Today's guest post comes from Jeremy Bangs, a leading expert on 17th-century history, the Pilgrims, and the Plymouth Colony. Bangs follows up a lively discussion in the comments section of an earlier post with more on the 17th-century historical context.
In our exchange in the comments section Tom van Dyke expresses annoyance at “scholars with a political agenda.” He “found no attempt anywhere to simply tell the story.” But he “did manage to get to Bradford's account ...”
The problem is that William Bradford is the first of the scholars with a political agenda writing about the topic of the Pilgrims’ early experiments with land distribution. Simply telling the story requires a little analysis of the context beyond a mere repetition of the text(s).
The background information about the financial circumstances of the Pilgrims’ colonial enterprise consists of descriptions by Bradford and Edward Winslow, together with business correspondence and contracts incorporated in Bradford’s memoir. From this we know that for the first seven years the colony was mortgaged to the company of investors. All the assets and increase of the colony were to be liquidated at the end of seven years, when the contracted debt was to be paid and the surplus distributed to the investors. Every colonist was counted as having at least one share in the venture because of the colonist’s labor. Some colonists also invested money and thus owned more than one share. Some investors of money did not become colonists but remained in London (and elsewhere). This arrangement meant that in Plymouth Colony there was no private property (not even property in personal labor) until 1627. All property belonged in common to the investors, but as investors the colonists also were co-owners proportional to their shares. This was capitalism, not communalism, and in no way socialism. The Pilgrims had wanted a different arrangement that would have granted them two days per week for private labor, whose profits were to be personal. But in the end their contract did not grant them even this amount of individualism. In setting up the colony people needed to find a way to conform to the total mortgage of their contract. In the first couple of years, rotating land assignments were made, following a medieval custom then practiced in the region from which the leaders came (northern Nottinghamshire and adjacent parts of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire). Dissatisfaction with this system (unfamiliar to some of the colonists) led to the decision to make unchanging assignments of field use after 1623, so that farmers could expect to use the same land from one year to the next; but this did not involve any property in the land, all of which was still to be liquidated at the end of the seven-year term. Thus scholars who identify the early system as a form of capitalist incorporation are correct, and no political agenda is implied by making this observation. Further, the early reports by Winslow and Bradford mention a bounteous harvest the first year. Scarcity the second year was the result of the arrival of thirty-five more colonists who came without supplies – not the result of poor harvests. This plenteousness is also reported in a letter by a visitor to the colony writing in 1621 (William Hilton). Winslow wrote that wheat and Indian corn had grown well, barley not very well, and peas not worth gathering. Bradford comments on a “great store of wild Turkeys, of whih they took many, besides venison, etc.”
Writing around a quarter century later, Bradford gave a different story – the anti-communalist version that has attracted the attention of Libertarians and others who fantasize about the Pilgrims’ discovering capitalism after experimenting with communalism. Tom quotes from that description. What is Bradford’s agenda, that inspired him to misrepresent the economic circumstances of the past? (As I have commented in my article, “A Level Look at Land Allotments, 1623”) Bradford wrote that part while confronting the social unrest arising from the actions of Samuel Gorton, John Lilburne, and the Levellers. Gorton had been troublesome in Plymouth before causing serious unrest in Rhode Island, where his opposition to taking oaths in court or as part of legal business contracts was abhorrent to representatives of established government. Gorton in New England and the Levellers in England preached a far-reaching equality that was thought to threaten society's stability by abolishing what Bradford and many others thought were divinely ordained differences of social standing and responsibility expressed in wise government. In the mid-1640's, Bradford used his recollection of this administrative shift (regarding land use) as the base upon which he could construct a propagandistic comment aimed at the social circumstances of the later period. In 1646 it was important to oppose Gorton and the Levellers' threat from England, important to consider that practical experience of human nature had disproved idealistic theory — "the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God." Bradford ends his memoirs by noting that Edward Winslow had been sent to England in 1646 to defend New England against complaints of mistreatment lodged in London by Samuel Gorton.
Recent writers who emphasize the year 1623 rather than 1621 when writing about the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving have made a choice that is obviously driven by a political agenda. And simply telling the story is not what concerns them.