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The United States of America: A History
Book 1: Chapter IV - New England


A LITTLE more than two centuries ago New England was one vast forest. here and there a little space was cleared, a little corn was raised; a few Indian families made their temporary abode. The savage occupants of the land spent their profitless lives to no better purpose than in hunting and fighting. The rivers which now give life to so much cheerful industry flowed uselessly to the sea. Providence had prepared a home which a great people might fitly inhabit. Let us see whence and how the men were brought who were the destined possessors of its opulence.

The Reformation had taught that every man is entitled to read his Bible for himself, and guide his life by the light he obtains from it. But the lesson was too high to be soon learned. Protestant princes no more than Popish could permit their subjects to think for themselves. James I. had just ascended the English throne. his was the head of a fool and the heart of a tyrant. He would allow no man to separate himself from the Established Church. He would "harry out of the land" all who attempted such a thing. And he was as good as his word. Men would separate from the Church, and the King stretched out his pitiless hand to crush them.

On the northern borders of Nottinghamshire stands the little town of Scrooby. Here there were some grave and well-reputed persons, to whom the idle ceremonies of the Established Church were an offence. They met in secret at the house of one of their number, a gentleman named Brewster. They were ministered to in all scriptural simplicity by the pastor of their choice —Mr. Robinson, a wise and good man. But their secret meetings were betrayed to the authorities, and their lives were made bitter by the persecutions that fell upon them. They resolved to leave their own land and seek among strangers that freedom which was denied them at home.

They embarked with all their goods for Holland. But when the ship was about to sail, soldiers came upon them, plundered them, and drove them on shore. They were marched to the public square of Boston, and there the Fathers of New England endured such indignities as an unbelieving rabble could inflict. After some weeks in prison they were suffered to return home.

Next spring they tried again to escape. This time a good many were on hoard, and the others were waiting for the return of the boat which would carry them to the ship. Suddenly dragoons were seen spurring across the sands. The shipmaster pulled up his anchor and pushed out to sea with those of his passengers whom he had. The rest were conducted to prison. After a time they were set at liberty. In little groups they made their way to Holland. Mr. Robinson and his congregation were reunited, and the first stage of the weary pilgrimage from the Old England to the New was at length accomplished.

1609 A.D.

Eleven quiet and not unprosperous years were spent in Holland. The Pilgrims worked with patient industry at their various handicrafts. They quickly gained the reputation of doing honestly and effectively whatever they professed to do, and thus they found abundant employment. Mr. Brewster established a printing-press, and printed books about liberty, which, as he had the satisfaction of knowing, greatly enraged the foolish King James. The little colony received additions from time to time as oppression in England became more intolerable.

The instinct of separation was strong within the Pilgrim heart. They could not bear the thought that their little colony was to mingle with the Dutchmen and lose its independent existence. But already their sons and daughters were forming alliances which threatened this result. The Fathers considered long and anxiously how the danger was to be averted. They determined again to go on pilgrimage. They would seek a home beyond the Atlantic, where they could dwell apart and found a State in which they should be free to think.

1620 A.D.

On a sunny morning in July the Pilgrims kneel upon the sea-shore at Delfthaven, while the pastor prays for the success of their journey. Out upon the gleaming sea a little ship lies waiting. Money has not been found to transplant the whole colony, and only a hundred have been sent. The remainder will follow when they can. These hundred depart amid tears and, prayers and fond farewells. Mr. Robinson dismissed them with counsels which breathed a pure and high-toned wisdom. He urged them to keep their minds ever open for the reception of new truths. "The Lord," he said, "has more truth to break forth out of his holy Word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the Reformed Churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no further than the instruments of their reformation. Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but, were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received. I beseech you, remember that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written Word of God."

Sixty-eight years later, another famous departure from the coast of Holland took place. It was that of William, Prince of Orange, coming to deliver England from tyranny, and give a new course to English history. A powerful fleet and army sailed with the Prince. The chief men of the country accompanied him to his ships. Public prayers for his safety were offered up in all the churches. Insignificant beside this seems at first sight the unregarded departure of a hundred working-men and women. Tt was in truth, however, not less, but even more memorable. For these poor people went forth to found a great empire, destined to leave as deep and as enduring a mark upon the world's history as home or even as England has done.

The Mayflower, in which the Pilgrims made their voyage, was a ship of one hundred and sixty tons. The weather proved stormy and cold; the voyage unexpectedly long. It was early in September when they sailed. It was not till, the 11th November that the Mayflower dropped her anchor in the waters of Cape Cod Bay.

It was a bleak-looking and discouraging coast which lay before them. Nothing met the eye but low sand hills, covered with ill-grown wood down to the margin of the sea. The Pilgrims had now to choose a place for their settlement. About this they hesitated so long that the captain threatened to put them all on shore and leave them. Little expeditions were sent to explore. At first no suitable locality could be found. The men had great hardships to endure. The cold was so excessive that the spray froze upon their clothes, and they resembled men cased in armour. At length a spot was fixed upon. The soil appeared to be good, and abounded in "delicate springs" of water. On the 23rd December the Pilgrims landed—stepping ashore upon a huge boulder of granite, which is still reverently preserved by their descendants. Here they resolved to found their settlement, which they agreed to call New Plymouth.

The winter was severe, and the infant colony was brought very near to extinction. They had been badly fed on board the Mayflower, and for some time after going on shore there was very imperfect shelter from the weather. Sickness fell heavily on the worn-out Pilgrims. Every second day a grave had to be dug in the frozen ground. By the time spring came in there were only fifty survivors, and these sadly enfeebled and dispirited.

But all through this dismal winter the Pilgrims laboured at their heavy task. The care of the sick, the burying of the dead, sadly hindered their work. But the building of their little town went on. They found that nineteen houses would contain their diminished numbers. These they built. Then they surrounded them with a palisade. Upon an eminence beside their town they erected a structure which served a double purpose. Above, it was a fort, on which they mounted six cannon; below, it was their church. hitherto the Indians had been a cause of anxiety, but had done them no harm. Now they felt safe. Indeed there had never been much risk. A recent epidemic had swept off nine-tenths of the Indians who inhabited that region, and the discouraged survivors could ill afford to incur the hostility of their formidable visitors.

The Pilgrims had been careful to Provide for themselves a government. They had drawn up and signed, in the cabin of the Mayflower, a document forming themselves into a body politic, and promising obedience to all laws framed for the general good. Under this Constitution they appointed John Carver to be their Governor. They dutifully acknowledged King James, but they left no very large place for his authority. They were essentially a self-governing people. They knew what despotism was, and they were very sure that democracy could by no possibility be so bad.

The welcome spring came at length, and "the birds sang in the woods most pleasantly." The health of the colony began somewhat to improve, but there was still much suffering to endure. The summer passed not unprosperously. They had taken possession of the deserted clearings of the Indians, and had no difficulty in providing themselves with food. But in the autumn came a ship with a new company of Pilgrims. This was very encouraging, but unhappily the ship brought no provisions, and the supplies of the colonists were not sufficient for this unexpected addition. For six months there was only half allowance to each. Such straits recurred frequently during the first two or three years. Often the colonists knew not at night "where to have a bit in the morning." Once or twice the opportune arrival of a ship saved them from famishing. They suffered much, but their cheerful trust in Providence and in their own final triumph never wavered. They faced the difficulties of their position with undaunted hearts. Slowly but surely the little colony struck its roots and began to grow.

The years which followed the coming of the Pilgrims were years through which good men in England found it bitter to live. Charles the First was upon the throne. Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. Bigotry as blind and almost as cruel as England had ever seen thus sat in her high places. Dissent from the Popish usages, which prevailed more and more in the Church, was at the peril of life. A change was near. John Hampden was farming his lands in Buckinghamshire. A greater than he—his cousin, Oliver Cromwell—was leading his quiet rural life at Huntingdon, not without many anxious and indignant thoughts about the evils of his time. John Milton was peacefully writing his minor poems, and filling his mind with the learning of the ancients. The Men had come, and the Hour was at hand. But as yet King Charles and Archbishop Laud had it all their own way. They fined and imprisoned every man who ventured to think otherwise than they wished him to think: they slit his nose, they cut off his ears, they gave him weary hours in the pillory. They ordered that men should not leave the kingdom without the King's permission. Eight ships lay in the Thames, with their passengers on board, when that order was given forth. The soldiers cleared the ships, and the poor emigrants were driven back, in poverty and despair, to endure the misery from which they were so eager to escape.

New England was the refuge to which the wearied victims of this senseless tyranny looked. The Pilgrims wrote to their friends at home, and every letter was regarded with the interest due to a "sacred script." They had hardships to tell of at first; then they had prosperity and comfort; always they had liberty. New England seemed a paradise to men who were denied permission to worship God according to the manner which they deemed right. Every summer a few ships were freighted for the settlements. Many of the silenced ministers came. Many of their congregations came, glad to be free, at whatever sacrifice, from the tyranny which disgraced their native land. The region around New Plymouth became too narrow for the population. From time to time a little party would go forth, with a minister at its head. With wives and children and baggage they crept slowly through the swampy forest. By a week or two of tedious journeying they reached some point which pleased their fancy, or to which they judged that Providence had sent them. There they built their little town, with its wooden huts, its palisade, its fort—on which one or two guns were ultimately mounted. Thus were founded many of the cities of New England.

1643 A.D.

For some years the difficulties which the colonists encountered were almost overwhelming. There seemed at times even to be danger that death by starvation would end the whole enterprise. But they were a stout-hearted, patient, industrious people, and labour gradually brought comfort. The virgin soil began to yield them abundant harvests. They fished with such success that they manured their fields with the harvest of the sea. They spun and they weaved. They felled the timber of their boundless forests. They built ships, and sent away to foreign countries the timber, the fish, the firs which were not required at home. Ere many years a ship built in Massachusetts sailed for London, followed by "many prayers of the churches." Their infant commerce was not without its trouble. They had little or no coin. Indian corn was made a legal tender. Bullets were legalized in room of the farthings which, with their other coins, had vanished to pay for foreign goods. But no difficulty could long resist their steady, undismayed labour.

They were a noble people who had thus begun to strike their roots in the great forests of New England. Their peculiarities may indeed amuse us. The Old Testament was their statute-book, and they deemed that the institutions of Moses were the best model for those of New England. They made attendance on public worship compulsory. They christened their children by old Testament names. They regulated female attire by law. They considered long hair unscriptural, and preached against veils and wigs.

The least wise among us can smile at the mistakes into which the Puritan Fathers of New England fell. But the most wise of all ages will most profoundly reverence the purity, the earnestness, the marvellous enlightenment of these men. From their incessant study of the Bible they drew a love of human liberty unsurpassed in depth and fervour. Coming from under despotic rule, they established at once a government absolutely free. They felt—what Europe has not even yet fully apprehended— that the citizens of a State should be able to guide the affairs of that State without helpless dependence upon a few great families; that the members of a Church ought to guide the affairs of that Church, waiting for the sanction of no patron, however noble and good. It was one of their fundamental laws that all strangers professing the Christian religion and driven from their homes by persecutors, should be succoured at the public charge. The education of children was almost their earliest care. The Pilgrims bore with them across the sea a deep persuasion that their infant State could not thrive without education. Three years after the landing, it was reported of them among the friends they had left in London, that "their children were not catechised, nor taught to read." The colonists felt keenly this reproach. They utterly denied its justice. They owned, indeed, that they had not yet attained to a school, much as they desired it. But all parents did their best, each in the education of his own children. In a very few years schools began to appear. Such endowment as could be afforded was freely given. Some tolerably qualified brother was fixed upon, and "entreated to become schoolmaster." And thus gradually the foundations were laid of the noble school system of New England. Soon a law was passed that every town containing fifty householders must have a common school; every town of a hundred householders must have a grammar school. Harvard College was established within fifteen years of the landing.

The founders of New England were men who had known at home the value of letters. Brewster carried with him a library of two hundred and seventy-five volumes, and his was not the largest collection in the colony. The love of knowledge was deep and universal. New England has never swerved from her early loyalty to the cause of education.

Every colonist was necessarily a soldier. The State provided him with arms, if poor; required him to provide himself, if rich. His weapons were sword, pike, and matchlock, with a forked stick on which to rest his artillery in taking aim. The people were carefully trained to the use of arms. In the devout spirit of the time, their drills were frequently opened and closed with prayer.

1643  A.D.

Twenty-three years after the landing of the Pilgrims the population of New England had grown to 24,000. Forty-nine little wooden towns, with their wooden churches, wooden forts, and wooden ramparts, were dotted here and there over the land. There were four separate colonies, which hitherto had maintained separate governments. They were Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Newhaven. There appeared at first a disposition in the Pilgrim mind to scatter widely, and remain apart in small self-governing communities. For some years every little band which pushed deeper into the wilderness settled itself into an independent State, having no political relations with its neighbours. But this isolation could not continue. The wilderness had other inhabitants, whose presence was a standing menace. Within "striking distance" there were Indians enough to trample out the solitary little English communities. On their frontiers were Frenchmen and Dutchmen— natural enemies, as all men in that time were to each other. For mutual defence and encouragement, the four colonies joined themselves into the United Colonies of New England. This was the first confederation in a land where confederations of unprecedented magnitude were here-after to be established.


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