The year 2020 has been anything but predictable. It already promised to be an eventful year, but it quickly descended into utter chaos as a pandemic gripped the world, protests and riots shut down many American cities, and an iconic justice of the United States Supreme Court died, all while the nation prepared for one of the most consequential presidential elections in recent decades. It seems that nothing has escaped from the mayhem that is the year 2020—not even, as it turns out, the study of American history.
Indeed, on October 13, 2020, an article appeared at The Washington Post by Sarah Ellison with the headline “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020.” The article chronicled the controversy that erupted after the publication of The New York Times Magazine’s now infamous set of essays that sought to reframe the story of America through the lens of slavery. Ellison traced how the 1619 Project enjoyed immediate accolades while simultaneously suffering the severe scrutiny of a host of American historians who questioned the historical veracity of several of its claims. Moreover, she revealed how what began as a debate within the historical academy quickly bled into the broader American culture, even becoming part of the 2020 general election.
The reason the 1619 Project “took over 2020” was that it questioned the seemingly unquestionable—namely, the foundation, formation, and origin of the American nation. In so doing, the 1619 Project destabilized American national identity and leveled a full broadside against crucial pillars of our civic religion and the idea of American exceptionalism. It descended on the American consciousness as protestors took to the streets in the summer months of 2020, tearing down statues and memorials to national figures, arguing that we must recast America’s origin and identity in a fundamental way.
The year 2020 marks yet another 400th anniversary: the arrival of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims on the shores of New England. As Americans in 2020 dispute the origins and identity of the United States, the Mayflower has become part of that national conversation. Indeed, the story of the Pilgrims, their voyage on the Mayflower, and the signing of the Mayflower Compact emerged in the earliest days of the republic as a key event in our national self-understanding. How a band of English Separatists landed on the shores of New England, possessing no conception of an American nation, and became a centerpiece of American identity, is a story that demands to be told.
The centennial years 1820, 1920, and 2020 all featured assessments of the Pilgrims based more on myth than on fact. A sermon preached in 1820 that eulogized the Pilgrims as the fount of American liberty and religion shares an interpretive commonality with a band of protestors in 2020 who decry the Pilgrims as colonizing tyrants who deserve nothing but defamation. Each approach relies upon a different myth and deploys that myth for the purposes of defining American identity.
If 2020 is to be taken over by disputes over the ideological and moral origins of the United States, then those conversations will be best served through a recalibration of historical thinking, one that relies less on myth and more on the stories of history as they happened. As John Turner argued in his new book on the Pilgrims, “When . . . mythology is stripped away, the more expansive and colorful history . . . remains.” A reception history of the Pilgrims at various national celebrations not only shows the power of myth in American identity-making, but it also connects present-day disputes to a broader narrative of a nation that has continually reinvented and reimagined the past for its own nationalistic purposes.
The year 1820 marked the bicentennial celebration of the Mayflower’s voyage. While communities in New England had previously celebrated and remembered the Pilgrims, it was the bicentennial that brought the Pilgrim myth to the nation’s attention. The mode of memorial came through sermons and orations, which framed the Pilgrims as the progenitors of the American republic. Indeed, contained within the rhetoric were assertions of New England exceptionalism—that it was New England, founded by the Pilgrims, that transformed, as one pastor preached, the “gloomy wilderness” of America into a nation “glittering with the wealthy and populous cities, from Georgia to Maine.” The Pilgrims, as another sermon eulogized, established the most prized nation under heaven: as God guided the Pilgrims by his kind providence, so too did he now guide the progeny of the Pilgrims’ heritage, namely, a flourishing United States of America.
Yet, it was Daniel Webster’s two-hour-long speech at the official bicentennial celebration of the Mayflower that catapulted the Pilgrims from regional to national notoriety. Webster was already a prominent figure in New England, having enjoyed a successful career as a constitutional lawyer and served two terms in Congress. His specific political and national context, coupled with his own ideological convictions, directed his interpretation of the Pilgrims. Indeed, in 1820, the United States had entered what was known as “The Era of Good Feelings,” a time of prosperity that came in the wake of the nation’s victory in the War of 1812. At the same time, America began to look to the West and to the nation’s interior, a prospect cautioned against by members of Webster’s party—for coupled with expansion was the question of the legality of slavery in new American territories.
At this political crossroads, Webster delivered his discourse on the Pilgrims, reimagining their story for the purposes and needs of America in 1820. His speech was a summons to the early republic, a clarion call to the nation that it might not be found “unworthy” of its “origin”—an origin not found in 1607 with the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, to where the first slaves were brought in 1619. Indeed, Webster contrasted the Pilgrims’ project with that of Virginia and other Southern colonies, which, as he argued, began with corruption and vice, and were mired by the stain of slavery. Thus, Webster used the bicentennial celebration as an opportunity to assert New England exceptionalism over and against other colonial projects. New England exceptionalism, moreover, provided the foundation for American exceptionalism. Indeed, while Webster lauded the exceptional quality of New England’s colonial origins, he surreptitiously shifted from the story of New England to the American nation as a whole, making the story of America the story of New England. America did not take its first breath in 1607, but in 1620 when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Moreover, Webster emphasized what he believed were the virtues and commitments of the Pilgrims, and he contended throughout his speech that the character of the American nation sprang from New England. As America gazed upon the West, Webster summoned the nation to remember the characteristics of the Pilgrims and argued that expansion across North America ought to mimic the mythologized English Separatists. He pointed to the Pilgrims’ ethical heritage as a condemnation of slavery in America and used their story to curtail any effort to spread slavery into the American interior—a questionable move given the involvement of Plymouth and the Massachusetts colony not only in the African slave trade, to a certain degree, but especially in the enslavement of the Native American population. As is the case with myths, however, historical fact gives way to historical fiction. But it was this vision of the Pilgrims that would soon be found “on the shores of the Pacific.” Their virtue and commitment to liberty must be exported throughout the entire nation as a narrative that would purify America from the stain of slavery.
Webster also looked to the Pilgrims for something far more crucial than a virtuous plan for westward expansion. Indeed, the Pilgrims offered the qualities and characteristics necessary for the entire experiment of American ordered liberty to succeed. The Pilgrims, Webster believed, built their society—a society dedicated to liberty—upon a moral framework grounded in religious piety and devotion. Without religion, there was no morality. Without morality, there was no liberty. Without liberty, there was no America. This liberty, however, did not connote the freedom to live licentiously. Instead, Webster’s vision of American liberty, as enshrined by the Pilgrims, conveyed the freedom to worship God rightly and to live virtuously. This was Webster’s Pilgrim myth that provided the moral, political, and religious foundation of the United States.
As the United States entered the twentieth century, it assumed new challenges and a historical context entirely different from the days of Daniel Webster. The United States found itself on the world stage, having just concluded its involvement in World War I. Isolationism was on the rise as waves of immigrants entered New York harbor, engendering hostile debates over immigration policy. The Bolshevik Revolution loomed on the horizon. The complexities of the American political situation in 1920 fed the desire to reimagine the story of the Pilgrims. This time, however, the language and rhetoric about the Pilgrims deviated from the centrality of their religious devotion and piety and instead recast the year 1620 as a decidedly political event that set America apart from the rest of the world—an event that, unbeknownst to that band of English Separatists in 1620, would apparently have much to say about American international relations and communism.
Indeed, The New York Herald reported on several dinners and galas in the winter of 1920 that celebrated the tercentenary. The Herald recounted the address given by Senator Bert M. Fernald of Maine, who fashioned a Mayflower myth that placed the Pilgrims within the early twentieth-century struggle against Bolshevism. Situating the hope of America’s placement in the world and its resistance to Bolshevism in a Pilgrim myth, Fernald proclaimed, “The foundation of the American Republic as laid in the firm cement of the covenant of the Pilgrim Fathers, will not be uprooted by the raging storm of Bolshevism that is now sweeping over the world.” He also invoked the memory of the Pilgrims to decry streams of European immigrants that flooded American harbors. Later in 1921, President Harding delivered a formal speech commemorating the Pilgrims and the voyage of the Mayflower. Throughout his address, President Harding leaned upon their memory to “combat the menace in the growing assumption that the state must support the people.” What twentieth-century American domestic economic policy had to do with the Pilgrims was, at best, unclear—at worst, it misrepresented the social ethic of the seventeenth-century English Separatists.
The Mayflower at 400
The Pilgrims said nothing about American immigration policy. They had no comment to offer about the virtues or vices of Bolshevism. They did not erect a system of domestic economic policy to which America could look for inspiration. The Pilgrims, moreover, were not the ideological forefathers of abolitionism; they were involved in slavery. Nor did they contend for liberty and freedom in the purity ascribed them by Americans throughout the centuries.
The sermons, political speeches, and protests about America’s origin rely on myth and a faulty anthropology that fails to contend with the realities of the human condition. The task of history, however, is to replace myth with the far more compelling chronicles of human complexity. Hagiography and critical theory both represent an approach to history that culminates not in an exposition of the truth, but a myth. Such myth-making is historical malpractice. The story of the Pilgrims was and remains a complex narrative. As John Turner helpfully asserts, “Rather than bequeathing to later generations of Americans a simple story of democracy and freedom, the Pilgrims and the other inhabitants of Plymouth Colony left behind both a complicated legacy of human bondage and unresolved debates about liberty.” That is the story that demands to be told.