Sep

27

MayflowerIt is always good to go back to our roots, whether we look at the history of where we were born/where we live, or study the different environments of our ancestors. These studies show us our links to the past and the foundations that others have laid down for us to grow from.

Nathaniel Philbrick tells the story of the roots of America in his book Mayflower. The foundation of modern America begins with four hundred English Puritans who moved from England to Leiden, Holland in the early Seventeenth Century to found a purer version of the Anglican Church. One hundred of these Pilgrims carried on their journey under treacherous conditions, with low supplies, all the way to Plymoth (now Plymouth), Mass., arriving in 1620 — on the run from English agents in Holland.

The Pilgrims were financed by a profit making company, the Virginia Company, that was down on its luck because of a previous venture to Jamestown in 1607, where during the first year, seventy of one hundred and seven settlers died, and during the second year, four hundred and forty of five hundred settlers died. These Jamestown settlers died mostly from starvation and attacks from hostile Indians.

The Plymoth Puritans knew that they would be facing equally hostile conditions, but, "No small things could discourage them as … they knew they were pilgrims."

In the years following 1620, the Pilgrims were joined by many waves of adventurers, motivated mainly by profits. Philbrick's Mayflower is about the religious practices, politics, day to day life, key leaders, economic arrangements, climate, geography, survival techniques, and defensive and offensive strategies that the Puritans and the adventures forged in an effort to prosper in this hostile environment.

For fifty years, there was a relative harmony with the Indians, but this broke down with the death of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, in 1661. Within a year of his death one of the deadliest wars (in terms of percentage of population killed) in American history broke out. Philbrick is a historian with great expertise in maritime, political, military, and natural studies, and on this subject, I believe he tells a convincing story about many events that were previously in the realm of folklore.

On the characters of the time, Philbrick tells us that Squanto was a duplicitous Indian, constantly changing sides, who attempted to lead the Mayflower Pilgrims and adventurers to their destruction at times, but was very helpful to them on other occasions in establishing relations and communications with the Indian tribes. We learn that Miles Standish was a martinet, who was constantly losing his temper, leading the settlers into disaster, and had the settlement in constant military mode.

With the time the settlers spent on military and religious pursuits, it is amazing that they had any time left for survival and the pursuit of happiness. Philbrick tells how in the second year after settlement, the Pilgrims learned the power of incentives, and gave each settler the rights to the fruits of his own labor on his own land.

He points out how much more adroit the Indians were at deception than the settlers, and how they were always ambushing the settlers when they were not prudent or silent enough. Eventually, the only way that the settlers could battle the Indians on equal terms was by enlisting friendly Indians to be on their side, and who showed them how to cope with the deception of the other Indians.

Philbrick tells a great story, and derives many insights that are applicable to life — for example, he talks about the importance of trade with the Indians in creating harmony. Based on his study of the Pilgrims during the first 50 years, Philbrick believes that the essence of Americanism is criticism of authority by self-promoting men. He finds the archetype in the hero of the story, Benjamin Church, a frontiersman who is a combination of Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone and Jack Aubrey.

Like most historians trying to write popular history, Philbrick strives to focus his story on a extreme event. Almost half of the book is devoted to the war of 1670 between the Pilgrims and the Indians, and much of the commentary about the war is about the atrocities, broken promises and misdeeds of the Pilgrims. There is not enough emphasis on the trading relations with England and the other colonies, or on the spirit of incentive that led to the success of the colonies.

Overall, I can heartily recommend this book, as it is interesting, informative, and helpful to understanding the foundations of our country.

Pitt T. Maner III adds:

A visit to Plimoth Plantation a couple of years ago really brought the history to life. The actors and actresses at the historical site were so well versed in the history and the dialect that you were literally transported back in time.

They told me that I must be an escaped slave of the Spanish since I came from Florida! Quite fun. Well worth a visit.

George Zachar writes:

My parents and older brother literally got off the boat here in the US in 1949, and my childhood understanding of the world was based on what they went through in Europe before getting here.

Reading the unending litany of whining in the daily press, my default reaction is, wtf are these people complaining about? With a little focus and effort, the upside here is limitless!

Stefan Jovanovich comments: 

Complaining has always been a part of the American tradition. It is the source of our humor (what else is a wise crack?); it is also the reason the varieties of psychological counseling have found far more fertile soil here than anywhere else in the world.

Even Philbrick's otherwise admirable book ends up literally whining about the past — i.e. if only the Pilgrims had been more understanding, King Philip's war would never have happened, etc.. His premise is the ultimate therapeutic fallacy — that quarrels over culture and property can somehow be mediated if only people will sit down and talk forever.

Philbrick is a marvelous scholar and writer, but as Vic notes, in Mayflower he falls prey to the standard (at least these days) academic and journalistic presumption that, ultimately, whatever went wrong is somehow the "Americans'" (sic) fault. Even though his book has an elegant description of the sparring of the Spanish, French, and English explorers, adventurers and merchants that preceded the landing at Plymouth, Philbrick concludes that the Pilgrims and Bay colonists should somehow have avoided the follies of war and strife that tortured Europe in the 17th century. He also accepts the perversely racialist notion that the Indians (sic), like other historical losers (blacks, Palestinians, etc. but never, of course, Jews) are automatically entitled to exemption from any critical judgments.

George and James have each once again gone to the heart of the matter. The essence of being an American is that you have to make your own deal, no matter where you come from. Washington and Otis and Warren believed that America was special, not because Americans were somehow unique but because, through the accidents of history and geography, Almighty Providence had given the sons and daughters of Virginia and Massachusetts the unique blessings of individual liberty.

What made these men truly revolutionary, to this day, was their perverse belief that the same liberty was and always should be the birthright of every human. Or, as the rattlesnake flag puts it in classic American vernacular, "Don't Tread on Me." 


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