Chronicles of America 

Plymouth Colony in American History

During the two years that followed the Mayflower Compact, 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 own efforts. Under the new arrangement of small private properties, the settlers began "to prise come as more pretious than silver, and those that had some to spare begane to trade one with another for small things, by the quart, potle, and peck, etc., for money they had none." Later, finding "their come, what they could spare from ther necessities, to be a commoditie, (for they sould it at 6s. a bushell) [they] used great dilligence in planting the same. And the Gov[erno]r and shuch as were designed to manage the trade, (for it was retained for the generall good, and none were to trade in particuler,) they followed it to the best advantage they could; and wanting trading goods, they understoode that a plantation which was at Monhigen, and belonged to some marchants of Plimoth [England] was to breake up, and diverse usefull goods was ther to be sould," the governor (Bradford himself) and Edward Winslow "tooke a boat and some hands and went thither. . . With these goods, and their come after harvest they gott good store of trade, so as they were enabled to pay their ingagements against the time, and to get some cloathing for the people, and had some comodities beforehand." Though conditions were hard and often discouraging, the Pilgrims gradually found themselves self-supporting and as soon as this fact became clear, they sent Isaac Allerton to England "to make a composition with the adventurers." As a result of the negotiations an "agreement or bargen" was made 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 altogether about three hundred. Each share carried with it a certain portion of land and livestock. The debt was not finally liquidated until 1642.

By 1630, the Plymouth colony was fairly on its feet and beginning to grow in "outward estate." The settlers increased in number, prospered financially, and scattered to the outlying districts; and 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 governing body of the colony. In 1636, a revision of the laws and ordinances was made 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 suffrage was extended to include others than the first-comers, and in 1633 was exercised by sixty-eight persons altogether. In 1668, a voter was required to have property, to be "of sober and peaceable conversation," and to take an oath of fidelity, but apparently 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, though it is to be noted that 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 Plymouth colony is conspicuous in New England history because of the faith and courage and suffering of those who engaged in it and because of the ever alluring charm of William Bradford's History of Plimouth Plantation. The greatness of the Pilgrims lay in their illustrious example and in the influence they exercised upon the church life of the later New England colonies, for to the Pilgrims was due the fact that 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 people, humble and simple, were without importance in the world of thought, literature, or education. Their intellectual and material poverty, lack of business enterprise, unfavorable situation, and defenseless position in the eyes of the law rendered them almost a negative factor in the later life of 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 rather as an emblem of virtue than a moulding force in the life of the nation.

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