Bill Federer recounts Plymouth Plantation’s attempt to be ‘wiser than God’
High winds and treacherous tides along North America’s coast prevented the Pilgrims from sailing south to join Virginia’s settlement at Jamestown, founded 14 years earlier. 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 Mayflower Compact ended: “In witnes wherof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd ye 11 of November, Ano:Dom. 1620.”
There were three types of colonies:
- Company Charter Colonies
- Royal Crown Colonies
- Proprietary Colonies
(1) A Company Charter Colony was created with the permission of the king, but had investors and bylaws. Their background is interesting.
Medieval Europe had a sin called usury – the paying or receiving of interest. This precluded the formation of joint-stock companies where individual investors were protected by a limited-liability. Though merchant guilds, craft guilds and religious guilds had existed for a few centuries, any significant undertaking which required a large amount of capital had to be financed by a king or wealthy noblemen.
After the Reformation, what is considered the first modern joint-stock company was England’s Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, chartered in 1553. Outfitted with investments from 250 shareholders, they sent three ships to find a way to China, but sailing north of Russia, most of the crew froze to death. The company was rechartered in 1555 as the Muscovy Company to trade with Moscow’s Ivan the Terrible.
The most financially successful joint-stock company was the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602. Anyone, be it a baker, blacksmith, farmer, etc., could invest in a ship going to Indonesia and when it came back filled with spices a profit would be paid. The Dutch added the feature that allowed individuals to trade their shares of stock, which they did at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange – the first of its kind in the world. If the ship sank, the Dutch covered the loss by creating the first modern insurance companies.
By 1612, the Dutch East India Company had become the first intercontinental trade corporation with limited liability, eclipsing in profits all other nations combined for nearly two centuries.
The British East India Company was charted by Queen Elizabeth I on Dec. 31, 1600.
The Virginia Company of London was chartered in 1606. The Virginia Colony suffered tremendous financial loss due to diseases, famine and Indian massacres. The colony was surrendered to the king who made it a Royal Crown Colony in 1624.
(2) A Royal Crown Colony was ruled directly by the king through his appointed governor. In Virginia’s case, the king appointed a governor but did not provide financial support. Governors demanded landowners provide his funding, but left it up to them to determine how, leading to a degree of autonomy in the Virginia House of Burgesses – the first legislative assembly in the New World.
(3) A Proprietary Colony was land given by the king to private individuals, notably:
- Maryland was originally given by King Charles I as private property to Lord Baltimore in 1632
- The Carolinas were originally given by King Charles II as private property to seven lord proprietors in 1663
- New York was originally given by King Charles II as private property to his younger brother, the Duke of York, in 1664
- Pennsylvania was given by King Charles II as private property to William Penn in 1681
The Pilgrims’ “Plymouth Plantation” was originally a “company” colony, having obtained a land patent from the Virginia Company of London. Company bylaws were drawn up by the investors, called “adventurers” – who loaned the money for the Pilgrims’ trip. They hoped to be paid back with a profit.
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 the sharing of “all profits & benefits … in ye common stock,” regardless of how hard each individual worked, was a failure: “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.”
William Bradford continued: “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.”