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William Bradford was an English Puritan who came to North America aboard the Mayflower and served as governor of Plymouth Colony. He aided in the survival of the colony and chronicled the life of the colonists during their first three decades in the New World.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Puritan across the Sea
Bradford was born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England, early in the spring of 1590. His father, William Bradford, was a substantial yeoman farmer and his mother the daughter of the village shopkeeper. Within a year of his birth, his father died, and his mother soon remarried. Bradford was raised by a grandfather and uncles. He began to read the Geneva Bible at the age of twelve and attended a Puritan church. Puritans believed that the Anglican Church—the official church of England—had become too similar to the Catholic Church in some ways and sought to create a ”purer, separate brand of Christianity for themselves. Since they had disavowed the official church of the land, they were often persecuted by government and religious officials. At the age of seventeen, in defiance of his family, Bradford joined the Separatist congregation at Scrooby. He accompanied the congregation when it moved to Amsterdam, Holland, in 1607 and thence to Leiden.
Inheriting his parents’ estate in 1611, he became a weaver and property owner. In 1613 he married Dorothy May and began the wide reading in Renaissance and Protestant literature that, along with the Geneva Bible, would influence the prose of his history of the Plymouth Colony. In 1620 he played a leading role in the decision, made by part of the Separatist community in Leyden, to establish a new colony in Virginia. However, their ship, the Mayflower, touched land first at Cape Cod in November 1620, and after a brief exploration the leaders decided to settle at a spot they named Plymouth. Dorothy Bradford drowned at Cape Cod in December of that year. Three years later Bradford married Alice Carpenter Southworth.
Bradford Becomes Governor
In April 1621, upon the death of the first governor of the colony, John Carver, Bradford was elected his successor. His leadership began with a deft Indian policy, which was described by Samuel Eliot Morison as ”a nice balance of kindness and firmness.” Bradford obtained seed corn, cultivation skills, and advice on fishing from the natives and prevented starvation during the first year.
Bradford strongly endorsed the abandonment of common property ownership in 1623 in favor of reliance on private property rights as incentives for enterprise and discipline. In 1627 Bradford and seven other leading Pilgrims bought out the London investors who had established the colony and paid the cost of transporting the remaining Leyden Pilgrims to Plymouth in exchange for a six-year monopoly on the Indian trade and other fishing and tax concessions. Bradford then distributed the common livestock and land of the colony among Pilgrim and non-Pilgrim settlers alike, thereby stabilizing the economy and broadening the basis of political life.
Under Bradford’s guidance the colony developed a political life of its own without the benefit of explicit legal and constitutional sanction. The Pilgrims’ original land grant for territory in the Chesapeake was worthless, since they had not reached their intended destination and sub sequent documents from the Crown conveying land and governing authority in New England were vague and unspecific. Freemen of the colony met infrequently as a General Court, elected the governor and assistants, and generally delegated political control to the governor, a position Bradford occupied for thirty of the first thirty-five years of the life of the colony. Forty-one original freemen signed the Mayflower Compact, a wholly informal agreement to live together as a community. Twenty years later there were some two hundred and thirty free men in an adult male population of over six hundred. Bradford bluntly explained that freemen shared in decision making ”only in some weighty matters when we think good.”
A Twenty-Seven-Year Chronicle
Between 1620 and 1647, Bradford wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, a narrative and documentary record of the Pilgrims from the time of their departure from England for Holland through the first quarter-century of their existence in the New World. He intended the manuscript to inspire successive generations of his family with the heroic struggles of the early Pilgrim fathers.
In the 1650s Bradford turned to versification, speaking to the younger generation without benefit of a public mask in poems such as ”On the Various Heresies in Old and New England,” ”A Word to New Plymouth,” ”A Word to New England,” and ”Some Observations of God’s Merciful Dealing with Us in This Wilderness.” His seven poems display more piety and talent for rhetorical organization than they do poetic genius, but they do attest to a widespread desire in early New England to realize experience and moral truth in poetic form.
Works in Literary Context
Bradford’s literary reputation depends almost entirely on his history, and in a curious way his history has almost become his best biography—curious because of its impersonal subjection of Bradford’s private hopes and trials to the account of the difficulties of the colony. Bradford was a major figure in early American historiography because his history of the Pilgrim Colony at Plymouth was a firsthand account of the entry of English settlers into the American wilderness and because he wrote about people who had deliberately separated themselves from European culture to create a distinctly American society.
A major value of Bradford’s history is his faithful adherence to Separatist simplicity. Bradford often juxtaposed the primitive Christianity of the Separatists with the luxuriant chaos spawned by the forces of evil. ”When by bloody and barbarous persecution by the heathen emperors” the devil sought unsuccessfully to ”stop and subvert the course of the gospel,” which ”speedily overspread with a wonderful celerity the best known parts of the world,” Bradford explains, ”he then began to sow errors, heresies, and wonderful dissensions amongst the professors [of Christianity] themselves.” Herein was Bradford’s conception of history as a dynamic interaction of simple faith and evil aggression. He employed it with restraint and analytical effectiveness. Free from rancor or egotism, he concentrated on what he took to be the working out of the will of God in human affairs.
Bradford’s use of literary sources to delineate emotional categories testifies to the discrimination of his reading as a young man in Holland and his fascination with human motivation and the interior dynamics of Separatist fellowship. Bradford’s cadence, diction, and syntax in these passages reveal something of the way he must have talked and thought about personalities and events, as well as his unwavering leadership and his patient, persistent approach to organizing difficult bodies of information. His prose also reveals the rich interaction of literary art and religious inspiration in Reformation culture. Of Ply mouth Plantation, E. F. Bradford has written in an early critical study of the book, is a work of ”conscious art,” which painstakingly utilizes literary conventions in order to create a moving and convincing portrait of Puritan discipleship. Bradford’s prose strongly echoes that of the Geneva Bible.
Equally important is Bradford’s repeated and skillful use of similes, metaphors, and what E. F. Bradford calls ”balance, antithesis, and alliteration, and the frequent combination of words similar or identical in meaning.” Alliteration fills the book: ”bloody and barbarous,” ”base and beggarly,” ”profane persons,” ”callings, courts, and canons,” ”primitive pattern”—all common devices of the day, which serve to establish a rhythm and an oral resonance to Bradford’s prose.
Changing View of Native Americans
Bradford’s view of Native Americans changed dramatically throughout his life at Plymouth. When he began his narrative, he referred to the Indians in degrading terms, describing them as savage, brutish, wild beasts, and cannibals. The original peace treaty he negotiated with Massasoit greatly favored the colonists over the Indians. But, by the middle of his account, Bradford began using the more benign term Indian almost exclusively. His dealings with treacherous white men on both sides of the Atlantic served to soften his initial harsh view of Native Americans.
Toward the end of the book, Bradford spoke of the need for colonists to buy land from the Indians (an idea scorned by land-hungry colonists), remarking as well about a local Indian chief’s legal jurisdiction over felony crimes, which was a stunning admission coming from an English governor. Later, when several white men murdered an Indian, the English court sentenced them to death. When several local whites spoke out against the execution, Bradford called the dissenters ”rude and ignorant,” and the colony executed the killers despite their objections.
Works in Critical Context
When William Bradford’s chronicle was first published from his manuscript as History of Plymouth Plantation (1856), it was immediately recognized as a uniquely valuable historical record and almost as quickly seen as one of the finest examples of seventeenth-century American literature. The intervening years have not seen any lessening of its historical importance to scholars, although there have been different opinions about the ultimate validity of Bradford’s view of his fellow Pilgrims. More interesting, its appreciation as a major literary work has continued to grow. Hailed by Kenneth Murdock as an ”American classic” and by Peter Gay as an ”authentic masterpiece,” Of Plymouth Plantation has, by virtue of the imaginative richness and vision with which it comprehends the facts of emigration and settlement, become one of the essential texts for anyone wishing to understand the American experience.
Although Bradford’s history has had many admirers who have celebrated its authenticity and respected the character and dignity of the author, in the 1960s and 1970s the book began to acquire a new stature as an intellectual monument. The rediscovery of non-Separatist Puritan intellectuality by Perry Miller in the 1930s and 1940s left Bradford outside the corpus of major Puritan writers. In one of his few references to Bradford, Miller contrasts his intensity and single-minded reliance on divine Providence with the non-Separatist sense of being on a more complex ”errand into the wilderness.” Then, in the early 1960s, Harvey Wish and Peter Gay sought to make of Bradford’s history a prototypical Puritan document, Wish emphasizing Bradford’s identification of the Pilgrims with the Old Testament children of Israel and Gay stressing the impracticality of Bradford’s vision of a godly commonwealth.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. Typology and Early American Literature. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.
- Emerson, Everett, ed. Major Writers in Early American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,1972.
- Gay, Peter. A Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
- Langon, George D., Jr. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.
- Smith, Bradford. Bradford of Plymouth. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951.
- Smith, James Morton, ed. Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
- Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
- Bradford, E. F. ”Conscious Art in Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation.” New England Quarterly (1928): 133-157.
- Hovey, Kenneth Alan. ”The Theology of History in Of Plymouth Plantation and Its Predecessors. Early American Literature (1975): 47-66.
- Howard, Alan B. ”Art and History in Bradford s Of Plymouth Plantation. William and Mary Quarterly, third series (1971): 237-266.
- Levin, David. ”Review Essay.” History and Theory (1968): 385-393.
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