The Pilgrims in Holland

Within the space of 20 years, the Pilgrims moved from a static, medieval society to laying the “cornerstone of a nation.”

The Dutch have given many things to America: Easter eggs, Santa Claus, waffles, sauerkraut, sleighing, skating, and a host of “vans” and “velts” who helped to build our nation.[1] But perhaps their greatest contribution to America was the 11 years of freedom they gave the Pilgrims—crucial years that helped America’s founding fathers work out their philosophy of freedom and prepare for self-government in the New World.

The story of Holland’s rise due to free market policies has already been sketched in a previous Freeman article.[2] Suffice to say that her struggle for independence from Spain was of epic proportions: when, after a siege of several months, the citizens of Leyden talked of surrender, one burgomaster fortified their spirits by saying, “Here is my sword; plunge it, if you will, into my heart, and divide my flesh among you to appease your hunger; but expect no surrender as long as I am alive.”[3] The burgomaster lived—and so did the rest of the citizens of Leyden—to see the day when William the Silent routed the besieging Spaniards. The defense of Leyden turned the tide, and from then on the Dutch never looked back in their fight for freedom. Once they were free, the Dutch embraced much of what we would call a free market philosophy and set up a limited government. In the early 1600s, Holland was the most liberal society in Europe.

It should not surprise us, then, that when English Separatists began to think of emigrating, they thought of Holland. But emigrating to Holland would be no easy task: Englishmen could not leave the country without permission. Never mind—the Separatists would leave secretly. The first group—members of a Brownist church in Gainsborough, went over in 1607; hearing good reports, members of the Scrooby congregation—the group which included many of the Pilgrim Fathers—prepared to follow. After several attempts to escape, the Pilgrims finally succeeded, arriving in Amsterdam on a Dutch ship.

Soon after, they applied to the authorities in Leyden to settle there. John Robinson, their pastor, made a formal application to the Burgomasters and Court of Leyden, stating that about 100 English men and women wanted to come to the city to live “and to have the freedom thereof in carrying on their trades, without being a burden in the least to any one.”[4]

The application was granted on February 12, 1609. The Dutch authorities declared that “they refuse no honest persons free ingress to come and have their residence in this city, provided that such persons behave themselves, and submit to the laws and ordinances.” Their coming, the Dutch authorities added, “will be agreeable and welcome.”[5] As early as the 1600s, the Dutch—with few natural resources of their own—realized the importance of human capital.

The Dutch didn’t provide a welcome-wagon of gifts and subsidies: there were no government handouts. What they did offer the Pilgrims was freedom—the freedom to worship according to their consciences as well as to succeed or fail in the Dutch marketplace.

Britain’s King James, hearing of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Leyden, sent a letter of protest to the town authorities. Jan Van Hout, secretary of the City of Leyden, gave a polite reply, but made no effort either to expel the Pilgrims or to help King James capture them.[6] The pilgrims were free men.

The Meaning of Freedom

Free men. For the Pilgrims, this was a new idea. Just what did it mean to be free? With the external pressure of persecution lifted, would the Pilgrims remain true to their original calling? Or would they turn liberty into license and lose their distinctive identity? Time would show that the Pilgrims took seriously their responsibilities of self-government. Indeed, the Dutch experience would prove to be an excellent half-way house to the freedom the Pilgrims would find in the New World. For the next 11 years, the Pilgrims took advantage of all the opportunities that Dutch society offered.

Because of their excellent reputation for honesty and hard work, the Pilgrims were able to obtain loans and jobs which they needed to set themselves up in Holland. In a market economy, there is no substitute for keeping one’s word and honoring contracts. William Bradford, who later became governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote: “And first, though many of them were poor, yet there was none so poor but if they were known to be of that congregation the Dutch (either bakers or others) would trust them in any reasonable matter when they wanted money, because they found by experience how careful they were to keep their word, and saw them so painful and diligent in their callings. Yea, they would strive to get their custom and to employ them above others in their work, for their honesty and diligence.”[7]

Most of the Pilgrims went to work in the textile industry, something for which they had little experience. William Bradford became a fustian worker, while others became weavers, woolcombers, and merchant tailors. In England, almost all had been farmers, following the same patterns of medieval agriculture that their fathers and grandfathers had followed. It must have been hard for grown men to learn a new trade, but it was the price they had to pay to live in a relatively free society. Moreover, it helped to make the Pilgrims an adaptable and teachable people.

At first, the Pilgrims held church services in the homes of various members. But in 1611, the Pilgrims bought a large house to be used for church services and as a residence for their pastor, John Robinson.[8] Left alone by the Dutch, the Pilgrims were finding that Christians could support a church without the aid of government. In Robinson’s house, the Pilgrims continued to exercise the congregationalist form of church government which would have such a great impact on American republicanism. The New England town meeting traces its origin to the congregational church, not to ancient Greece, as many high school history texts erroneously teach.

The Pilgrims also took advantage of Holland’s laissez-faire government to set up a small publishing house. Working near the limits of the long arm of King James, William Brewster and Edward Winslow ran a printing press where Puritan tracts and books were published and sent back to England. In all, Brewster published between 15 and 20 books. Unfortunately, the Dutch could not withstand the pressure from the English government forever, and were compelled to shut down Brewster’s press in 1619. Yet they refused to arrest Brewster himself.[9]


The Netherlands’ atmosphere of religious freedom tended to have a liberalizing effect on the Pilgrims. John Robinson, for example, was invited to debate at Leyden University. Although he never changed his Separatist views, he did learn that men of different faiths could live together without killing one another. Later, in the New World, Plymouth Colony would prove to be a handy buffer zone between the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay Colony and the more radical colonists in Rhode Island. When Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster, for example, resigned because he came to reject the Puritan doctrine of infant baptism, he set-fled in Plymouth. The Pilgrims also believed in infant baptism, but they had become tolerant enough to “agree to disagree” with other Christians like Dunster.

The Pilgrims weren’t the only ones to benefit from the freedom offered by seventeenth-century Dutch society. Indeed, as one historian put it, there was a steady “flow of exiles, English and Scottish, who sought refuge in Holland from the religious persecution and political violence of seventeenth-century England and Scotland.”[10] Literally thousands of English and Scottish Dissenters, unwelcome at Oxford and Cambridge, were educated at the Universities of Leyden and Utrecht. Even John Locke, who had to flee England, benefited from refuge in the Lowlands. Historian Dr. R. Colic has written: “. . . in the city of Amsterdam where writing and printing were so natural to all great minds, Locke began to become Locke, and the obscure political exile turned into the philosopher par excellence of a new regime in thought.”[11] And when the people of England sought a new pair of monarchs to usher in an age of toleration and freedom, they found them in Holland: William and Mary. The result was England’s Glorious Revolution, one of the few bloodless revolutions in history. A year later, England had a Bill of Rights.

The 11 years the Pilgrims spent in Holland saw them grow in responsibility, adaptability, and self- government. As Bradford Smith put it in his biography of William Bradford, “The libertarian tradition at Plymouth, with its profound influence on American life, is not primarily English. It is Dutch. Simple justice demands that we acknowledge this . . . . Thus, during their Leyden years, were the Pilgrims perfecting themselves for the undreamed of work of founding a new nation. In religion, they grew milder and more tolerant. In business and craftsmanship they learned a great deal from the thrifty, ambitious and highly capable Hollanders. Too, the Dutch flair for efficient government and record keeping, the spirit of republicanism and civic responsibility were to bear unsuspected fruit in a distant land.”[12]

The Pilgrims left Leyden in 1620; William Bradford described their departure in a now-famous passage which later gave the Pilgrims their name: “So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”[13]

The Mayflower Compact

When the Pilgrims finally landed in America, Separatists and Anglicans joined together to form America’s first written constitution, the Mayflower Compact. It was a crucial precedent for self-government in America.

Despite their experience in Holland’s free economy, the Pilgrims tried a brief experiment in agricultural socialism when they arrived in America. This experiment, based on a false reading of the Book of Acts, caused widespread starvation. Fortunately, before it was too late, the Pilgrims saw their error and abandoned their “common course” in favor of private property. As Bradford later explained, “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content: . . . The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”[14]

Some present-day historians believe that the Pilgrims have been overrated, that this little band of 100 or so English farmers doesn’t deserve such an exalted position in the popular American imagination. Such an attitude is understandable, since most of these same writers disagree with everything for which the Pilgrims stood. Our forefathers knew better. Even before the Revolutionary War, they were celebrating “Old Comers Day” and “Forefathers Day” to honor the coming of the Pilgrims and, more important, the values they represented—including religious, civil, and economic liberty.

This Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the material blessings most of us will enjoy this season were made possible by the principles of self-government under God that served the Dutch and the Pilgrims so well in the seventeenth century. Within the space of 20 years, the Pilgrims moved from a static, medieval society to laying the “cornerstone of a nation.” We may still profit from their example.

[1]Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Pageant, Vol. I (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath and Co., 1979), p. 36.

[2]Robert A. Peterson, “Lessons in Liberty: The Dutch Republic, 1579-1750,” The Freeman. July, 1987, pp. 259-264.

[3]William Stevenson, The Story of the Reformation (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1959), p. 125.

[4]John Brown, The Pilgrim Fathers of New England and Their Puritan Successor (New York: Fleming I-I. Revell, 1896), pp. 120-121.


[6]Mary B. Sherwood, Pilgrim: A Biography of William Brewster (Falls Church, Virginia: Great Oak Press of Virginia, 1982), p. 117.

[7]William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952. 1982), pp. 19-20.

[8]Sherwood, p. 123.

[9]Ibid., p. 134.

[10]Charles Wilson, The Dutch Republic (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968), p. 183.

[11]Ibid., p. 175.

[12]Bradford Smith, Bradford of Plymauth (Philadelphia: Lippine. oft. 1951), p- 78-

[13]Bradford, p. 47.

[14]Ibid., pp. 120-121.