High winds and treacherous tides along North America’s coast prevented the Pilgrims from sailing south to join Virginia’s earlier settlement at Jamestown.
Having to disembark in Massachusetts, there was no government to submit to, so the Pilgrims created their own – the Mayflower Compact.
It was the first ‘constitution’ written in America. The Mayflower Compact began:
“In ye name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James…having undertaken, for ye glorie of God, and advancemente of ye Christian faith, and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia…in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick…to enacte…just & equall lawes…as shall be thought most meete & convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience…”
The Compact ended:
“In witnes wherof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd ye 11 of NOVEMBER, Ano:Dom. 1620.”
Plymouth Plantation was a “company” colony with bylaws drawn up by the “adventurers” – the investors who loaned the money for the Pilgrims’ trip. They hoped to be paid back with a profit.
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The bylaws set up a communal system for the first seven years, in which all capital and profits remained “in ye common stock”:
“The adventurers & planters do agree that every person that goeth being aged 16 years & upward…be accounted a single share…
“The persons transported & ye adventurers shall continue their joint stock & partnership together, ye space of 7 years…during which time, all profits & benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in ye common stock…
‘That all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provision out of ye common stock & goods…
“That at ye end of ye 7 years, ye capital & profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt ye adventurers, and planters.”
Pilgrim Governor William Bradford described in Of Plymouth Plantation, that sharing “all profits & benefits…in ye common stock,” regardless of how hard each individual worked, did not work:
“The failure of that experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as it they were wiser than God…
“For in this instance, community of property was found to breed much confusion and discontent; and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit…
“For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense…”
“The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice.
“The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them.
“As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it…”
Bradford explained that the “communistic plan” of redistributing wealth failed:
“If all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself…”
Bradford described individual capitalism:
“I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them…
“So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want…
“At length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household…
“So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number…
“This was very successful.
“It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction.
“The women now went willing into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability, and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
Photo Credit: Boston Public Library (Flickr)
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