Birth of a Nation

Photo by Will Hart | CC BY 2.0

This year, on Thanksgiving, think of Munster, Ireland before Plymouth. Go back to the autumn of 1569, when Colonel Humphrey Gilbert called rebels to his tent there. On their approach they passed, “on the ground by eche side of the waie ledying” to it, “the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolke, and freinds.” Scholars call England’s terror war an apprenticeship, a rehearsal before the Atlantic crossing.

Gilbert himself reached Newfoundland in 1583, taking “a huge territory– England’s first major claim in the New World.” He died, likely drowned in a tempest, soon after. His half-brother Walter Raleigh “received the bad news like a torch placed in his hand.”

Raleigh’s Virginia venture failed. But his attempt was just one the English made then. It was clear that the Spanish Empire had to be challenged. The chief colonialist of the time, Richard Hakluyt, “was convinced that founding colonies would be a clear signal of England’s intent to stake a claim to American lands and seas as the Spanish and other nations had done.”

The Virginia Company meant to send this signal. It was a “purely business” affair, with close ties to Old World forerunners. “More than one hundred members of the Virginia Company were already members of the East India Company,” for instance. “Sir Thomas Smythe was at the same time governor of both the Muscovy and the East India Companies, a member of the Levant Company, and treasurer of the Virginia Company,” E. P. Cheyney observed.

And England’s Irish campaign echoed in North America. Thomas Dale, prominent in Jamestown, “translated England’s ad terrorem tactics from the Irish wars of the late sixteenth century” to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-1614). Colonists “razed native dwellings, harmed noncombatants, or took and sometimes killed hostages” as the conflict raged.

These acts reveal the Virginian mindset. Indigenous peoples were barriers to development, keeping colonists from realizing their new plan for the region. The initial scheme had been to get in, find gold or silver, then get out. That went nowhere. Then the settlers turned to agriculture. To acquire land, they seized it from the Chickahominies, Paspaheghs, and Weyanocks, and occupied Appomattoc, Arrohattoc, and Powhatan domains.

Farming also required labor. Finding too many inclined to sloth, Dale instituted martial law. “People were to be called to work by drumbeat, leave their work by drumbeat, be led to church by drumbeat”— rules that “were welcomed by the venture’s leaders as bringing order and stability to the colony.” Others thought the strictures “mercylessly executed,” as one case demonstrates. A group of men was fleeing to Native lands. “When caught, some were ‘apointed to be hanged, some burned, some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked, and some to be shott to deathe,’” Bernard Bailyn explains.

For some reason this colony could not attract enough settlers, but English functionaries soon found a solution. “In the fall of 1618,” it was “reported that the City of London was shipping to Virginia ‘an hundred younge boyes and girles that [had] bin starving in the streetes,’” and who were to be sent “‘against their wills’ if necessary.” Officials forced several hundred more children to Virginia in the following years.

There were also seven young “vagabonds who had been snatched up from the London streets” aboard the Mayflower. The Pilgrims aimed to settle in Virginia after talks with Edwin Sandys, a top Company man. But they never reached their intended destination– at the Hudson River’s mouth; Virginia’s holdings ranged far– and instead arrived at Plymouth in December 1620.

Two-thirds of the passengers, called the Strangers, “were servants or workmen hired by the merchant backers,” who “shared none of the Pilgrims’ religious convictions and often mocked their piety.” Tensions between these groups emerged early. And the Pilgrims, to worship as they wished, quelled Stranger yearnings for freedom. They sensed that, for “their religious integrity…to be preserved,” “the entire control of affairs” had to remain “in their own hands,” Charles M. Andrews clarified.

Strangers challenged this authority while still on the Mayflower. William Bradford recalled how they made “discontented and mutinous speeches” on the journey, vowing to “use their owne libertie” at landfall. As they saw it, “none had power to comand them, the patente they had being for Virginia, and not for New-england, which belonged to an other Government, with which ye Virginia Company had nothing to doe.”

Pilgrim leaders drafted the Mayflower Compact in part to quell Stranger defiance. Little wonder: Puritans were more “a cult than a democratic society,” bent on preventing their New England from becoming, in their words, a “mere democracy.” “There was in practice nothing popular about the Plymouth system,” where electing governors gave voters a sense “they were exercising full freedom of choice”– when really their selections were “little more than a ratification of government by the best men.”

For it was “certainly not to champion religious toleration and pluralism” that they came to Plymouth. “For them, it was not a question of liberty and freedom,” only “right and wrong.” They knew they were right. And so they had “no qualms about clamping down on dissent of any kind,” whether from the Strangers, or later Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Or, later still, the Quakers, whose oppression “climaxed with the hanging of four men and women on Boston Common between 1659 and 1661.” The colony’s “reputation for both extreme radicalism and suppressive intolerance” seems well-deserved.

Consider the Massachusetts, who called the Pilgrims “wotawquenange— cutthroats.” Or think of 1637, when “the Puritans fell upon a Pequot fortress on the Mystic River. After setting the Indians’ wigwams ablaze, the soldiers proceeded to shoot and hack to pieces anyone who attempted to escape the inferno,” until some “four hundred Pequot men, women, and children were dead.” Or note that “New English freedom depended on West Indian slavery,” since “commerce with the West Indian plantations” was a key factor “that enabled New England to prosper.”

We should see Plymouth, with its founding document crafted to constrain populism; political theater passing as elections; racism; severe arrogance; and affinity for violence, as a city upon a hill. From it, we can discern the grim contours of US history, as it would unfold in centuries to come.

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Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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