Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Quotes


The ... reformers endeavored to establish the right worship of God ... according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men's inventions.

William Bradford, Book 1, Chapter 1

Much of the first chapter deals with the religious and cultural context of the New Plymouth experiment. Bradford, a self-confessed Puritan, describes the Protestant Reformation as incomplete and the English Church as in need of further reform. In his view, this reform would involve "simplifying" the liturgy and church hierarchy and ridding it of the ritual "inventions" introduced by medieval Catholicism.


Those vast and unpeopled countries of America ... [were] ... devoid of all civilized inhabitants and given over to savages ... differing little from the wild beasts themselves.

William Bradford, Book 1, Chapter 4

If North America has "savages" in it and is yet "unpeopled," then it follows that the so-called "savages" are not people. This conclusion, unfortunately, seems to have been acted on by the New Plymouth settlers, who often treated the Native Americans they encountered as subhuman. Their friendship with Squanto, Massasoit, and other prominent individuals belies—or gives a false impression of—their treatment of less powerful Native Americans, such as the hundreds of Pequot they sold into slavery following the Pequot War.


All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both met and overcome with answerable courage.

William Bradford, Book 1, Chapter 4

The New Plymouth settlers faced "great difficulties" not only upon arriving in North America but also in getting there. Financial troubles, double-dealing by merchants and investors, and a leaky ship all threatened to prevent the voyage from taking place. Once they landed, about half of the Mayflower passengers died during the first winter of disease, starvation, or cold. Writing retrospectively about this time, Bradford praises the courage of those who took immense risks and sustained great losses.


Charity has its life in disasters, not in ventures.

Robert Cushman, Book 1, Chapter 6

Cushman drew heavy criticism from his fellow Separatists for altering the terms of their agreement with the London merchants. The conditions approved by Cushman essentially made all property in the colony communal for the first seven years. Cushman defended this change in a long and somewhat testy letter to the Separatists in Leyden. There, he said allowing people to cultivate private lands would benefit the poor but not the colony as a whole.


Friend, if ever we establish a colony, God works a miracle.

Robert Cushman, Book 1, Chapter 8

Robert Cushman had a complicated relationship with Plymouth Colony. A member of the Separatist congregation at Leyden, he originally intended to join the initial voyage to North America. A leaky ship, however, led him and several other would-be colonists to postpone the journey. At the time he wrote these lines, Cushman was pessimistic about the New Plymouth venture. He believed infighting and mismanagement would destroy the colony soon after the settlers disembarked. His attitude toward the project eventually changed, however, and he came to New Plymouth aboard the Fortune in November 1621.


What, then, could now sustain them but the spirit of God, and His grace?

William Bradford, Book 1, Chapter 9

Though he may have had his doubts at the time, Bradford in his chronicles presents himself as nearly the opposite of the pessimistic Cushman. He recognizes that outwardly, things look grim for the New Plymouth settlers from the moment they make landfall. Having the benefit of hindsight, however, he is naturally much more confident in the "miracle" of the colony's survival and growth.


We ... covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1620

Bradford is citing these words from the Mayflower Compact, the agreement drafted in Cape Cod Harbor and signed by 41 of the New Plymouth settlers before disembarking. In this document, the colonists provide for majority rule, elected government, and the establishment of laws and regulations. The Compact, jointly authored and democratic in spirit, has often been upheld as a precursor of such founding American texts as the Declaration of Independence.


The failure of this experiment of communal service ... proves the emptiness of the theory ... that the taking away of private property ... would make a state happy and flourishing.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1623

Bradford here refers to the original terms of the agreement between the New Plymouth colonists and their investors. According to the agreement, the colonists would hold all property in common for the first seven years, at which time it would be divided up by household. The colonists soon voted to reject this provision, and Bradford approves of their choice. In his view, people cannot be trusted to work hard unless they or their families directly benefit from their labor.


Let it not grieve you that you have been instruments to break the ice for others, who come after with less difficulty; the honor shall be yours to the world's end.

English adventurers, Book 2, A.D. 1623

These words come from a letter sent by the English adventurers, or investors, to the New Plymouth settlers. The message is, frankly, flattery, designed to get the colonists to calmly accept the arrival of other settlers who will surely piggyback off their achievements. New Plymouth's "icebreaking" efforts would indeed be critical to later English colonial ventures in the region. The adventurers, or investors, were right, too, about the enduring fame the settlers would win for their efforts.


Consilium capere in arena.

John Robinson, Book 2, A.D. 1624

Latin phrases occur only rarely in Of Plymouth Plantation. This one, written in one of John Robinson's letters to William Brewster, literally means "to make a plan in the arena." The image is one of a gladiator who is coming up with a battle plan after having already entered the arena. Thus, Robinson is urging his colleague to be adaptable and think on his feet—something the New Plymouth settlers had to do quite often.


To the astonishment of many and almost to the wonder of the world ... from so small a beginning such great things should ensue.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1629

By the end of the 1620s, New Plymouth's success was widely known in England and indeed throughout Europe. Recognition that a European colony could thrive in this part of North America led to several more colonial expeditions both from England and from its continental rivals. Among these were the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who arrived in 1630 and proceeded to eclipse New Plymouth in political and economic influence.


By the marvelous goodness and providence of God not one of the English was so much as ill, or in the least degree tainted with the disease.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1634

It must indeed have seemed miraculous to Bradford that the English settlers were spared from the smallpox that ravaged their Native American neighbors. This is just one of many instances in colonial history of a disease ravaging a native population with minimal effects on the colonial population. A modern explanation is that European colonists, who lived in cultures where cattle and sheep were widely raised, were exposed to livestock diseases similar to smallpox and thus built up a resistance. Native American communities had no chance to acquire such immunity and were thus more vulnerable to epidemics.


The victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise to God Who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1637

Bradford is describing the aftermath of the Mistick Massacre, in which English militiamen torched a Pequot village, and half the residents burned to death. The phrase "sweet sacrifice" is as unlikely as it looks: it evokes the burnt offerings of the Old Testament, which are described as having a "sweet savor unto the Lord." This likening of slain human beings to sacrificial animals circles back to the colonists' earliest attitudes toward the Native American population.


I now come to the conclusion of the long and tedious business between the partners here and those in England.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1642

"Conclusion" here means Bradford will stop writing about the "tedious business" of settling the colony's accounts—not that the accounts themselves have been settled. Bradford's weariness in these final chapters is palpable: he has witnessed all manner of deception and stonewalling over the past several years and is ready for some clarity. Although the new "composition" between the colonial and English partners has brought some closure, it would be six more years before the debts are paid off in full.


Thus she who had made many rich, herself became poor.

William Bradford, Book 2, A.D. 1644

Here, Bradford laments the decline in the population and wealth of New Plymouth, whose residents moved away in large numbers during the early 1640s. The colonists who left for other towns were still culturally and economically tied to New Plymouth. Bradford likens them to children, with New Plymouth as the mother. Still, like children who grow up and move away, these outlying towns were not as close-knit as the colony had been in the 1620s and 1630s. Characteristically, Bradford is most concerned about church unity and sees the fragmentation of the Plymouth congregation as the real tragedy.

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