A surprising amount of the “action” in Of Plymouth Plantation revolves around the Pilgrims’ finances. In the late 1610s the Pilgrims form a plan to migrate to the New World, and to fund the trip they make inroads with the Virginia Company of Plymouth (which Bradford often refers to simply as ‘the Virginia Company,” though nowadays it’s usually called the Plymouth Company). The Pilgrims then travel to Plymouth, significantly in debt to the English investors who’d fronted the money for Plymouth’s joint stock operation. Initially, the plan is to pay off the investors over the course of the next seven years. (Historians have argued that, without the invention of the joint stock company, Europe would never have been able to send people to the New World profitably.) In 1624, the Virginia Company fails, but many investors continue to demand their money. Furthermore, the Pilgrims find themselves at the mercy of their English business contacts, some of whom use their position to sell the Pilgrims overpriced goods and make a huge profit, plunging the Plymouth Plantation further into debt.
Of Plymouth Plantation’s enormous amount of detail about debt, interest rates, shipping costs, and other financial concerns might seem to contrast with the religious idealism of the Pilgrims’ aims. The Pilgrims believe that they’re honoring God by founding a new society in which they can worship him freely, and yet they’re shackled by their obligations to creditors. The Plymouth Plantation’s debt also seems to clash, at least initially, with the Pilgrims’ strong emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence (inspired by Saint Paul’s command to “owe no man anything”). But in fact, debt becomes a fundamental part of the Pilgrim’s religion, reinforcing their emphasis on the virtues of labor and responsibility. One could even argue that for the Pilgrims, the “Protestant work ethic” that comes to define theirs and similar colonies is a result of financial necessity as much as religious idealism.
The Pilgrim’s ongoing debts to investors influence early Plymouth society in other important ways as well. First, the English debt provides a constant reminder that the Pilgrims aren’t entirely cut off from their old lives. The Pilgrims have journeyed to the New World to start a new life of religious freedom. But they are still obligated to the English merchants who financed their voyage and provide them with regular shipments of food. By the same token, debt arguably trains Plymouth’s leaders to become savvy negotiators and expert politicians. Over the course of the book, William Bradford is forced to send frequent communications back to his creditors in England. He learns to write forcefully but carefully, so as not to anger the merchants and business contacts who hold so much power over his colony. Bradford exercises these same skills when dealing with neighboring settlements in America—so it could be said that Bradford (who had no political experience before Plymouth) grew into a skillful secular leader in the process of managing the colony’s debt. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, debt provided the impetus for a strong stable state in Plymouth Plantation. At Plymouth, each Pilgrim is required to pay an annual tax to their governor, gradually paying off their share of the debt. There are several times in the book when some Pilgrims are tempted to run off and make a better life for themselves with the Native Americans. However, Bradford makes it clear that anyone who wants to leave Plymouth must first pay off their debt (or risk being prosecuted as a criminal). As Bradford’s dictate suggests, the Pilgrims’ leaders had a strong incentive to persuade their followers to stick together. Had the Pilgrims not been in debt for so long, it’s entirely possible that many of them would have wandered off in search of a better life, and the Plymouth colony would have collapsed.
Debt provided the Plymouth Pilgrims with a constant reminder of their imperfect natures, a reason to work hard and live frugally (with an emphasis on individual property ownership within a united colony), and a cause to stay together in a strange new place—and in fact, in all of these senses, it was strikingly similar to their interpretation of Christianity. In the long run, the Pilgrims’ ongoing debt to England exerted a major influence on the rise of a distinctly American brand of capitalism and Christianity, in which the emphasis on ongoing hard work, property ownership, and individual responsibility reinforced both ideologies.
Debt and Religious Capitalism ThemeTracker
Debt and Religious Capitalism Quotes in Of Plymouth Plantation
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.
Mr. Weston also came up from London to see them embark, and to have the conditions confirmed; but they refused, and told him that he knew well that they were not according to the first agreement, nor could they endorse them without the consent of the rest in Holland. In fact they had special orders when they came away, from the chief men of the congregation, not to do it. At this he was much offended, and told them in that case they must stand on their own legs; so he returned to London in displeasure. They lacked about 100 pounds to clear their obligations; but he would not disburse a penny, and left them to shift as they could. So they were forced to sell some of their provisions…
The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of private property and the possession of it in community by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort.
While we ourselves are ready to take every opportunity to further so hopeful an enterprise, it must rest with you to put it on its feet again. And whatever else may be said, let your honesty and conscience remain approved, and lose no jot of your innocence amidst your crosses and afflictions; and surely if you behave yourselves wisely and go on fairly, you will need no other weapon to wound your adversaries; for when your righteousness is revealed as the light, they, who have causelessly sought your overthrow, shall cover their faces with shame.
Hitherto Mr. Allerton had done them good and faithful service: would that he had so continued.
How many Dutch and English have lately been killed by Indians, thus furnished; and no remedy is provided—nay, the evil has increased. The blood of their brothers has been sold for profit; and in what danger all these colonies are is too well-known.
Some of the more ignorant colonists objected that an Englishman should be put to death for an Indian. So at last the murderers were brought home from the Island, and after being tried, and the evidence produced, they all in the end freely confessed to all the Indian had accused them of and that they had done it in the manner described. So they were condemned by the jury, and executed. Some of the Narragansett Indians and the murdered man's friends, were present when it was done, which gave them and all the country satisfaction. But it was a matter of much sadness to them here, as it was the second execution since they came,—both being for willful murder.
Now, blessed be God, times are so much changed here that I hope to see many of you return to your native country again, and have such freedom and liberty as the word of God prescribes.
The said United Colonies, for themselves and their posterity jointly and severally, hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defense, mutual advice and succor, upon all just occasions, both for preserving and propagating the truth of the Gospel, and for their own mutual safety and welfare.