The Plymouth Company

WHILST French and English colonists from free Holland were planting settlements on the Delaware and Hudson Rivers and the borders of Cape Cod Bay, a seed-time had again begun on that portion of the soil of New England now covered by the States of New Hampshire and Maine. Sir Ferdinando Gorges was the chief promoter of this cultivation. He had been the controlling spirit in the Plymouth Company from the beginning, and the chief instrument in procuring the despotic charter for the Plymouth Council. For its existence and powers he contended fearlessly before the hostile Parliament, standing firmly upon the king's prerogative. In that contest he had a powerful coadjutor in Sir George Calvert, a representative of Yorkshire, and who afterward became the founder of Maryland. Educated at Oxford; taught wisdom by travels; fostered in public life by Sir Robert Cecil, and through him advanced to the honors of knighthood; employed as one of the Secretaries of State when the Pilgrims were preparing to depart for America, and being possessed of a handsome person, winning manners and fluency of speech, he was very popular among all classes, and had been elected to a seat in the House of Commons by an immense majority. He had sought refuge from controversy (privately at first) in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. As that Church paid all due deference to the king as sovereign, it was not regarded with disfavor by James, and Sir George was an ever-welcome guest at the palace, for he was a thorough courtier.

It was a notable scene in the House of Commons, then convened for the first time in seven years, when Gorges appeared before that body to show cause why the charter should not be annulled, or its despotic powers abridged. The King was present to defend his prerogative if it should be assailed. Gorges and Calvert were opposed by Sir Edwin Sandys, the wise statesman and friend of Virginia, and by the then venerable Sir Edward Coke, who had been Lord Chief-Justice of England. Coke was a member of Parliament and of the Privy Council, and he then began his famous contest with the king, which resulted in a curious exhibition of wrath and despotism on the part of James. Coke had procured the opposition of Parliament to the proposed marriage of the Prince of Wales to a Spanish princess, as dangerous to Protestantism in England. The angered king denounced the address which the House of Commons presented to him on the subject as an unlawful interference with his prerogative; mentioned the name of Coke, the author of it, as a culprit; and in a letter to the Speaker, declared his intention to "punish any man's misdemeanor in Parliament as well during the sitting as after." This threat was aimed at Coke, who immediately moved a protestation for the privilege of the House, setting forth the right of every member to freedom of speech, and like "freedom from all impeachment, imprisonment or molestation," on account of anything said or done in Parliament. It was carried and entered in the journals. On hearing of this act, the king immediately prorogued or dissolved Parliament, sent for the journals of the House, and with his own hand tore out the offensive record. Then he caused the arrest of Coke and others, in execution of his threat, and confined him in the Tower several months, when he was released on the petition of Prince Charles.

In the matter of the charter, Sandys pleaded for the freedom in fishing and of general commerce, which was then becoming the staple of wealth for England. "The fishermen hinder the plantations," replied Calvert; "they choke the harbors with their ballast, and waste the forests by improvident use. America is not annexed to the realm nor within the jurisdiction of Parliament; you have therefore no right to interfere." "We make laws for Virginia," said another member; "a bill passed by the Commons and the Lords, if it receives the king's assent, will control the patent." Sir Edward Coke argued with numerous references to the statutes of the realm, that as the charter was granted without regard to pre-existing rights, it was necessarily void. This attack upon his prerogative aroused the angry monarch, who was sitting near the Speaker's chair, and he blurted out some silly words about the "divine right of kings," when the Commons, in defiance of his wrath, passed a bill giving freedom to commerce in spite of the charter. That bill had not gone through all the forms of legislation when the king broke up the Parliament for reasons just mentioned.

James, in the exercise of his prerogative, issued a proclamation forbidding any vessel to approach the shores of North Virginia without the special consent of the Plymouth Company. The Company commissioned Francis West admiral of New England, and sent him to protect their chartered rights. His police force was too feeble for so wide a domain, and the fishermen, in their fast-sailing shallops, eluded his grasp. The next Parliament proceeded to perfect what the former one had begun. The House was led by Coke, lately released from the Tower. "Your patent," he said to Gorges from the Speaker's chair, "contains many particulars contrary to the laws and privileges of the subject; it is a monopoly, and the ends of private gain are concealed under color of planting a colony." In debate, he said, "Shall none visit the sea-coast for fishing? This is to make a monopoly upon the seas, which want to be free. If you, alone, are to pack and dry fish, you attempt a monopoly of the wind and sun." The bill passed, but never received the signature of the king. The monopolists, discouraged by the opposition of the Commons, lowered their pretensions, and many of the patentees withdrew their interests in the Company. Those who remained, like Gorges, now did little more than issue grants of domain in the north-eastern parts of America.

This was the first debate on American affairs in the British Parliament; and it is a singular fact that in the course of it the supreme authority of the National Legislature over the American colonies was plainly asserted, the attempted exercise of which, in the matter of taxation, led to the old war for independence, one hundred and fifty years afterward, and the dismemberment of the British empire.

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