Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 2, A.D. 1622–23 | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, A.D. 1622

This year's record is largely concerned with Thomas Weston, the English merchant who had helped the Pilgrims secure shipping to North America. Just before their 1620 departure, Weston fell out with the group over their refusal to change the terms of their agreement with him and other investors. In 1622 Weston sent over a ship of his own with 60 colonists, asking the Plymouth settlers to look after the new arrivals and promising to pay them for their trouble. Weston's letters, which Bradford describes as "tedious and impertinent," are highly critical of the other London "adventurers" (investors), who have refused to make additional investments in the New England colonies.

Despite their uncertainty about Weston's motives, the Plymouth colonists helped feed and shelter the newly arrived settlers, who eventually founded their own struggling colony. In the summer, those at New Plymouth continued fortifying their settlement against the threat of a Native American attack. The harvest that autumn was mediocre, leading the colonists to fear for their survival through the winter. Soon after harvest time Squanto died—a "great loss" to the colony, as Bradford notes.

Book 2, A.D. 1623

The Weston colony, meanwhile, was reduced to starvation. Bradford diagnoses the cause as wastefulness and "lack of order." Through visits to Massasoit, the New Plymouth colonists learned of a conspiracy to kill off the Weston settlers. Myles Standish, the New Plymouth militia captain, took an expedition to the Weston settlement and drove off some attackers. The remaining Weston settlers dispersed to the coast either to work as fishermen or to seek passage back to England. Weston himself arrived at New Plymouth after an eventful trip and borrowed some beaver skins to trade.

Having concluded that communal property was a failure, the colonists decided to divide the land by household. A successful planting period and a large harvest followed this division, proving, Bradford says, private property is the natural order of things. Between planting and harvest, the colonists suffered from food shortages, which they alleviated as best as they could by fishing and hunting. Letters from England tell of an attempt by one investor, John Pierce, to claim lordship over New England and all the surrounding territory. (He did not succeed in his plan.) New settlers arrived from England by the shipload, including some of the wives and children of the original Mayflower passengers. To deal with the influx of private settlers—those not part of the New Plymouth congregation—an agreement was drawn up concerning trade, militia service, and obedience to colonial laws. A party of English officers arrived with orders to arrest Weston for fraud and embezzlement, but he was soon released and returned to New Plymouth before striking out for Virginia.

Analysis

Bradford's bearishness about the concept of communal property is interesting in light of his emphasis on building a Christian community in New England. His observation that "Plato and other ancients" advocated communal property as part of their ideal systems of government is partly correct. Plato, the classical Greek thinker famous for his philosophical dialogues, certainly takes this approach in his Republic. He argues communal property is the only way to prevent wasteful quarreling and keep people focused on the common good. Not all "ancients" felt this way, however. Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, favored private property for essentially the same reasons Bradford provides here. He viewed communal property as an inducement to laziness and vice, whereas private ownership would stimulate the development of personal virtue.

Less clear are the grounds on which Bradford believes communal property to be anti-Christian, as he implies when he says its advocates consider themselves "wiser than God." In fact, the Christian Scriptures speak favorably of communal property in the early Church, where it is just one expression of the first Christians' sense of brotherly love and solidarity. The Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament text that deals with the Church in its infancy, makes the point twice. Acts 4:32, King James Version, the more direct of the two statements, says: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." Acts 2:44–45 includes similar language, also noting the early Christians "sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."

Like any scriptural interpretation, early modern English interpretations of the Bible were colored by the cultural context in which they took place. For Bradford as a child of the Protestant Reformation, more immediate and problematic examples of communal property likely came to mind: namely, the Catholic monasteries before being wiped out by Henry VIII. Decades of Protestant preaching, much of it sanctioned by Henry and his successors, had led to a popular view of monasteries as repositories of ill-gotten wealth, extorting money and goods from the local populations. In this narrative the holders of communal property were the villains, while the farmers and tradesmen were the victims.

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