Pyle's speech to the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts

Friday, December 21, 2001 - 12:00

Tonight we repeat an ancient rite and try to find meaning in the Pilgrim story. This is a daunting task, because so much has been said  and written. For example, there are more books today about colonial history than there were colonists. I know this because Jim Baker has collected them all, and his wife Peggy has read them. 

Moreover, these Forefathers' Day addresses have been going on, almost annually, since 1770. I know that too because Peter Gomes has attended most of them.

Like many of you, I owe a great debt to the Pilgrims. Among other things, I was a guide at Plymouth Rock, and the coins I collected from tourists financed my way through college, law school, and beyond.

Guiding at the Rock was a great Plymouth tradition. Chris Hussey can attest to that. Even Cozy Barrett, who built his career in town politics disparaging the Pilgrims, was once an official guide.

My father, who used to guide with Cozy, later taught history at Plymouth High School and became the first employee of Plimoth Plantation. I grew up with the Plantation. Its first office stood between my bed and the bathroom. But my most vivid memory of those days comes from the 1960s, when I took a walk with my dad up the main street of the Pilgrim Village. As I admired the new thatched roofs, he remarked ruefully: "What this place needs is a good fire."

For a moment I thought he had committed treason, but his explanation made sense. The Plantation had finally made enough money to send researchers to England, and what they learned cast doubt upon some of our ideas about seventeenth century architecture.

Most of the buildings my father regretted have now been replaced, along with those cotton dresses that my wife, Cindy, used to wear when she worked in the Village. Some of you think that the Plantation staff began their impersonations under the leadership of Jimmy Deetz. That is not true. Cindy, and nearly everyone else on the staff, used to combat boredom and fool tourists by impersonating mannequins.

By 1990, when I next returned to the Plantation, it was deep into lively impersonations, and had become very good at it. Jimmy Baker, whom I remember as a little kid, had become a gray-bearded eminence, and he and his Plantation colleagues agreed to teach my students about the Pilgrims. And what a course that was.

We took over the Village in January, when the tourists were gone, set up three houses, put the students in costume, and indentured them to three Pilgrim families, played flawlessly by the Plantation's interpreters. But the grand finale of this three-week course took place in Pilgrim Hall after the role-playing was over. Jim Baker read the walls to us, explaining the great paintings and, with them, changing versions of the Pilgrim story. It was an Oscar-worthy performance which captured perfectly what I had wanted the course to do, which was to rescue history from the embalmers; to show how it evolves, decade-by-decade, as each of us ransacks the attics of our minds for meaning, entertainment, or ethnic self-congratulation.

Which brings me to my topic for this evening: our never-ending effort to reinvent the past.

* * *

History, I often tell my students somewhat disingenuously, doesn't interest me much. History is just one damned fact after another. It's worthless, unless it can answer the great "So what?" question.

What interests me, I insist, is habit, tradition, inspiration, embarrassment, and mythology, ” everything that moves people after the debris of material culture has fallen away. I'm interested in stories worth retelling as part of what Henry Steele Commager used to call our never-ending search for a "usable past." We need to look backwards to discover who we are and who we ought to be.

Unfortunately, many believe that the United States has little history, and even fewer traditions. A few years ago, when I proposed to teach a course on "American Political Thought," one of my colleagues quipped: "Well, that will be a short course." Having been trained in European thought, he assumed that Americans have few thoughts worth keeping. Our lack of first-rate thinkers, he said, only proves that we have generated little that is worth passing on to the next generation.

More recently a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard has come to a similar conclusion. After a quick visit to the States, Baudrillard reported that Americans despise history, because they are forever reinventing themselves. Unlike Europeans, who can never escape their history, Americans are blissfully ignorant of their collective past, and therefore free to be "all that they can be." Sticking the knife in further, this intellectual tourist insisted that the United States is not Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, or Gettysburg. It is Salt Lake City on one side of the desert and Las Vegas on the other, with nothing in between.

In other words, America is a cultural vacuum within which all sorts of inventive energies can explode, where a people without history can "invent themselves." America is not the Smithsonian; it is Disney World. It is not the Pilgrim Society; it is Plimoth Plantation.

Like many French intellectuals today, Mssr. Baudrillard is brilliantly superficial. He viewed America largely from the interstate highways, from which he could clearly see the McDonald's restaurants, the mega-malls, and the backyard pools. What he missed, of course, were the traditions, institutions, and habits of thought that shape the conduct of ordinary Americans.

Had Baudrillard got off the Interstate, he would have discovered a culturally richer America beyond the asphalt, steel, and plastic,  places with a deep sense of history and tradition. If he had been as perceptive as Alexis de Tocqueville, he might even have discovered some histories worthy of retelling, generation after generation.

Baudrillard might even have discovered the quaint tradition of this Forefathers' Day address. In the early years, finding a usable past for our young Republic was an urgent task. It is no accident that these speeches used to be delivered by such distinguished orators as John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett, Daniel Webster, Wendell Phillips, Mark Hopkins, and Lyman Beecher. Of course, the fact that this year's address is being delivered by an obscure professor of politics suggests that maybe Baudrillard is right: that Americans today really don't care much about their collective past.

Even so, these addresses used to be as prominent as orations on the Fourth of July. They gave the world's first new nation a sense of rootedness. They were central to what we might call the "identity politics" of that time.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the Pilgrims have always been a political football in somebody's game of identity group politics. That game probably began in the Old Colony Club on the eve of the American Revolution, when loyalists argued with revolutionaries over whose side the forefathers would join.

The next two competitions involved New England's efforts to prove its moral superiority, first over corrupt old England, and then over the get-rich-quick, slave-exploiting South. Needless to say, the Pilgrims helped New England win both competitions handily.

As a new century dawned, a more local competition was fought out between the liberal and conservative wings of the Puritan churches. Urbane Unitarians from Harvard repeatedly reminded conservative Congregationalists from Andover that there was, in Pastor Robinson's words, "more truth yet to break forth from His holy word." Lyman Beecher, a conservative Congregationist, would later suggest that the mild-mannered Unitarians no longer possessed the true grit that had enabled their Cromwellian forefathers to conquer the heathen.

A few decades later, a gentler, more literary competition broke out between two Bowdoin College classmates. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, the furry bard of Brattle Street, gave us John and Priscilla of Plymouth, young Pilgrims in love, eager to beget a promising new nation. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Washington Irving of Sleepy Concord, portrayed the Puritans of Salem as medieval hypocrites, denouncing sin on Sunday and lusting after Hester Prynne on weekdays. As you might expect, Plymouth won this round, too, thanks to its unimpeachable family values.

On the eve of the Civil War, a more serious competition broke out, between those who wove cotton, and those who threatened their supplies by advocating the abolition of slavery. Daniel Webster, who made his name denouncing slavery from the Rock in 1820, eventually joined the mill owners, while abolitionists like Wendell Phillips used their addresses to praise John Brown as the last true Puritan (with moral ironsides), and to laud his separatist vision of free black republics in the Applachian Mountains. Still others invoked our Old Colony as a shining example of what a settlement of ex-slaves in West Africa could become.

From the 1840s to the 1920s, Forefathers' Day addresses were often used to present the Pilgrims as paragons of Protestant virtue for Catholic and Jewish immigrants to emulate, if they wished to become true Americans. Images of humble Pilgrims, splashing about in the tidal muck below Cole's Hill, would no longer do. They had to be made larger and purer than life, like the allegorical figures on the Forefathers' Monument. Behind this deification, unfortunately, lurked an exclusionary impulse, as politicians like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who delivered our Tercentenary Address, tried to keep America for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants by restricting immigration.

Lodge's version of identity group politics, which the Plymouth Cordage Company sensibly rejected, was opposed by many, including James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. After witnessing an orgy of Anglo-Saxon self-love in Philadelphia, Mark Twain introduced himself as a "mongrel" from Missouri and urged the Sons of New England to disband. Renounce your "soul-blistering saturnalia," he told them. "[C]ease . . . varnishing the rusty reputations of your long-vanished ancestors, the [iron-clad moralists] of Cape Cod,  go home, and learn how to behave."

One can only imagine what advice this Connecticut Yankee would give to the United Indians of New England, whose identity group politics have led them to denounce the Pilgrims and their descendants for the white peoples' "invasion of America," and who have tried for 30 years to turn Plymouth's quiet thanksgiving into a well-televised "national day of mourning."

In short, the Pilgrim story has always played a big part in a long-running game of identity group politics. What this should teach us, of course, is that history does not just belong to professorial historians. In our democratic society, the first drafts of history are usually written by local groups of ancestor worshipers, as they organize speeches, erect monuments, and rescue stuff from the attic. They are responsible for much of the misinformation you learned in elementary school. Professional historians come along later, and one of their functions is to debunk local myths and spread unpleasant rumors like "the Pilgrims never landed on Plymouth Rock," or "the first Thanksgiving was neither."

* * *

Well, as I said before, when it comes to history, I'm not much for the details. I'm more interested in the storybook version,  the half-truths we choose to tell our children in those fleeting moments when we have their attention.

Unfortunately, most people learn what they know about the Pilgrims when they are in the fifth grade, which is like telling them about sex before they are old enough to enjoy it. Here in Plymouth, generations have learned about the Pilgrims by burying fish out back of the Harlow House, or by donning ill-fitting costumes on beautiful summer afternoons and marching up and down Burial Hill. And if they threatened to make light of the occasion, the ladies who dressed them could be counted on to stick pins in their wrists.

We can probably improve on such instruction, but only if we agree that the Pilgrim story is adult literature which makes the most sense when viewed as part of a larger, evolving narrative of what it means to be American. For all the fun we may have marching about in costumes or polishing our pedigrees, the Pilgrim story is not really about embalming our ancestors, one-upping the ethnic competition, or getting here first.

So, I hope you will not think me unpatriotic if I insist that we will not find the Pilgrims in those glass cases of Pilgrim Hall, inside the Sarcophagus, or under the Rock. Like any story worth claiming as a heritage, the Pilgrim story lies in the habits of thought that have ennobled, and the behaviors that have embarrassed, this nation over centuries.

And so I propose to tell you what I think our nation's storybooks should be telling us about the Pilgrims today. To do that, however, I must first select an appropriate narrative in which to place their story. Otherwise, we cannot adequately answer the "So what?" question that every wise child is likely to ask.

Now I know it is fashionable these days to deny the existence of any one narrative. So say the "multiculturalists," who insist that we cannot adequately reveal the full history of this nation without first assigning all Americans to their primal groups and then "celebrating" the differences among them. Their approach would deny us any common narrative and would define American history largely in terms of inter-group politics. It would stresses conflicts over cooperation, and blame members of the allegedly dominant group for all the sins of their forebearers.

The multicultural narrative is useful to the extent that it encourages us to explore the history of America's underappreciated citizens, including blacks, Hispanics, women, and native Americans. For example, we can learn much from Plimoth Plantation's brilliant exhibit which contrasts the lives of two women, one an immigrant, the other not, in the 1600s. But the multicultural narrative is unhelpful to the extent that it implies that our present differences are irreconcilable. Moreover, a narrative that defines native Americans largely in terms of their victimhood fails to give them credit for the dignity, free will, and resourcefulness that sustained them through hard times. Worse, it would flash-freeze their identity at some point in the past and deny them to the right to reinvent themselves as individuals, and embrace ideas, values, and institutions that are not part of their putative tradition.

We need strong, honest accounts of group conflicts, but we should always be striving to make them history, not habit. As Franklin Roosevelt insisted: "Americanism is a matter of the mind and the heart; [it] is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry."

So, I would prefer to keep the story of our Old Colony within the Whig tradition of America as an onward and upward struggle for liberty, equality, and justice for all, even though I know full well that our progress is far from complete and is not likely to be permanent. Our progress has been substantial enough to sustain the "American Dream" of a society in which the advancement of some need not be at the expense of others.

I agree with Louis Hartz, who described this country as a dissident fragment of Europe, which floated away from England in the early 1600s, bringing with it a strong preference for republican structures and democratic values.

The middle-class Englishmen who laid the foundations of our governments thought of themselves as "born free" — free of the hereditary structures of political, economic, and religious power. They did not need to create the powerful bureaucratic structures of socialism to overcome an entrenched system of privilege because they had escaped the dead hand of feudalism. Like the Pilgrims, they organized themselves into self-governing voluntary associations, built around a series of overlapping people-to-people social compacts. On top of this they imposed a body of constitutional law to govern the governors.

Within this system, the people replaced kings and aristocrats as the ultimate source of legitimate authority. Public officials became public servants, hired for limited purposes and for fixed terms in office.

According to this narrative, American history has been marked by the gradual expansion of equal liberty under law. That expansion has been a slow and painful, as the multiculturalists know well. But, for all the abuses, there has been progress, and it is important that we acknowledge the progress as well as its incompleteness, if only to give us hope for the work that is yet to come.

I would convey this storybook version of America to our children not because it is accurate or complete. It is neither. But it is less partisan, more inclusive, and more open to improvement than one that stresses our differences, or tries to keep us locked within putative groups. I like Whig history's faith in progress, because it tends to stress persuasion over conflict and because it does not require us to discredit one group in order to improve the prospects of another.

I also prefer this narrative because it is grounded in law as well as politics. Or, to put it another way, it is not just politics. Values, like liberty, equality, and justice, get institutionalized over time and are not wholly forsaken each time political winds change.

The liberal narrative also suggests that we ought to think of the United States as exceptional, not in any self-congratulatory way, but as a nation of promises, as Martin Luther King reminded us in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. That is not to say that there isn't often a large gap between the promise and the reality of American politics. Of course there is, as Dr. King pointed out. But it is a gap we have an obligation to narrow, so that we may be looked upon "as city upon a hill."

In short, ours is not like other countries, which define themselves by blood and soil, religion, race, ethnicity, or cuisine. Ours is the world's first universal nation, organized around a political and moral creed. It is, as C. K. Chesterton observed, "a nation with the soul of a church."

Now you can see at once that my storybook version of America is as highly selective and hortatory as anything advanced by the multiculturalists. I don't deny it. All storybook versions of history have political and moral agendas. They must, if they are to pass the "So what?" test. I choose this one, not because it accounts for everything, but because despite its potential for complacency and myopia -- it promises to make us better, or at least more interesting, people.

The liberal narrative also reminds us that self-esteem cannot come from ancestral accomplishment. Each of us must earn what esteem we enjoy by our own efforts, even as we may find inspiration in the efforts of those who went before us. When we try to use history as a form of group therapy, as multiculturalists often do, we delude ourselves and corrupt the past. Once ethnic pride becomes the principle of historical selection, then much that might make us humble about the failings of our group, and more open to learning from the accomplishments and qualities of others, cannot be taught.

I also like the liberal tradition because it doesn't pigeonhole each of us within just one identity group, with all the stereotypes that usually entails. It frees us to select affinity groups instead and thereby become inclusive multiculturalists, raiding everyone's history for values and traditions that are meaningful to us, whether or not members of our gene pool pioneered them.

Finally, the idea that we can inherit certain cultural or moral traits is absurd. Values, honor, and status cannot be passed down through genes; they have to be relearned personally by each member of each generation. If each of us, white, black, Hispanic, or native American, were to identify every genetic ancestor going back 19 generations to Pilgrim times, he would have a family tree teeming with 524,288 ancestors. The staggering diversity of such a gene pool should debunk forever any ideas of ethnic purity or any belief that a few ancestors from that far back really matter.

So, do you want to be a Mayflower descendant? Be my guest. Want to take inspiration from Massasoit or Tisquantum? You can do that, and more, so long as you remember that being an American has everything to do with values and nothing to do with DNA. E pluribus unum is not just our nation's motto. It is a law of genetics. We can't have but one racial or ethnic identity, even if we wanted to.

So maybe Jean Baudrillard is onto something. We can reinvent ourselves in many ways, including, but not limited to, giving our family tree a bloody good shake.

* * *

Which brings me, at last, to the Pilgrims. What would we want to take from their story, make part of our storybook version of America, and pass on to our children?

The list is too long to recite in an evening, so I will again be selective, starting with the fact that the Pilgrims, like the Wampanoags under Massasoit, were ordinary people who did extraordinary things without appreciating the significance of what they were doing. They weren't trying to be the first at anything or win a place in the Guinness Book of Records, and thereby feed their egos and those of their descendants. They were just trying to do right by God and those with whom they had covenanted together.

Now I know there are lots of people who will tell you that the Pilgrims did not land their shallop next to Plymouth Rock on this day in 1620. Maybe so, but that is beside the point. The chances are that they did use the Rock off and on when the tide was right and the water was cold. That's good enough for me, because that ordinary, unpretentious boulder is the best possible monument to these ordinary people.

There are those who will tell you that the so-called first Thanksgiving was neither the first nor a thanksgiving. True, but that is like reminding us that the Santa Claus we love was less of a saint than a marketing invention of the Coca Cola Company. Like Santa Claus, the American Thanksgiving has many origins, and will have more to come.

And so it should.

I prefer to think of the so-called first Thanksgiving as America's first, great multicultural event, and part of the promise of this country that went tragically unfulfilled. The United Indians of New England are wrong to disparage that gathering and, by implication, the Wampanoags, whose generosity and enthusiasm turned it into a predominately native American event. If we want to emphasis the sins of our ancestors (on both sides), we might start by recalling the bloody Pequot War of 1637.

The first Thanksgiving, however, deserves to be remembered with awe. For three days, two tribes as fearful and ignorant of each other as any two peoples could be, unable to speak each others languages, bridged an almost impossible cultural gap. Of course, such risk taking was an aberration in the seventeenth century. So, too, was their treaty, which lasted for over 50 years. We should never let the amity of that moment blind us to the tragedies that followed. But each time we assume that cultural differences are irreconcilable, we should give thanks for Thanksgiving, and say, with Pastor Robinson, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

Like the "first Thanksgiving," the Mayflower Compact was long forgotten by our ancestors, until John Quincy Adams acknowledged its significance on this occasion in 1802. The Compact, he said, was "perhaps the only instance in human history of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government."

Of course, the Pilgrims were not philosophers. Like us, they were ordinary people, but seventy years before John Locke, a century before Rousseau, and a century-and-a-half before the Declaration of Independence, they embraced the idea that government need not be a social class privilege, but could be "instituted among men, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed."

No, the Compact was not a constitution, as Connecticut's license plates continually remind us. It was more like the Pilgrims' church covenant, a version of which you can find carved on the wall of that gloomy church in Town Square. The Pilgrims rejected feudalism. They denied ecclesiastical rule, and refused to put the king, the Crown, or the state ahead of the people. Their Compact turned government, with its coercive powers, into a voluntary association. It began what the British Colonial Office would later regret not squelching from the start–our irrepressible preference for self-government.

By running their own religious and civil affairs, the Pilgrims, like the Puritans who followed them, came to think of themselves as citizens, not subjects, whatever concessions they might make to appease their Dread Sovereign Lord, King James. Although they were too busy to notice it at the time, they had, out of necessity and habit, helped begin a revolution in political thought.

Unlike the Magna Carta, the Pilgrims' compact was not an agreement between rulers and the ruled. It was an agreement among people to create a political body with governing powers, and then, in separate elections, select governors. These governors could not bequeath authority to their first-born sons, or assure their other sons of places in the army or the church. Again, conventional political thought had been stood on its head, even though there was no one to record the fact.

Professors who teach political theory would have us believe that great ideas like these originate in the writings of great thinkers like them. Not so. If the Pilgrim story teaches us anything, it is that great thoughts, subversive thoughts, thoughts worth dying for, often emerge from very ordinary people.

That is why Plymouth Rock is the best possible symbol of the humble origins of our nation. It epitomizes faith in democracy, and the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. The Pilgrims happened to come of age at a propitious moment in history, when Europe was beginning to cast off the ancient shackles of aristocracy and superstition, and was preparing to reinvent itself. The Pilgrims just helped Europe reinvent itself, in America, along more democratic lines.

Today, the idea of a social compact is often dismissed as a myth. Even the Preamble to the federal Constitution, by which "we, the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution," is said to be nonsense, as the ordainers are no longer living and, in any case, had no right to bind succeeding generations. Modern Republicans prefer the term "contract," as in Newt Gingrich's "contract with America." But, to the Pilgrims agreements to create political institutions are covenants, not contracts.

Covenants are made in the eyes of God, or at least their ambiguities are to be resolved by reference to a higher law that transcends mere personal or group advantage. They are not mere contracts, limited by their terms and breakable for a price. They are not based on the idea that law is nothing more than an external constraint, defining what those in power will not let you get away with. Covenants are promises of self-restraint, wreathed in mutuality. They need not be expressly stated, and can be tacitly embraced by succeeding generations, like implicit warranties of fitness, or the duties we owe to God or civilization.

Covenants have one other advantage worth recalling to our children. They permit us to define government as a commonwealth, rather than a mere state. The Pilgrims would have agreed with Horace Mann, who wrote that "the successive generations of men, taken collectively, constitute one great commonwealth."

Finally, as we re-imagine the national narrative, it helps to remember the Pilgrims as moral athletes, even if that tradition has been largely lost. Plymouth's founders did not believe in fate, but, in a religious psychology that most Americans find bizarre today. The Pilgrims did not bemoan adversity, but patiently accepted it as yet another sign of God's Providence. Each problem, each reversal, each tragedy was but a moral challenge to be embraced, which may explain why they were such spectacular survivors. Our culture of moral self-indulgence would have revolted them. Their joy lay in fighting the good fight for God, even as they knew that eventually they would fail.

Now this is all well and good, you may say, but as uncertain as succotash. Perhaps. But as I look around this room and think of so many lives well led, I cannot help but conclude that the idea of covenants lives on in Plymouth County. You may not think of covenants as often as the Pilgrims did, but most of you have inherited that stern, even inconvenient, sense of duty that covenants imply. You may be too modest to admit it, but you tend to believe, as the great Puritan poet, John Donne, did, "that no man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." This means that you think of liberty much as your Separatist forebearers did, not just as freedom from persecution, but as the opportunity to do what is right and good.

* * *

So the question all Americans should really ask is not whether we have Pilgrims up our family tree, but whether we ought to keep them in our national storybook. My answer is a resounding yes. We should teach all God's children to accept Bradford's benediction as their own, so that someday someone may proudly say of them: "as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled Hath shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation . . . ."