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The Log of The Mayflower: Winter and Desire In The Winter of William Bradford

Faculty Forum Presentation:  February 2006*
 Borrowed Time
          Not long after it carried the Pilgrims to Cape Cod in 1620, the Mayflower was stranded along the Thames, soon to be sold off for scrap lumber. William Bradford never even bothers to mention the vessel's name in any of his memoirs. It was not, after all, the Pilgrims' flagship. Cracked and splintered after more than a decade carting Norwegian lumber and French wine, the Mayflower was already on borrowed time when the Pilgrims' lead vessel, the Speedwell, proved unseaworthy. With the autumn days shortening, more than 100 passengers crammed aboard the Mayflower with all of the oatmeal, horse jerkey, and beer that they could carry and decided to risk a winter landing.(1)  
           Both the ship and its passengers seemed destined for obscurity. The Pilgrims—who were a rag-tag partnership of religious Separatists, British servants and fortune-seekers—would not inflame the popular imagination until the Romantic age in the nineteenth century. By then historians would discover so many Mayflowers in seventeenth-century maritime records that it was all too easy to confuse the Pilgrims' transport with other vessels, including one Mayflower in the 1660s that carried Africans to the Caribbean.   Nathaniel Hawthorne hustled a few rumors about how the Pilgrims' vessel eventually enjoyed a second life as a slave trader, and, as you might imagine, some Confederates were eager  to play along. (2)   In reality, though, the Pilgrims' ship had very little life left at all following that first New England winter. After only one last run to France for a cargo of salt, its captain, Christopher Jones, died, and in 1624 the vessel, along with its sails and its kettles, would be pawned off in a London dock at a firesale price. If a captain's log from that Mayflower ever existed, it has been lost.(3)
The Governor's Books
          What does survive is a menagerie of "small books" written by William Bradford, a former sheepherder who lost his wife Dorothy during their first month in New England, when the twenty-three-old woman drowned after falling off the Mayflower's stern. Barely escaping his own death from disease that winter, the young widower was appointed governor of Plymouth before he had fully recovered from his illness. But he survived to remarry, write several manuscripts, and serve for more than thirty years as the Pilgrims’ political leader. That his books survive at all is a story in itself, a tale with some cloak-and-dagger intrigue. When he died in the spring of 1657 Bradford left his manuscripts with his family, urging them to improve what he had written. The great prize of the governor’s bequest—his unfinished history Of Plimmoth Plantation—would be not be revised by the family, but it would be borrowed by their contemporaries, touched up by later writers, and eventually stolen by British loyalists, well before it was ever published.(4) Only after it was rediscovered in 1855, following a nearly a century in the dark, did Bradford’s revered manuscript finally see print. 

          As the published history gained fame, American and British diplomats got caught in some legal shenanigans over the book’s ownership that were resolved only after they renamed the original manuscript “The Log of the Mayflower.” Virtually no one thought it was a ship’s log—we will get to the story of that diplomatic charade in due time. As we journey there, we will take a few peripheral glimpses at the strange voyage of Bradford’s manuscript as it passed, often mysteriously, from hand to hand. My primary focal point today, however, is not the fanfare about a captain’s “log” or the usual saga about the Mayflower’s stormy crossing, but the mind and imagination of Governor Bradford in the late stages of his life and career. Scholars have commonly seen Bradford’s later work as a gesture of resignation or melancholy, an admission that the honor of his colony was in the past rather than in its prospects. Yet my tale today is about a writer reawakened, not silenced, by the intellectual foment of the 1640s. Not simply the gray reminiscence of winter, Bradford's late work is a mix of memory and desire, and it allows us to eavesdrop on one of the most mercurial moments in the history of England, Old and New. And, as we do, it is not hard to hear a few modern reverberations.

Lament and Promise

         Let’s begin at the end: with the Latin phrase carved into the small obelisk marking the spot where Bradford’s ashes were buried. The granite memorial was constructed nearly two centuries after his death, during the early 1800s, when Romantic gravestones revived Greek, Roman and Egyptian forms, in part to compensate for the nation's lack of an ancient pedigree. Like so much in the legends told about the Pilgrims, the obelisk presents Bradford with a classical flair, in this case pure pretense. The Latin epitaph on the memorial is merely a translation of some of Bradford's last written words, left to us not in the language of Rome but in the governor's “plain” English: "What your fathers achieved with great difficulty, do not relinquish without a struggle."(5)

           Many historians do depict the final dozen years in Bradford’s life as days of lament—a time when he would relinquish, with little struggle, his own hopes for a new generation. According to this conventional tale, the governor is overcome by despondency, yearning for the early days of the Pilgrims' community, and unable to resist the tide of religious liberty sweeping along the New England seaboard. Presumably, as his hopes fade in the 1640s Bradford abandons work on Of Plimmoth Plantation and waits for an end. Indeed, at first glance, the book appears deserted. On the last page in the narrative, Bradford writes the dates of two years —1647 and 1648—but never begins either report. Instead, he simply compiled a list of the “first beginners”—a register, or a log if you wish, of all those made that historic 1620 voyage. Faced with this final list and several empty pages, many scholars surmise that his hand and his heart had grown heavy. As Robert Daly observes, "the tale that begins magnificently with the voyage to America diminishes into an unsorted arrangement of administrative details and ends, uncompleted, in silence."(6)

           Although Bradford does strike some melancholy notes near the end, the idea that he loses heart and slips into silence rests largely on a false premise, one that stubbornly survives, even in scholarly quarters. It is the assumption that Of Plimmoth Plantation was his life's work, begun in relative youth and abandoned in grief. Often, Bradford’s history is called a "diary” or a “journal." It's neither—but the misperception lingers for good reasons. The entire second volume of the history, which contains four-fifths of the whole text, is organized in "annals," or a series of narratives about the "principal things" of each year. (7)   Beginning in 1620, the annals proceed systematically through the year 1646, as if the governor dutifully completed an annual report each March, when the old Julian calendar—and the Pilgrims’ year—came to an end. All this intimates that Bradford kept a steady hand at his journal throughout his long tenure as governor, at least until he sank into malaise and put down his pen for good.  

          But Of Plimmoth Plantation is neither a diary nor a yearly journal, but rather a memoir composed at a rather fevered pace long after the events it recounts. Not simply a thirty-year project that slowly wore him down, the book is primarily the outburst of two intense periods of writing and retrospection. A short first volume was written in 1630, ten years following the Mayflower's landing. Then, after laying that slim volume aside for about fifteen years, Bradford returned with a frenzy in 1645 to work on that second volume, which retells of the colony’s growth from the signing of the Mayflower Compact onward. It is a record that Bradford thought a new generation might find “profitable to know or to make use of.” All told, nearly 80% of the history—including all 26 annual reports—was written between 1646 and 1650.(8)  On top of that, Bradford composed at least three long dialogues between 1648 and 1652. From all appearances, something occurred during these landmark years—most substantially in the late 1640s—to rouse Bradford’s memory and stir his intellectual passions. The themes of his final years—love, death, war, capitalism, liberty, and conscience—are stormy ones, and if his vision is wistful at times, it never abandons its sense of promise.

 Love and Death

           Full of letters and contracts, legal quibbles, trade pacts, and all the minutia of a governor's life, Of Plimmoth Plantation is still a love story. And love, for a band of exiles, was seldom far from separation and death. Many have speculated that the death of Elder William Brewster in 1643 broke Bradford's spirit and dissipated his literary energy. Actually, it was that death that may have ignited the governor's will to begin his second volume a year or so later—to tell his tale before death claimed the last surviving teller. 

           With Brewster's burial, Bradford lost the closest thing he had to a father. A student at Cambridge, Brewster had first organized the Separatist congregation in his manor house in Scrooby, England, virtually adopting the young Bradford, an orphan left to the care of some indifferent, even hostile, uncles. Once the Scrooby church fled England, Brewster would be for nearly four decades the lay leader of a congregation that saw pastors come and go. Their first pastor stayed in England when they fled to Holland; their second, the beloved John Robinson, remained behind with most of the church members at their home in Leyden, when the first immigrant band left the Netherlands for America. Robinson promised to come later, but died in 1626, reportedly weighing the possibility of joining a new colony in the West Indies instead of following Brewster and Bradford to New England.(9)   Of the pastors sent over to serve them in America, one was chased out for Catholic sympathies, another sent home because he was "crazed in the brain."(10)   Through it all Brewster provided the spiritual thread. When he died, something was lost. In a matter of months many of the leading colonists—Miles Standish and Edward Winslow among them—left town, and a restless faction of the young traded the rocky soil in Plymouth for the richer humus of Cape Cod.   

           Bradford's literary outburst, then, is elegiac, mournful at times, but also celebratory. In 1648, when Bradford wrote an imaginary dialogue between the "ancient men" who came out of England and the "young men" born in New England, he was, for all intents and purposes, reassembling ghosts. By then, quite frankly, there were not enough of survivors from the Mayflower still around, so the governor reunites them in his fiction, lending them a voice in the dialogues not unlike what Plato did for Socrates. As governor, Bradford apparently kept an extensive stock of letters, contracts, and wills. Some of it survives, at least in fragments; but most of it looms for scholars as a kind of lost Q text that predates the writing of his dialogues and most of the annals in Of Plimmoth Plantation.(11)   With Brewster's passing, Plymouth lost its spiritual leader, and the governor, now virtually alone among his peers, reassembles his vast collection of administrative papers and gives it moral contours in order to memorialize the past and to prepare for their future.

 The Shadow of Separatism

          But love and memory were also threatened now by the long shadow of Separatism, which began to rouse greater suspicions in the 1640s, even the Puritans and Presbyterians gained greater power in English courts and churches. A branch of Calvinism, the Separatist movement had taken wings in the 1580s, largely from the writings and sermons of Robert Browne, a young firebrand lingering around Cambridge pulpits. Frustrated that Queen Elizabeth had settled for a high-church compromise and refused to push the Reformation in Calvinist directions, Browne and others called for complete separation of Puritans from the Church of England, gathering as the "Lord's free people" in their own secret congregations rather than working for reform from within the national church. A decade or so after Browne’s first sermons, Separatism had gained a foothold in the counties north of Cambridge, most notably Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Although their private meetings were illegal, the Separatists in these “North parts,” like hundreds of Catholics still in the region, were generally ignored until the ascension of King James in 1603, when the harassment and imprisonment of dissenters increased.(12)

          Bradford was not born into a family of dissenters. During his infancy, he had been baptized and christened in the village of Austerfield, in a small Norman chapel named, ironically, in honor of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine. For the religious Separatists in England—such as Brewster's secret fellowship at Scrooby, only two miles away from Austerfield—Constantine's ascent was the great detour in the history of the Christian faith. The Separatists sought to recover the "ancient purity" and the "primitive order, liberty and beauty" of the gospel—in other words, the spirit and creeds of the New Testament church in the days when suffering, self-denial and communal care, rather than national power, defined the cross of Christ.(13)   Orphaned by the age of seven, Bradford was soon estranged from his uncles, and as a young teenager he found a sense of belonging within this liberal wing of the Reformation. He embraced his Separatist gathering less for its zealotry than for its hospitable piety. Before he turned twenty, he had seen enough of those people imprisoned, beaten, and forced into exile that, even if time exposed their human failings and their theological quirks, he would not be disloyal to their courage and sorrow.

          But, in the 1640s, even as Brewster and his generation were slipping away, their Separatists predecessors had come under sharper review in America and Europe. Critics of the Separatists made much of Robert Browne’s decision to abandon the cause, betraying his followers for favors from Canterbury. Some of Browne’s original Separatist followers, including John Greenwood, Henry Barrow, and Francis Johnson, had their own array of flaws, and their reputations were scarred with rumors of theft, sedition, infidelity and even murder. One leading dissident, John Smyth, pastor of the English church in Amsterdam where the Pilgrims first settled after escaping England, carried the Separatist creed to an extreme. Smyth decided that since all churches were corrupted by the state, then all baptisms were invalid. So he simply baptized himself and started the church of Christ all over again—from scratch.(14)   All those rumors of past arrogance and shame, Bradford realized, could erode the loyalty of the young. By the late 1640s, in fact, Separatism meant little to the younger generation. Once the Pilgrims had found a haven in Holland and America, formal separation from the Church of England was virtually irrelevant, the Pilgrims' church tried to serve all comers without quarrelling too much about their particular shade of Calvinism, as long as the Catholics and Quakers kept their distance. By the late 1640s, then, Bradford was living with a heritage of religious Separatism that was increasingly damaged by resurfacing stories of apostasy, diaspora and moral recklessness.

          Bradford's intellectual project in the 1640s, then, was not unlike that of Dostoyevsky in Czarist Russia—to reaffirm a Christianity where virtue emerged from political adversity, imprisonment and suffering. As a Calvinist, he was a long way from Dostoyevsky's obsession that one could sink into moral depravity and psychological terror in order to find grace, but the Pilgrims’ governor repeatedly stressed that God often preferred to work with broken vessels, including the Apostle Paul. In his later years, he was eager to restore some honor for the early Separatists who were, in many cases, a courageous but broken and maligned lot.

          Quick to defend some of the earliest Separatists from false charges, he does concede that others became victims of their own liberties. Like all movements, Separatism was vulnerable to self-betrayal. Although he professes that adversity purifies, Bradford knew that his own church had found its escape from England to be as debilitating as it was liberating. In Holland they lost their language and vocations and sank into poverty, and in flight to America they moved further from Canterbury but became even more dependent on the support of English investors and financiers.   In fact, Bradford often blames the moral lapses of his colony on the "mixed multitude" sent to them by their financial sponsors—not only a few familiar church members, but indentured servants, new fortune-seekers and several incorrigibles shipped to America for rehabilitation.(15)   As we look back, we can perceive many advances emerging from the trials and sufferings of "the Separation"—the deaths of so many men in early Plymouth, for instance, led to greater status and property rights for widows and greater recourse to law for all women. Poverty and exile forced the Pilgrims to be more prudent and respectful, and less belligerent, in dealing with the Indians, at least for a generation.   Without pastors or bishops, lay education and literacy became necessities and new forms of democratic governance spread into church affairs. What Bradford offers in his books, then, is a temperate Separatism, less attentive to early dogmas or creeds than to amendments of time and a legacy of perseverance. Simply to have survived is to have flourished. He compares Brewster and his generation to Jacob, who had gone "from one nation to another people and passed through famine, fears and many afflictions, yet lived till old age and died sweetly."(16)   And, as he nears his own end, Bradford viewed Brewster’s sweet death as an inspiration, rather than a decline.

An Aside

          Every generation, I suppose, tries to hang on to the young, sometimes with hagiography or history, yet all too often with fear. And perhaps never more fearfully than in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692-93. It is a strange irony, then, that during Salem's darkest hours Bradford's still unpublished manuscript would be borrowed by Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, the first an apologist for the trials, the second a judge. Cotton Mather got the book from his father, Increase Mather, and then redacted Bradford's story into the Magnalia Christi Americana, his own prophetic saga of New England, praising Bradford in the process as “our Moses.” We are not sure what use, if any, Judge Sewall made of Bradford’s text, although in 1698 someone—probably Mather—wrote a note at the back of the governor’s manuscript stating that Mary Chilton, a mere child on the Mayflower, was still alive.(17)   Bradford had written this history with hopes that Chilton's generation could sense that it was the invisible presence of God, benign if ever mysterious, which has sustained her parents and their peers during times of trial and adversity. By the turn of the century, when the children of another generation told the judges in Salem that they had heard the whispers of Satan, Mather was pleased to affirm that the young still did believe in the wonders of an invisible world. But it is a faith that would have depressed Plymouth’s governor. Bradford wanted the young to respect the courage and sacrifices of the past, and would have shuddered to see that the premonitions and fears of the young could actually subvert the “ancient” men and women entrusted with their spiritual care. 

Wartime Polemics

          The shadows that spread over the legacy of Separatism were intensified by the English Civil Wars of 1642–49. The rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell, Parliament and the Puritans against Charles I and the Episcopal hierarchy of the church would not only topple the king, but it would also reshape Bradford's understanding of God's providence. In fact, in 1646 Bradford wrote a long note on the back of one of his earlier pages in his memoir admitting the he had miscalculated the speed with which God would overturn the bishops. By the time the governor chose to revive work on his memoir the king had submitted to the pressures of Parliament for the imprisonment of Archbishop Laud and the inception of ecclesiastical reforms. The progress of the civil wars remains the subterranean current throughout Bradford’s memoir, continually stirring beneath the surface even if seldom visible.

          Changing fortunes in England during the war years of the 1640s had already lured many Puritans back to England. The sharp drop in immigration to America after the rise of Parliament also deprived Plymouth of a ready market for cattle and corn, sparking a recession. Actually, as the Puritan cause advanced in England during the war years, Plymouth's chief creditor even hinted that the Pilgrims might remedy their financial misfortunes if they simply returned home.(18)   But it was still wishful thinking to imagine the Pilgrims thriving in England. The winds that had battered the king and his bishops were also stirring against the English Separatists. Royal victories in northern and western England in 1643 compelled Parliament into an alliance with Presbyterian Scots, and once the king fell the Presbyterians were lobbying against Separatist and Puritan principles. At the Westminster Assembly, called in 1643 to advise the government about the next form of church governance, Presbyterians pressed for their own polity. Increasingly, Presbyterians and moderate Anglicans in England scrambled to purge the radicals from the nation’s favor, and both Plymouth’s Congregational practices and its origin as a Separatist movement became sudden liabilities.(19)

           In the midst of all this, the Pilgrims were broadsided by the harsh polemics of Robert Baillie, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and an active member of the Westminster Assembly. To support his case for Presbyterianism, Baillie wrote numerous books and tracts accosting the Puritan and Anabaptist extremists, venting some spleen against the Pilgrims' church in Leyden. To a large extent, Bradford wrote both his history of Plymouth and his first dialogue in response to Baillie’s vendetta against the Pilgrims' character. The governor’s works joined a flood of books by New England ministers that rallied against Baillie by trumpeting New England’s Congregational ways as a beacon for old England.(20)

           Bradford undoubtedly wanted to do his part for the Congregational cause. But he needed to do more than simply rebuff Baillie, for he had new rivals in Massachusetts. At the deliberations over the Cambridge Platform in 1648, Rev. John Cotton of Boston argued for Congregationalism as the "middle way" between the extremes of the Separatists and Presbyterians. Cotton had also been provoked by a long dispute over doctrine with the renegade Roger Williams of Rhode Island, and in series of his tracts against Williams he also hit Bradford's nerve with some nasty asides about the Plymouth settlement.(21) 

Bradford's Rebuttal

           Bruised by Baillie and Cotton, Bradford endeavors to musters a defense. In fact, some of his anger at Cotton—as well as his sympathy for Roger Williams—has long been hidden from view. Bradford's nephew purged these words when he copied the governor's first dialogue into the Plymouth Church Records, and only recently have they been uncovered. Bradford objected to Cotton's view of the Separatists' sufferings and poverty as a sign of God's displeasure and he had far more sympathy for Williams' piety and far more respect for dissidents than, until recently, we have known.(22)   But the governor cannot tell stories of Plymouth's origins without keeping an eye out for a place on the new wartime landscape. Bradford presents the history of Plymouth as the origin of Congregational principles and endeavors to align his colony's fortunes with Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads’ cause. He implies that Plymouth passed the candle to Massachusetts that would eventually illuminate all of England during the war. He assures his own colonists that the bishop's downfall is the joyful harvest of their labors. By his third dialogue in 1652, Bradford accepts his part in combating the resurgent Catholicism in postwar England, sparring frequently with a new Catholic treatise called The Triple Cord.(23)

          Yet, for all the fuel that that it gave to his hopes for reformation in England, the wars also underscore for Bradford the dangers of entrusting eschatology to human violence. References to the war are all but non-existent in his later pages of the memoir, just when the war should be vindicating his cause. What seemed, early on, to be the handiwork of God in England becomes a Babel of competing ideologies in the wake of Cromwell's triumph. Bradford's final annal, in fact, is not a mournful lament about the loss of virtue in his own village, but rather a regret that his longstanding associate, Edward Winslow, was now a truant in England, where he would soon sail to his death in Cromwell's service. As Cromwell and the Roundhead cause flourished, more and more Puritans in England were given to postmillennial optimism, full of expectation that Christ would wait until the Calvinist kingdom was in place before his Second Coming.(24)   To Bradford, though, the war eventually confirmed less millennial confidence than it reaffirmed divine mystery. Before his own death Bradford could see the violence and political unrest leading to patterns of recrimination and dislocation rather than hope. Historians and politicians are always comparing the Pilgrims to the Exodus and the arrival at Canaan, but Bradford's texts allude more consistently to Paul's epistles to the churches of the Mediterranean world, with their concerns about internal friction and their transcendent rather than Constantinian promises. Packed with plenty of his own correspondence, Bradford's history is, in its own right, an epistle to the next generation. With his own peers passing, and his own death lurking, Bradford speaks to a colony as they make the transition from the sacrifices and ideals—even the zealotry—of the early converts to the distractions, inconsistencies and internal squabbles faced by a second generation—a theme that resonates in Plymouth as boldly as it once did in Phillipi or Corinth.

The Bounty of War

          Another digression: If the shades of one English war are apparent in Bradford's narrative, it was another war that caused the manuscript, for a long season, to slip entirely out of sight. In the 1720s the document was under the care of Judge Samuel Sewall, who by now had repented of his role in the witchcraft frenzy. Upon request, he passed the unpublished book along to Thomas Prince, the pastor of the Old South Church, the Gordon Hugenberger of his day—in other words, the minister at the Congregational hub of Boston. Rev. Prince needed the manuscript to prepare his grand Chronological History of New England. Prince's chronology presumed to be something like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings—especially the director's cut DVD—a massively promoted endeavor, with every available slice of the grand story squeezed into a multi-volume collage. But unlike Jackson's film Prince's chronology was a commercial flop, and he abandoned it before he got through the first sequel. Along the way, however, he used Bradford's history as a personal notebook, underlying phrases to transcribe into his own chronology and doctoring up a few passages that he felt the governor got wrong. Some good came of all this, though. Throughout his labor on the chronology Prince gathered a remarkable library of New England manuscripts, including a few other works by Bradford, which the pastor kept in the steeple of the Old South Church.(25)

          Kept there, that is, until the start of the American Revolution, when the British took over the church and transformed it into a military barrack. When the British military evacuated Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1774, they took much of Prince's library with them. Most likely, Bradford's history was in that pillage. There’s also at least some chance that it had already been carted away by governor Thomas Hutchinson, a fervent loyalist and careful historian who fled to England, a few years after he lost much of his library in a fire ignited by American rebels. Some of Bradford's letters eventually cropped up in Halifax, among the papers used to wrap fresh fish at a seashore market. But the manuscript history of Plymouth was nowhere to be found—lost in a merchant's trash, destroyed in Hutchinson's fire, or hidden somewhere as a bounty of war.(26)   


          After love, death and war comes . . . well, not taxes, but debt. One reason Bradford seems eager to resume writing his memoir in the late 1640s is that he can now celebrate that the Pilgrims had finally paid off the debt that had financed their voyage. The voyage had been originally bankrolled by a group of investors called the "Adventurers"; the Pilgrims' correspondence and squabbles with their business partners dominate the governor's history. In 1628, with Plymouth plagued by mounting deficits, twelve of the original immigrants, including Bradford, had formed a partnership, known as the Undertakers, and they took on themselves the full responsibility for paying back the debt. For nearly twenty years the Adventurers and Undertakers cooperated and quarreled as they sought to liquidate the debt and tried—vainly, it turned out— to secure a proper patent to their land from the crown. Their collaboration ran continually into new thickets, including shipwreck, theft, European plagues, sly middlemen, careless accountants and corporate dissension, not to mention the self-serving schemes of assistant governor Isaac Allerton. But in the early 1640s the Undertakers and their London creditors hammered out a deal that brought the "long and tedious business" to a close, largely at Plymouth’s expense.(27)

          For Bradford, the end of this "controversy," even with all of its painful concessions, had a clear moral—that the financial sacrifices of the first generation secured a future for the young. He writes that it was a "special work of God" that "these poor people here in a wilderness should be enabled in time to repay all these engagements, and many more unjustly brought upon them through the unfaithfulness of some."(28)  This long struggle to become solvent is a story that the governor was now eager to make "manifest," as long as the "Lord be pleased to give me life and opportunity.” The final "ancient" man, as it were, was leaving his inheritance to the young.(29) 

Transatlantic Economy

          But the story of the Pilgrims’ debt is a village tale set amidst the rumbles of a changing global economy. Seventeenth-century immigration to the Americas accelerated the shift from the premodern feudal economies to the mercantile capitalism of the Enlightenment and beyond. As the center of trade began to shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, England entered the international commodities market as a rival to the Dutch, French and Spanish. In the year of the Mayflower’s voyage a major debate stewed in England over trade policies, the devaluation of metals, and foreign exchange rates. Britain began to focus less on the accumulation of "treasures" from overseas and more on their export of goods for profit.(30)  Bradford admits that the Pilgrims did not fare well in their move from agrarian England to commercial Holland, where laborers remained poor while employers and merchants grew wealthy from transcontinental trade. From start to finish, Bradford, like most Puritans, distrusted merchants, known at that time for their mysteriousness, "inconstancy" and "shuffling." Often in his memoir Bradford cites business letters largely to expose their clandestine designs.(31)  When assistant governor Allerton and friends launched a new fishing enterprise in Penobscot Bay, the governor was outraged that goods meant for the Plymouth had been secretly rerouted for venture capital.

          But ultimately Bradford must make some concessions to this new transatlantic commerce. Writing in the late 1640s, he recalls how he finally "gave way" to the pressures for private property, and admits that both their harvest and their "mutual respects" increased when they abandoned their "common course and condition"—or, in other words, when they scrapped their primitive form of socialism.(32)   Of Plimmoth Plantation becomes a report on ship arrivals, border disputes, and economic rivalries at the edges of the settlement, and, like it or not, it is the entrepreneurial fringe that opened new markets for Plymouth's struggling economy. As their early ventures in fishing and farming suffered, the Pilgrims started finding profits in the trade for beaver skins and livestock. The ideal of a covenanted farming and fishing community eager to escape its commercial debt to London gives way to the realities of colonial interdependence and multilingual trade with the British, Dutch and Native American tribes. Borders between colonies, between races, become increasingly porous, and those English renegades and rascals that crossed those boundaries regularly for trade both enraged and enriched the colony.

Christian Scruples

          At the end, Bradford is content merely to accept the absolution of their debt, despite the uncharitable terms, as the blessing of God and as an appropriate gift to his successors. True to his principles, he credits providence for their turn of fortunes. It is one great gift to the next generation—but given with increasing perplexity. He concedes ground to his business antagonists, and tempers his judgment on his rivals' schemes, leaving his readers to sort out the truth. He fears that he may need to speculate even more to recover their "adventure" and eliminate their debt, and he hears, though does not heed, appeals for the economic benefits of religious toleration.(33)

          Yet, if God helped them vanquish the debt, Bradford does not fully relinquish his fear this new transatlantic capitalism jars with his own ideals of Christian faithfulness. For Bradford, a business contract extends the communal covenant, patterned on the New Testament principles of self-sacrifice and austerity. He did see that trade at the borders of murder, theft and sodomy. Dedicated often to their own "particular," rather than the "general" good, the investors took risks that often put the security of the community in doubt. In the governor's eyes, the distinction between selling oneself and selling for oneself was often lost, even by the best of them, including Brewster's son-in-law and Bradford's assistant Isaac Allerton. Bradford was no feudalist—his life was one the long transition from subsistence farmer to guild artisan to property-holding freeman—but he was reluctant to abandon the ideal of Plymouth as morally earnest, self-sufficient village built on the sacrifices of the past rather than on the speculations of the present. In the ambivalence of his later years he blesses God for their escape from poverty but betrays doubts that the hand of God can be traced in the cultivation of wealth.

 Liberty and Conscience

          All of these themes—love, death, war and the relinquishing of debt—played their part in rekindling Bradford's literary energies in the late years of his life. Although he was modest about his “plain” literary style, and was occasionally content to write simply "for mine own benefit," Bradford hoped that his memoirs would be of instruction for the next generation.(34)  His story was no mere lament but one of endurance. When his writing plunges into disputes over religious law, boundary lines, open markets, and new political alliances, he does not present Plymouth as a place sequestered by memory or creed. During the late 1640s Plymouth was still surrounded by threats of racial violence and border conflicts with Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as rumors from the ongoing ecclesiastical war in England, and his prose becomes a meditation about the prerogatives of freedom and the price of peaceful interdependence.

           These ethical quandaries can be described, in Bradford's own terms, as a clash between the "prejudice of liberties" and the "clearing of conscience." As a young Separatist, he had known the attractions and ideals of liberty by contrast with his own state of persecution and poverty. Even in the winter of his life, he still wanted to believe that those who embraced the full "freedom of the gospel” would recover a spiritual community like the earliest and most primitive Christian assemblies. However, in the sprawling New England culture of the 1640s, like the cosmopolitan Holland of three decades earlier, he saw how the voluntary alliance of the "Lord’s free people" could be rattled by the unruly liberties of its own individuals. Bradford came to understand that liberty needed to be balanced by "conscience"—which he understood as the public commitment to uphold the mandates of Scripture. (35) 

          This effort to enforce Scriptural values often gets greeted today as a reactionary endeavor to oppose the modern development of human freedom. Scholars, in fact, can take satisfaction from the portrait of Bradford in a state of lonely despair, for the notion that Of Plimmoth Plantation as an abandoned text confirms that the religious dreams for hegemony simply collapse from internal pressure, much like the self-destructive chaos among the witch-crazed clergy at Salem a half-century later. To be certain, Bradford was no modern liberal—he could accept the death of Indians as the design of God and could resist full religious liberty for Quakers and Catholics. But this concern with "conscience" was, in large measure, a check against his colony's own failing to live with integrity with its neighbors. An expanding world of trade, racial tension and settlement required greater theological consultation over the judgments of sin and greater political consultation on the nature of peace. Often the "prejudice of liberties"—his instinctive desire to assert his own colony's priorities and self-interest—had to be checked by "the clearing of conscience"—or the assurance that his colony's actions did not damage the cause of Christ. It is that spirit of prudence—and Bradford’s capacity for self-reflection, sorrow and doubt—that fills Of Plimmoth Plantation and the governor’s late works with a hint of the modern tension between individual liberty and social justice.


          When Bradford's lost manuscript was rediscovered, the vital clue came from a family known for its role in the promotion of justice—Wilberforce. In 1855 two Americans were startled by a footnote in an ecclesiastical history written by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, one of Darwin's future antagonists, and the son of the great abolitionist reformer William. Samuel's note refers simply to a brown paper manuscript in the Fulham Palace library of the Bishop of London. How, or why, it got there remains a mystery. The discovery of the manuscript at Fulham Palace led to its immediate publication, and Americans and British diplomats spent nearly forty years arguing about who was the proper owner. Queen Victoria was a nominee, as was the President of the United States, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the entire United States Senate.(36) 

          Aware that Bradford's manuscript was now priceless, the Americans needed something more than appeals to British guilt or good nature to get it back. And the British, aware that they had what amounted to a purloined letter, needed some excuse, not only to justify the surrendering the Bishop's possession but also to vindicate them for having kept it for so long. Eventually, in 1897, they scheduled a banquet of turtle soup and English snipe and formally returned the manuscript to Massachusetts—but with a new name. A clerk had written on the cover leaf that the church was pleased to return a book narrated by "Captain William Bradford" and entitled "The Log of the Mayflower.”(37)

          That claim must have tested the ability of even the most seasoned diplomat to keep a straight face, but both sides settled on their story and stuck with it. The pretense that Bradford's history was the captain's log aboard the Mayflower was based primarily on a list of passengers that the governor tagged on to the end of his history. Along with listing these "first beginners"—as Bradford calls them—the governor outlines their descendents, their "decreasings and increasings.” (38) That gave the Queen and the Church of England a little wiggle room. Calling the manuscript an "Authentic Register" of the marriages, deaths and births of a British colony, the Bishop of London insisted that it had been both logical and lawful for the Diocese of London to have kept their hands on the book.(39) After all, the New England colonies were originally under the jurisdiction of the London Diocese, and the Bishops supposedly had simply been safeguarding the ledger of one its colony's own vessels. In due course, however, the Queen and the Anglican Church agreed to return the ship's “log” to the States so that the descendents of these passengers had an authentic register upon which to establish their property rights. 

          Americans, eager to get the manuscript back on their soil, were willing to play along with this premise, but in linking the volume to ancestry and property rights the British knew the right strings to pull. Fascination with tracing one's ancestry to the Pilgrims swelled in America during the last decades of the nineteenth century, even as non-Anglo immigration flourished. Plymouth Rock, you might say, had a new rival at Ellis Island. The Mayflower Genealogical Society had just formed. Harvard's Herbert Adams helped popularize the Teutonic germ theory, the notion that the seeds of liberty can be seen in the Germanic and English institutions and peoples that were replanted in the rich and open soil of America. Adams called Plymouth Rock one of the“stepping stones for the Aryan race in colonial progress westward.” (40) By the turn of the twentieth century, the Pilgrims, at least for a season, had become the nation's royal blood. Bradford's passenger list became a roll call of prestige and privilege.

           No one today claims that they have their hands on a “log” written by “Captain William Bradford,” although Rivercrest Investments, a British firm, now believes that it has some original logs from the ship in escrow. Since the turn of the twentieth century, a handful of scholars, some amateur sleuths, and lots of tourists have contended that planks from Mayflower were used to construct a barn in the village of Jordans, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills in South Buckingham, England. Just over a month from now, Rivercrest Investments hopes to close the £1.85 million purchase of the five-acre estate, with its farmhouse and adjacent “Mayflower Barn.” For many years, a sign on the barn door has not only assured visitors that the building was made with some “original ship timbers” of the Pilgrims’ vessel but has also advertised the site for “weddings, functions and exhibitions.” Heirs of the Pilgrims have celebrated Thanksgiving or been married in the barn—which is not at all inappropriate, since Bradford and the Separatists considered weddings in a church to be a profane concession to Roman ritual. (41) 

          To most ears, the barn story sounds a little far-fetched, though it has enjoyed a few stubborn champions over the last century. The strongest advocate was J. Rendel Harris, a Haverford and Johns Hopkins professor of the New Testament, as well as a mathematician and a student of the Syriac Scriptures, who did a brief shift at the University of Leiden, where the Pilgrims themselves once joined the debates on Arminianism. Since there were more than three dozen ships called the Mayflower during the 1620s, Harris could not be entirely sure that the salt-soaked planks at the South Buckinghamshire barn were from the Pilgrims’ ferry, though he made much of one cracked beam, recalling Bradford’s account of the day when the main mast fractured while at sea. (42)

           Harris was a fact-hungry researcher who was probably sold on the merits of his data, but his persistence may reveal as much about his ecumenical passions as the actual destiny of the Pilgrims’ ship. He was a Quaker, like the current owners of the Jordans estate. In the seventeenth-century the old farmhouse was a secret Quaker meeting place. William Penn and George Fox occasionally worshipped there, and Penn is actually buried in the nearby cemetery, sharing a resting spot with his wife Hannah.(43) For a couple centuries now, the Quakers have boasted that there are remnants of the Pilgrims’ ship on their own turf; the old animosity between English Calvinists and the Society of Friends has long since subsided. Across England now, editorialists and Quakers are nervous that the sale is a signal that the historic site is now mere property, bought for a price rather than honored for the principles that it once preserved in secret.   In many respects, it is not unlike the moment when Bradford’s great book of Christian suffering, idealism, betrayal and perseverance came to light only to be rebranded as a maritime log, primarily as a register of progeny and possessions.

           In the legends and stories we still tell about the Pilgrims, we can often hear much about pride in our ancestors and our material inheritance. In our Thanksgiving homilies, though, we hear far less about the older Bradford's preeminent themes—especially about gratitude in times of loss, or the exercise of conscience during years when interdependence, not just liberty and separation, was increasingly vital. But it is that late theme of interdependence that may resonate more fully than ever in our larger and closer world, as we become more and more aware of the refugees and pilgrims whose names are still not written on our public logs of community and courage.



  *This essay, designed as a talk to the faculty of Gordon College, draws heavily on two previous essays that I have published: “William Bradford’s “Dialogue’ with History,” New England Quarterly 65 (September 1992), 289-421, and “’The Best Parts of Histories’: The Letters in William Bradford’s Of Plymout

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