William Bradford

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William Bradford c. 1590-1657

Colonial American historian and poet.

William Bradford, the author of Of Plymouth Plantation (c. 1630, c. 1646), has been hailed as the father of American history. A Puritan of modest descent and learning, Bradford played a leading role in in the Separatist movement and was elected Governor of Plymouth Colony thirty-one times. His account of the Pilgrims' journey to America and their struggles in the fledgling colony, Of Plymouth Plantation has provided a seminal resource for many of the histories that followed. It is noted for the “plain style” characteristic of Puritan writing, as well as for its humor, sincerity, and deeply felt spirituality. Both praised as “a commanding work of literary art” and disparaged as “a providentialist history gone awry,” Of Plymouth Plantation remains one of the founding works of American literature and historiography.

Biographical Information

Bradford was born in 1590 to William Bradford, a successful yeoman farmer, and Alice Hanson Bradford. The exact date of his birth is not known, but records show that he was baptized on March 19, 1590, in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England. His early life was marked by a series of losses and dislocations. Shortly after Bradford's birth, his father died. When his mother remarried a few years later, Bradford went to live with his paternal grandfather; upon his grandfather's death two years later, he returned to his mother. In 1597 his mother died, and Bradford moved again, to live with his uncles Thomas and Robert Bradford in Austerfield, where he worked on their farm and likely attended school. By the time Bradford reached age twelve he had begun attending meetings of Separatists in nearby villages, despite the opposition of his family. At one of the meetings in nearby Babworth, Bradford heard the preacher Richard Clyfton, who would later be an important influence in his conversion to Puritanism. In 1606 Clyfton formed the Separatist congregation in the village of Scrooby, and Bradford became a member. It was among the Scrooby Seperatists that Bradford first met other influential mentors, including William Brewster, who would later become an elder of the church at Plymouth, and John Robinson. Bradford worked in the textiles industry, and moved with the Scrooby Separatists to Amsterdam and then to Leyden. In 1613 Bradford married Dorothy May, whose father was a member of the English Church of Amsterdam; they had a son, John, in 1615. Within days of the Pilgrims' arrival in America in 1620, Dorothy drowned, having either jumped or fallen from the Mayflower.

The following year the first governor of Plymouth, John Carver, died, and Bradford was elected to succeed him. He held the position until 1656, but served as an assistant to Governor Winslow and Governor Prence for brief periods during his tenure. In 1623 he married Alice Carpenter Southworth, with whom he fathered three children. His son from his first marriage and two children from Alice's first marriage were also part of the Bradford household, as were two sons of deceased friends. In 1630 Bradford began work on Of Plymouth Plantation, in response, some scholars suggest, to the arrival of the settlers of the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the same year, the Council for New England issued the Warwick Patent for the colony of New Plymouth in Bradford's name, meaning that he could, if he wished, become the sole proprietor of the colony. True to his principles, Bradford instead shared his rights with those who had come with him to New England. Toward the end of his career, however, Bradford came to feel that the young people of the colony did not share those...

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principles. He wrote three dialogues—only two of which have survived, one dated 1648 and another from 1652—between the original settlers of Plymouth and colonists born in New England. In the dialogues Bradford attempts to explain the values of Puritanism and the sacrifices of the founders of Plymouth. From 1650 until his death in 1657 he also expressed these themes in verse, but neither they nor the dialogues were widely read.

Major Works

Bradford's most important work is Of Plymouth Plantation, an account of the activities of the Puritans from 1621 to 1646. The work existed only in manuscript form for two centuries, but was widely circulated. During the American Revolution the manuscript mysteriously disappeared, possibly stolen from the New England Library by a British soldier. Not until 1855 did scholars realize that a manuscript on Pilgrim history in the Bishop of London's library at Fulham Palace was the long-lost Bradford manuscript; it was published the following year. Although Of Plymouth Plantation presents a year-by-year narration of events, it is not a diary or journal but a retrospective in two books. The first book, written mostly in 1630, focuses on the journey of the Pilgrims from England to Amsterdam, then to Leyden, and finally to North America, concluding with the founding of the Plymouth settlement. This first book is composed as a providential history, stressing the spiritual importance of the Separatists' struggles to reach America. Bradford did not begin the second book until 1646, drawing from earlier notes and letters to relate the story of the Pilgrims in North America. The second book, possessing a less coherent narrative structure, is annalistic and more concerned than the first book with prosaic details of life in the colony. It also reflects Bradford's growing anxiety about the spiritual welfare of the colonists and his increasing uncertainty regarding the workings of providence. Beginning in 1648 Bradford wrote a number of didactic works aimed at the younger generation. Poems such as “On the Various Heresies in Old and New England” and “Some Observations of God's Merciful Dealing with Us in This Wilderness” and his two surviving dialogues, A Dialogue or the sume of a Conference between som Younge-men borne in New England and sundery Ancient-men that came out of holland and old England Anno dom 1648 (1648) and A Dialogue or 3d Conference … concerning the Church, and the Government thereof, (1652) demonstrate Bradford's concern with the continuance of his community and its Separatist culture.

Critical Reception

Even before its publication in 1856, Of Plymouth Plantation was an important resource for early American historians, including Increase Mather, who used the manuscript for his account of the Indian wars, and his son, Cotton Mather, who used it for his own history of the Plymouth colony. Following its publication, the history was widely admired, in part because of its demonstration of Bradford's sincerity and strength of character, traits which were regarded as quintessentially American. Modern criticism on Of Plymouth Plantation has tended to fall into two broad categories, either focusing on Bradford as historian or as a prose stylist. Scholars have taken a number of different approaches in their analyses of Bradford's historiography. Some critics, including Walter P. Wenska, have focused on the differences between the two books of Of Plymouth Plantation. Others have explored influences on Bradford's construction of his history. David Levin, for instance, has examined the ways that Bradford's Puritan piety shaped his view of history. Kenneth Alan Hovey has traced the influence of earlier colonial histories on the theological themes of Bradford's work, while David Read has stressed the impact of commercial and economic concerns on Bradford's writing. Jonathan Goldberg has examined Bradford's treatment of sexuality, gender, and race in the process of “inclusion and exclusion” by which he defined the community depicted in Of Plymouth Plantation. Other scholars have attempted to demonstrate the history's merits as a literary work. E. F. Bradford has focused Bradford's use of a “plain style,” a Puritan contrast to the highly ornamented prose of other Renaissance authors. This critic, along with G. Cuthbert Blaxland and others, have emphasized that the seeming simplicity of Bradford's writing was the product of conscious literary intent. Other examinations of the literary qualities of Bradford's writing have included Perry Westbrook's survey of a broad range of styles and techniques employed by the author, and David Laurence's investigation into Bradford's evocation of the sublime in Of Plymouth Plantation.


Principal Works