William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

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BRADFORD, WILLIAM

by Darren Marcus Staloff
The Reader's Companion to American History
Houghton Mifflin Company
2004


(1590-1657), Governor of Plymouth Colony. Born of substantial
yeomen in Yorkshire, England, Bradford expressed his
nonconformist religious sensibilities in his early teens and
joined the famed Separatist church in Scrooby at the age of
seventeen. In 1609 he immigrated with the congregation, led by
John Robinson, to the Netherlands. For the next eleven years
he and his fellow religious dissenters lived in Leyden until
their fear of assimilation into Dutch culture prompted them to
embark on the Mayflower for the voyage to North America.
The Pilgrims arrived in what became Plymouth, Massachusetts,
in 1621 with a large number of non-Separatist settlers. Before
disembarking, the congregation drew up the first New World
social contract, the Mayflower Compact, which all the male
settlers signed.

Bradford served thirty one-year terms as governor of the
fledgling colony between 1622 and 1656. He enjoyed remarkable
discretionary powers as chief magistrate, acting as high judge
and treasurer as well as presiding over the deliberations of
the General Court, the legislature of the community. In 1636
he helped draft the colony's legal code. Under his guidance
Plymouth never became a Bible commonwealth like its larger and
more influential neighbor, the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Relatively tolerant of dissent, the Plymouth settlers did not
restrict the franchise or other civic privileges to church
members. The Plymouth churches were overwhelmingly
Congregationalist and Separatist in form, but Presbyterians
like William Vassal and renegades like Roger Williams resided
in the colony without being pressured to conform to the
majority's religious convictions.

After a brief experiment with the "common course," a sort of
primitive agrarian communism, the colony quickly centered
around private subsistence agriculture. This was facilitated
by Bradford's decision to distribute land among all the
settlers, not just members of the company. In 1627 he and four
others assumed the colony's debt to the merchant adventurers
who had helped finance their immigration in return for a
monopoly of the fur trading and fishing industries. Owing to
some malfeasance on the part of their English mercantile
factors and the decline of the fur trade, Bradford and his
colleagues were unable to retire this debt until 1648, and
then only at great personal expense.

Around 1630 Bradford began to compile his two-volume Of
Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, one of the most important
early chronicles of the settlement of New England. Bradford's
history was singular in its tendency to separate religious
from secular concerns. Unlike similar tracts from orthodox
Massachusetts Bay, Bradford did not interpret temporal affairs
as the inevitable unfolding of God's providential plan.
Lacking the dogmatic temper and religious enthusiasm of the
Puritans of the Great Migration, Bradford steered a middle
course for Plymouth Colony between the Holy Commonwealth of
Massachusetts and the tolerant secular community of Rhode
Island.

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, with
notes and introduction by Samuel Eliot Morison (1952).




 

Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans