Even today, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is regarded by historians as one of the most valuable records of early New England history. Bradford penned the journal between 1630 and 1651, meaning that it contains an extraordinary amount of detail about the quality of life in Plymouth Plantation. But Bradford’s journal isn’t just an important document because of what it says about Plymouth—it’s also fascinating because of what it doesn’t say. To understand Of Plymouth Plantation fully, readers need to understand what Bradford was trying to accomplish by writing a history of his colony—in other words, what his biases were, and what incentives he had to distort the truth.
Historians still debate about what Bradford intended for his journal of Pilgrim history, but most agree that he wanted his writings to be read by future generations of Pilgrims, Englishmen, and inhabitants of neighboring colonies. Therefore, Bradford has a strong incentive to portray his people and his religion in an overwhelmingly positive light. At various points, Bradford explicitly states that he wants the Pilgrims’ descendants to read his journal and learn about their ancestors’ sacrifices. Put another way, Bradford intends for Of Plymouth Plantation to be a teaching tool, inspiring the New Englanders of the future to be as frugal, steadfast, and generally virtuous as the first wave of Pilgrims was. Bradford’s intentions for his journal parallel his friend John Winthrop’s famous “city on the hill” sermon, in which Winthrop said that the settlers in the New World must lead virtuous lives to set a good example for the rest of the world and for their own descendants.
Bradford may have also had other, more practical reasons for presenting his people in a positive light. Some historians have argued that Bradford glossed over the Pilgrims’ questionable financial and legal behavior because, when he began writing the journal in 1630, he anticipated being sued by the investors in the failed Virginia Company (see Debt and Religious Capitalism theme), or investigated by the English monarchy itself. Throughout the book, Bradford shows the Pilgrims to be unerringly honest and financially responsible—perhaps in part because he worried that in the future, a powerful English authority would investigate his colony and find reason to seize control over it. Because of these and other sources of bias, Bradford portrays the Plymouth Plantation as a model of morality and civility. The Pilgrims are generous with their resources, even when they’re on the verge of starvation. They treat the Native American population peacefully and reasonably (until the Native Americans attack them first). They are law-abiding, with the exception of a small handful of colonists who, according to Bradford, aren’t truly a part of the community at all.
It is impossible to know with 100% accuracy how the Pilgrims in New England behaved—and indeed, it’s quite possible, considering their religion convictions, that the Pilgrims were exceptionally virtuous and fair. However, in light of Bradford’s strong incentives to present his people positively, it’s very likely that Bradford exaggerates the Pilgrims’ virtuousness to at least some degree.
Another important form of bias to consider is Bradford’s tendency to portray the Plymouth Plantation as being more cooperative, organized, and monolithic than it really was. For example, Bradford portrays the settlers as being united in their religious convictions. However, many readers of Of Plymouth Plantation would be surprised to learn that a significant chunk of the Plymouth settlers weren’t Christian reformers, or even particularly religious for the time—many were indentured servants looking for new employment opportunities. Furthermore, Bradford appears to downplay the amount of disagreement and internal strife among the Pilgrims. For example, he characterizes the Pilgrims’ decision to sail to America as a difficult decision that, eventually, most people in the community supported. Some historians have suggested that, in reality, a majority of reformers chose not to sail to America at all. Similarly, Bradford suggests that the entire Plymouth community supported the decisions to war with the Native Americans, expand territory, etc., when historians have suggested that these were elite decisions that the lower-class Pilgrims reluctantly accepted. Again, Bradford’s desire to portray Plymouth Plantation as an inspiration to others probably led him to exaggerate the unity, idealism, and overall virtue of the colony.
Bias and Propaganda ThemeTracker
Bias and Propaganda Quotes in Of Plymouth Plantation
I must begin at the very root and rise of it; and this I shall endeavor to do in a plain style and with singular regard to the truth, at least as near as my slender judgment can attain to it.
About this time they heard both from Mr. Weston and others, that sundry honorable lords had obtained a large grant from the King, of the more northerly parts of the country arising out of the Virginia Company's patent, but wholly separated from its government, and to be called by another name, viz., New England.
My object is that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers had to wrestle in accomplishing the first beginning; and how God ultimately brought them through, notwithstanding all their weakness and infirmities; also that some use may be made of them later, by others, in similar important projects.
They also found two of the Indians’ houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. They also found more corn, and beans of various colors. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.
Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not one of them was hit, though the arrows came close to them, on every side, and some of their coats which were hung up in the barricade were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of the arrows, and later sent them to England by the captain of the ship. They called the place "The First Encounter."
Then the Governor explained to the people that he had done it as a magistrate, and was bound to do it to prevent the mischief and ruin that this conspiracy and plot of theirs might otherwise have brought to the colony.
I shall leave the matter, and desire the Lord to show him his errors and return him to the way of truth, and give him a settled judgment and constancy therein; for I hope he belongs to the Lord and that He will show him mercy.