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Summary Article: BRADFORD, WILLIAM
From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History


Governor of Plymouth Colony

William Bradford was governor of Plymouth Colony through many of its early and most turbulent years. First elected in the spring of 1621, only a few months after the Pilgrims' arrival in the New World, Bradford was reelected 30 times before his death in 1657. At a time when the stability of England's North American colonies was by no means assured, Bradford shepherded the young colony through difficult times. Many historians credit him for Plymouth's success as a permanent colony. Faced with challenges from both within and without, he arrived at a style of leadership that mixed strict attention to the settlement's religious roots with more pragmatic concerns. Largely because of Bradford's steady hand, Plymouth Colony became the first successful self-governing entity in American political history.

Establishing a Government and a Colony

Plymouth Colony was founded mainly through the efforts of a group of English Protestants who sought to separate from the Church of England. To distance themselves from the corruption they perceived in the Anglican church, the congregation voyaged first to Holland and then, in 1620, to North America. William Bradford was only 30 years old when the Mayflower landed, but he had been deeply integrated in this Separatist community for most of his life. Born in Austerfield, England, in 1590, Bradford had been orphaned by the age of 7, and at age 12 he discovered the Separatist congregation in the town of Scrooby. At 17, Bradford followed the congregation's leaders to Holland, where the group hoped to establish a new community, worship freely, and avoid persecution. In Holland, Bradford became one of the group's most well-respected members, and when the congregation decided collectively to relocate to America, Bradford was deeply involved in making the arrangements. His long history as a prominent member of the migrants' core community made him a natural choice for governor.

William Bradford was not the colony's first governor; John Carver had been elected while the Mayflower was anchored off of Cape Cod. The circumstances surrounding Carver's hasty election illustrate some of the challenges of governance that faced Plymouth's early leaders. When the Mayflower reached land, well outside the original patent held by its passengers, a few of them threatened to mutiny and to disregard the laws of the new colony even before it had been planted. In response to this insubordination, the men aboard had quickly drafted an agreement to bind themselves into a civil body politic and to obey laws created by the whole: the Mayflower Compact. After signing the document, which Bradford later hailed as Plymouth's "first foundation of government," they selected Carver as governor. Carver, however, died a few months later.

Plymouth's early government was fairly straightforward: male settlers gathered annually to elect leaders—a governor and several assistants—to direct colonial affairs for the ensuing year. Despite the fervent commitment of many colonists to Separatist doctrine, politics was not driven wholly by religious concerns. Church and state in early Plymouth seem to have been relatively separate. Unlike their counterparts in the Massachusetts Bay colony, for instance, men in Plymouth did not need to demonstrate evidence of their regenerate status to become voting freemen; political participation did not depend on church membership. Indeed, the franchise was rather broad in early Plymouth. Most adult men voted regardless of their membership (or lack thereof) in the original congregation. For this reason, the historian George Langdon has adjudged the earliest years of Plymouth government surprisingly "democratic."

But it was not entirely democratic. As governor, Bradford faced significant challenges in reconciling his utopian vision of a close-knit, religious community with the realities of establishing the colony. Much of his tenure was spent trying to build political consensus from the diverse interests of Plymouth's early settlers. The difficulties he encountered in this endeavor were largely attributable to the composition of the colony's settlers—not all of whom were committed Separatists. From the start, the Plymouth venture had included others—sometimes dubbed "Strangers"—who had voyaged to America not out of religious fervor but for profit, for adventure, or out of economic necessity (indentured or other servants). These men had groused about landing outside the Virginia Company's patent, thereby spurring the writing of the Mayflower Compact. The problems presented by these outsiders deepened in 1623 with the arrival of new migrants.

An Early Challenge to Bradford's Authority

Bradford's dealings with these newcomers demonstrated the limits of his willingness to work toward consensus. Unlike those who had come on the Mayflower, most of the colonists arriving in 1623 had paid their own way across the Atlantic. Entirely unburdened by economic obligations to the Virginia Company, these colonists stood in sharp pecuniary contrast to Plymouth's earlier settlers, who were working to pay off their debts to the stockholders. Bradford was at first unsure of how to include the newcomers in the settlement, since, because of their lack of economic obligation, they very well might not share the goals and visions of the colony. Nevertheless, they were, to some extent, welcomed: after consultation with the original planters, Bradford offered land to the newcomers—provided that they agreed to obey the colony's laws and to pay an annual tax. But they were excluded from political participation and forbidden to participate in trade with Indians (one of the few prospects for profit in early Plymouth).

Bradford was working to protect the economic and political interests of the original settlers. His decisions, however, dissatisfied the newest inhabitants, and their complaints soon grew into a full-blown challenge to the governor's authority. Leading the opposition was John Lyford, an Anglican and an ordained minister, who—according to Bradford—wrote long letters to England charging the governor with mismanaging the colony's affairs. Suspicious that Lyford was undermining him with the stockholders in England, Bradford went so far as to halt a ship that had already left Plymouth with Lyford's correspondence aboard. Lyford's writings were then torn open and exposed. Although he prostrated himself in supplication before the governor, he repeated his offenses soon afterward and was banished from the colony in 1625.

The episode demonstrated the limits of Bradford's toleration of dissent and encapsulates the central drama of his early years as governor: to ensure the colony's success, some concessions to interests that did not match his own were necessary—but true threats to the character of the colony as a Separatist experiment could not be tolerated.

Indian Neighbors

Bradford walked a similar line in his policies toward Plymouth's Indian neighbors. Significant numbers of Indians surrounded the colony. Although the original English settlement was planted in a place that was eerily empty, its original inhabitants having suffered a devastating plague only a few years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, powerful Indian groups nonetheless resided nearby. Although wary of the Indians, Plymouth's colonists understood that the colony's well-being depended on building mutually beneficial agreements with them. Toward that end, Plymouth negotiated a diplomatic agreement with the Pokanoket, a group situated about 40 miles from the colony. Under Bradford, Plymouth maintained mostly peaceful relations with nearby Indian groups (though an attack on the Massachusett Indians in 1623 marred this record).

Plymouth's agreement with the Pokanokets was reached during the brief governorship of John Carver. Bradford also sought to foster peaceful relations, cultivating a close relationship with Squanto, an Indian who had spent much of his life in the village—now abandoned—that had been located where Plymouth was settled. Squanto spoke a startling amount of English because he had been captured by an English ship captain and transported to Europe before improbably returning to his homeland in time to meet its first English transplants in 1620. Because he could speak both English and Algonquin, Squanto was an essential interpreter as the Plymouth colonists negotiated with other Indian tribes. Bradford valued Squanto's friendship so thoroughly that he deemed Squanto a "spetiall instrument sent of God."

Nevertheless, Plymouth did experience tensions with some Indian tribes, and Bradford acted aggressively to protect the colony. In 1621, for example, an ominous "message" arrived from the formidable Narragansett: a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin. Bradford responded in kind: he wrapped gunpowder and bullets in the skin and sent it back. This response, the colonists later learned, had instilled "no small terror" in the Narragansett. More terror came in 1623, with a decision to attack the Massachusett Indians. Acting on information from the Pokanokets that the Massachusetts were plotting a broad attack on Plymouth, a small military force marched north and killed several Massachusett leaders. This violence may have succeeded in terrorizing surrounding tribes into a fearful respect of Plymouth, but it brought Bradford and his cohorts significant criticism. From Holland, the Pilgrims' former pastor John Robinson lamented over the colony's new stance toward Indians, "Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you killed any!"

A Successful Colony, a Bitter End

William Bradford governed Plymouth colony until 1657. By most measures, his time in office was a marked success. Bradford managed to avert threats to his own authority as governor, while maintaining the support of a majority of colonists. He also presided over a great economic and geographic expansion of the colony. In the 1640s and 1650s, Plymouth towns reached outward to the south and west and spread into Cape Cod. Although Plymouth was never a resounding economic success (it was overshadowed by the growth of Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s), its original debts to the Virginia Company were resolved in the 1640s. Well before Bradford died, Plymouth had become a permanent presence in the New World—only the second English colony on the North American mainland, after Jamestown, to be a success. Moreover, unlike Virginia, Plymouth had managed to remain virtually self-governing and free from royal intervention.

In securing Plymouth's stability, one of Bradford's most fateful decisions had been to establish individual property ownership. In the colony's earliest years, its settlers had farmed and worked in common and pooled assets to pay off debts to the Virginia Company. Some among them recognized that this approach was deleterious to Plymouth's prosperity. Bradford himself later wrote that communal property ownership had hindered the colony's progress by robbing colonists of the impetus to work hard. In 1623, on appeals from some of the planters, Bradford had carved Plymouth's holdings into individual home lots and permitted each man to work for himself. He later attested that this new system significantly increased the industriousness of the settlers. It also stands as an early foreshadowing of America's later political character as a place uniquely committed to individuals' "pursuit of happiness."

Ironically, Bradford probably adjudged the Plymouth experiment to be, in many ways, a failure. Toward the end of his life, he saw the dream of a tight-knit, worshipful community slipping away. Growth exposed or perhaps caused fissures in the Separatist vision. Colonists neglected to support their ministers; divisions arose among church members; sectarianism grew. Bradford did what he could to throw the weight of the civil government behind halting this deterioration. In 1651, for instance, the General Court passed a law requiring attendance at church. Such measures apparently were relatively ineffectual, however. In his final years, Bradford deplored the "decay" of Plymouth's religious community.

Bradford's Legacy

In recent years, Bradford's profile has faded somewhat. Few contemporary scholars have been concerned with him. Nonetheless, he looms large in the American political pantheon—his own writings long ago earned him a place there. Bradford's voluminous history, Of Plimoth Plantation (composed while he was governor but not published until 1856), remains the central text on which nearly all subsequent accounts of the settling of Plymouth have been based. Without it, we would know little about the colony's early years. Bradford's leadership certainly aided in the success and survival of this English colony in North America. His greatest legacy, perhaps even greater than the sound decisions he made as governor, lies in his book: the tales of triumph and tribulation, the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the landing at Plymouth, the first Thanksgiving—all are found largely in Bradford's history. Thus, the nationalist narrative around which American politicians and citizens have long since rallied owes much to the pen of William Bradford.

Bibliography and Further Reading (accessed July 24, 2009).

  • Anderson, Douglas. William Bradford's Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. Edited by Morison, Samuel Eliot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
  • Langdon George, D. "The Franchise and Political Democracy in Plymouth Colony." William and Mary Quarterly 20, no. 4 (October 1963): 513-526.
  • Langdon George, D. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth 1620-1691. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.
Katherine A. Grandjean
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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