Why the Mayflower Still Matters

400 Years Later, the Pilgrims are Still Part of Us

Exactly 400 years ago this month, North American shores welcomed their first tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. After a grueling 65-day passage, the Mayflower reached what is now Massachusetts in November of 1620. Its passengers began their new life under dreadfully inhospitable conditions. A late departure meant they arrived with almost no time to spare before winter set in. Although it briefly appeared their colony would not survive the winter, Plymouth Plantation ultimately lasted for another 70 years before being absorbed into Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its impact on history reverberated long past that. The founders of Plymouth called themselves Separatists, Protestants who believed the Church of England had abandoned true Christianity and looked to establish their own independent congregations. Today, they are almost exclusively remembered by a name that was less common at the time, but which aptly sums up their view of their place in this world and their mission to the American continent; we know them as the Pilgrims.

There was a time when the Pilgrims were revered icons, widely seen as the forerunners of American democracy. In roughly the last half century, history has been less kind to the Mayflower passengers and their children, highlighting the less inspiring aspects of their views on religion and democracy, and especially of their treatment of the continent’s original inhabitants. There is much to be pleased with in that — history that makes getting the history right a secondary consideration is not history at all, but propaganda. We should celebrate a modern scholarship that shines a light on who the Pilgrims really were, what they really wanted, and what they really did. The Separatists who came to what is now America in 1620 never intended to create a liberal democracy, and they studiously avoided doing so. Their conception of religious liberty is one that is foreign to us, indeed in some ways their views on religious freedom were the polar opposite of that enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Yet, over time, in humanizing the Pilgrims and giving overdue recognition to the Native Americans they encountered, a certain contempt has crept in. It is true that by the standards of the twenty-first century West (and there is the catch) the Pilgrims do indeed come up short. Recalling the voyage of the Mayflower and the colony it produced offers much more than an opportunity to debunk myths and pat ourselves on the back for our own enlightenment, however. In examining how different we are today from the Pilgrims, we forget how much we are their heirs, and how much of the nation we inhabit is built on their foundation. It should hardly surprise us that a great deal has changed in the space of four centuries, but what is worth remembering is just how much we still owe, even after all this time, to the settlers who built Plymouth Plantation.

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One particular story that was due for debunking is that the Pilgrims came to America to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. If so, they made one of the most spectacular miscalculations in history. It is true that the Church of England periodically hanged ministers who published or preached impermissible doctrines, but the rank and file had les reason to fear for their lives. Of course there were plenty of steps the English government could take short of capital punishment to make life miserable for dissenters, including imprisonment (again largely confined to key leaders), but enough information had trickled back across the Atlantic that the Separatists could make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis and know that they were still better off in the Old World, even as a scorned religious minority. Indeed, one group of Separatists had briefly attempted establishing a colony in present-day Newfoundland 23 years prior, but their journey in failure and the speedy return of all participants. Likewise, the future Plymouth settlers who initially established themselves in Leiden, Holland, could find life there unpleasant, but still nowhere near as bad as what a journey across the ocean promised.

The 102 who made the decision to go to America in 1620 were crammed aboard the Mayflower, for the most part confined below decks in a glorified crawlspace too short for most of them to stand upright. In addition to seasickness — apparently rampant among the passengers — there were also health problems brought on by inadequate provisions and dubious drinking water; a scurvy outbreak spread additional miseries besides the cramped conditions and stormy weather. Still, only two perished on the journey across. Once they reached their new home at the onset of a New England winter, the mortality rate skyrocketed. In the New World, half of the Mayflower passengers died by the end of February, and those who endured the “starving time” surely did not see their lives as materially better than what they had known in Europe. William Bradford, the future governor of Plymouth Plantation and its first chronicler, recalled the low point when only a half dozen were left who were healthy enough to care for the entire surviving colony. These demonstrated the meaning of genuine love, as they “willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least…did all the homely and necessary offices for [the sick] which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named.” Suffice to say, the endurance of the survivors amidst such misery clearly shows they had greater ambitions than avoiding imprisonment or even the gallows in England.

In any case, the Pilgrims already enjoyed general religious toleration in Holland. The problem for the Separatists in Leiden was not that they were not far enough from England but that they were too far. Parents watched their children lose their English identity, and regardless of their desire to be free of its established church, all felt a sincere loyalty to their home country and its monarch. Likewise, the problem in Leiden was not a lack of religious liberty but too much of it. They feared the laxness of Holland society, and the open practicing of a slew of Protestant sects that even Separatists found distasteful threatened to corrupt their young. What they wanted was a place where they could safely inculcate their own values, under the guidance of their own ministers, and establish a community that could serve as a model of a godly society. This was the vision that drove them from their homes, twice over, and the faith that undergirded this vision is what fired their endurance when their survival seemed gravely in doubt.

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It was also a vision that shaped the nature of their government. When they first arrived at Plymouth — before widespread disease and starvation forced some level of mutual codependence — the passengers of the Mayflower looked with as much concern on each other as they did on the elements. The colony included a handful of so-called Strangers, those who did not share in the Pilgrims’ religious vision for the colony and who, according to William Bradford, began making “discontented and mutinous speeches” before they had even set foot on shore. Knowing all faced a shared fate, if not shared ideals, some form of order was essential. Thus was born the Mayflower Compact, signed by every male passenger on November 11, 1620 (changed to November 21 when the calendar was updated). The Compact was short and direct; there was hardly time for deep constitutional thought when crops needed to be planted and shelters constructed. Its signers would have been shocked to hear that they were creating a template for an independent American Constitution rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Compact begins with the words “In the Name of God, Amen,” and immediately proceeds to swear loyalty to “our dread Sovereign Lord King James.” Lest there be any doubt of their temporal and spiritual allegiance, it establishes the purpose of the colony as being “for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country.”

However loyal to King James they swore to be (and they sincerely meant it), the fact was that James was an ocean away, and all the problems that require government were immediately present. And the government they formed to deal with those problems did have some remarkable elements for its time. The signers, every adult male of the ship, agreed to “Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation…and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony.” Signing the document was limited to men, something that struck no one as inappropriate or even noteworthy at the time, but it was also open to all men, even servants. The Plymouth “Civil Body Politic” encompassed everyone, regardless of class. Shockingly, it was regardless of religion as well. The Pilgrims might have feared the Strangers as potential mutineers, but either in spite of or because of this, they included them as full members of the colony, and granted them the franchise.

Still, the Pilgrims were never interested in establishing anything like a liberal democracy. They believed in hierarchy, and they feared licentiousness — unchecked individual liberty that flaunted Biblical morality and ignored the needs of the community. They could reasonably be accused of obsessing over the danger that unrestrained liberty and those exercising posed (while we, it seems, barely think about it at all). Rather, the Pilgrims viewed liberty in a communal sense; they were free from excessive interference from England to enact laws in keeping with their own values. This meant, crucially, that they were not pursuing anything like religious liberty as we would conceive of it either. As their most recent historian, John G. Turner, notes, they “came to the New World to establish a haven and beacon for separatism, not a bastion of religious toleration and freedom. Their goal was to transplant a congregation, found a prosperous colony, and attract puritans wavering on the threshold of separatism to join them.” It was a liberty for all to partake in, but only together. Again from Turner, Pilgrims “were both free and bound: free from ecclesiastical tyranny and human corruptions of true worship, bound to each other.” Every man could vote, but once elected leaders expected due deference, and no other religious meetings or sects were allowed to exist. Each town was to have one church overseen by one minister chosen by that congregation. Separatists they might be, but they only allowed for one separation to take place, and given their concerns about the wide variety of denominations in Holland, it is fair to say that they came to America more to escape religious pluralism than to advance it.

That the Separatists, upon escaping persecution in England, had no intentions of extending religious liberty to anyone else should not surprise us. The Church of England was made up of Protestants who suffered during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, then started executing Catholics themselves once they came to power. All of Europe, Holland excepted, saw national and religious identity as intertwined. The Pilgrims did not drift far from this mindset, but they do deserve some share of the credit for its eventual demise. For starters, they were never keen on forcing church attendance — no other churches were allowed, but non-attendance was generally tolerated. One of the key pillars of their break with the Church of England was, after all, their firm belief that churches should be composed of true Christians, not filled with the decidedly less-than-voluntary population as a whole. This was radical enough for the era, allowing for a church that was at least partly separated from the body politic. By claiming that congregations did not need the king or queen’s help to choose their ministers, and that they related directly to God, and therefore, most scandalous of all, that the monarch had no authority over ecclesiastical matters, the Pilgrims laid the groundwork for true freedom of religion. Indeed, it was not long in coming; Roger Williams broke with Plymouth and established Rhode Island in 1636. In the decades leading up to the Mayflower, various Separatists argued amongst themselves at length about the limits of freedom of conscience and what exactly the role of the state in religious matters was supposed to be, but the seeds of full separation of church and state were baked into their beliefs from the outset, something their opponents in England may have understood better than they did.

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Meanwhile, all of Plymouth Plantation’s planting, building, and governing did not, of course, actually take place in an empty wilderness. For the Indians, the land was hardly a New World, but rather their home for generations. In another sense, it was very much a new world for everyone, for the arrival of Europeans had dramatically changed life for Native Americans as well as newcomers. Disease had culled Indian numbers, sometimes in horrendous fashion, but also new trade goods and new alliances reshaped the balance of power wherever Europeans and Native Americans made contact. The Pilgrims immediately became part of one of the more consequential — and for a short time one of the most successful — of those alliances. Some delight in dismissing the story of the “first Thanksgiving,” as a fiction, but it has a strong element of truth to it. The Pilgrims were in dire straits before making contact with the Wampanoags. Their Indian neighbors did indeed teach them much of what enabled them to survive after the horrors of the starving time. And they did indeed hold a celebration to commemorate their first bountiful harvest. Finally, it is true that the Pilgrims enjoyed mostly-friendly relations with the Wampanoags and their sachem Massasoit during the latter’s lifetime, and a general peace lasted for over 50 years.

It is also true that within the first year of their arrival, the Pilgrims got themselves involved in a quarrel between Massasoit and his rivals, and that one of those rivals ended up with his head on a pike near Plymouth’s fort. And less than a generation later, in 1676, the children and grandchildren of the Mayflower passengers went to war with Massasoit’s successor, King Philip. The conflict was the bloodiest in American history in terms of percentage of the population killed. Plymouth’s forces burned villages filled with women and children to ash and sent shiploads of Indians to hellish lives as slaves in Barbados, often with scant regard to whether or not their captives had actually been their enemies. Other Indians, many of them children, ended up in something strongly resembling slavery in Plymouth households.

So the story of the Mayflower passengers and the colony they built is messy. It might be nice if we could, as generations past were tempted to, label the Pilgrims the forerunners of American democracy and the first heralds of religious freedom. History, as is always the case, is more complicated than our favorite stories and historical figures more human than our heroic icons. One suspects that the Pilgrims, with their frequent days of fasting, mortification, and repentance, would heartily approve that we now remember them as sinners, rather than unblemished saints. They were remarkable sinners though. They may have feared the kind of religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment, but their ideas about freedom of conscience before the power of the state were radical for their time, and were a necessary step towards the broad religious toleration that came later. Their views on social equality and democracy likewise appear weak in light of 2020’s values, and they had their (fringe) critics at the time as well, but they did build a society whose inclusion and dwarfed most of the world. Their treatment of the original inhabitants of this continent was a mix of good intentions, hard-headed realism, and, in their darkest moments, inexcusable cruelty.

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Last year, the New York Times Magazine won a Pulitzer Prize for its publication of the 1619 Project. The Project asserted (for a while anyway) that the real beginning of the United States of America was in 1619, with the arrival of the first African slaves, and that the defining feature of the nation has always been racism. It came under harsh criticism, and deservedly so. The United States of America began in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or if we want to get really technical, in 1778 with diplomatic recognition from France. And a diverse, polyglot nation of some 330 million cannot be reduced to any one idea or theme. But the nation that was born in 1776 had a long gestation period, and its DNA is made up of a variety of threads. Slavery and racism of course mattered, in profound ways, for the evolution of this country. Yet somehow we became more than our ugliest impulses and worst sins. It would seem that if American history and colonial American society set the stage for chattel slavery and undeniably horrendous atrocities against Native Americans, it also set the stage for abolitionism, the Civil Rights Movement, the triumph of liberalism over Fascism and the Soviet Union, and the growth of a creedal nation where anyone of any origin or skin color can wash up on our shores and truly become an American. Based on what was happening in the rest of the world in 1619, the arrival of slavery in Virginia was unremarkable, while what happened in 1776 split history. And we could not have reached 1776 without 1620.

The Pilgrims were refugees who fled to this continent to escape, yes, but also to build. They were a community looking to pass on their values to their children, rather than have the larger society’s values imposed on them. Most of all, they brought to American shores (and thus to American history) a vision that dreamed of forging a community where the freedom to be good and to do good could thrive. All of this became a key part of the American identity at its best. And perhaps it was their endurance most of all that is worth remembering at a time when Americans across the political spectrum have grown disgusted with our institutions and fearful of our future. As Samuel Eliot Morison recorded in his edition of William Bradford’s history of Plymouth, the Pilgrims were “a simple people inspired by ardent faith to a dauntless courage in danger, a resourcefulness in dealing with new problems, an impregnable fortitude in adversity that exalts and heartens one in an age of uncertainty, when courage falters and faith grows dim.” Our attitudes and outlook may have changed — dramatically and much for the better — in the last four centuries, but the plucky spirit of the Pilgrims lives on in the American psyche, and that is very definitely grounds for thanksgiving.

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Samuel Eliot Morison, ed., Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647 by William Bradford, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, New York: Viking, 2006

Stephen Tomkins, Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020

John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020

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