The Pilgrim Topgrader: William Bradford

pilgrim thanksgiving painting

Happy Thanksgiving! How’s this for an idea: if the Pilgrims had not been Topgraders, had they not elected an A Player leader who packed his team with A Players, tiny Plymouth Colony would have failed and the Dutch, French, or Spanish would have taken over the New World. America as we know it wouldn’t exist, and I would probably not be writing this in English! Think about that this week as you munch on a turkey leg!

It was doubtful the Pilgrims would survive even the first year. The Mayflower landed at Cape Cod in 1620, the winter was terrible, half the Mayflower passengers died of diseases within months, and the sister ship to the Mayflower leaked and couldn’t cross the Atlantic, so many supplies never made it. The Pilgrims struggled to build houses, and as they were trying to survive in this frigid land, the natives were defending it. The Mayflower captain, Chris Jones, decided to hang around, expecting the Pilgrims to give up and ask him to sail them home.

But they did survive… I believe, because Bradford was a terrific leader with an A team. See if you agree.

The first Governor of Plymouth Colony died, and the first elected official on our soil was William Bradford (my grandfather 11 generations back). Topgrading hiring managers of course pick A Players, and in a democracy the “hiring managers” are the citizens.

So, was Governor Bradford an A player? Consider this: William Bradford was elected Governor 31 times, and the few years he declined to accept the job, he was the de facto leader anyway. In his historical account, Of Plymouth Plantation, he gives many accounts of his relying on his A team, “the chiefest among us,” as he explained. Through the A Player leadership of Bradford, the Pilgrims survived. European nations wanted to colonize the New World and many settlements failed. Because the Pilgrims succeeded, hundreds of thousands of Brits followed, and that’s why we have historically been an English-speaking nation.

William Bradford might deserve to be called Grandfather of America, because of this “resume”:


  • Established Democracy in the New World. Contributed to Mayflower Compact (historically compared to Magna Carta). Executed the Compact in the colony John Quincy Adams called the modern world’s first successful democracy. Laid foundation for future Constitution of the United States of America.
  • Did NOT “Colonize” the New World. Chief Massasoit gave the land to the Pilgrims in a compact of mutual support. William Bradford and Chief Massasoit remained friends to their deaths.
  • Introduced Capitalism to the New World. When all worked for the same pay, Plymouth Colony would have failed. Introduced incentives: families were given a plot of land and after they contributed their share, they could keep and sell the rest. Plymouth took off like a rocket, economically.
  • Assured Separation of Church and State. Despite deep religious convictions, as Governor, Bradford did not permit simultaneous office holding in church and political organizations.
  • Introduced “Town Meetings.” As Governor, insisted on rule by consent of the governed. The town meeting format continues across the US, almost 400 years later.
  • Created Thanksgiving. Celebrated successful harvest with what became a national holiday. Invited Chief Massasoit to join in the Thanksgiving feast; he brought 44 Braves and so both groups hunted for deer and they had many feasts, with fun games, for 3 days.
  • Built Plymouth into a Secure, Stable Community. Started with “nothing,” and grew Plymouth to 24 towns. Paid off debt to English backers, and retired with Plymouth economically, politically, and militarily sound.


  • For 31 terms, maintained vision so powerful, so compelling, all members of Plymouth colony were prepared to die for it, and many did.
  • Passionate Commitment. Paid off debt to English backers, and retired with Plymouth economically, politically, and militarily sound.
  • Picked famous leaders such as Winslow, Brewster, and Standish, “the chiefest among us.” Asked citizens and was consistently granted authority to make life and death decisions with his A Player team.
  • Change Agent. Utilized Native American agricultural skills, without which the Pilgrim community would have starved. When promised supplies did not arrive, temporarily abandoned trade as economic lifeline. Renegotiated terms with English backers, enabling economic survival of Plymouth Colony.
  • Mature Judgment. Balanced offsetting, sometimes contradictory, demands in decisions, which were ultimately embraced as fair. As magistrate, maintained order with tolerance and fairness. As statesman, protected community from unrelenting European threats.
  • Remained true to values when compromise might have repeatedly improved chances of colony’s survival.
  • Though legally given 100% ownership of Plymouth, immediately gave all citizens equal shares. At one time housed 14 orphans.
  • Promoted Diversity. Enjoyed friendly relations with most Native Americans. Pact with Chief Massasoit was not broken in their lifetimes – the longest-maintained pact between Europeans and Native Americans. Wrote laws to protect women from abuse and permit them more freedoms such as property rights, which did not exist in England.
  • Leadership by Example. Worked the fields, took in the sick, and gave personal riches (Plymouth real estate) to citizens.
  • Team Building. Maintained (through empowerment, coaching, and town meetings) collaborative, supportive community.
  • Self-made. Though orphaned and not formally educated, achieved recognition as a thinker, linguist, businessman, magistrate, and diplomat.


My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Every school child sings Samuel F. Smith’s poignant refrains, connecting liberty, sacrifice of life, and freedom to the Pilgrims’ pride.

In a world that knew only feudalism, Bradford owned all Plymouth’s land but did not become a dictator; there is not a hint of values other than democratic from William Bradford. Although Massachusetts was eventually run by religious leaders, Bradford insisted that church membership not be a precondition for voting.

Thus, out of small beginnings greater things have been produced, and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled has shone to many, in some ways to our whole nation.

– Governor William Bradford

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