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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.