A great American anniversary is upon us. Four hundred years ago this Saturday, a battered old ship called the Mayflower arrived in the waters off Cape Cod. The passengers aboard the Mayflower are, in many ways, our first founders. Daniel Webster called them “Our Pilgrim Fathers” on the two hundredth anniversary of this occasion. Regrettably, we haven’t heard much about this anniversary of the Mayflower; I suppose the Pilgrims have fallen out of favor in fashionable circles these days. I’d therefore like to take a few minutes to reflect on the Pilgrim story and its living legacy for our nation.
By 1620, the Pilgrims were already practiced at living in a strange land. They had fled England for Holland twelve years earlier, seeking freedom to practice their faith. But life was hard in Holland and the Stuart monarchy, intolerant of dissent from the Church of England, gradually extended its oppressive reach across the Channel. So the Pilgrims fled the Old World for the New.
In seeking safe harbor for their religion, the Pilgrims differed from those settlers who preceded them in the previous century, up to and including the Jamestown settlement just thirteen years earlier. As John Quincy Adams put it in a speech celebrating the Pilgrims’ anniversary, those earlier settlers “were all instigated by personal interests,” motivated by “avarice and ambition” and “selfish passions.” The Pilgrims, by contrast, braved the seas “under the single inspiration of conscience” and out of a “sense of religious obligation.”
Not to say all aboard the Mayflower felt the same. About half of the 102 passengers were known as “Strangers” to the Pilgrims. The Strangers were craftsmen, traders, indentured servants, and others added to the manifest by the ship’s financial backers for business reasons. The Strangers did not share the Pilgrims’ faith, suffice it to say. Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, wryly observed that the Strangers were “no picked band of saints.”
So these were the settlers who boarded the Mayflower, which Dwight Eisenhower once characterized as “a ship that today no one in his senses would think of attempting to use.” One can only imagine the hardships, the dangers, the doubts that they faced while crossing the north Atlantic. The ship leaked chronically. A main beam bowed and cracked. The passage took longer than expected—more than two months. Food and water (or beer, often the beverage of choice) ran dangerously low.
But somehow, through the grace of God and the skill of the crew, the Mayflower finally sighted land. Yet the dangers only multiplied. William Bradford, a Pilgrim leader whose Of Plymouth Plantation is our chief source for the Pilgrim story, recorded those dangers:
They had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies; no houses or much less town to repair to, to seek for succor.… And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness…
And to those physical dangers, you can add legal and political danger. While the Mayflower had found land, it was the wrong land. For, you see, the Pilgrims’ patent extended to Virginia, but Cape Cod was hundreds of miles to the north. According to Bradford, “some of the Strangers,” perhaps hoping to strike out on their own in search of riches, began to make “discontented and mutinous speeches.” These Strangers asserted that “when they came ashore, they would use their own liberty; for none had the power to command them” in New England.
Maybe they had a point. But Pilgrim and Stranger alike also had a problem: they couldn’t survive the “desolate wilderness” alone. Before landfall, then, they mutually worked out their differences and formed what Bradford modestly called “a combination.”
This “combination” is known to us and history, of course, as the Mayflower Compact. But this little compact—fewer than two hundred words—was no mere “combination.” It was America’s very first constitution; indeed, in Calvin Coolidge’s words, “the first constitution of modern times.”
Likewise, Churchill called the Mayflower Compact “one of the more remarkable documents in history, a spontaneous covenant for political organization.” High praise, coming from him, so it’s worth reflecting a little more on a few points about the Compact.
First, while the Pilgrims affirmed their allegiance to England and the monarchy, they left little doubt about their priorities. The Compact begins with their traditional religious invocation: “In the name of God, Amen.” They expressed as the ends of their arduous voyage, in order, “the Glory of God,” the “advancement of the Christian faith,” and only then the “honor of our King and Country.” And much like the Founding Fathers’ famous pledge to each other before “divine Providence” one hundred fifty-six years later, the Pilgrims covenanted with each other “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God.”
Second, they respected each other as free and equal citizens. Whether Pilgrim or Stranger, the signatories covenanted together to form a government, irrespective of faith or station.
Third and related, that government would be self-government based on the consent of the governed. The Pilgrims did not anoint a patriarch; they formed a “civil body politic” based on “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices.” And immediately after signing the Compact, they conducted a democratic election to choose their first governor.
Fourth, again prefiguring the Declaration, the Pilgrims did not surrender all rights to that government. They promised “all due submission and obedience” to the new government—not their “total” or “unquestioning” or “permanent” submission and obedience. That obedience would presumably be “due” as long as the laws remained “just and equal,” and the officers appointed performed their duties in “just and equal” manner.
Finally, even in that moment of great privation and peril, the Pilgrims turned their eyes upward to the higher, nobler ends of political society. They listed their “preservation” as an objective of their new government, but even before that came “our better ordering.” The Pilgrims understood that liberty, prosperity, faith, and flourishing are only possible with order, and that while safety may be the first responsibility of government, it’s not the highest or ultimate purpose of government. This new government would do more than merely protect the settlers or resolve their disputes; it would aim for “the general good of the Colony.”
There, aboard that rickety old ship, tossed about in the cold New England waters, the Pilgrims foreshadowed in fewer than two hundred words so many cherished concepts of our nation. Faith in God and His providential protection. The natural equality of mankind. From many, one. Government by consent. The rule of law. Equality before the law, and the impartial administration of the law.
Little wonder, therefore, that Adams referred to the Mayflower Compact and the Pilgrims’ arrival as the “birth-day of your nation.” Or that Webster, despite all the settlements preceding Plymouth, said “the first scene of our history was laid” there.
But that history was only just beginning. The Pilgrims still had to conquer the “desolate wilderness” and establish their settlement. Considering the challenges, it’s a wonder that they did. As Coolidge observed, though, the Compact “was not the most wonderful thing about the Mayflower. The most wonderful of all was that those who drew it up had the power, the determination, and the strength of character to live up to it from that day.”
They would need all that and more to survive what has been called “the starving time.” Upon landfall, the Pilgrims “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.” But it would be a “sad and lamentable” winter of disease, starvation, and death, as half the settlers died and seldom more than half a dozen had the strength to care for the ill, provide food and shelter, and protect the camp.
As anyone who has endured a New England winter knows, at that rate there might not have been any camp left to protect by spring. But what can only be seen as a providential moment came in March, when a lone Indian walked boldly into their camp and greeted them in English. His name was Samoset. He had learned some broken English by working with English fishermen in the waters off what is now Maine. Samoset and the Pilgrims exchanged gifts, and he promised to return with another Indian, Squanto, who spoke fluent English.
Squanto’s tribe had been wiped out a few years earlier by an epidemic plague; he now lived among the Wampanoag tribe in what is today southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The plague had also weakened the Wampanoags, though not neighboring, rival tribes. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, thus had good reason to form an alliance with the Pilgrims. Squanto introduced him to the settlers and facilitated their peace and mutual-aid treaty, which lasted more than fifty years.
Squanto remained with the Pilgrims, acting, in Bradford’s words, as “their interpreter” and “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectations.” He instructed them on the cultivation of native crops like corn, squash, and beans. He showed them where to fish and hunt. He guided them on land and sea to new destinations.
And you probably remember what happened next. As the Pilgrims recovered and prospered throughout 1621, they received the blessings of a bountiful fall harvest. The Pilgrims entertained Massasoit and the Wampanoags and feasted with them, to express their gratitude to their allies and to give thanks to God for His abundant gifts. This meal, of course, was the First Thanksgiving.
Now, the Thanksgiving season is upon us and once again we have much to give thanks for. But this year we ought to be especially thankful for our ancestors, the Pilgrims, on their four hundredth anniversary. Their faith, their bravery, their wisdom places them in the American pantheon. Alongside the Patriots of 1776, the Pilgrims of 1620 deserve the honor of American founders.
Sadly, however, there appear to be few commemorations, parades, or festivals to celebrate the Pilgrims this year, perhaps in part because revisionist charlatans of the radical left have lately claimed the previous year as America’s true founding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Pilgrims and their Compact, like the Founders and their Declaration, form the true foundation of America.
So count me in Coolidge’s camp. On this anniversary a century ago, he proclaimed, “it is our duty and the duty of every true American to reassemble in spirit in the cabin of the Mayflower, rededicate ourselves to the Pilgrims’ great work by re-signing and reaffirming the document that has made mankind of all the earth more glorious.”
Some—too many—may have lost the civilizational self-confidence needed to celebrate the Pilgrims. Just today, for instance, The New York Times called this story a “myth” and a “caricature”—in the Food Section, no less. Maybe the politically correct editors of the debunked 1619 Project are now responsible for pumpkin-pie recipes at the Times, as well.
But I for one still have the pride and confidence of our forebears, so here today, I speak in the spirit of that cabin and I reaffirm that old Compact.
As we head into the week of Thanksgiving, I’ll be giving thanks this year in particular to “our Pilgrim Fathers” and the timeless lessons they bequeathed to our great nation. For as Coolidge observed, “Plymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end. It marks a revelation of that which is without beginning and without end.”
May God continue to bless this land and may He bless the memory of the Pilgrims of 1620. I extend my best wishes to you and your family for a Thanksgiving as happy and peaceful as the First Thanksgiving.