Of Plymouth Plantation: Bradford’s History Of The Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650, by William Bradford
This book is a vitally important book to read when it comes to understanding the self-perception of American settlers of New England during the key period when the colonists were first establishing themselves. This is some pointed and uncompromising writing, and the author demonstrates all of the self-examination and righteous indignation that one would expect from a thoughtful Calvinist writer with a passion for Christian purity and a desire to know and to follow the will of God as he understands it. What comes through most obviously in this work, and makes it particularly important to understand and to appreciate, is the way that the author deals with the corruption that was present from the beginning in the English (and then British) colonial efforts. Over and over again Bradford rages at elite English figures who claim to be working on behalf of his separatist colony but instead are enriching themselves through crony deals in mixing their own personal profit with the business they are involved in on behalf of the Plymouth colony as a whole, all of which requires a great deal of effort on the part of the author to manage as one of the longtime leaders of the Plymouth colony. If Plymouth is geographically peripheral to the main business of New England colonies, its early start and the power of this book have helped keep it at the center of American self-image centuries after the colony ceased to have an independent existence.
This book is a sizable one at almost 350 pages and it is divided into two parts. The first part of the book takes ten chapters to cover the period between 1608 and 1620 when the Separatists fled religious persecution in England and were religious refugees in Leyden, where the author points out the rectitude of himself and his fellow brethren as well as the participation of some of them in the efforts against Arminianism. After that comes the heart of the book, a detailed exploration of the period between 1620 and 1646, most of which was time where Bradford was at the center of government in the Plymouth colony and was forced to deal with a variety of issues, including dissatisfied people badmouthing himself and his brethren, various threats of Indian wars, the need to cooperate on borders with neighboring Massachusetts Bay, relations with the backers of the Plymouth colony and their shady business dealings, and internal political and religious matters within the community. Overall, the author offers some shrewd judgments on such figures as Roger Williams and Miles Standish, and shows himself to be a canny if not particularly worldly wise leader, making this a worthwhile and honest account of the frustrations of early colonial life.
In reading this book, one gets a fair understanding of what was on the mind of the leaders of the Plymouth Plantation. I found myself having a fairly easy time understanding where the author was coming from as he pondered on matters of divine providence and also reflected upon the state of the church as well as the matters of state that make for good government. The author is a demonstration of the reality that one does not need to be any worse of a leader or any less shrewd in taking advantage of opportunity simply because one is godly. Even so, it does appear as if the brethren at Plymouth were not as shrewd as they probably could have been. The constant dealing with sharp and corrupt practices that the author shows consistently in his history is demonstrative of the fact that he and his people were viewed as being targets of dishonest people and sharp practices, and that this did not change for decades points out that Jacobean England and the time of Charles I was by no means the sort of time where the righteous prospered in government. And not all readers will find the author’s celebration at the judgment that came upon King Charles I to be particularly pleasant, regardless of our republican sympathies.