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Historical Background

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Historical Background

The British Colonials and Progenitors (continued)


Not long after the founding of Virginia, other Englishmen established another colony to the north. In 1620, a shipload of religious dissenters, later known as Pilgrims, debarked from the Mayflower on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay, on the coast of Massachusetts. The nucleus of the group were Puritan separatists, part of a congregation of nonconformists of Scrooby parish in Nottinghamshire, England. Because of the strict enforcement of the religious laws by James I, in 1608-9 the entire congregation of about 100 had moved to Holland seeking toleration. In 1620, they received permission from the Crown and financial backing from the London Company to migrate to Virginia. About 35 members of the congregation chose to do so; they first traveled to England, where they joined another group of dissenters. The Mayflower carried 101 passengers and a crew of 48. They were the first Englishmen—but by no means the last—to escape Stuart persecution in the New World.

The religious situation in England had grown complicated since Henry VIII separated the established church from Rome and placed himself at its head. In the last years of his reign, pressure from Protestant reformers forced him to modify much of the ecclesiastical code. After his death, the regents of his young son stimulated the Protestant movement. Mary then had attempted to reverse the tide, but Elizabeth wisely chose a middle course. She instituted moderate reforms in the Church of England and, though not disposed to tolerance of Protestants, did not rigorously enforce the regulations that restricted them.

Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact
A romanticized rendition of the Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact, in 1620, on board the Mayflower. The compact is a landmark in U.S. constitutional development. From an engraving by Gauthier, after T. H. Matteson. (Courtesy, Library of Congress.)

A large group arose that wanted to continue the process of reform. Gradually they came to be called Puritans. Those Anglicans who would "purify" the church from within were known as conforming Puritans; those favoring stronger measures, as nonconformists, dissenters, or separatists. Religious disputation was the rage of the day, when translations of the Bible were first beginning to reach the hands of the people, who were also stimulated by the controversies that the Reformation had fostered. Interestingly enough, the version on which the Scrooby Pilgrims based their dissent was probably the Bishops' Bible, not the King James translation used today by most Protestant sects.

By authorizing this magnificent translation, James I undoubtedly hoped to put an end to dissent; instead, he only quickened it. His other religious policies, which grew harsher toward the end of his reign, were also designed to stamp out the heresy that was budding all over England. The King increased the pressure on nonconformists and separatists, and churchmen grew more and more intolerant, even of the conforming Puritans. But the more vigorous the pruning, the healthier the plant became. After James died, in 1625, his son Charles I (1625-49) proved to be even less tolerant. A bloody revolution cost Charles his throne and his life, and the Puritan colonies in New England grew rapidly.

The Pilgrims, authorized to settle in Virginia, for some reason deviated from their planned course—perhaps more by design than accident—and founded a colony on land belonging to the Plymouth Company in an area that Capt. John Smith had visited in 1614, during an exploring expedition from Jamestown, and named "Plimouth." Realizing that they were outside the jurisdiction of the London Company and seeking to control some turbulent members, before landing the leaders drew up the Mayflower Compact. Assented to by most of the freemen in the group, it created a sort of government by social compact. Its signers swore to "convenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick." This idea of voluntary obedience to lawful majority rule was unique in the 17th century and is a landmark in U.S. constitutional development.

Pilgrims going to church
Pilgrims going to church. The lives of the Massachusetts colonists centered around church activities. From a painting by George H. Boughton (1833-1905). (Courtesy, Library of Congress.)

The Plymouth colony was successful mainly because of the grim determination and industry of its inhabitants. The location was one of the most unfavorable for colonization on the Atlantic coast, combining as it did bitter climate and rocky, infertile soil. Furthermore, the Pilgrims arrived at the onset of winter, in November, and construction began in late December. The colonists continued to live on the ship while a meetinghouse and homes were built. The first winter was especially severe, a famine being averted only because friendly Indians supplied corn.

The stamina and fortitude of the colonists was augmented by excellent leadership: John Carver, the first Governor, who died in 1621; Miles Standish; William Brewster; and William Bradford, who had been a young boy at the time of the emigration to Holland, and who was elected Governor by popular vote in 1621 and served most of the time until 1657. In 1621 and 1630 Bradford obtained patents from the Council for New England (successor of the Plymouth Company) that permitted the Pilgrims to remain on the land that they had occupied. As the years passed, they were able to pay not only for the land but also for the costs of their migration. But at first life was a constant struggle. By 1630, the population of the Plymouth colony was only 300. Within a decade, however, because of a great migration of Puritans from England who were escaping the persecution of Charles I, it leaped to about 3,000.

In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company organized on a joint-stock basis and obtained from the King a charter authorizing it to establish a colony in New England and to govern it in much the same way as the Virginia Company governed Jamestown. The new company was the successor of the New England Company (1628-29), which had purchased land in the area of Massachusetts from the Council for New England (1620-35), which succeeded the Plymouth Company. In 1628-29, the New England Company had begun a settlement at present Salem. This settlement incorporated small groups of colonists from Dorchester, England, already at the site, who had moved there in 1626 from Gloucester, which they had settled in 1623.

The Massachusetts Bay Company was chartered as a commercial rather than a religious enterprise. But most of the stockholders were Puritans. In August 1629, a significant event in U.S. constitutional development occurred: the signing of the Cambridge Agreement. This agreement marked the acceptance of the offer of John Winthrop and 11 other prominent nonconformists to migrate to America as members of the board of directors if the headquarters of the company were transferred to the New World. All company officers not willing to migrate resigned, and Massachusetts was designated as company headquarters.

The agreement had far-reaching significance because the company was authorized to govern the colony; when its headquarters, officers, directors, and principal stockholders moved to the colony itself, Massachusetts became completely self-governing and legitimately authorized by the Crown. Furthermore, the charter became the basis of the government—in essence a written constitution superior to the officers of the company themselves.

The great Puritan migration began. Winthrop was elected Governor. Carrying the charter with him, in 1630 he headed the first contingent of colonists. Before the end of the year, approximately 2,000 persons had migrated to Massachusetts. In the ensuing decade, more than 200 ships transported about 20,000 Puritans to Massachusetts, which thrived almost from the beginning. In rapid succession, the towns of Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, Charlestown, and 18 others were founded. Other Puritans went to the West Indies in this, the largest mass exodus of Englishmen in history.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621
"The First Thanksgiving, 1621." From a painting by J. L. G. Ferris. (Courtesy, William E. Ryder and the Smithsonian Institution.)

The evolution of representative self-government based on a written document is undoubtedly the most lasting contribution of the Bay Colony to American life. Initially, Winthrop and a handful of company directors attempted to keep control of the colony in their own hands, and Winthrop kept the charter locked in his trunk. Eventually, however, the free-holders demanded that the charter be produced. In time, the Puritan leaders broadened suffrage, created a representative assembly, and evolved a bicameral legislature. Yet, for the most part, the original, tightly knit, Puritan oligarchy retained close control of the government. Church and state were interwoven; personal behavior and religious practices were closely related and supervised.

For this very reason and because of the fact that the Puritans would not tolerate divergent religious views, dissenters founded other colonies in New England. Winthrop and his assistants, seeking to protect their "holy experiment," were probably more intolerant of diversity in religion than Charles I. They drove hundreds of "otherwise thinking" people out of Massachusetts—to the lasting benefit of the Nation that later emerged on the Atlantic coast.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005