Violence has been called the cornerstone of a successful state. The sociologist Max Weber went so far as to define the state as the institution that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. One of the most fascinating aspects of Of Plymouth Plantation is the way that Bradford depicts the relationship between violence—directed at Native Americans, neighboring colonies, and even Plymouth Plantation’s own people—and the brand new state that William Bradford and his peers built in New England. Within twenty-four hours of landing in New England, Captain Myles Standish leads a group of armed men to explore the surrounding area—a sign of the importance of military force even in a supposedly Christian society. Bradford’s book upholds Weber’s theories of the state by showing how violence underlies Plymouth society, providing both a system of organization for New England’s citizens and a means of seizing and protecting property.
First and foremost, violence is critical to the success of the Plymouth Plantation—and, arguably, of any state—because people need force to protect their property (whether it’s private, individual property or property in a more collective sense). The colonists aboard the Mayflower bring guns with them, and hire an experienced military commander, Captain Myles Standish, under the assumption that they’ll need to fight to protect their claim to land. They are then only able to protect their property and their land in the first thirty years of Plymouth Plantation’s history because of their military technology. At various points in the colony’s history, the Pilgrims use muskets to seize and protect their land surrounding the Connecticut River, first from Native American tribes and later from French and English settlers. Furthermore, the Pilgrims experience some of their most humiliating setbacks because of their inability to use force to defend their property. In 1635, for example, French forces seize the Pilgrims’ land, and the Pilgrims lack sufficient manpower and firepower to reclaim what was theirs (and which they, in turn, stole from the Native Americans!). In all, Bradford’s account of Plymouth’s early history emphasizes the importance of property: which, practically speaking, translates into enough food to feed the Pilgrim population, and enough land to grow corn and beans. He further emphasizes the inseparability of property and violence, essentially showing that, if you can’t defend your property, then you don’t truly own it at all.
But violence is more than just a means of protecting property; it’s a way of creating systems of organization and fostering order and cooperation in society. On one hand, the threat of violence is a powerful means of enforcing the law. In the 1630s, William Bradford organizes the first use of the death penalty in Plymouth, which, one can only assume, encourages the Pilgrims to obey the laws, pay their taxes, obey authority, and generally support the state. Just as importantly, however, violence fosters cooperation between different states. In the 1640s, for example, Plymouth enters into the United Council, an agreement between Plymouth, Massachusetts, and various other New England colonies, the primary purpose of which is to provide the resources for future military conflicts. Under the terms of the Council, each colony must support the other colonies in times of war, donating soldiers and resources and paying for all other expenses. The historian Gordon Wood argued that the formation of military alliances such as this anticipated and led to the formation of a strong, nationalized state—the United States of America—by giving social elites (i.e.. council members) more power over their people (i.e., the soldiers). Of Plymouth Plantation is the history of a pious Christian community—and yet even this community, it’s shown again and again, is structured around the use of force, seemingly confirming the idea that violence is the cornerstone of a powerful, well-organized state.
War, Violence, and the State ThemeTracker
War, Violence, and the State Quotes in Of Plymouth Plantation
But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people of the country and the many temptations of the city were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents.
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.
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.
Others again, thinking themselves impoverished, or for want of accommodation, broke away on one pretense or another, thinking their own imagined necessity or the example of others sufficient warrant. This I fear will be the ruin of New England.
Notice was given a month beforehand, viz.: to Massachusetts, Salem, Piscataqua, and others, requesting them to produce any evidence they could in the case. The place of meeting was Boston. But when the day came, there only appeared some of the magistrates and ministers of Massachusetts and of New Plymouth. As none had come from Piscataqua or other places, Mr. Winthrop and the others said they could do no more than they had done, and the blame must rest with them.
He consulted with the Captain how he could get further supplies of gun powder, for he had not enough to carry him home; so he told him he would go to the next settlement and endeavour to procure him some, and did so. But Captain Standish gathered, from intelligence he received that he intended to seize the bark and take the beaver, so he sent him the powder and brought the bark home. Girling never attacked the place again, and went on his way; which ended the business.
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.
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.