The Decline of the Plymouth Colony

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This article
is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty
, chapter 36. An MP3 audio file of this chapter,
narrated by Floy Lilley, is
available for download

What, in all
this time, was happening to Plymouth, the mother colony of all New
England? Succinctly, it was rapidly and irretrievably declining.
As we have seen, its fur trade had virtually disappeared by 1640.
And for the next 20 years, only further decline ensued. By the mid-1640s
the town of Plymouth was virtually a ghost town; and economically
the colony had become a backwater of Massachusetts Bay.

By the 1640s
Plymouth, like Massachusetts, found the intensity of its religious
zeal on the wane, and heresy and "moral" laxity were increasing.
Plymouth faced a crossroads on how to react to this development:
by liberty and toleration or by following Massachusetts’ path of
persecution? The critical point came in 1645 when William Vassall,
a leading merchant, presented to the General Court of Plymouth as
well as to that of Massachusetts Bay a petition for complete religious
liberty – to grant "full and free tolerance of religion
to all men that will preserve the civil peace and submit unto the
government." "All men" meant exactly that, including
Familists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. There was great sentiment
in the General Court in favor of the Vassall petition. It commanded
the support, in fact, of a majority of the chamber of deputies,
and even of such an old roustabout as Capt. Miles Standish. But
the ruling oligarchy of the colony, headed by Governor Bradford,
Thomas Prence, and Edward Winslow, strongly opposed religious liberty
and was able to block its approval.

This was the
turning point and for the next two decades Plymouth accompanied
its economic decline by following the lead of Massachusetts in increased
theocracy and religious persecution. The colony proceeded to impose
fines for failing to attend church, corporal penalties for denying
the scripture, and denial of the rights of citizenship to all critics
of the laws of Plymouth or of the "true religion."

One of the
persistent troubles of Plymouth was a shortage of ministers, aggravated
by its poverty, decline, and increased intolerance. To deal with
this scarcity, Plymouth took another fateful step down the theocratic
road: it established a state church supported by taxation. Protests
against this new establishment were led by Dr. Matthew Fuller, of
the town of Duxbury, who for his pains was denounced as "wicked"
by the Plymouth authorities and forced to pay a steep fine.

Despite this
establishment, the Pilgrim ministers remained poor, as they had
to collect the pulpit taxes themselves and the parishioners were
usually far in arrears.

Religious persecution
continued to tighten. The colony did not believe itself too poor
to afford inspectors of youth; one was appointed in each parish
to supervise and birch any boy unruly in church. When this procedure
failed, the inspectors intensified their birching penalties and
included girls in this corporal punishment as well.

Governor William
Bradford died in 1657 at the age of 67. He left the colony impoverished,
though he himself died a rich man, the richest in Plymouth. He was
succeeded by Thomas Prence, who liked to think of himself as a "terror
to evildoers." When the Quaker influx arrived in Plymouth,
Prence was as good as his word. Laws passed against Quakers provided
for the summary arrest of suspected heretics, in order to keep "corrupt"
would-be freemen from the colony. And as a special slap at any Anglican
deviation, the vicious practice of celebrating Christmas was outlawed.

In 1659 six
Quakers were banished and Governor Prence thundered that all Quakers
deserved "to be destroyed, both they, their wives, and their
children, without pity or mercy." But most Pilgrims balked
at this call for total victory. As a result, the colony did not
flay, brand, or mutilate – let alone kill – its Quakers,
as did Massachusetts Bay.

The leading
case of Quaker persecution in Plymouth was that of Humphrey Norton,
who was banished and then returned. Though denounced by Governor
Prence, Norton refused, according to Quaker principles, to take
an oath of allegiance. Sentenced to be whipped, Norton managed to
escape the punishment by refusing to pay the customary marshal’s
fee for the "service" of being whipped, and was again

As in Massachusetts
Bay, there was widespread public opposition to the persecution;
the persecution itself multiplied the number of Quaker converts.
Thus, almost the entire town of Sandwich at the entrance to Cape
Cod was converted to the Quaker faith. Barnstable, further along
the Cape, liberally harbored and protected Quakers. Indeed, Barnstable’s
Pilgrim minister, Rev. John Lothrop, accepted as church members
all who promised to keep the Ten Commandments.

To deal with
the troublesome Sandwich problem, the colonial government of Plymouth
sent there as special colonial constable one George Barlow, soon
to be notorious as the "Quaker Terror." Barlow was paid
on a commission basis by Plymouth Colony for finding heretics. Naturally
his zeal was unbounded. Barlow ruthlessly plundered the town of
Sandwich, finding all suspects and disfranchising eight freemen.
The people of Sandwich dealt with Barlow in their own good way:
resisting, harassing him and his family, and putting him into the
stocks. Finally the people triumphed, and Barlow was driven out
of town.

Another leading
center of resistance and heresy was Duxbury, north of the town of
Plymouth. Duxbury was a town filled with Baptist and Quaker converts.
Here resistance to the tyranny of the Plymouth authorities was led
by Rev. John Holmes and the Howland family. Zoeth Howland was put
into the stocks by the authorities for criticizing the persecuting
ministers and many citizens of Duxbury joined him in choosing to
pay the fine rather than attend the Pilgrim church. Particularly
galling to the despotic Governor Prence was the fact that his own
daughter Elizabeth had fallen in love with Arthur Howland, the leading
opponent of his tyrannical rule. Repeatedly, Prence had Howland
arrested and heavily fined for the crime of courting Elizabeth,
but Prence finally, after a decade, broke down and permitted their

One of the
strongest centers of liberal resistance in Plymouth was the town
of Scituate, at the extreme north of the colony. Here the resistance
was led by two eminent leaders of the colony, the veteran assistant
governor, Capt. James Cudworth, and Timothy Hatherly, a member of
the General Court for 20 years. Hatherly was summarily expelled
from the General Court and disfranchised by the province, but the
town of Scituate stubbornly reelected him as a deputy. The General
Court, however, refused to seat the intractable Hatherly. Cudworth,
in his turn, was dismissed from his high post as one of Plymouth’s
two commissioners of the United Colonies. Bitterly, Cudworth denounced
the actions: "Our civil powers are so exercised in matters
of religion and conscience that we have no time to effect anything
that tends to the promotion of the civil weal." Cudworth also
attacked the establishment of a state religion as well as the persecution
of the Quakers. But even Cudworth’s protest was met in the familiar
way: he was dismissed as assistant governor, deprived of his military
command, and disfranchised.

treatment of Cudworth only swelled the tide of protest. The frightened
magistrates decided to appoint sound and reliable Pilgrims in each
town to argue with the Quakers and convert them. But this policy
turned out disastrously. Deacon John Cooke, officially appointed
to spy upon heretics, was himself converted to the Baptist faith
and excommunicated by the Pilgrims. A much more telling blow to
the authorities was the case of Isaac Robinson. Robinson, son of
the beloved Rev. John Robinson, the founder of the Pilgrim sect,
who had never left Leyden, Holland, for America, was appointed the
official convincer at Sandwich. Instead, the would-be converter
was himself converted and became a Quaker. The embittered magistrates
denounced Robinson for "sundry scandals and falsehoods,"
dismissed him from all his offices, and deprived him of his rights
as a freeman.

In the end,
the Quakers emerged victorious, as they did in Massachusetts Bay.
Town after town in Plymouth Colony eventually took it upon itself
to grant full civil rights to the Quakers. The death of old Governor
Prence in 1673 brought the more liberal younger generation to the
fore, and the new governor, Major Josiah Winslow, restored all civil
rights to the Quakers and their supporters. James Cudworth, too,
was renamed assistant governor. The old persecuting zeal in Plymouth
Colony was ended.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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