The Strange History of the Plymouth Council for New England: a Thanksgiving Tale in Favor of Distributed Property

Now, I have nothing against the Mayflower Compact.  And I’m a Protestant, which means that I don’t have the complexity of relationship with the Pilgrims that others do (even though they would consider me insufficiently Reformed because I am not a Calvinist.) And I couldn’t resist the picture.

But on this Thanksgiving eve (with my yams roasting in the oven so that tomorrow I’ll just be able to heat them up and pour flaming Jack Daniels over them at the family dinner in New Paltz, New York), I want to draw your attention to another document.  As founding documents go, it’s not even a B-list celebrity (the Mayflower Compact is a bit of a B-lister, actually; the Emily Blunt to the Declaration of Independence’s Emma Thompson; not less likeable, or talented, necessarily, but less well known) .  No, this document is more of a road not taken: a piece of our heritage that landed on the cutting room floor.

It is the 1635 Act of Surrender of the Great Charter of New England to His Majesty, said majesty in question being Charles I of England.  What had happened was this: fifteen years before, in 1620, King James I/VI had given a charter to a group of forty men: the right to form a joint-stock company for the purpose of planting colonies in what he called the “Maine lands,” or what we would call New England. The charter reads, in part,

There shall be for ever hereafter, in our Towne of Plymouth, in the County of Devon, one Body politicque and corporate, which shall have perpetuall Succession, which shall consist of the Number of fourtie Persons, and no more, which shall be, and shall be called and knowne by the Name the Councill established at Plymouth, in the County of Devon for the planting, ruling, ordering, and governing of New-England, in America.

It gave these forty men enormous rights over the area they were going to settle and the people who were going to settle there: they had the right to make and enforce such laws “as they in their good Discretions shall thinke to be fittest for the good of the Adventurers and Inhabitants there.”  The laws had to be in keeping with the rights (as Englishmen) of both the “adventurers,” that is, the investors and traders, and the “inhabitants,” the settlers.  But the company– a private and for-profit enterprise– was what was going to be making the laws.

They also had exclusive rights to trade and work with the natural resources of this place: they had possession

throughout the Maine Land from Sea to Sea, together also, with the Firme Lands, Soyles, Grounds Havens, Ports, Rivers, Waters, Fishings, Mines, and Mineralls, as well Royall Mines of Gold and Silver, as other Mine and Mineralls, precious Stones, Quarries,

and all kinds of other goodies.  And they were granted these things “in free and common Soccage and not in in Capite, nor by Knight’s Service;” that is, they owned these lands and goodies, they weren’t tenants, and didn’t have to serve in James’ army in exchange for the grant.

It was this 1620 charter that the Pilgrims were under when, in 1621, they celebrated the first Thanksgiving.  And then, 14 years later, the company that had been formed by the charter, that had all these rights to the land from which the Pilgrims were barely beginning to make a living– that company… dissolved itself.

“Now Know ye that,” wrote the Company men,

the said President and Council, for divers good causes and considerations them thereunto moving…by these presents do…yield up and surrender unto our most gracious Sovereign Lord Charles by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith,

their rights over New England that they’d held under James’ Charter.  They surrendered those rights, and they ended their existence as a company.

Why?  Joseph Storey, in his Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, explains:

[T]he immediate cause of the surrender was the odious extent of the monopolies granted to them, which roused the attention of Parliament, and of the nation at large, and compelled them to resign, what they could scarcely maintain against the strong current of public opinion.

The surrender, so far from working any evil, rather infused new life into the colonies…

Storey is, I assume, right about the situation: this was not an act of pure benevolence, to promote property ownership and small business among New Englanders.  But they still had a choice, and they gave up their monopoly– even if it was in the face of public and parliamentary pressure; even if they really would have preferred to just keep the whole thing.  Those men, the ones who in 1635 gave up their commercial monopoly, and opened New England back up to smaller enterprise and public use, are American heroes.  I am thankful for them, and so I am, here, going to give them a memorial:  they were:

Thomas, Earl of Arundel

William, Earl of Hathe

Henry, Earl of Southampton

William, Earl of Salisbury

Robert, Earl of Warwick

John, Viscount Haddington

Edward, Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cincque Ports

Edmond, Lord Sheffield

Edward, Lord Gorges

Sir Edward Seymour

Sir Robert Manselle

Sir Edward Zouch

Sir Dudley Diggs

Sir Thomas Roe

Sir Ferdinando Gorges

Sir Francis Popham

Sir John Brook

Sir Thomas Gates

Sir Richard Hawkins

Sir Richard Edgcombe

Sir Allen Apsley

Sir Warwick Hale

Sir Richard Catchmay

Sir John Bourchier

Sir Nathaniel Rich

Sir Edward Giles

Sir Giles Mompesson

Sir Thomas Wroth

Matthew Sutcliffe, Dean of Exeter

Robert Heath, Esq, Recorder of the City of London

Henry Bourchier, Esq.

John Drake, Esq.

Rawleigh Gilbert, Esq.

George Chudley, Esq.

Thomas Hamon, Esq.

John Argall, Esq.

the heir of Lodowick, Duke of Lenox

the heir of George, Marquess of Buckingham

the heir of James, Marquess of Hamilton

the heir of William, Earl of Pembroke

(The Surrender only refers to the deaths of the higher-ranking members; presumably some of the smaller folk had also died in the intervening fifteen years, and so it was their heirs, rather than they themselves, who made the decision.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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