The Purpose of Government in Plymouth Colony
[Conceived in Liberty (1975)]
Religion was one of the principal traits distinguishing the Northern from the Southern colonies. In the South the state-established Church of England tended to be dominant, but the Northern colonies were largely settled by members of churches dissenting from the established church. These Dissenters came to America largely because they desired to create communities in which they could practice their beliefs undisturbed.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century had taken two broadly different paths. In the rising absolute monarchies of Europe, the state gained control over the church within the nation (whether Protestant or Catholic) and found it more consonant with its own power structure to maintain the episcopal system. On the other hand, independent and decentralized cities and provinces, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, were the home of far more thoroughgoing reform in religious doctrine and structure. In these (Calvinist) countries, bishops were eliminated and ministers appointed directly by the state.
In England, the church, created as a state church by the Crown, not only maintained episcopacy but was far closer than the Lutherans to Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. Protestantizing reforms were soon introduced into the church, but the Catholic Church during the reign of Queen Mary drove the more radical of the reformers to Holland and other Continental centers of advanced Protestant theology and practice. When the Church of England was reestablished under Elizabeth in 1559, the returning reformers found the Anglican church even less reformed than before they had gone into exile. They now concentrated on seeking a purification of religious ceremonies within the Anglican Church and were thus called Puritans. The Puritans came to hold important church and university positions and to exercise a strong influence in the government and in Parliament, but the government soon summarily removed them from their posts. Persecution polarized the Puritans, who began to advocate the purification of the church organization (which had blocked the purification of rites) by eliminating the role of the bishops. Some of the reformers (the Separatists, or Congregationalists) doubted the possibility of reforming the state church from within, and illegally withdrew from attendance at church to organize separate reformed churches, vesting autonomous control in each congregation.
The bulk of the Puritans, however, were influenced by the Calvinist or Presbyterian form of church organization dominant in the Netherlands and parts of Switzerland, where their leaders had lived in exile. In the Presbyterian system, first established at Geneva, each church or congregation was, to be sure, ruled by elders — the preaching elder, or minister, and the ruling elder, or leading layman. But to prevent diversity of doctrine, the congregation selected the minister and elder only with the advice and consent of a synod or consistory of the ministers and elders of the churches of the district. While the role of the leading laymen in the church was high, state officials in Geneva were restricted to church members, and this limited the selection of magistrates to laymen who were under the influence of the ministers. Thus, in contrast to Anglicanism, control of the church was partially replaced by church control of the state. This Presbyterian method of church organization, negating the roles of king and bishops, tended to appeal to the ministers and to the local community oligarchs — nobles, gentry, merchants — whose powers over the people would thus be increased at the expense of their political opposition, the king and his officials. In France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands a large portion of local political leaders became Calvinist and Presbyterian.
Since the English government strongly punished suspected Calvinists, the Presbyterian organization was not directly introduced into England, and the Puritans, aided by their intellectual center at Cambridge University, spread their beliefs from within the Anglican church, by which they influenced the important groups and industrial populations of London, East Anglia, and the West Country.
When James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, one of his earliest problems was to face Puritan demands for reform of the Anglican church. The Millenary Petition, signed by about a thousand Puritan ministers of the Church of England (or about one-tenth of all the clergymen of that church), requested modifications in church ceremonies and protection from governmental persecution. Because of its Presbyterian overtones, the petition was rejected and some 300 of the Puritan clergymen were removed from their positions in the Church of England. The majority of the Puritan clergy, however, continued to conform outwardly to Anglican church ceremonies, in order to continue their reform movement undisturbed. In contrast, some of the Separatists or Congregationalists who had already left the Church of England decided they could no longer bear the persecution and fled England. As Pilgrims, they went to the Netherlands in 1608.
Let us now return to colonization in the early 17th century. We remember that the earliest English settlement in America was founded by the London, or "South Virginia," Company in 1606. The "North Virginia," or Plymouth, Company had been granted the American territory from the 41st to the 45th parallel. The Plymouth Company had landed an expedition in Maine in 1607, but it was forced to return home the following year and then sunk into desuetude. In 1620, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a favorite of King James, was anxious to secure a monopoly of the fisheries on the northern American coast. To this end, Gorges secured from the king a new charter. Replacing the Plymouth Company was the Council for New England, now completely separate from Virginia, and the territory actually granted to the company was greatly extended to include the land between the 40th and the 48th parallels. President of the Council was the Duke of Buckingham, an unpopular favorite of King James, and leading members were Sir Ferdinando Gorges and the earls of Pembroke, Lenox, and Southampton. The Council was granted powers of rule, the subgranting of land in the territory, and a monopoly of shipping on the New England coasts and therefore, implicitly, a monopoly of the fishing rights.
The mere granting of land by the Crown did not yet create a settlement. The first successful settlement in New England was something of an accident. By 1617 the Pilgrims had determined to leave the Netherlands, where their youth were supposedly being corrupted by the "licentiousness" of even the Calvinist Dutch, who, for example, persisted in enjoying the Sabbath as a holiday rather than bearing it as a penance. Deciding to settle in America, the Pilgrims were offered an opportunity to settle in New Netherland, but preferred to seek a patent from the South Virginia Company, which would provide an English atmosphere in which to raise their children.
Just over 100 colonists sailed from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. Of these, only 41 were Pilgrims, from Leyden, Holland; 18 were indentured servants, bound as slaves for seven years to their masters; and the others were largely Anglicans from England, seeking economic opportunity in the New World.
Bound supposedly for the mouth of the Hudson River, the Mayflower decided instead to land along what is now the Massachusetts coast — outside Virginia territory. Some of the indentured servants began to grow restive, logically maintaining that since the settlement would not be made, as had been agreed, in Virginia territory, they should be released from their contracts. "They would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them." To forestall this rebellion against servitude, the bulk of the colonists, and especially the Pilgrims, decided to establish a government immediately, even though on shipboard. No possible period without governmental rule was to be permitted to the colonists. The Pilgrim minority straightway formed themselves on shipboard into a "body politic" in the Mayflower Compact, enabling them to perpetuate their rule over the other majority colonists. This, the first form of government in the New World established by colonists themselves was by no means a gesture of independence from England; it was an emergency measure to maintain the Pilgrim control over the servants and other settlers.