The Pilgrims at 400

This year and last year should be celebrated as the 400th anniversary of at least three major milestones in American history: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, and the first Thanksgiving feast (if we ignore, as most Americans do, one that took place earlier in Virginia). These events have been commemorated by a few conservative organizations, (see, for instance, here and here), but major public celebrations have been few and far between.

John G. Turner’s The Knew They Were Pilgrims marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World with a history of Plymouth Colony from its founding in 1620 to its incorporation into the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691. He uses the colony as “a fresh lens for examining the contested meaning of liberty in early New England.” Chief among the Pilgrims’ concerns was the freedom to form their own churches, elect their own officers, and determine their own modes of worship. But they also debated the proper scope of liberty of conscience, political liberty, and slavery.

The Pilgrims Come to America

The English Puritans were Calvinists who desired to purify the Church of England. A subset of them saw no biblical precedent for a national church; they thought that each Christian congregation constituted a church and should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” In order to freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to the United Provinces (Holland) in 1609.

The Pilgrims were free to worship God according to the dictates of conscience in Holland but, from their perspective, the Provinces allowed far too much “heresy and libertinism to flourish.” Worried that their children would be corrupted by Dutch society, a group of Pilgrims obtained a patent from the Virginia Company to start a colony in America. They left England aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

On November 11, the Pilgrims reached what is now Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts; far north of where their patent empowered them to form a government. Before these English Separatists disembarked from the Mayflower, they made an agreement that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursue “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the forty-one men who signed it. Significantly, even non-Separatists, also known as “strangers,” were permitted to sign the Compact and participate in the civic life of Plymouth Colony.

Turner believes the Mayflower Compact was noteworthy because it gave “farmers, common laborers, and even servants a place within the body politic.” I agree, but would add that it is important because it represents the hundreds of civic and church covenants created by the Pilgrims and the Puritans that are documented so well in David Weir’s Early New England: A Covenanted Society. These covenants helped engrain in New Englanders the idea that governments must be based upon the consent of the governed.

Thanksgiving and Native Americans

When the Pilgrims arrived at Massachusetts Bay, they found that many Native Americans who had lived in the area, referred to by contemporary scholars as Wampanoags, had been killed by Western diseases. In their first winter they were assisted by an English-speaking Native, Squanto, and eventually made a mutual defense treaty with the Wampanoag. To celebrate surviving (barely) a year in the New World and a successful fall harvest, the Pilgrims held something akin to an “English harvest festival” in the fall of 1621. They considered the celebration to be secular rather than religious and ate few of the dishes Americans associate with Thanksgiving, but they were joined by Native Americans. It is this festival—as retold by 19th century authors—that informs how most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today.

Early relations between the Pilgrims and Native Americans were mutually beneficial, but as the Pilgrims grew stronger they began to deteriorate. The Pilgrims viewed Native Americans as savages who should be converted to Christianity, but even if they converted they were not to be trusted. Turnertells a disheartening tale of Pilgrims betraying Native allies, encroaching on Native lands, and arrogantly asserting civic authority over local Natives who, needless to say, had not consented to be governed by Plymouth’s magistrates.

Eventually, open warfare broke out between the Pilgrims and local Natives. According to Turner, the Pequot War (1636-1638) “introduced a practice central to any discussion of liberty in seventeenth-century New England: the enslavement of Natives.” Although Natives had been captured and effectively enslaved prior to this conflict, this slavery was generally viewed as temporary. None of the New England colonies had statutes authorizing slavery prior to the Pequot War, although in 1641 Massachusetts authorized the enslavement of “lawful captives, taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us.” Plymouth did not pass such a law until decades later, but its citizens practiced slavery nonetheless.

Turner documents many instances of Natives being enslaved who cannot reasonably be described as lawful captives taken in just wars. After the Pequot War and, especially, King Philip’s War (1675-78), hundreds of Natives were captured and held as slaves or were sold to traders who transported them to the West Indies. King Philip’s War was, proportionately, among the bloodiest ever fought in what became the United States. As “many as one in ten adult English men died or suffered captivity” and in this decade “the Native population of New England fell by half.”

The Pilgrims and Puritans were far from unique in practicing slavery and displacing Native populations, and slavery was never as important for New England as it was in the American South and, especially, European colonies in the Caribbean and South/Central America. Still, those of us who believe their contributions to the development of republicanism and liberty in America should be better recognized must acknowledge that they were not the saints portrayed in older hagiographic literature.

The Development of Political Liberty

The Pilgrims were not 21st century liberal democrats, but they embraced institutions and practices that helped advance a commitment to republican self-government under law. In addition to making covenants, these practices included annual elections for the General Court, abandoning the communal ownership of property in favor of private ownerships, and maintaining important common law protections such as the right of citizens of serious crimes to trial by jury.

Reformed (Calvinist) Christians did not invent the idea that it is both biblical and just to actively resist tyrannical rulers, but they developed and embraced a more robust version of this concept than their predecessors.

The Pilgrims permitted non-Separatists to sign the Mayflower Compact and to participate in the civic life of Plymouth Colony. The colony did not adopt a religious test for office until the 1650s, although there were other limitations on suffrage. Still, according to Turner, “political participation in New Plymouth remained unusually broad by English standards.” And men unable to vote for colonial officials could often participate in town meetings.

Reformed (Calvinist) Christians did not invent the idea that it is both biblical and just to actively resist tyrannical rulers, but they developed and embraced a more robust version of this concept than their predecessors. As early as the 1630s, Massachusetts Bay prepared to resist by force an order by the Privy Council that its leaders return the colony’s charter, and its citizens rejoiced when Charles I was beheaded for treason in 1649. After the Restoration, Charles II sent four commissioners to America, including two who carried a letter from the king that made three demands of New Plymouth’s magistrates. The colony’s leaders expressed their loyalty to the king and promised to discuss his requests, but in the final analysis and with “as much politeness as they could muster, New Plymouth’s leaders rejected every single one of the king’s demands.”

In 1686, England attempted to “improve” the governance of the colonies by combining New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Plymouth into a single administrative unit known as the Dominion of New England. The second governor of the new entity, Sir Edmund Andros, immediately made himself unpopular by demanding that a Congregational meeting house in Boston be made available for Anglican services and by restricting town meetings. He also taxed the colonists without their consent, which they considered to be a violation of their rights as Englishmen.

On April 18, 1689, shortly after news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston, Puritan civic leaders arrested Andros and other members of the Dominion government and returned them to England for trial. The new monarchs wisely abandoned the Dominion and issued a new charter for Massachusetts, one that incorporated Plymouth Colony into its borders. It is noteworthy that all of these acts of resistance occurred before John Locke published his Second Treatise. New England colonists did not need to read Locke to understand that government should be based on the consent of the governed, that there should be no taxation without representation, and that tyrannical rulers may be justly resisted.

A Cast of Characters

I’ve focused my review on a few themes that are likely to be of interest to readers of Law & Liberty, but the book contains much more. For instance, Turner explores important theological debates, arguments over religious toleration and acts of intolerance, and how Pilgrims dealt with life and death. One of the strengths of the book is that he weaves stories about numerous men and women, some famous and some obscure, that personalize these controversies. These include, among others, Massasoit, John Winthrop, William Bradford, John Cotton, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Samuel Gorton, Awashonks, Metacom, Mary Rowlandson, and John Eliot.

One of the most interesting of these stories involves an Englishman named Thomas Morton. Morton’s exploits are best known because of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Hawthorne’s account describes the whimsical residents of Merry Mount, led by the “Lord of Misrule” (Morton), as feasting and dancing around a Maypole. Their celebration is interrupted by “dismal” Puritans who disapprove of such merriment and so cut down the Maypole and arrest Morton.

Hawthorn’s tale pits Merry Mount’s “jollity” against the Puritans’ “gloom.” But Turner reveals that the story is a bit more complicated. The real Morton failed in several ventures before joining forces with two “erstwhile pirates,” Humphrey Rastall and Richard Wollaston, to form an outpost in New England to compete with Plymouth in the fur trade. After Rastall and Wollaston returned to England, Morton organized a mutiny and renamed the outpost “Ma-re Mount.”

Morton and William Bradford each wrote accounts of this controversy, and both agree that the “Lord of Misrule” erected a Maypole. Bradford considered the Maypole to be an idol, similar to “the golden calf worshiped by the Hebrews after the exodus.” But the Puritans were also troubled by the drunkenness and fornication associated with the outpost. Most concerning of all was their conviction that Morton was selling guns and ammunition to Native Americans, commerce that posed a “mortal danger” to Plymouth.

Myles Standish eventually led a party to arrest Morton and his men who were “‘so steeled with drink’ that they could not lift their weapons.” Morton was arrested and returned to England but, according to Turner, if there was a Maypole “the Pilgrims left it standing.” The Pilgrims opposed Morton for spiritual, moral, and economic reasons, but their primary concern was that he was engaged in trade that could lead to Plymouth’s destruction. However one weighs these motives, it is evident that the Pilgrims were concerned with far more than dancing around a Maypole.

Throughout American history, novelists, playwrights, academics, and civic leaders have found it difficult to avoid the temptation of presenting the Pilgrims as either saints or meanspirited theocrats. They Knew They Were Pilgrims makes it clear that they were men and women who engaged in both praiseworthy and lamentable activities. Turner’s work, in conjunction with recent works on the Pilgrims and Puritans by scholars such as David D. Hall and Michael Winship, help show that despite their flaws these hearty refugees played an important role in the rise of republican self-government in America.