Merchants, Money, and the Economics of “Plain Style” in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation

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Duke University Press


As soon as they make the decision to separate from the Church of England “whatsoever it should cost them,” the small Scrooby congregation initiates the history that is the subject of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation . But the almost brash heroism of this vow gives way to embittered sadness when Bradford announces: “And that it cost them something this ensuing history will declare.” 1 A number of Bradford critics have maintained that an analogous pattern of declension characterizes the entire history, which slides from the optimistic promise of book 1 to the increasingly mournful sense of failure in book 2.2 These readings assume that Bradford hopes from the beginning to narrate an important and exceptional story about Plymouth’s place within the broader religious and political framework supplied by the Protestant Reformation and by English overseas expansion but that this story, over the years, gradually became impossible for him to tell. Even if he had precisely such ambitions in mind when he began Of Plymouth Plantation , any reader of Bradford’s text knows that his most overt and anxious concern is not Plymouth’s place within the grand sweep of history but the far more mundane problem of finances. In fact, more than Bradford’s descriptions of separatism and the Reformation, his use of the verb “cost” in the opening sentences anticipates the remainder of his book. More than anything else, Of Plymouth Plantation tells a detailed and complicated story of economic mismanagement and loss. So consumed is this narrative by matters of money that it might best be described as a history of the plantation’s financial accounts.3