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Can Americans Learn Anything From Our Founders for Today?

Thanksgiving, Colonists & Early American Law


By --November 20, 2012

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Who were the original Founders of America? Two groups can be described from the group of original hardy settlers—the Pilgrims and the Puritans. The seeds of the Pilgrim stock came from the illegal English Separatist Church. All Englishmen were expected to attend Anglican Church, weekly.

It provoked much controversy in Christian circles that power swung between English Protestants and Catholics. The Separatists wanted no state meddling in private beliefs, and so left England in search of religious freedom, first to Leiden, Netherlands, and later to North America. This explains the US Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition against a state mandated church.


The second group of American colonizers were “Puritans,” a term loosely describing all those who wanted to purify the English Church from outside influences. They settled in Massachusetts under John Winthrop in 1630. Together, these earliest Americans were trailblazers for modern ideas. They established the first modern democracy, and arguably the first modern constitution. The earliest European Americans were fixated upon religious liberty. But having been cut free from their repressive surroundings, they found great delight in creating new ways of politicking and conducting society which changed the world forever. The Thanksgiving celebration was an early American heartfelt assembly meant to thank God for all their blessings. This wholeheartedly revealed their religious convictions and humble view of life.

I. Who Were the First American Colonists?

The continent of North America was colonized by several waves of English residents, who sailed the Mayflower on a trip aimed for Virginia leaving Sept. 16, 1620, with 102 passengers. The basic outline of the typical American colonist was a religious person tired of English government meddling in their beliefs. Some of these persons came directly from England while others had been expatriates in Dutch communities. Instead of making landfall in Virginia, the ship accidentally landed in what we call Plymouth, MA—a land of thin soil, much wild game and many Natives. The colony was setup as a corporation.

The one trait which all the earliest Pilgrims shared was they were separatists, meaning they wanted to leave the Church of England in order to establish liberty to express their own brand of faith. Separatists continued after the Mayflower to leave the Old World for religious freedom in America, noted here:

Repressive policies toward religious nonconformists in England under the crown had driven many men and women to follow the Pilgrims’ path to the New World. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623). In 1630, a group of some 1,000 Puritan refugees under Governor John Winthrop settled in Massachusetts according to a charter obtained from King Charles I by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Winthrop soon established Boston as the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become the most populous and prosperous colony in the region.

According to History.com, “Pilgrim” was not their original name:

Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers were not originally known as Pilgrims, but as “Old Comers.” This changed after the discovery of a manuscript by Bradford in which he called the settlers who left Holland “saints” and “pilgrimes.” In 1820, at a bicentennial celebration of the colony’s founding, the orator Daniel Webster referred to “Pilgrim Fathers,” and the term stuck.

II. Thanksgiving

Different versions of the Thanksgiving story have been handed down, many contradictory. For certain is the early colonial settlers suffered greatly from hunger, famine, drought and lack of proper planning. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621. We have two contemporaneous accounts of these happenings, one by Edward Winslow, the other by William Bradford, later governor for 3 decades.

A. Edward Winslow’s Account

Here is an excerpt describing the Thanksgiving meal shared by the Pilgrims and American Natives, from a Winslow Letter:

God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering…Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

B. William Bradford’s Account

William Bradford was Governor of the Plymouth Plantation, and a member of the religious sect the Separatists, or Brownists. In his History Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford described the first Thanksgiving this way:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

But a deeper truth is revealed here. Whether any one particular account of Thanksgiving is more accurate than another should concern historians. Yet it ought not obscure the deeply pious and religious nature of these people, displayed in the celebration, who in their deepest need sought the providence and aid of God lest they perish. And it is this deep sense of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men, highlighted in the first Thanksgiving, and America’s profoundly spiritual origins which really should capture our attention.

For example, Bradford explains the motivations of the first group who came to America:

The one side laboured to have the right worship of God, and discipline of christ, established in the church, according to the simplicity of the Gospell; without the mixture of men’s inventions. And to have and to be ruled by the laws of Gods word; dispensed in those offices, and by those officers of pastors, Teachers, and Elders, &c., according to the Scriptures.

C. The First Thanksgiving

One site describes the first Thanksgiving:

The celebration we now popularly regard as the “First Thanksgiving” was the Pilgrims‚’ three-day feast celebrated in early November of 1621 (although a day of thanks in America was observed in Virginia at Cape Henry in 1607). The first Thanksgiving to God in the Calvinist tradition in Plymouth Colony was actually celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall.

D. Memorializing Thanksgiving

It was Abraham Lincoln who instituted the Thanksgiving holiday. One site notes the first official Thanksgiving memorialization:

The first Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on November 1, 1777. Authored by Samuel Adams, it was one sentence of 360 words, which read in part: “Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received…together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…it is therefore recommended…to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor…acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received….To prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost‚’.”

III. New World Laws & Covenants

The Pilgrims wrote an agreement to organize their new society prior to embarking upon their ship, before they left England, named after the ship—The Mayflower Compact. The concept of Democracy was suggested to the Pilgrims by a minister:

When the Separatist group decided that they must look for another homeland, Pastor John Robinson sent with them a long letter in which he outlined a plan for setting up a new government based on democratic principles. The Mayflower Compact which was signed on board the Mayflower at Cape Cod on November 21, 1620, was the direct outcome of Robinson’s guidance.

A. Mayflower Compact

Agreement Between the Settlers at New Plymouth 1620

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

B. Pilgrim Code of Law

Arguably the first modern constitution in the world, the Pilgrim Code was America’s first body of laws, published November 15, 1636. One notable aspect is the attempt to create a rule-of-law state, where rules are stressed above persons. History.com describes how this law came to be written:

The Mayflower carried not only the Pilgrims but a few other settlers as well. When it arrived at Cape Cod, several hundred miles north of its planned destination in Virginia owing to storms at sea, the passengers realized they were outside the bounds of the governmental authority they had contracted with in England. William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader, was alarmed to learn that some of the others felt no obligation to respect the rules of the Pilgrims. In his words, they wanted to “use their owne libertie.” The male heads of Pilgrim and non-Pilgrim families therefore drew up a compact that bound all signers to accept whatever form of government was established after landing. The compact created a “Civil Body Politic” to enact “just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices.” Every adult male had to sign the agreement before going ashore. The compact remained in effect until Plymouth was incorporated into the short-lived Dominion of New England in 1686 and subsequently absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

Professor Donald Lutz describes this set of laws:

Much more than a code of law, this document lays out the fundamental values and political institutions of the community and is a candidate for the honor of being the first true written constitution in the modern world. The text should be read carefully, in the context of earlier documents. On the one hand, the Pilgrim Code of Law reflects the attempt to recreate locally the English parliamentary form in a manner consistent with the provisions of its charter from the king. On the other hand, the quiet assumption of local popular sovereignty, reflected in an elected governor as well as in the inclusion of the Plymouth Agreement and the covenantal elements, is consistent with the evolving colonial political symbols going back to the Mayflower Compact. The blending of English and American forms will continue to characterize American constitutionalism. Of particular note, Plymouth Colony is by this time composed of several separate towns, so the document also establishes a federal system of government among those towns whereby each town continues to have its own assembly and officials at the same time there exists an elected colony-wide government as described here.

Here is a brief excerpt of this law:

the oath of the governor

You shall swear to be truly loyal; also, according to that measure of wisdom, understanding, and discerning given unto you faithfully, equally, and indifferently, without respect of persons, to administer justice in all cases coming before you as the governor of New Plymouth. You shall, in like manner, faithfully, duly, and truly execute the laws and ordinances of the same, and shall labor to advance and further the good of the colonies and plantations within the limits thereof to the utmost of your power and oppose any thing that shall seem to hinder the same. So help you God, who is the God of truth and punisher of falsehood.



Kelly OConnell -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico.

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