The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

II. The Historians, 1607–1783

§ 6. William Bradford

After “Mourt” and Winslow we come to two historians whose excellence entitles them to first rank among the earliest writers of their kind. They wrote quite as much as Captain John Smith, and their writtings are more to be esteemed. No one has cast doubts on the accuracy of William Bradford, of Plymouth, or of John Winthrop, of Massachusetts Bay. While not historical compositions as such, their books are, in vivid and sustained human interest, as well as in the power of depicting the conditions of the first settlements, a most adequate and successful kind of history. Each is a journal written by a man who stood at the head of affairs, whose life was so important in his day that we have in it a reflection of the progress of the important things of the colony in which he lived.

William Bradford was one of the Mayflower passengers whose sober judgment and integrity had won for him the confidence of the Pilgrims ere they sailed for America. In 1621 he was chosen governor, and he held the office by annual re-election until his death in 1657, except for five years when, as Winthrop said, “by importunity he gat off.” He believed it his duty to write about what he had seen and known of the trial and success of the men who, under divine guidance, had made Plymouth a fact. He began to write about 1630 and proceeded at so leisurely a gait that in 1646 he had only reached the year 1621. Four years later his account had come to the year 1646, but here his efforts ceased. His work is known as The History of Plymouth Plantation.

Neither Bradford nor his immediate successors made an effort to publish the history. They seem to have considered it a document to be kept for the use of future historians. It was, in fact, freely used for this purpose by his nephew, Nathaniel Morton, in a book called New England’s Memorial, published in 1669. It remained in the hands of the family of the author for a hundred years and finally came into the possession of the Rev. Thomas Prince, who used it in writing his Chronological History, published in 1736. Hutchinson also used it in preparing his History. When Prince died he left the manuscript, with many other valuable writings, in the tower of the Old South Church, in Boston. During the Revolution the British troops used this church for a riding school, and Prince’s carefully collected library was dispersed. The British gone, such books as could be found were gathered together, but no trace of Bradford’s manuscript was discovered. It was long believed to be lost, but it found its way to London, where it came at last to the library of the Bishop of London, and for many years lay unnoticed at Fulham Palace. In 1884 Wilberforce published a book on the Protestant Church in America, in which he referred to the manuscript. Four years later appeared Anderson’s History of the Colonial Church, an English work, and in it also was a reference to the manuscript. Seven years lay two gentlemen of Boston came across the reference in Anderson’s book. An investigation was made, and the identity of the Fulham manuscript with Bradford’s was completely established. The Bishop of London held that only an act of Parliament could restore it to the place whence it had been taken. He made, however, no objection to a request that the Massachusetts Historical Society be allowed to publish the manuscript, and in 1856 that society gave the world the first complete publication of Bradford’s book. It was enriched with annotations by the learned Charles Deane. In 1867 another request was made that the bishop should surrender the manuscript, but the reply was the same as in the first instance. In 1896 the then Bishop of London relented, and Bradford’s manuscript was given up without an act of Parliament. It was received in Boston with high honour and much joy on the part of learned men and was placed in the State Library, a chief ornament of the archives of the Common-wealth of Massachusetts. In 1912 it was published in a final and authoritative form by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The History of Plymouth Plantation is a Puritan book in the best sense. Its author was a man of intelligence, whose moderate educational opportunities had been supplemented by earnest and industrious private studies. He knew the Latin, Greek, and Dutch languages, and in his old age taught himself Hebrew so that he might read the oracles of God in the form in which they originally appeared. His History is loosely annalistic, but a direct and simple style gives charm, as a sincere faith in Puritanism gives purity, to the entire book. He who would understand the spirit of old Plymouth would do well to read Bradford through.