Although Jamestown had elements of free enterprise after the colony made a change, and while it had elements of common law after the creation of the House of Burgesses, Jamestown was lacking a key “Pillar” of American exceptionalism. Indeed, this was the first and most important pillar of American exceptionalism, a Christian, mostly Protestant religious foundation. The reason this was so important for Plymouth—but not Jamestown—was that the Jamestown settlers were coming over strictly for economic opportunity. Plymouth, on the other hand, was founded entirely for reasons of religious liberty, but used the mercantilist logic of economics as a pretext for their colony.
This requires a review of Christianity up to that point. The Roman Catholic Church had dominated Europe from Spain to Greece up to the time of the American settlement. In 1492, the Spaniards had finally evicted the last Muslims from Spain. Although that temporarily reunified Europe under the Roman Catholic Church all the way to Greece, where the Greek (or Eastern) Orthodox Church had split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. Henry VIII, wanting his marriage annulled, had started the process to separate the English Catholic Church from Rome (which refused to grant the annulment). That separation was finalized in 1534 when Henry split from Rome and subsequently the Archbishop of Canterbury—under the King himself—became the head of the Church of England. Although a “Reformation” followed that changed services to English and revised the book of common prayer, England’s “reformation” began strictly with Henry’s desire for a change in his marital status, not with differences over doctrine with Rome. Thus, the Church of England was not, in the strictest sense, a “Protestant” church in that it was not “protesting” anything.
Enter the Puritans. Almost immediately after the founding of the Church of England, new reformers protested many practices they though were hold-overs from the Roman Catholic Church. They emphasized piety, but many of them also believed in “predestination,” in which God had already chosen the “saved” and the “damned.” So, if that was the case, what was the point of doing good and not sinning? Well, if you were sinning and doing bad, it was a clear sign already that you were not “chosen.” Therefore, good behavior and “walking in faith” was an indicator that a person might be saved, but not a guarantee of salvation. But there were other indicators, such as material prosperity: God’s love was shown on the chosen by success and wealth. That caused Puritans to begin to actively work toward acquiring wealth—not out of greed, but out of a sign that they were indeed “chosen.” They worked hard, they saved, and they believed in business success.
Most important, however, was the practical governance of the Puritan churches, especially in America. They were congregational meaning that the individual church congregations—not the Pope, the Archbishop, the Patriarch, or someone else “at the top”—determined church direction and even doctrine. This development was titanic, because it meant that with Plymouth and later Massachusetts Bay, America’s most active churches had a “bottom-up” governance. But let’s get back to the Plymouth settlers for a moment.
Puritans in England were of two main varieties. One group believed they could (as their name suggests) “purify” the Church of England from its erroneous practices. They gained exceptional power and influence due to their view of wealth and acquisition of material gain. As they became landowners and prosperous merchants, they also slowly infiltrated Parliament until nearly control Parliament itself. But that took time. In the meantime, other Puritans decided they had to get away from the corruption of the Church of England. They were known as Separatists, and a group of them came from the town of Scrooby. These Puritans left England at exactly the same time the Jamestown colony was being planted in America, 1607, and moved to the Netherlands at the city of Leiden.
Before long, however, the Separatists began to see the Dutch as too immoral—and of course they did not know the language—and appealed for a charter from the King of England to settle in the New World. He agreed, but stipulated they could not have official recognition of their religion. Their charter came from land in the Virginia Company (i.e., the London Company) and was to extend from the Chesapeake Bay to the Hudson River.
Setting out on the Mayflower, 102 Separatists, now referred to as “Pilgrims,” endured a 65 day voyage in which they nearly ran out of beer. This was more serious than it might seem, for it was their only source of non-salt-water liquid. On November 9, 1620, they sighted land, then laid anchor in Provincetown Harbor on November 11-12. There were two problems upon arriving, which needed to be dealt with before anyone went ashore. First, not all the travelers were Puritan Separatists. About one-third were “strangers” who were agents of the London Company sent along to protect its interests. According to William Bradford, during the voyage “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.” Since they all had landed in the wrong place, the strangers argued that the Virginia Company contract was null and void. They also worried that once a congregation was set up, there would be an issue as to whether they would enjoy the same rights as the Pilgrims.
The other issue could have been more thorny. When the colonists left England, their charter for a Plymouth Council had not been completed. In other words, they arrived without a formal government (although the charter was completed in England as the Mayflower was en route).They also had arrived far to the north of the Virginia Company grant in a land for which they did not have a patent. On one level, that meant they might ignore the governance of the London Company, but at a higher level, it also meant they might be viewed as in rebellion against the King himself.
To rectify both these issues, before leaving the ship they drafted the “Mayflower Compact,” in which they swore allegiance to the King, stating their purpose in sailing to the New World was not for rebellion but “for the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith, and honor our king and country.” Of course, the Pilgrims had a different view of the “Christian faith” than the King did, but they did not mention that. The signers promised cooperation among the settlers "for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." Pilgrim and stranger alike agreed they (the colonists!) would create and “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices¼” for the good of the colony, and abide by those laws.
The Mayflower Compact organized the settlers into a “civill body politick,” in which issues would be decided by voting. Thus, at almost the same time as Virginia’s settlers were organizing to govern themselves—after a 16-year process—the Pilgrims did so in hours. The Compact was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male Pilgrims signing. They—the colonists—elected the governor, John Carver!
Here you had the basic elements of American exceptionalism. The Pilgrims had extended democratic rights to all, even non-Pilgrims; had set up a “bottom-up structure” by voting (the essence of common law) and possessed a congregational religious structure as well (again, bottom up). There were white “servants” among the passengers, but no slaves. This has been called the world’s first written constitution. Unlike the Great Charter of the Virginia Company and the orders that accompanied it where a governor was already named and imposed on the colony, the Pilgrims elected their own governor.
However, like Jamestown, they arrived with an economic plan akin to socialism. Again, everyone worked “commons” and the grain or other stores were all doled out communally. And, as at Jamestown, half the colony perished in the first year. William Bradford, who kept a journal and would later become governor, noted the “experience we had with this common course and condition [was that] by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, [it] would make [the colonists] happy and flouishing, as if they were wiser than God.” Instead, Bradford described the reality that set in: “You men that were most fit and able for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense [which] was thought injustice.” Indeed it was.
Governor Carver immediately saw the problem and gave every family corn and a parcel of land, essentially instituting capitalism. Before long, each parcel of land would come with a title deed, bringing into existence the third Pillar of Exceptionalism, private property with written titles and deeds. The result? The colonists experienced “no wante” that summer, and had a small harvest and good stores of meat. That fall, Squanto, whom Bradford called a “spetiall instrument sent from God,” came into the settlement. Contrary to popular belief, he did not have to teach the colonists how to hunt and fish. As was obvious by their stores of meat, they already knew that. But Squanto did serve as a middleman for bartering with the Indians and by 1621 crops were so abundant (again, with an early free market) that the Pilgrims held a feast to thank God, and they invited their trading partners, the Indians. This became the first “thanksgiving” celebration, though it was not officially called “Thanksgiving” until Bradford became governor (when Carver died in 1621). In 1623, Bradford issued the first official “thanksgiving” proclamation, and an American holiday was born.
Despite planting American exceptionalism, the Pilgrims never attained the same material success that the Virginia colonists did, mainly because whereas Virginians discovered a strange leaf the Indians were rolling up and lighting on fire—tobacco—the Pilgrims did not find a “cash crop.” (A “cash crop” is a crop one sells, as opposed to consumes. You can’t eat tobacco, or cotton, but you can eat corn. So even though the colonists might sell corn, it was not a “cash crop” because it could always be consumed).
Nevertheless, America was off and running with the default position of American differences (as opposed to similarities, such as slavery, which was pervasive in all the world) being the Plymouth colony. American exceptionalism would always default to them.