By Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, PhD
(text of a speech given at Delfshaven in the Oude Kerk ("Pilgrim Fathers' Church") during the commemoration of Dutch-American Heritage Day, Nov. 18, 2000)
In the context of the political drama of the Florida elections I think that a short consideration of the Pilgrims and their practical application of democratic principles is appropriate today during our celebration of Dutch-American Heritage Day,—principles that to a large extent had a Dutch origin.
That one can find a Dutch source for the democratic ideas of the Pilgrims is a consequence of Robert Browne's stay in Middelburg (in Zeeland, The Netherlands) in 1582. The Puritan minister Browne came into contact there with Dutch Mennonites. Browne considered their church polity exemplary. They had independent congregations, who democratically chose their own ministers and deacons. Browne spread these ideas in England by publishing pamphlets.
The most famous was called, "A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying for Any." Browne thus broke with the "Puritans," who wanted to "purify" the Church of England from within. Browne maintained that the true Christian had to withdraw from this, in their eyes, impure church. This origin of the Separatist movement in England led to the sarcastic name "Brownists" for those people like the group we now call "Pilgrims," who preferred to call themselves "Separatists."
Dutch Mennonites chose their leaders in a way that differed from the Anglican Church and the Dutch Reformed Church. In the Anglican Church the Christian Magistracy, represented by the king, held the right to appoint the bishops. In their turn, the bishops appointed the priests. Deacons were the lowest rank of consecrated priests, and thus were also appointed by this hierarchy, while the "vestry" (laymen comparable with the church board in The Netherlands) was in some places chosen by the parishioners and in other places appointed by the local lord of the manor.
Among the Dutch Reformed, ministers were appointed by the local magistracy, from a nomination by the "classis" (or regional gathering of the ministers already appointed). Board members or deacons were nominated by the sitting church board in a list of twice as many candidates as positions, but the choice and appointment remained in the hands of the civil magistracy in the cities and of the manor lord in the villages. Clearly the Mennonites represented a radical rejection of the characteristic social organization around them, so subordinate to authority; but among the Mennonites these ideas remained within a church context. After the disastrous defeat of the Anabaptists who had proclaimed the New Jerusalem and the approaching end of the world at Muenster in Germany in 1534/5, the survivors were organized under the leadership of the former Catholic priest from Friesland, Menno Simons. They became known as Mennonites. It seemed to them much better to be pacifists and to withdraw totally from participation in worldly politics. It was thus left to the Pilgrims, with their "Mayflower Compact" in 1620, to apply for the first time the democratic principles of the Dutch dissidents, the Mennonites, to the structure of a civil society.
But how did that work in practice? During the first seven years of Plymouth Colony, everyone lived together in the village of Plymouth. The colony as a whole—land and products—belonged to the investors who had lent money to the Pilgrims. Until they were repaid, not one of the Pilgrims really had his own house or farmland. All the land was therefore farmed on a common basis. This was an unknown situation, an experiment. After unsatisfactory results in the first years, when people shifted from farming one field to another each year, they decided to leave the fields under the care of the same farmer during successive years. What we see here in Plymouth is thus not communal possession, but an unrelieved capitalistic mortgage situation.
To carry out daily life with justice and equality, a governor and magistrates were chosen each year by those with the right to vote. Those with voting rights were the adult men as well as all independent women.
Independent women were those who as widows had become heads of households or who had reached the age of majority but were as yet unmarried and had rights to land from the future land divisions. We notice thus that in Plymouth gender was not of decisive significance for voting rights.
The leaders were chosen once a year. Four times a year the colonists came together to hold courts. Criminal and civil cases were decided by the magistrates and a jury, elected from and by the freemen, under the chairmanship of the governor. In addition these court meetings were the place where all proposed laws were voted on by all the freemen. Without the voted approval of the majority of the freemen, no law could take effect. This is the origin of the "Town Meeting," which is so characteristic of new England.
It is also the origin of the fact that on all the ballots in America during the present election, the citizens, state by state, are allowed to express their approval or rejection of proposed or existing but questioned laws.
Two aspects of a democracy are recognizable here: the holders of political and judicial power were elected by majority vote; and all laws received the voted approval of the majority of the citizens.
A third characteristic of a democracy can also be observed in Plymouth Colony in the elopments after 1627. In 1627 the remaining debt of the colony was bought off by a limited number of "undertakers." Most of them were colonists, but four of these people who undertook personally to pay off the debt lived in London. The Undertakers received exclusive rights to the fur trade with the Indians, while the colony, through an official patent from the Earl of Warwick, as chairman of the company of former creditors, became the personal property of Governor William Bradford. Bradford immediately made over the colony to the freemen as a whole, although the court reserved large parcels from the common land for the four London Undertakers.
The court of Governor and Magistrates then had the right to distribute the land of the colony. For the territory surrounding the village of Plymouth each freeman who was already present in 1627 (together with their heirs and assigns) had an equal right to the future land divisions. And everyone could vote on an equal basis in the decisions about land distribution. The characteristic democratic principle represented here is that of "one man, one vote." This differs from the system of the ancient Dutch "heemraadschappen" (waterways supervisory boards), where land possession determined the value of the vote, so that a major land owner had more to say in all decisions. In Plymouth, the court elected from among the citizens had the right to reward someone, such as a military leader or a miller, for his services to society, with extra land, but the person who was granted that favor did not thereby gain an increased weight in the voting.
The change in the colony in 1627 enabled people to begin with founding new settlements, through grants of land outside the village boundaries of Plymouth. First regarded as outlying suburbs, Duxbury, Scituate, and Green's Harbor (present-day Marshfield) were recognized as independent villages in 1636. Their population increased, with the result that people complained about the inconvenience of the requirement that each freeman had to travel to Plymouth four times a year to elect leaders and vote on the proposed laws. A system of delegates elected by the freemen arose.
They represented the citizens at the court. These delegates, together with the elected governor and magistrates, formed the legal body that had to determine policy, taxation, and proposals of law. Nevertheless, the decisions about proposed laws taken by these representatives had to be confirmed afterwards by general voting in the local Town Meeting before the new laws took effect.
One political conflict must still be mentioned. Around 1645 two definitions of the group with the right to vote collided.
"Congregationalists," – members of church congregations who felt themselves united by a common Covenant with each other and God, - tried to withhold the right to vote from non-members of their churches. Anglicans in New England who had not fully joined a local church congregation would thereby lose their voting rights in civil, political decisions. Moreover, their children would no longer have a right to further grants of land, because the Congregationalists wanted to recognize only their own church members as freemen, and only freemen had a right to land from the common lands. Against this proposed shrinking of the body of voters in the Town Meeting, the town of Scituate reacted in 1647 by taking the opposing attitude. From then on, every male resident, as well as widows who were heads of households, could vote on land questions at least, and probably also on other matters that came before the Town Meeting.
This extension of voting rights, so that the right was no longer dependent on rights to land possession or on church membership, was justified with an appeal to the English legal precedent that every native-born Englishman was considered to possess certain general rights, which included participation in local government. Anglicans in New England also contested the attempt to exclude them from the political process because of their church affiliation, which after all in England was the state church.
Perhaps it is in Scituate that we can find the origin of the two America political parties, – one group that wants to count every citizen's vote, and another group that wants to exclude their opponents from political decisions by withholding from them the right to vote.
There is insufficient time to follow all the further elopments in Plymouth Colony. When Charles II became king and returned to power in 1660 after the Commonwealth period, a shift took place towards a hierarchical exercise of power, also in the colonies. Finally the charters of all the colonies in New England were abrogated, and the government was brought under an appointed Commissioner of the King, the despotic Royal Governor Sir Edmond Andros. In Plymouth the court had already (ca. 1672) declared the extension of suffrage in Scituate in 1647 to be illegal. From then on, the representatives were no longer considered to act from the Town Meeting towards the court, but the other way around. The court considered that the delegates represented the political power of the central government towards the separate village populations. The court reminded people that the nominations of the elected representatives were confirmed by the court, and the court concluded from that, that the representatives derived their legitimacy from the court and not from the electorate. Despite this reversal, the court approved all the land grants since 1647, in order to prevent uncertainty about land titles.
In Plymouth Colony we saw the practical work of the application to a civil government of the democratic principles of the church order of the Mennonites, who themselves had derived the system from the New Testament understanding of the equality of all believers. In that sense, the Pilgrims' democracy is Dutch in origin, but it comes from the world of ideas of Dutch dissidents.
The semi-democratic structure for the present Dutch government is entirely different. People may vote for representatives in the Second Chamber (the lower house of parliament), but the majority of government officials are appointed by the politicians already in office, and not elected by the citizens. The members of the First Chamber, the Prime Minister, the other ministers, the Commissioners of the Queen (equivalent to state governors), the mayors, and many others are named from the modern continuation of the ancient aristocratic patriciate, – the political parties. Entry into those parties is, it is true, rather open to people who want to invest time in it, but that is insufficient to be able to call this system of appointments democratic.
Nonetheless, the Dutch system reaches a high degree of justice. Probably this arises from the general presupposition of mutual, broad social responsibility and respect for the law, which is a heritage of common oppression, recognition of the heroism of the resistance to tyranny, and common co-operation in the post-war reconstruction of the nation and its people. But as soon as one or another party in this process ignores these ideals, in the interests of private advantage or shortsighted profiteering, few controlling brakes remain on the system, and certainly none so effective as the democratic system of the Pilgrims, by which all policy decisions and laws required the voted approval of the entire, equal electorate.
An extensive discussion of suffrage is included in the introduction to volume 3 of Dr. Jeremy Bangs' book "17th-cent. Records of Scituate, Mass."