- Historic Sites
The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
Things had gotten worse with both Gates and De La Warr present, so that by the time Sir Thomas Dale arrived to replace De La Warr in 1611, personal liberty was asserting itself in all kinds of deplorable ways. People were skipping Sunday service, neglecting company chores, planting gardens of their own, and “bowling in the streets.” Dale determined to bring the full weight of Gates’s Lawes down upon the backs of the settlers and deal ruthlessly with the situation. Soon work laws were being enforced with starvation and the rack, and other offenses, particularly the voicing of personal views on politics and religion, were punished by mutilation and hanging.
Across the ocean, on Hallowmas night in November 1611, Shakespeare’s new play The Tempest was being presented at Whitehall before King James and his courtiers. On one level this comedy is the tale of a deposed duke who traps and confounds his enemies on a desolate isle. On another level it is a paean to unbridled freedom in which an airy spirit begs to be relieved of further obligations to magic, in which a nobleman contrives a vision of a land without work, contracts, or a sovereign, and in which a monster sings to a drunken libertine named Stephano, “ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom, hey-day, freedom! ’
The relevance of all this to events on the Mayflower has been noted by a few historians, but only incidentally. When the Pilgrim ship arrived at Cape Cod that winter of 1620 and the passengers were waiting to leave the cramped vessel and start life ashore, William Bradford tells us that there were ominous mutterings among the voyagers. These concerned the mode by which they were to be governed. One of the more vociferous dissidents proclaimed that “when they came ashore, they should use their own libertie, for none had power to command them.” The argument was that the patent the company had was for Virginia and not for New England. And since “ye Virginia Company had nothing to doe” with New England, it had nothing more to do with them. There was no contract. Each private person was free to negotiate new arrangements in his individual and separate behalf.
If this sounds very like the claims put forth by the troublemakers on Bermuda, there is good reason. The same glib, scripture-quoting clerk who had prodded the mutineers and had talked himself out of a hanging was on board the Mayflower . Stephen Hopkins was not one of the saintly Pilgrims from Leyden. He had joined the ship at London with his pregnant second wife, a son, and two daughters; and his second son had been born at sea. He was now a gentleman.
Bradford does not name the man whose incisive words prompted the Pilgrims to draw up their famous Compact, which established for the first time in this hemisphere a self-governing union of private citizens. But there is every reason to believe that it was the same Stephen Hopkins who had cried out for personal freedom a decade before on Bermuda. The nature of the man makes the case. Throughout his life as a garrulous and independent Massachusetts tavern keeper, he remained his own man. And his pragmatic liberal views did not change with his rise in status. One of the most prolific of the Plymouth forefathers, he was also one of the most democratic. Among the Mayflower passengers, only Hopkins had been in the New World before; only he knew how powerful was the allure of absolute freedom in the making of a new world from the wilderness of a new continent.