What Really Happened at Plymouth

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article is excerpted from Chapter 18 of Conceived In Liberty,
Volume I, now available as a
free ebook (PDF)

The first
successful settlement in New England was something of an accident.
By 1617 the Pilgrims had determined to leave the Netherlands, where
their youth were supposedly being corrupted by the "licentiousness"
of even the Calvinist Dutch, who, for example, persisted in enjoying
the Sabbath as a holiday rather than bearing it as a penance.

Deciding to
settle in America, the Pilgrims were offered an opportunity to settle
in New Netherland, but preferred to seek a patent from the South
Virginia Company, which would provide an English atmosphere in which
to raise their children. The Pilgrims formed a partnership in a
joint-stock company with a group of London merchants, including
Thomas Weston, an ironmonger, and John Peirce, a clothmaker. The
company, John Peirce and Associates, received in 1620 a grant from
the Virginia Company for a particular plantation in Virginia territory.

In this alliance,
each adult settler was granted a share in the joint-stock company,
and each investment of 10 pounds also received a share. At the end
of seven years, the accumulated earnings were to be divided among
the shareholders. Until that division, as in the original Virginia
settlement, the company decreed a communistic system of production,
with each settler contributing his all to the common store and each
drawing his needs from it – again, a system of "from each
according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
Just over a hundred colonists sailed from England on the Mayflower
in September 1620. Of these, only forty-one were Pilgrims, from
Leyden, Holland; eighteen were indentured servants, bound as slaves
for seven years to their masters; and the others were largely Anglicans
from England, seeking economic opportunity in the New World.

Bound supposedly
for the mouth of the Hudson River, the Mayflower decided
instead to land along what is now the Massachusetts coast –
outside Virginia territory. Some of the indentured servants began
to grow restive, logically maintaining that since the settlement
would not be made, as had been agreed, in Virginia territory, they
should be released from their contracts. "They would use their
own liberty, for none had power to command them."

To forestall
this rebellion against servitude, the bulk of the colonists, and
especially the Pilgrims, decided to establish a government immediately,
even though on shipboard. No possible period without governmental
rule was to be permitted to the colonists. The Pilgrim minority
straightway formed themselves on shipboard into a "body politic"
in the Mayflower Compact, enabling them to perpetuate their rule
over the other majority colonists. This, the first form of government
in the New World established by colonists themselves, was by no
means a gesture of independence from England; it was an emergency
measure to maintain the Pilgrim control over the servants and other

In mid-December
1620 the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. In a duplication of
the terrible hardships of the first Virginia settlers, half of the
colonists were dead by the end of the first winter. In mid-1621
John Peirce and Associates obtained a patent from the Council for
New England, granting the company 100 acres of land for each settler
and 1,500 acres compulsorily reserved for public use. In return,
the Council was to receive a yearly quitrent of two shillings per
100 acres.

A major reason
for the persistent hardships, for the "starving time,"
in Plymouth as before in
, was the communism imposed by the company. Finally,
in order to survive, the colony in 1623 permitted each family to
cultivate a small private plot of land for their individual use.
William Bradford, who had become governor of Plymouth in 1621, and
was to help rule the colony for thirty years thereafter, eloquently
describes the result in his record of the colony:

All this
while no supply was heard of…. So they began to think how
they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better
crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish
in misery. At length … the Governor (with the advice of the
chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every
man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves….
And so assigned to every family a parcel of land … for that
end, only for present use…. This had very good success, for
it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted
than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any
other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave
far better content. The women now went willingly into the field,
and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before
would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would
have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience
that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry
years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the
vanity of that conceit of Plato’s … that the taking away
of property and bringing community into a commonwealth would make
them happy and flourishing…. For this community … was
found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment
that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young
men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine
that they should spend their time and strength to work for other
men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong …
had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was
weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought
injustice…. Upon … all being to have alike, and all
to do alike, they thought … one as good as another, and so
… did … work diminish … the mutual respects that
should be preserved amongst men…. Let none object this is
men’s corruption … all men have this corruption in them….
(William Bradford, Of
Plymouth Plantation
, New York: Knopf, 1952, pp. 120–21.)

The antipathy
of communism to the nature of man here receives eloquent testimony
from a governor scarcely biased a priori in favor of individualism.
Plymouth was destined to remain a small colony. By 1630 its population
was still less than four hundred. Its government began in the Mayflower
Compact, with the original signers forming an Assembly for making
laws, choosing a governor, and admitting people to freemen’s citizenship.
The governor had five assistants, elected also by the freemen. This
democratic setup signified a very loose control of the colony by
the Peirce company, which wanted to accelerate the growth of the
colony, and saw the Pilgrim dominance as an obstacle to such growth.

Religious exclusiveness
in a colony necessarily hampers its growth; we have seen that Lord
Baltimore soon abandoned the idea of Maryland as an exclusively
Catholic colony in order to encourage its rapid development. Thus,
persecution of non-Separatists for playing ball on Sunday and for
daring to observe Christmas as a holiday was hardly calculated to
stimulate the growth of the colony.

To inject some
variety into the colony, the English merchants therefore sent the
Rev. John Lyford, a Puritan within the Church of England, with a
group of colonists to Plymouth. As soon as Lyford began to administer
the sacraments according to the Church of England, his correspondence
was seized by Governor Bradford, and Lyford and his chief supporter,
John Oldham, were tried for "plotting against Pilgrim rule
both in respect of their civil and church state."

To the charge
of Lyford and Oldham that non-Pilgrims were being discouraged from
coming to Plymouth, Governor Bradford replied that strangers were
perfectly "free" to attend the Pilgrim church as often
as they liked. When Bradford spread the stolen letters, critical
of the government, upon the record, Oldham angrily called upon the
Assembly to revolt against this tyranny, but no one followed his
lead. The Reverend Lyford instantly recanted and groveled in his
errors before the court.

Both men were
ordered banished from the colony. Oldham went thirty miles north,
with a number of the discontented, to found a settlement at Nantasket
(now Hull). Included in this company were Roger Conant and William
and Edward Hilton, who shortly traveled further north to join David
Thompson, a Scottish trader who had established a settlement at
what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the mouth of the Piscataqua
River. The Hiltons were later to found the nearby town of Dover,
New Hampshire.

In return for
his abasement, the Reverend Lyford was put on six months’ probation,
but again some critical letters to England were purloined by the
government, and this time Lyford was truly expelled and went on
to join the Nantasket settlement.

The Pilgrims,
however, had not seen the last of the rebellious band. In the spring
of 1624, the Pilgrims built a wharf some sixty miles north, on the
current site of Gloucester, at Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts,
only to find the following spring that Lyford, Oldham, and their
group had moved there. They had been invited to Gloucester by the
Dorchester Company of merchants from western England. The company’s
founder, the Rev. John White, a Puritan, had already established
a fishing village at Gloucester in 1623. Roger Conant was now installed
as superintendent of the community, and Lyford became its pastor.

Upon returning
to Gloucester to find the dissidents established there, the first
instinct of Plymouth’s military leader, Capt. Miles Standish, was,
typically, to demand the surrender of the unwelcome wharf, but cooler
heads prevailed and a peaceful compromise was soon reached. The
Pilgrims, however, could not make a go of this fishing station and
abandoned it at the end of the year. Upon the bankruptcy of the
Dorchester Company the following year, the Conant-Oldham group left
Gloucester, and moved fifteen miles down the coast to found the
town of Naumkeag, later known as Salem. Lyford was its Anglican

In 1625, Thomas Morton, gentleman lawyer and an agent of Sir Ferdinando
Gorges, organized another settlement, Merrymount, north of Plymouth
at the present site of Quincy, Massachusetts. Merrymount was an
Anglican settlement, and the citizens did not comport themselves
in the highly ascetic fashion to which the Plymouth Separatists
wished them to conform. Apparently Merrymount was merry indeed,
and whiskey and interracial (white-Indian) revelry abounded, including
the old Anglican (but denounced by the Pilgrims as pagan) custom
of dancing around a maypole, a practice which King James I had urged
in his Book of Sports (1617).

Plymouth had
established friendly relations with the Indians, but Merrymount
was now threatening to compete most effectively with Plymouth’s
highly lucrative monopoly of the beaver trade with the Indians.
Merrymount was also a place where Morton set his servants free and
made them partners in the fur trade, and thus it loomed as a highly
attractive haven for runaway servants from Plymouth.

The Pilgrims
denounced Morton’s colony as a "school of atheism" –
"atheism" apparently signifying the use of the Anglican
Book of Common Prayer, the maypole, and selling rum and firearms
to the Indians (and buying furs in exchange). The sale of rum and
firearms was condemned even though relations with the Indians had
been perfectly peaceful. Then, in 1628, Plymouth established a virtual
New England tradition of persecution by dispatching Captain Standish
with an armed troop to eradicate Merrymount.

Having surrendered
on the promise of safe treatment to himself and the settlement,
Morton was assaulted by Standish and his men and almost killed,
the Plymouth forces "not regarding any agreement made with
such a carnal man." Hauled into a Plymouth court – despite
Plymouth’s lack of legal jurisdiction over Merrymount – Morton
was almost executed; his death was urged at great length by Miles
Standish. Finally, he was deported back to England, with Standish
still threatening to kill Morton personally before he could leave
the colony. Before deportation, Morton was confined alone for over
a month of severe winter at the Isles of Shoals without a gun, knife,
or proper clothing.

Despite the
destruction of Merrymount, and the failure of other attempts at
settlement, the 1620s saw several settlements dot the Massachusetts
coast. Most important was the Roger Conant group at Naumkeag; another
was a settlement at Boston led by the Puritan minister, Rev. William

In 1627 the
inherent conflict between colony and company in Plymouth was finally
resolved, by the elimination of the company from the scene. In that
year, the seven years of enforced communism by the company expired,
and all the assets and lands were distributed to the individual
shareholders. Grants of land were received in proportion to the
size of the stock, so that the larger shareholders received larger
gifts of land.

This complete
replacement of communism by individualism greatly benefited the
productivity of the colony. Furthermore, the colonists took the
happy occasion to buy up the shares of the Peirce company. Plymouth
was now a totally self-governing colony. By 1633 the entire purchase
price had been paid and the colonists were freed from the last remnant
of company, or indeed of any English, control.

still remained, of course, the overlord Council for New England.
In 1630 the Council granted a new patent to the Plymouth Colony,
clearly defining its territory, and recognizing its right to freedom
of trading and fishing. But Governor Bradford limited the privileges
of trade to the original Pilgrim partners – the Old Comers
– and kept the patent in his own possession before relinquishing
it in 1641.

Plymouth was
destined to remain a small colony in which the nominal rulers, the
freemen, were rarely consulted, and the governor and the Council
imposed an oligarchic rule. But after the Council for New England
was dissolved in 1635, Plymouth nevertheless became a fully self-governing

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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