Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rebunking the Pilgrims?

One from the vaults: we repost Randall Stephens's contribution, which originally appeared on November 24, 2009.
[crossposted at Religion in American History]
Randall Stephens

As Americans prepare to stuff their faces with turkey, pie, turkey pie, and all manner of bread-related foods, and clock in millions of hours of TV football viewing, it’s worth considering the Pilgrims, originators of America's holiday. (I was just thinking that a Martian would have a very hard time understanding how football and overeating are linked to an otherworldly religious sect.) How do Pilgrims fit into American history and religious history in general?

How low the founders of our national myth have fallen. Nineteenth-century Protestants celebrated the Pilgrims as hearty, pure-of-heart forbearers. Yet even in the 19th century Pilgrims had their share of detractors. Eli Thayer, the Kansas prophet, and the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale fussed about the place of Pilgrims in American history. Every lowly Kansan (which I proudly count myself among) had more grit and determination and was more deserving of panegyrics than were the not-all-that-great Pilgrims.

In 1881, Mark Twain delivered an uproarious address, in the form of a plea, to the New England Society of Philadelphia. Why all this “laudation and hosannaing” about the Pilgrims? he asked his audience. “The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one.” “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims” was a classic piece of Sam Clemens’ contrarianism. As the whole country went mad with Pilgrim fever, Twain shouted, “Humbug!”

Good fun. But did Twain’s comic take on those “ignorant,” “narrow” Pilgrims win the day in the 20th century? And did it win the day minus the comedy? Historian Jeremy Bangs thinks so. In 2004, he wrote:

Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today’s historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant of England’s American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors of genocide. Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment. And their first “Thanksgiving” was nothing more than a replica of a traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty.

The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks.

So Bangs offers an erudite rebuttal to the Pilgrims' modern-day cultured despisers. His Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009) sets the Pilgrims in their thick historical context. His well-written scholarly account has no rival as far as scope and detail goes. The book has a whopping 894 pages and by my reckoning weighs nearly 4lbs. As a bonus, it's richly illustrated with a variety of prints and photographs (Bangs has spent much time working on the material culture of English separatists.)

Bangs writes that Samuel Elliot Morrison, Darret Rutman, and Theodre Dwight Bozeman dismissed the Plymouth colony as insignificant, a backwater. Add to that Malcolm X’s turn of phrase: “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” (I'm not sure if Brian Wilson's immortal words count as a critique or a drug-related bit of wordplay: "Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over . . .") Since the 1970s, a simple formula has guided much wisdom on the Pilgrims: Indians = good; Pilgrims = bad.

Why do the Pilgrims deserve a new look? Their lives and the record they left tell us something basic about the European roots and the hot Protestant context of America’s first English settlers. The Pilgrims later significance, Bangs notes, also reveals a great deal about what future generations wanted to remember (and one might add, forget) about early colonial America. Bangs argues: “No history of the Plymouth Colony, no history of Leiden, no history of the Netherlands so far explains adequately the Pilgrims' defining experience in exile.” Travellers and Sojourners “undertakes the necessary task of starting over, not simply to add incrementally to what is already known about the Pilgrims in Leiden but instead to reconceive the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically.”


Bland Whitley said...

Perhaps it's the Virginian in me (ok, strike the perhaps), but I prefer keeping the Pilgrims debunked, if for no other reason than it tends to minimize the New England chauvinism so much on display in your post, Randall. First English settlers? Puhleeze. More seriously, however important the Pilgrims may have been, there use as American archetypes seems to serve some not terribly high-minded goals. The Pilgrims kind of bleach out the history of colonization/settlement, first by mythologizing a cooperative relationship with the Indians and second by making people forget about the biracial society already taking shape to the south. The Pilgrim myth has allowed Americans to think of the country without acknowledging slavery and genocide. That's why it's probably more useful to focus more attention on VA settlement, where one can't be shielded from the messy realities. And besides, as any VA schoolkids could tell you, the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated at Berkeley Hundred, VA in 1619. Gobble gobble.

Randall said...

True enough. I should have said first REAL settlers.

I do like the horror of the southern settlement.

I'd like to see this turn into a historiographical version of the East Coast, West Coast rap wars.

Bland Whitley said...

Good idea. I'll start calling you Biggie Smalls from now on. Something tells me that the funkiness of West Coast rap is more analagous to Virginia settlement--I guess that makes me Dr. Dre.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

The turn here in the comments does make me wonder about our geographic location and how that shapes who the "real" settlers are. Do you think your Northeastern sojourn balanced out your Kansas roots, Randall? That's too personal, maybe, but I do think that geography can (not always) shape who we think has "formed" American character and heritage.... Sorry if that's reading too much into things. Remember I'm not a specialist here! But yes, please, let's have some rap wars.

Randall said...

I'd definitely say so. Yep. Visits to Plymouth helped, too.