Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth Plantation Book 2, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is strange, Bradford notes, that the Massachusetts colony should have fallen into hard times. The colony suffered because of its disorganization—as a result, many starved to death. The colonists also won the scorn of the Indians, who often stole from them.
Bradford reminds readers of the Massachusetts settlers’ bad fortune, suggesting once again that they’ve been punished for their lack of virtue. Of course, Bradford never considers his own colony’s hardships as the result of God’s disapproval.
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Massasoyt becomes seriously ill, and the Pilgrims respond by giving him the best medical care they can. After Massasoyt recovers, he gets word that the Massachusetts Indians are planning to wipe out the colonists. Recognizing that the Pilgrims might try to avenge their fellow Englishmen, Massasoyt alerts the Pilgrims of the impending attack. The Pilgrims then send troops, headed by Captain Standish, to fight the Indians. The Massachusetts settlers are grateful to the Pilgrims for defending them, but still beg the Pilgrims to send food. Standish agrees to help the settlers, and refuses to accept any payment. Bradford notes that the Massachusetts settlers, starved and diseased, had once claimed to be invincible. But, he concludes, “a man’s way is not in his own hands.”
By this point, the English settlers in New England have made enough of a display of their military force that the Native Americans have decided to try to cooperate with them rather than risk a full-scale war. Bradford reiterates what he’s previously implied: the Massachusetts settlers have fallen on hard times because of the uncontrollability of the world, and, furthermore, they may have “sinned” by imagining that they could prosper without the blessing of God.
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Weston receives word that his men in Massachusetts have fallen on hard times, and he travels across the Atlantic to inspect the colony himself. Near the coast of America, Weston’s shallop (small boat) gets caught in a storm, and Weston nearly drowns. When he comes ashore, Indians attack him and steal his clothes and possessions. Thus, when he finally arrives in Plymouth, he is a shadow of his former self—“so uncertain,” Bradford notes, “are the mutable things of this unstable world.”
Here, Bradford characterizes Weston as a familiar Biblical (and general literary) archetype: the proud sinner who is punished by God for his hubris. For Bradford, the plunging fortunes of Weston and other characters are a teachable moment for his readers, confirming that the world is unstable, and that the only source of stability is a belief in God.
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In Plymouth, Weston asks to borrow beaver skins from the Pilgrims. He claims that a ship bearing supplies is coming soon. The Pilgrims don’t really believe Weston, but they take pity on him and offer him some food and skins. To this day, Bradford says, Weston has never repaid the Pilgrims. Furthermore, no new ship bearing supplies reaches Plymouth.
The Pilgrims treat Weston with kindness and respect, even giving him beaver skins for free; however, they’re fully aware that Weston has an obligation to repay them, which he never honors. This pairing of “selfless” generosity and keen awareness of people’s debts and obligations seems quintessentially Puritan.
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Meanwhile, Governor Bradford mandates that all households plant their own corn. Each family is assigned a parcel of land, with the result that the Pilgrims become more industrious. Before, women often claimed to be too frail to work; now they toil alongside their husbands. The Pilgrims had previously tried a communal system of farming, modeled after the ideas of Plato—but Bradford says that the colony’s experiences disprove Plato’s claim that taking away private property benefits the community. The Pilgrims also improve their fishing yields by dividing up into small crews.
This is a turning point in the history of Plymouth: Bradford finds that families become more responsible and hard-working when they begin working for themselves, rather than toiling on a collective piece of farmland, for which the rewards are harder to see. Bradford’s insight here is that what’s best for the individual is also best for the group, in the sense that individual profit will benefit the entire colony and help the Pilgrims pay off their debt. This idea is also a cornerstone of modern capitalism, suggesting that the Pilgrims’ organization was influential in the history of the American economy. (Note also Bradford’s casual assumption that women are inherently lazier or more deceitful than men.)
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The Pilgrims receive a letter from the investors in England, dated December 21, 1622, explaining that they sent a ship full of supplies to the colonists, but that the ship had to return to England due to leaks. Bradford also receives a letter from the Virginia Company, explaining that the land patent for land has reverted from a single congregant, John Pierce, to the company itself. Pierce tried to use his patent to control the company, and the company responded by taking his patent away from him. Pierce then tried to sue the Company; but now, Bradford says, he is dead.
The Virginia Company and its investors are portrayed as being disorganized, greedy, and frequently at odds with one another: Pierce tries to use the land patent for his own profit, and so the Company snatches it back.
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In June of 1623, a ship arrives in Plymouth. The ship has been sent by the English crown to enforce fishing laws and prosecute anyone caught fishing without a license. However, the delegated English authorities find it difficult to prosecute in America—there are simply too many fishermen operating without the proper license. Shortly afterwards, another ship arrives bearing sixty settlers for Plymouth, some of whom are related to Pilgrims in America. The ship also carries a letter from Robert Cushman, apologizing for the lack of supplies onboard the ship. However, the ship has brought salt, fishing gear, and, mostly importantly, fishermen. The Pilgrims are disappointed not to receive more supplies, but they still load the ship with furs to ship back to England.
The passage captures the autonomy of the New England colonies: although England tried to police America and enforce laws, it didn’t have the resources to do so effectively. Bradford also underscores the Pilgrims’ steadfastness and honesty: even though Cushman hasn’t been able to give them many supplies, they fulfill their end of the bargain by sending back a full load of furs.
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It’s harvest time again, and this time the yield is high, not just because of luck but because the Pilgrims have become better organized. Since 1623, Bradford says, the Pilgrims haven’t suffered from famine. The colony becomes so successful that settlers come to live there from other colonies. To each of these settlers, Bradford offers the same conditions: that they recognize the governor of the Plymouth Plantation; that they pay a bushel of wheat every year; that they serve the “common defense”; and that they obey all laws. In September, a ship captained by Robert Gorges arrives in Massachusetts. Gorges has a royal mandate to become the new Governor-General of New England.
Because of the new system of individual organization, Bradford implies, the harvest is high for 1623. By this point the colony has established a set of laws and a social contract for its citizens (similar to the Mayflower Compact described in Chapter 1 of Book 2). Notice that this social contract stresses the importance of taxation (to pay off the debt to England) and military force. In all, the contract revolves around state-sponsored violence and obeying a central authority—but all in the name of religious ideals.
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Later in the year, Thomas Weston arrives in a small ship to again inspect his settlers in Massachusetts. While he’s in America, he’s confronted by Captain Gorges. Gorges accuses Weston of “ill carriage of his men in Massachusetts,” to which Weston replies that he’s protected his men. Gorges also accuses Weston of illegally selling licenses to transport supplies to New England. Weston leaves Massachusetts, angrily saying that Gorges is a young justice but a “good beggar.” At the end of 1623, there is a fire in Plymouth, caused by some sailors who were “roistering.” With God’s mercy, Bradford says, the colonists manage to put out the fire before it does great damage to the community.
Thomas Weston begins to antagonize some of the most powerful people in England. He’s been selling trading licenses to captains and merchants whom James I hasn’t approved—a major crime at the time. Bradford’s anecdote about the fire again emphasizes the disorganization and destructiveness of the non-Puritan settlers in New England (at least as Bradford portrays them).
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Captain Gorges issues a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Weston. Bradford is sorry to hear this news, and tries to persuade Gorges to desist. However, Gorges has already made up his mind. Weston is arrested, and Gorges orders that he turn over all supplies and possessions on his ship—some two weeks’ worth of food. Afterwards, Weston sails back to Virginia, and later dies in Bristol. Captain Gorges later returns to England, partly because the quality of life in America doesn’t “correspond to his station.”
Bradford stresses that he tried to stop Gorges from arresting Weston, despite the fact that he would have every reason to want to see Weston punished for his greediness. The passage also underscores an overarching point of the book, that only humble people who are willing to work very hard—i.e., Pilgrims—can survive in America.
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