By Charles M. Andrews in 1918
The Pilgrims and Puritans, whose migration to the New World marked the beginning of permanent settlement in New England, were children of the same age as the enterprising and adventurous pioneers of England in Virginia, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. It was the age in which the British Empire’s foundations were laid in the Western Continent. The Kingdom had enjoyed 60 years of domestic peace and prosperity, and Englishmen were eager to share the advantages the New World offered to those who would venture there. Both landowning and landholding classes, gentry and tenant farmers alike, were clamoring, the one for an increase of their landed estates, the other for freedom from the feudal restraints which still legally bound them. Visions of wealth aroused the expectations from the El Dorados of the West or profit from commercial enterprises, which appealed to the capitalists and led to investments that promised speedy and ample returns.
A desire to improve social conditions and to solve the problem of the poor and the vagrant, which had become acute since the dissolution of the monasteries, was arousing the authorities to deal with the poor and to dispose of the criminal in such a way as to yield a profitable service to the kingdom. England was full of resolute men, sea dogs, and soldiers of fortune, captains on land and sea, who, in times of peace, were seeking employment and profit and needed an outlet for their energies. Some of these continued in the service of kings and princes in Europe; others conducted enterprises against the Spaniards in the West Indies and along the Spanish Main, while others, such as John Smith and Miles Standish, became pioneers in the work of English colonization.
But, more important than the promptings of land-hunger and the desire for wealth and adventure was the call made by a social and religious movement which was but a phase of the general restlessness and popular discontent. The Reformation, in which this movement originated, was more than a revolt from the organization and doctrines of the medieval church; it voiced the yearning of the middle classes for a position commensurate with their growing prominence in national life. Though the feudal tenantry, given over to agriculture and bound by the conventions of feudal law, was still perpetuating many of the old customs, the towns were working to emancipate themselves from feudal control. The gild, a closely compacted brotherhood, existing partly for religious and educational purposes and partly for controlling handicrafts and exchanging goods, became the center of middle-class energy. Thus, it was mainly from those who knew no wider world than the fields they cultivated and the gilds which governed that the early settlers of New England were recruited.
Equally important with the social changes were those which concerned men’s faith and religious organization. The Peace of Augsburg, which, in 1555, had closed for the moment the warfare resulting from the Reformation, not only recognized the right of Protestantism to exist but also handed over to each state full power to control the creed within its borders. Whoever ruled the state could determine the religion of his subjects. A mandate denied individuals or groups the right to depart from the established faith. Hence arose a second revolt, not against the medieval church and empire but against the authority of the state and its creed, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Calvinist, a revolt in which the Huguenots in France battled for their right to believe as they wished, and the Puritans in England refused to conform to a manner of worship which retained much of the medieval rituals and ceremonies. Leaders demanded radical changes in faith and practice and advocated complete separation from the Anglican Church and isolation from the religious world. The Separatists rejected the Anglican and other creeds, severed all bonds with a national church system, cast aside form, ceremony, and a hierarchy of church orders, and sought true faith and form of worship in the Word of God. For these men, the Bible was the only test of religious truth.
The Separatists organized themselves into small religious groups, as independent communities or companies of Christians, covenanted with God and keeping the Divine Law in a Holy Communion. They consisted of men and women in the humbler walks of life — artisans, tenant farmers, with some middle-class gentry. Sufficient to themselves and knit together in the fashion of a gild or brotherhood, they believed in a church system of the simplest form and followed the Bible, Old, and New Testaments alike, as the guide of their lives. Desiring to withdraw from the world as it was so that they might commune together in direct relations with God, they accepted persecution as the test of their faith. They welcomed hardship, banishment, and even death as proofs of righteousness and truth. Convinced of the scriptural soundness of what they believed and practiced and confident of salvation through unyielding submission to God’s will as they interpreted it, they became conspicuous because of their radical thought and peculiar forms of worship. They inevitably drew the attention of the authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical.
The leading centers of Separatism were in London and Norfolk. Still, the seat of the little congregation that eventually led the way across the sea to New England was in Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. There, in Scrooby manor-house, where William Brewster, the father, was receiver and bailiff, and his son, the future elder of the Plymouth colony, was acting postmaster; where Richard Clayton preached, and John Robinson prayed, and where the youthful William Bradford was one of its members — there was gathered a small Separatist congregation composed of humble folk of Nottinghamshire and adjoining counties. They were soon discovered worshiping in the manor-house chapel by the ecclesiastical authorities of Yorkshire. For more than a year, they were subjected to persecution, some being imprisoned and others having their homes watched night and day. At length, they determined to leave England for Holland. During 1607 and 1608, they escaped secretly, some at one time, some at another, all with significant loss and difficulty, until by the August of the latter year, there were gathered at Amsterdam more than a hundred men, women, and children, “armed with faith and patience.”
But Amsterdam proved a disappointing refuge. In 1609 they moved to Leyden, where for 11 years, they remained, pursuing such trades as they could, chiefly weaving and the manufacture of cloth under the leadership of John Robinson and William Brewster. But, at last, new and imperative reasons arose, demanding a third removal, not to another city in Holland, but, this time to the New World called America.
They were breaking under the great labor and challenging fare; they feared to lose their language and saw no opportunity to educate their children; they disapproved of the lax Dutch observance of Sunday and saw in the temptations of the place a menace to the habits and morals of the younger members of the flock, and, in the influences of the world around them, a danger to the purity of their creed and their practice. They determined to go to a new country where they might keep their names, faith, and nationality.
After many misgivings, the fateful decision was reached, and preparations for departure were made. But where to go became a troublesome problem. The merits of Guiana and other “wild coasts” were debated. Finally, Virginia met with general approval because they might live as a private association, a distinct body, similar to other private companies already established. To this end, they sent two of their number to England to secure a patent from the Virginia Company of London. Under this patent and in a bond of allegiance to King James, yet acting as a “body in the most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord,” an independent and whole church, they became a civil community also, with governors chosen for the work from among themselves. But, the disputes in the London Company caused them to lose faith in that association, and, hearing of the reorganization of the Virginia Company of Plymouth, which about this time obtained a new charter as the New England Council, they turned from southern to northern Virginia — that is, to New England — and resolved to make their settlement where according to reports fishing might become a means of livelihood.
But, their plans could not be executed without assistance, and, coming into touch with a London merchant, Thomas Weston, who promised to aid them, they entered into what proved to be a long and tedious negotiation with a group of adventurers — gentlemen, merchants, and others, 70 in number — for an advance of money to finance the expedition. The Pilgrims entered into a partnership with the merchants to form a voluntary joint-stock company. It was understood that the merchants, who purchased shares, were to remain in England; that the colonists, who contributed their service at a fixed rating, were to go to America, there to labor at trade, trucking, and fishing for seven years; and that during this time, all profits were to remain in a common stock and all lands to be left undivided. The conditions were challenging and discouraging, but there was no alternative. At last, embarking at Delfthaven in the Speedwell, a small ship bought and fitted in Holland, they came to Southampton, where another larger vessel, the Mayflower, was waiting. In August 1620, the two vessels set sail, but the Speedwell, proving unseaworthy, was returned after two attempts.
The Mayflower went on alone, carrying 102 passengers, two-thirds of the whole, and was picked out as worthy and willing to undertake the voyage. The Mayflower reached the waters of New England on November 11 after a tedious course of 65 days from Plymouth to Cape Cod, but they did not decide on their landing place until December 21, 1620. Four days later, they erected, on the site of the town of Plymouth, their first building.
The coast of New England was not an unknown shore. From 1607 to 1620, while settlers were founding permanent colonies at Jamestown and in Bermuda, explorers, and fishermen, both English and French, skirted its headlands and penetrated its harbors. In 1614, John Smith, the famous Virginia pioneer, who had left the service of the London Company and was employed by specific London merchants, explored the northern coast in an open boat and gave the region its name. These many voyages and ventures at trading and fishing served to arouse enthusiasm in England for a world of good rivers and harbors, rich soil, and excellent fishing and to spread a knowledge of the coasts widely from Newfoundland to the Hudson River. Of this knowledge, the Pilgrims reaped the benefit, and the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, against whom any charge of treason may be dismissed, guided them, it is true, to a region unoccupied by Englishmen but not to one unknown or poorly esteemed. The miseries that confronted the Pilgrims during their first year in the Plymouth colony were not due to the inhospitality of the region but to the time of year when they landed upon it; and were insufficiently provisioned as they were before they left England, it is little wonder that suffering and death should have accompanied their first experience with a New England winter.
This little group of men and women landed on territory granted to the New England Council, and they had neither patent for their land nor royal authority to set up a government. But, some form of government was necessary. Before starting from Southampton, they had followed John Robinson’s instructions to choose a governor and assistants for each ship “to order the people by the way,”; and now that they were at the end of their long voyage, the men of the company met in the cabin of the Mayflower, and drew up a covenant by which they combined themselves into a body politic for their better ordering and preservation. This compact, signed by 41 members, of whom eleven bore the title of “Mister,” was a plantation covenant, the political counterpart of the church covenant which bound together every Separatist community. It provided that the people should live together in a peaceable and orderly manner under their chosen civil authorities. It was the first of many such covenants entered into by New England towns, not defining a government but binding the settlers to unite politically as they had already done for religious worship. John Carver, who had been chosen governor on the Mayflower, was confirmed as governor of the settlement and given one assistant. After their goods had been set onshore and a few cottages built, the whole body met to establish the laws and orders for their civil and military governments.
More than half of this courageous but sorely stricken community died before the first winter was over. However, the people gradually became acclimated, new colonists came out, some from the community at Leyden, and the numbers steadily increased. The settlers were mainly homogeneous regarding social class, religious views, and purpose. Among them were undesirable members — the English merchants sent some out, and others came out of their own accord — who played stoolball on Sunday, committed theft, or set the community by the ears, as did one notorious offender named Lyford. But, their number was not significant, for most of them remained but a short time and then went to Virginia or elsewhere or were shipped back to England by the Pilgrims as incorrigibles. The people’s lives were predominantly agricultural, fishing, salt-making, and trading with the Indians as allied interests. The partners in England sent overseas — cattle, stock, and laborers, and, as their profits depended on the success of the settlement, did what they could to encourage its development. The position of the Pilgrims was that of sharers and partners with the merchants, from whom they received directions but not commands.
But, under the agreement of 1620 with their partners in London, which remained in force for seven years, the Plymouth people could neither divide their land nor dispose of the products of their labor, and so burdensome became this arrangement that in 1623, temporary assignments of land were made which became permanent the following year.
During the two years that followed, so evident was the failure of the joint undertaking that efforts were made on both sides to bring it to an end; for the merchants, with no profit from the enterprise, were anxious to avoid further indebtedness; and the colonists, wearying of the dual control, wished to reap for themselves the full reward of their efforts. Under the new arrangement of small private properties, the settlers began to prosper. Though conditions were hard and often discouraging, the Pilgrims gradually found themselves self-supporting. As soon as this fact became clear, they sent Isaac Allerton to England to agree with the financiers. The negotiations resulted in an agreement whereby eight leading members of the colony bought the shares of the merchants for £1800 and distributed the payment among the settlers, who at this time numbered about 300. Each share carried with it a specific portion of land and livestock. The debt was not finally liquidated until 1642.
By 1630, the Plymouth colony was pretty on its feet and beginning to grow in “outward estate.” The settlers increased in number, prospered financially, and scattered to the outlying districts; Plymouth, the town, and Plymouth, the colony, ceased to be identical. Before 1640, the latter had become a cluster of ten towns, each a covenanted community with its church and elder. Though the colony never obtained a charter of incorporation from the Crown, it developed a form of government arising naturally from its own needs. By 1633, its governor and one assistant had become a governor and seven assistants, elected annually at a primary assembly held in Plymouth town; and the three parts, governor, assistants, and assembly, together constituted the colony’s governing body. In 1636, the laws and ordinances were revised in the form of “The Great Fundamentals,” a sort of constitution frequently interspersed with statements of principles, which was printed with additions in 1671. The right to vote was limited, at first, to those who were members of the company and liable for its debt, but, later, the voting was extended to include others than the first-comers and, in 1633, was exercised by 68 persons altogether. In 1668, a voter was required to have property, be “of sober and peaceable conversation,” and take an oath of fidelity. Still, he was never required to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown. So rapidly did the colony expand that, by 1639, the holding of a primary assembly in Plymouth town became so inconvenient that delegates had to be chosen. Thus, there was introduced into the colony a form of representative government. However, it is to be noted that the governor, assistants, and deputies sat together in a common room and never divided into two houses, as did the assemblies in other colonies.
The settlement of the Plymouth colony is conspicuous in New England’s history because of the faith, courage, and suffering of those who engaged in it. The greatness of the Pilgrims lay in their notable example and the influence they exercised upon the church life of the later New England colonies, for to the Pilgrims was because the congregational way of organization and worship became the accepted form in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But, in other respects, Plymouth was vastly overshadowed by her vigorous neighbors. Her humble and straightforward people were unimportant in thought, literature, or education. Their intellectual and material poverty, lack of business enterprise, unfavorable situation, and vulnerable position in the eyes of the law rendered them almost a negative factor in their later life in New England. No great movement can be traced to their initiation, no great leader to birth within their borders, and no great work of art, literature, or scholarship to those who belonged to this unpretending company. The Pilgrim Fathers stand instead as an emblem of virtue rather than a molding force in the nation’s life.
About This Article: This article was excerpted from The Fathers of New England: A Chronicle Of The Puritan Commonwealths, edited by Charles M. Andrews, a professor of history at Bryn Mawr College. This book was in a 50-volume series called the Chronicles of America, published by the Yale University Press in 1918. Various historians wrote the volumes on American history topics. In 1923, Yale created a series of films based on the books. Fifteen films were ultimately produced. Though the article appears here contextually the same, it is not verbatim, as it has been edited.