This archived article was written by: Joshua H. Behn
(Part two of a two-part series)
To govern themselves, upon their arrival in the New World, they formed the Mayflower Compact (a document which has been touted as the first completely democratic form of government). Yet, it was necessity rather than the thought of creating a new form of government that inspired them. They were far from the protection of the arm of the King in a wild land populated by unknown natives. They would face famine, cold, pestilence and attack and depended upon agreeing to give up their individual wills for the survival of the colony.
They disembarked: a motley crew of passengers, made up of not only congregation members, but also soldiers, tradesmen and others who signed on for the prospect of a better life. They required strong leadership that would be obeyed. Their very lives depended on surrendering their wills to chosen leaders. They knew well that the actions of each could spell doom for their neighbor.
They practiced a very personal faith that was without the trappings of superfluous religion. They were a simple people that celebrated life with song and laughter. Within 50 years, they would be governed by contrary ideological influences from new comers who were somber and felt that levity should have no place in pious living. Dancing, singing and even the celebration of holidays were forbidden.
The arrival of the Pilgrims also facilitated a complete change of the balance of the political power in the region among the Native populations. The situation between various tribes was hardly harmonious and nebulous at best. They would form alliances based on expediency. Some tribes (such as Massasoit’s Wampanoags) sought alliances with the Plymouth colony in order to gain advantage over neighboring enemy tribes. They used each other, the Pilgrims for survival and he natives for industrial and technological prowess.
To their credit, the Pilgrim and Native Leaders who were allied with one another were surprisingly accommodating much to the detriment of other tribes (friendly and enemy alike) who were wary or downright hostile to the new comers.
The working relationship between the newcomers was in part because of the Pilgrims relatively weak community, who were seen as being quickly subdued in the event they turned on their allies. Their days were spent struggling for survival and food, rather than a focus on territorial expansion and what little expansion occurred was done through fair purchase agreements and treaty. Contrary to the words of Lincoln’s inaugural address citing them “bringing forth a nation conceived in Liberty,” the Pilgrims were no more worried about an experiment in government than they were of trade in the orient.
Once Plymouth was established, the Pilgrims were soon replaced by a steady influx of immigrants who were seeking their fortunes. They would achieve their goals through a combination of land grabbing that would quickly change this status quo, plunging the native population into turmoil.
The Pilgrims are credited with the founding of America and yet, their role was a relatively short lived and minor one, in control of their colony for perhaps 20 years at best. Their luck at establishing a permanent British settlement was simply the small foothold that would be the launching point of those who came later. Plymouth was a settlement with limited possibilities and would be displaced in influence by the rise of other surrounding communities with better natural resources capable of supporting larger populations. The next generation of Puritan settlers would expand settlements to areas that had superior natural resources, pushing the native tribes to the west in a power struggle of misunderstanding, bigotry and eventually, genocide and war.
These ruthless settlers would lay the foundations of America, their religious intolerance, brutality and greed paving the way for the creation of more tolerant colonies such as Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, established by those banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Extremists such as Cotton Mather have had far more of an influence on our history than Governor Bradford, and yet it is the Pilgrim and not the Puritan establishment which is credited in the founding myth.
Is it because of their courage to remove themselves to a completely unknown land that we honor them so? Or is it much more of an exercise in denial, where we can’t find it in ourselves to glorify the barbarity of the Puritanical leadership?
Founding myths are hardly unique to the US. Nearly every great civilization has created them to give a divine blessing: Rome has Romulus and Remus; Egypt has Osiris and Isis; England has William the Conqueror; and the Catholic Church has St. Peter. These stories (all with some basis in historical fact) helped to unify their citizens into a geographic and political framework that instilled national pride and a grand purpose of being.
The truth of “we killed the natives, pushed the survivors off their land and made fortunes off of their former homes” would hardly be as effective in stirring patriotic fervor (creating the exact opposite, feelings of shame and divisiveness).
I hear it constantly said that the United States was formed by divine providence and that we are therefore the very best nation in the world. Every great people made this same claim throughout history. Granted, we were able to create a relatively strong functioning form of government where so many other civilizations had failed and many of our citizens were able to enjoy freedoms that were off limits to the rest of the world. Yet, our nation is imperfect and has played the part of tyranny perfectly to those in the minority or without money.
The Pilgrim myth is one of many that we use so that we can forget that we are simply a nation whose history has been made up of men and women who have made good and bad decisions. Our forefathers were human and we should acknowledge that very humanity by accepting both the noble things done and the shameful things, for all were done in our name, a name which we have inherited, whether we like it or not.
We are phenomenal at espousing the good things that our country has done, and it is certainly a virtue to do so. But is this truly being honest with ourselves and the rest of the world? I propose that we look at our own nation with an introspective eye and see the complete picture. Not to atone or to have reparations demanded, but to understand our very imperfect nature and serve as a lesson for our future conduct.
We need to own up to the facts we would rather not discuss: That we did inter Japanese Americans during World War II; that some of our troops did in fact massacre innocent civilians at My Lai; and that we erroneously came to the conclusion that there were weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
Some would claim that we would shame ourselves by airing out our dirty laundry, but I believe with all my heart that true shame lies in silence. Let us open the windows to our past for as Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
When we have done this, then our history will truly teach us to hope.