Reflections on Isaac Allerton

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD

Isaac Allerton and his sister Sarah were members of John Robinson's congregation in Leiden in 1609. As time passed the congregation recognized the extraordinary organizational abilities of Isaac Allerton. By the time the congregation left Holland Isaac had become one of its prominent members. In 1620 Isaac, his wife Mary (Norris), and children Bartholomew, Remember and Mary arrived in Plymouth. Allerton's wife died during the first winter. When Governor John Carver died, Isaac was elected Assistant Governor to William Bradford. For several years Isaac was second only to Bradford. In 1623 Allerton married Fear Brewster, daughter of Ruling Elder William Brewster. They had a son Isaac in 1627. In 1625 Robert Cushman, the colony's London agent, died and Bradford appointed Allerton as the London agent.

In 1627 the colony and the Merchant Adventurers in England created a group of individuals known as the Undertakers to assume the debt of the colony. Under the agreement the entire trade of the colony was bound to the Undertakers who would buy and sell products exchanged between the colony and England. The agreement allowed the Undertakers to exercise a monopoly on trade with the colony. The Undertakers gave the colonists supplies worth 50 pounds and with the profits from the colony's products repaid the Merchant Adventurers.

By 1630/1, the colonists became dissatisfied with Allerton's financial activities, which grew to disaffection and finally alienation. Bradford removed Allerton as London agent because Allerton had exceeded his authority. In 1633 Allerton moved to Salem where he established a fishing fleet. Because of his free-thinking attitudes and affiliation with Quakers and Roger Williams, Allerton was asked to leave Salem. He moved to New Amsterdam where he continued his trading business. In 1646 he moved to New Haven and continued his business with his son Isaac. Allerton died in 1659.

Bradford's journal does not contain a full discussion, but it is clear Allerton's fall from grace was precipitous and never forgiven. The experience must have been wrenching for the colony because Allerton's father-in-law was the Ruling Elder William Brewster, and his daughter Mary was married to Thomas Cushman, deacon of the church and successor to Brewster as Ruling Elder.

I suggest that the creation of the Undertakers transformed Allerton's relation to his colleagues in Plymouth. The Undertakers was a partnership in a commercial endeavor. While partnerships were not new in the seventeenth century, business practices were not as formal as they are today. Originally Plymouth was a collective, a colonial kibbutz, as it were, in which material products were shared equally by everyone. However by 1626, it was clear that the original contract with the London Adventurers was not going to be made to everyone's satisfaction. Creating the Undertakers was a logical way to refinance the colony's debt and transfer the debt to familiar hands. In hindsight, it is obvious that the new arrangement would result in acrimony unless explicit procedures for accountability and disclosure were agreed to. Since the Undertakers assumed the entire financial obligation of the colony, the colonists now had obligations to the Undertakers. Crudely put, the colonists now worked for the Undertakers. The responsibilities of the Undertakers rested on managing the colony's affairs to insure the colony's viability and the partnership's solvency. The Undertakers risked their life's savings on the vicissitudes of transatlantic trade. The colonists only had their interests at stake and their obligation to satisfy certain quotas of goods and services to the colony.

The concept underlying the Undertakers was contrary to advice given to the colonists in 1621 by Robert Cushman in his famous sermon, "The Sin and Danger of Self-Love." In December of that year morale was low and Cushman called upon the colonists unselfishly to serve the common good. He warned colonists about seeking to impose their will on one another, seeking monetary gain, hoarding, pursuing ease, pleasure and other self-serving activities. Creating the Undertakers in 1626 did not knowingly repudiate Cushman's advice but reflected new economic conditions that required the colony to reorder its financial structure and philosophical priorities.

Allerton was known as a man of "uncommon activity, address and enterprise" and I suspect that these qualities were largely responsible for his fall from grace. As trade representative between 1625 and 1630, Allerton spent half his time in London where he associated with men engaged in trade, finance and commerce that were totally unlike his associates in Plymouth. Allerton had the talent and inclination to become an entrepreneur for whom the "art of the deal" was a guiding principle. The essence of "the deal" is to exploit fully opportunities over the other party to the deal. While seeking advantage over competitors may be appropriate, it is unwise to do so with people you hope will become customers; it is disastrous to apply it to long-time friends, business associates and family members. From their point of view, Allerton crossed the line, took advantage of his long-standing friendships in Plymouth and betrayed their trust.

The historical record shows no evidence that formal charges were brought against Allerton. By today's standards, Allerton's breach of fiduciary responsibility would likely result in legal action. However, Plymouth was a religious community governed by commonly understood laws, customs and courtesies. Plymouth was a community of law, not a community of lawyers, which is America's unfortunate fate today. In a religious community such as Plymouth, the betrayal of trust in the Undertakers, his long-time friends, and in the colonists generally was beyond the pale. London entrepreneurs might sail close to the wind with regard to the law and propriety generally, but such behavior was reprehensible among the colonists. Trusted colleagues and long-standing friends just don't treat each other that way.

Plymouth was fortunate to have been led by men with the wisdom and political skill of Bradford, Winslow and Brewster. Personal integrity, honesty, Christian love, patience and prudence enabled the Pilgrims to sustain the colony. There is no doubt that Allerton embraced these qualities during the time he lived in Leiden and Plymouth, but spending long periods of time in London exposed Allerton to free-thinking men that lacked the integrity of his Pilgrim colleagues. Perhaps the values of Plymouth were anachronistic, but they were sufficient to sustain the Scrooby congregation while in Leiden and in Plymouth through years of travail. Allerton served with courage and dedication as a young man but later in life was transformed by the world of commerce to become an entrepreneur. Plymouth was an introspective community; Allerton became a worldly man, a free-thinker in both religious and commercial matters. He outgrew Plymouth and became an eighteenth-century man decades ahead of his time. He embraced the world of commerce, the art of the deal, but lacked the restraint necessary to retain the trust of his Plymouth colleagues.

Dr. Robert Jennings Heinsohn is Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Anne have lived in Pennsylvania Furnace, PA, since 1963. He is a descendant of Isaac Allerton, John Howland, John Tilley, and Robert Cushman, the chief agent of the Pilgrims in London.