THE Compact sprang into being by no magic of inspiration: it was the fruit of minds that had fostered the intention to be free through years of just living, and the winning simplicity of the Pilgrims’ several declarations of faith was the natural outcome of the spirit that framed them. For eighteen years or more their leaders had believed and practised the precepts of John Robinson whom they had chosen as pastor of their little congregation at Scrooby; and Robinson charged them, according to Edward Winslow, to keep an open mind: “for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word. He took occasion, also, miserably to bewail the state of the Reformed Churches” who stuck where Luther and Calvin had left them. “Yet God had not revealed His whole will to them. . . . It is not possible . . . that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.” Men who held that concept of life the progressive revelation of truth were as little likely to cramp the just liberties of other men as they were to submit themselves to the unjust imposition of law. And when England persecuted them, it was fitting that they should flee to Holland, the country of William the Silent, who had declared : “You have no right to trouble yourself with any man’s conscience, so long as nothing is done to cause private harm or public scandal.” That might have been the motto of their new government. It has been truly said that the Plymouth Church was “free of blood.” They never hanged a Quaker or burned a witch, and refugees from the Massachusetts Bay Colony constantly found asylum with them. It must be remembered that they were so-called “Separatists,” the Independents, men who set religion above any church, a very different folk from those uncompromising protestants of the Church of England, the Puritans. Yet, wisely, John Robinson had counselled them to be “ready to close with the godly party of the Kingdom of England and rather to study union than disunion” with their neighbors in the New World. That “union” was meant to include no abandonment of principle, and when unwillingly enough they were forced to merge with the richer colony of Massachusetts Bay, they were sufficiently powerful to expand somewhat its rigid theocracy; though the Puritan influence, in turn, did much to curdle the early tolerance of the Pilgrims.
In the seventy years of their independence, the Pilgrims worked out, by sober and deliberate progression, a plan of government that was a model of statehood, and they had the advantage over other colonies that they were constrained by no formal royal patent. When their agents had gone over from Holland to obtain the king’s consent to their undertaking, James was ready to concede that “the advancement of his dominions” and “the enlargement of the gospel” were an honorable motive; the idea of fishery profits was no less to his liking. “So God have my soul,” quoth he, “an honest trade. ‘T was the Apostles’ own calling.” But a formal grant to the despised Separatists was another matter, and they had to be content with a hint that “the king would connive at them and not molest them provided they behaved themselves peace-ably.” They were willing to take the chance that the king’s word was as good as his bond: for if later there should be a purpose to injure them, they shrewdly reasoned, though they had a seal “as broad as the house floor,” there would be “means enow found to recall or reverse it.” And they secured financial backing in London, obtained permission from the North Virginia Company to settle on their coast, then “casting them-selves on the care of Divine Providence, they ventured to America.” Divine Providence, apparently, decreed that they should be free of even such slight restraint as the permission of the North Virginia Company, and instead of settling near the Hudson they were driven to the New England coast.
But they took care in the Compact and in all succeeding legislation to affirm their loyalty to the English Government. Though England had been none too tender in her treatment of them, they recognized and meant to abide by the essential justice of English law, and to profit by the stability that a strong bond-with the Home Government could give them. Moreover, in these men flourished the British instinct to make whatever spot of the globe they should elect as home “forever England.” They themselves for eleven long years had fretted as expatriates in an alien land. “They grew tired of the indolent security of their sanctuary,” wrote Burke of them, although as a fact they had worked hard enough for their daily bread, “and they chose to remove to a place where they should see no superior.” In any case they meant that their children should be English rather than Dutch, and they had refused overtures from Holland to settle in Dutch territory.
The machinery of their government was of the simplest, and expanded, as necessity came, with their growth. As provided in the Compact, the Governor was elected yearly by general manhood suffrage. His one assistant was soon replaced by a council of seven. For eighteen years the legislative body, the General Court it is still called, was composed of the whole body of freemen; and the qualifications of a freeman were that he should be “twenty-one years of age, of sober, peaceable conversation, orthodox in religion [as a minimum, belief in God and the Bible], and should possess rateable estate to the value of twenty pounds.” By 163 the colony had grown to require a representative form of government; and the two branches, the Governor and Council and the town representatives, sat as one body to enact laws. But save in a crisis, no law proposed at one session could be enacted until the next, so that the whole body of freemen could have opportunity to pass upon it a clear case of the “referendum.” As early as 1623 the community had outgrown its custom of trying an offender by the whole body of citizens, and substituted trial by jury. Capital offences were six as against thirty-one in England treason, murder, diabolical conversation, arson, rape, and unnatural crimes and of these only two came to execution. No one was ever committed, much less punished, f or ” diabolical conversation.” Smoking was forbidden outdoors within a mile of a dwelling-house, or while at work in the fields: evidently there was to be no gossip over a pipe with the farmer next door. In time this law was eased; and though in the early days the clergy alluded to tobacco as the “smoke of the bottomless pit,” they soon came to use it themselves and “tobacco was set at liberty.”
In 1636 they first codified their law; in 1671 was printed their Great Fundamentals. Hubbard, in his “General History of New England from the Discovery to 1680,” writes: “The laws they intended to be governed by were the laws of England, the which they were willing to be subject unto, though in a foreign land, and have since that time continued of that mind for the general, adding only some particular muncipal laws of their own, suitable to their constitution, in such cases where the common laws and statutes of England could not well reach, or afford them help in emergent difficulties of place.” They were loyal Englishmen to the bone, and in the first codification of law affirm their allegiance: “whereas John Carver, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, William Brewster, Isaac Allerton and divers others of the subjects of our late Sovereign Lord James … did undertake a voyage into that part of America called Virginia or New England thereunto adjoining, there to erect a plantation and colony of English, intending the glory of God and the enlargement of His Majesty’s dominions, and the special good of the English nation.” Yet they never waived a jot of their rights as freemen; and in 1658, toward the end of Cromwell’s Government, they prefaced the General Laws with a note that the advisers of George III would have done well to heed: “We the Associates of New Plymouth, coming hither as freeborn subjects of the State of England, endowed with all and singular the privileges belonging to such, being assembled, do ordain, constitute and enact that no act, imposition, law or ordinance be made or imposed on us at present or to come, but such as shall be made and imposed by consent of the body of the associates or their representatives legally assembled, which is according to the free liberty of the State of England.”
At the Restoration they gave allegiance to Charles; in 1689, bridging the chasm of revolution, to William and Mary: the significant point that they held themselves loyal to England, whatever its government might be. And it is interesting, in their address to William and Mary, that they felt entirely free to pass judgment upon the hated Royal Governor, Andros : ” We, the loyal subjects of the Crown of England, are left in an unsettled state, destitute of government and exposed to the ill consequences thereof; and having heretofore enjoyed a quiet settlement of government in this their Majesties’ colony of New Plymouth for more than three score and six years .. . notwithstanding our late unjust interruption and sus-pension therefrom by the illegal arbitrary power of Sir Edmond Andros, now ceased, . do therefore hereby resume and declare their reassuming of their said former way of government.” But that, to their great disappointment, was not to be, and the royal charter of William and Mary united definitely the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay.
The advantage of their “quiet settlement of government” had been a double benefit: for it seems to have been a fact that liberal Plymouth was free of any interference from England, while the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, on the contrary, were in continual hot water. with the Home Government. England probably did not love the Separatists better than she had ever done, but she had no notion of quarrelling with sober, reasonable men who, in consideration of a personal latitude that cost her no inconvenience, were willing that other men, provided they were “civil, should live according to their individual right; and thereby saved her the trouble of playing arbiter in colonial disputes. England, moreover, was deriving considerable profit from the lusty young colony that, by its enterprise, was tipping the scales in her favor in the trader’s game she was playing with Holland and France.