Resisting the Leviathan

In his famous Leviathan, the 17th-century theorist Thomas Hobbes argued that members of a political society should submit themselves to an absolute sovereign to preserve their lives and security. Without an absolute ruler, Hobbes warned, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Four hundred years ago, on November 11, 1620, a small group of zealous Puritans washed ashore near Cape Cod, Mass., and proved him wrong.

To be sure, for the 102 men and women who traveled from Europe on the Mayflower, the world they encountered looked like a Hobbesian nightmare. William Bradford, who later became governor of the colony, described “a hideous and desolate wilderness.” The first bitter winter brought death — from disease, malnutrition, and exposure — to more than half of the company. Without help from the area’s native people, the Wampanoag, probably none of the colonists would have survived.

There were also threats from within: Only 41 of the company were Protestant separatists or “saints,” those fleeing religious persecution and seeking freedom of worship outside the Church of England. The remainder, called “strangers,” were a mix typical of the middle and lower classes of 17th-century English society. Many came for purely commercial reasons; others may have been trying to escape their past. One of them, John Billington, became the first colonist executed for murder.

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