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The Rise of Imperialism in Massachusetts

Mises Daily: Thursday, April 19, 2012 by

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Plymouth Pilgrims invaded Merrymount and chopped down the 'pagan' maypole.

Religious exclusiveness in a colony necessarily hampers its growth; we have seen that Lord Baltimore soon abandoned the idea of Maryland as an exclusively Catholic colony in order to encourage its rapid development. Thus, persecution of non-Separatists for playing ball on Sunday and for daring to observe Christmas as a holiday was hardly calculated to stimulate the growth of the colony.

To inject some variety into the colony, the English merchants therefore sent the Rev. John Lyford, a Puritan within the Church of England, with a group of colonists to Plymouth. As soon as Lyford began to administer the sacraments according to the Church of England, his correspondence was seized by Governor Bradford, and Lyford and his chief supporter, John Oldham, were tried for "plotting against Pilgrim rule both in respect of their civil and church state."

To the charge of Lyford and Oldham that non-Pilgrims were being discouraged from coming to Plymouth, Governor Bradford replied that strangers were perfectly "free" to attend the Pilgrim church as often as they liked. When Bradford spread the stolen letters, critical of the government, upon the record, Oldham angrily called upon the Assembly to revolt against this tyranny, but no one followed his lead. The Reverend Lyford instantly recanted and groveled in his errors before the court.

Both men were ordered banished from the colony. Oldham went 30 miles north, with a number of the discontented, to found a settlement at Nantasket (now Hull). Included in this company were Roger Conant and William and Edward Hilton, who shortly traveled further north to join David Thompson, a Scottish trader who had established a settlement at what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. The Hiltons were later to found the nearby town of Dover, New Hampshire.

In return for his abasement, the Reverend Lyford was put on six months' probation, but again some critical letters to England were purloined by the government, and this time Lyford was truly expelled and went on to join the Nantasket settlement.

"The first form of government in the New World was an emergency measure to maintain the Pilgrim control over the servants and other settlers."

The Pilgrims, however, had not seen the last of the rebellious band. In the spring of 1624, the Pilgrims built a wharf some 60 miles north, on the current site of Gloucester, at Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, only to find the following spring that Lyford, Oldham, and their group had moved there. They had been invited to Gloucester by the Dorchester Company of merchants from western England. The company's founder, the Rev. John White, a Puritan, had already established a fishing village at Gloucester in 1623. Roger Conant was now installed as superintendent of the community, and Lyford became its pastor.

Upon returning to Gloucester to find the dissidents established there, the first instinct of Plymouth's military leader, Capt. Miles Standish, was, typically, to demand the surrender of the unwelcome wharf, but cooler heads prevailed and a peaceful compromise was soon reached. The Pilgrims, however, could not make a go of this fishing station and abandoned it at the end of the year. Upon the bankruptcy of the Dorchester Company the following year, the Conant-Oldham group left Gloucester, and moved 15 miles down the coast to found the town of Naumkeag, later known as Salem. Lyford was its Anglican minister.

In 1625, Thomas Morton, gentleman lawyer and an agent of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, organized another settlement, Merrymount, north of Plymouth at the present site of Quincy, Massachusetts. Merrymount was an Anglican settlement, and the citizens did not comport themselves in the highly ascetic fashion to which the Plymouth Separatists wished them to conform. Apparently Merrymount was merry indeed, and whiskey and interracial (white-Indian) revelry abounded, including the old Anglican (but denounced by the Pilgrims as pagan) custom of dancing around a maypole, a practice which King James I had urged in his Book of Sports (1617).

Plymouth had established friendly relations with the Indians, but Merrymount was now threatening to compete most effectively with Plymouth's highly lucrative monopoly of the beaver trade with the Indians. Merrymount was also a place where Morton set his servants free and made them partners in the fur trade, and thus it loomed as a highly attractive haven for runaway servants from Plymouth.

The Pilgrims denounced Morton's colony as a "school of atheism" — "atheism" apparently signifying the use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the maypole, and selling rum and firearms to the Indians (and buying furs in exchange). The sale of rum and firearms was condemned even though relations with the Indians had been perfectly peaceful. Then, in 1628, Plymouth established a virtual New England tradition of persecution by dispatching Captain Standish with an armed troop to eradicate Merrymount.

Having surrendered on the promise of safe treatment to himself and the settlement, Morton was assaulted by Standish and his men and almost killed, the Plymouth forces "not regarding any agreement made with such a carnal man." Hauled into a Plymouth court — despite Plymouth's lack of legal jurisdiction over Merrymount — Morton was almost executed; his death was urged at great length by Miles Standish. Finally, he was deported back to England, with Standish still threatening to kill Morton personally before he could leave the colony. Before deportation, Morton was confined alone for over a month of severe winter at the Isles of Shoals without a gun, knife, or proper clothing.