the marriage of Governor Belcher's sister to a member of the family of Jonathan Edwards' mother. Interestingly, the manor house of Governor Belcher's ancestors--also the ancestors of Edward Belcher of Boston--was situated in Northamptonshire, England.) Later, one of Jonathan Edwards' daughters married Governor Belcher's friend, Col. Timothy Dwight, and their son Timothy Dwight was President of Yale College during the early nineteenth century. Yet another Dwight--Capt. Nathaniel Dwight--was one of the early settlers of Belchertown.

    The spires of the churches of Belchertown rise upward toward Heaven as symbols of the region's Great Awakening heritage. Other noteworthy landmarks in Belchertown include the Belchertown Common and The Stone House, said to be one of the best small museums in Massachusetts.

    Belchertown's rich history includes a significant role during the American Revolution. For example, one Belchertown landmark is stated to have been used as a signal station during the Revolution. Later, the Marquis de Lafayette visited another house in Belchertown. Muster-rolls list the Belchertown Minute Men who marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts (the town of Governor Belcher's birth) on April 20, 1775 to defend that region during the call to arms that began the American Revolution. The town chose its Committee of Correspondence and in 1776 voted in the affirmative for the colonies to exist as an independent nation. In 1779, the Selectmen of Belchertown voted for a State Convention for the purpose of preparing the Massachusetts Constitution.

    Belchertown was a growing, prosperous town for its time. Noted as an agricultural community (a dairy-farming and apple-growing center), Belchertown nonetheless was famed during the 1800's as a center for the manufacture of carriages, wagons, and sleighs.

    Several persons of distinction were born in Belchertown, including writer/editor Dr. Josiah Gilbert Holland. (Interestingly, Jonathan Belcher's mother was Sarah Gilbert Belcher, daughter of Jonathan Gilbert.) Dr. Benjamin Rush Palmer, who played a significant role in the history of medicine in Kentucky, did his general practice at Belchertown, Massachusetts.

    In the twentieth century, Belchertown is still a pleasant New England town. Belchertown is a New England geographical tribute to an important colonial governor--one who also made a significant contribution to the history of the United States.


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