Robert Cushman: The Man Who Would Have Signed the Mayflower Compact But Couldn't

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD

Robert Cushman and John Carver were the principal members of John Robinson's congregation arranging the congregation's passage to New England in 1620. This article is a retrospective summary of Robert Cushman's work to settle the Leiden congregation in Plymouth.

Robert Cushman descended from generations of Cushmans from Kent, England. In 1603 Robert Cushman (age 26) was listed as a servant to George Masters. In 1605 he was admitted a freeman of Canterbury as an apprentice "grosser" to George Masters. Cushman married Sara Reder in 1606 and a son Thomas was baptized in 1607/8. By 1609 Robert and his family were members of John Robinson's congregation in Leiden. Cushman joined other Pilgrims in the cloth-making trades and worked as a woolcomber. Two other children were born but died as infants. Sara died in 1615 and Robert married the widow, Mary (Clarke) Singelton in 1617. Mary died before 1621.

During his years in Leiden, Cushman demonstrated unusual organizational skill such that in 1617 Cushman (age 40) and John Carver (age 51), deacons of the Leiden congregation, were chosen to travel to London to make arrangements for the congregation to immigrate to North America.


'Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbor', Leslie Arthur Wilcox (1904-1982)

Initially Carver and Cushman sought a patent from the Virginia Company for a colony on the James River. The company was interested but King James refused to allow the Pilgrims to practice their religion as they wished. Next, Cushman and Carver approached wealthy Puritans in London. Sir Edwin Sandys, member of Parliament and Governor/Treasurer of the Virginia Company, and Thomas Weston a wealthy London ironmonger agreed to contact London colleagues to explore investing in a joint stock company with the Pilgrims to produce goods to sell in London. Eventually about 70 men of varying occupations, religious beliefs and positions in society invested in the company. The London men were called Merchant Adventurers. King James agreed not be persecute Pilgrims providing they behaved quietly and were faithful subjects of the King. Negotiations with the Merchant Adventurers were tedious. In the spring of 1620 a revised agreement with Thomas Weston was negotiated, and Carver and Cushman returned to Leiden to present the agreement to John Robinson and the congregation. Disagreement remained which lead to further negotiation. Eventually a set of 10 articles of agreement emerged. Cushman returned to London to lease of the Mayflower and Carver remained in Holland to purchase the Speedwell. The plan was to retain the Speedwell in America for fishing and coastal trade.

Because the voyage and land clearing would be strenuous, it was decided that only strong men and women and their children would make the voyage. During the summer of 1620, the Merchant Adventurers assembled a pool of money and the Pilgrims who were chosen to sail sold their homes and belongings to pay for the voyage. It has been estimated that the cost of the voyage was approximately 1500 pounds. It became clear that additional people would be needed, and single men, and whole families of women and children were recruited in England. The new members were called "Strangers" while members of the Lieden congregation were called "Saints". Some Separatists never left England and had no close relationship with members of the Leiden congregation. On the eve of the voyage individuals were asked to sign the 10 articles of agreement. The articles had not changed since they were presented earlier and some displeased individuals withdrew from the voyage. Even though the agreement was unsigned, the remaining Separatists decided to sail and settle the issue at a later time. The Separatists selected a leader, "Governor", for each ship. To pacify the restive Strangers, one of their members, Christropher Martin was chosen governor of the Mayflower. Martin was an abusive person and disliked by everyone. Robert Cushman was chosen assistant governor to ensure harmony.

After two attempts to sail, the Speedwell proved to be overloaded, unseaworthy and it returned to port. During this period Robert Cushman became seriously ill. In a letter to Edward Southworth in August 1620 he thought he was close to death. When it was decided not to sail the Speedwell, Cushman was asked to remain in London to look after its passengers until they could sail the next year. The Mayflower sailed from Southampton alone on September 16, 1620. Cushman recovered and looked after the affairs of the passengers and purchased supplies for the voyage of the Fortune in 1621.

In April 1621 the Mayflower left Plymouth and arrived in England on May 6, 1621. Only then did the London Separatists learn of the arduous voyage, harsh conditions in Plymouth, the deaths of nearly one-half the Mayflower passengers, and that Christopher Martin died and John Carver had been elected Governor. The London Separatists were unaware that Carver had died shortly after the Mayflower left Plymouth.

The Fortune with Cushman and his son Thomas (age 14) sailed for Plymouth on August 9, 1621 with 35 new colonists but very few supplies. The Fortune arrived in Cape Cod harbor on 9 November 1621. The Plymouth colonists were downcast. Their beloved Governor John Carver had died the previous spring. The fall harvest had not been good, and the Fortune brought them only meager supplies. With 35 new mouths to feed, the winter looked bleak.

The compelling task facing Robert Cushman was to secure the colonists' signatures to the 10 articles of agreement that were not signed the year before. The continued support of the Merchant Adventurers depended on it. On December 9, 1621, the first anniversary Sunday of the Pilgrim landing in Plymouth, Robert Cushman gave a sermon, which along with Robinson's farewell sermon in Leiden, are quintessential statements of Pilgrim belief. Cushman's sermon entitled "The Sin and Danger of Self-Love" was based on 1 Corinthians 10:24, Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth. Cushman's pious prose is verbose by today's standard but the sermon speaks to us today as powerfully as it must have in the bleak winter of 1621. Cushman's remarks were a heart-felt plea for the Pilgrims to cooperate unselfishly for common good without regard for personal gain. I do not believe it an exaggeration to draw a parallel between John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1960 in which he said, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do your country" and Cushman's sermon. During the previous 12 months the hardships the Pilgrims endured softened the strongly-held opinions they and John Robinson embraced before they sailed for New England. They realized their marginal existence in Plymouth depended on supplies from England and they signed the 10 articles of agreement.

The writing of Cushman, Bradford and other Pilgrims shows that they had an excellent command of the English language. Except for William Brewster, few (if any) of the Leiden men were educated formally. Nevertheless all were literate and wrote, and presumably spoke with facility. Since the Pilgrims read and quoted the bible frequently, their command of language is not surprising. The Bible is poetic, eloquent and has a cadence that influenced English-speakers for centuries.

Memorial Robert Cushman

Although Robert Cushman was buried in England, in 1858 a 25 foot (8 metres) granite memorial column was erected in his family’s honor on Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Creating the Undertakers in 1626 began a process that reversed Cushman's 1621 advice sermon and transformed the colony's fundamental beliefs. At no time was there a deliberate effort to repudiate Cushman's advice. Rather, economic conditions altered the Pilgrims concept of community. Ostensibly, creating the Undertakers simply transferred the colony's debt to familiar hands; inadvertently, the decision set into motion actions that made acceptable the pursuit of private gain.

Thomas Cushman remained in Plymouth under the care of Governor Bradford and his father returned to England on the Fortune on December 13, 1621. Carried on the Fortune were beaver pelts and other furs worth approximately 500 pounds obtained from trade with the Indians for corn. The cargo was the first shipment of goods to the Merchant Adventurers and important for their continued support. As luck would have it as the Fortune approached the English coast, French privateers stole its cargo and the passenger's belongings. Cushman and the crew were imprisoned in France but returned to England in February 1622. Luckily the signed articles of agreement and the manuscript of Mourt's Relation were not lost. Mourt's Relation was written to assure the Merchant Adventurers of the success of the colony and to interest others to emigrate.

After 1621 Robert Cushman was the colony's London agent arranging the transfer of remaining members of the Leiden congregation to Plymouth. As London agent, Cushman arranged the sale of furs and fish sent by the colonists to the Merchant Adventures purchased supplies for the colonists. When Miles Standish visited London in April 1626 he discovered that Robert Cushman had died (at age 48) during the spring of 1625. There is no record describing the details of Cushman's death.

Thomas Cushman married Mary Allerton (b 1616), the youngest daughter of Isaac Allerton in ca 1636. Both Mary and Isaac were Mayflower passengers. Thomas succeeded William Brewster as Ruling Elder upon Brewster's death in 1644. Thomas and Mary had eight children. Thomas died in 1691 and Mary died in 1699. Mary was the last Mayflower passenger to die.

Robert Cushman demonstrated enormous organizational ability. He was the principal person negotiating agreements with the crown and London investors, organizing the logistics to transport over a hundred people across the Atlantic, and lastly managing the finances to provision the colony and sell its products. His keen leadership was most evident when he persuaded the colonists to sign the articles of agreement they had strongly rejected the year before. Sadly he died before he could move to Plymouth and share the remainder of his life with associates who held him in such high esteem.

If the Speedwell had been seaworthy, and Robert Cushman not been ill and able to sail on the Mayflower, he would have been one of the first signers of the Compact along with John Carver, William Brewster and William Bradford.

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Cushman, M. L., "Pilgrims of the Fruitbelt A Cushman Genealogy", Heritage Press, Lansing, MI, 1980
Cushman, R. E. and Cole F. P., "Robert Cushman of Kent", General Society of Mayflower Descendents, Plymouth, MA, 1995
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