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.)