Desktop version

Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

The Pilgrims and the Puritans in Revolutionary America AND THE 19th CENTURY

The Mayflower cult, the Pilgrim legend, was built up in New England at the end of the eighteenth century and developed in the first half of the nineteenth. It was spreading west into the prairies by the mid-century. [...] The ideas of New England were carried across the continent.

Crispin Gill, Mayflower Remembered

Thomas Jefferson, co-author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States of America, early on realized the usefulness of the Exodus narrative for American nation-building. He wanted to place the inscription “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night” on the Great Seal of the United States, as John Adams, then delegate to the Second Continental Congress and later second President of the United States, wrote to his wife in 1776 (qtd. in Buckley, “Thomas Jefferson” 46). Time and again, Jefferson returned to the myth of the Promised Land to describe the special relationship of Americans with God. In his second inaugural address, Jefferson refers to “that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land; and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life” (qtd. in ibid.). In Jefferson’s political rhetoric, “the Exodus event in and through which God had formed his chosen people prefigured the formation of the American nation” (ibid.). In the ways that the rhetoric of the Promised Land became partially secularized for the purpose of nation-building, we can observe how the memory of the Pilgrims and Puritans was preserved and adapted into a specific US-American civil religion (to be discussed in detail in the following chapter).

Illustration 3: Plymouth Rock

Photograph by James Freeman and Cindy Freeman (2006).

The memorial culture surrounding the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans has both a regional as well as a national tradition. At the site of the founding of Plymouth, a veritable cult of the Pilgrim Fathers started to develop in the second half of the 18th century that continued well into the 19th century. One element of the Pilgrims’ story which cannot be found in the 17th-century sources and which is difficult (if not impossible) to authenticate is Plymouth Rock, which became the focus of a narrative of mythical proportions. The rock supposedly marked the spot where the Pilgrims first set foot on American soil and was turned into a fetish of New England beginnings, even though Bradford does not mention it anywhere in his text. It is only in the revolutionary era that promotion of the Rock as “a political icon” sets in (Seelye, Memory’s Nation 1). By focusing on the physical contact between the feet of the Pilgrim Fathers and a rock at the coastline, this mythology distracts attention away from and displaces the more difficult issue of cultural contact between the indigenous peoples and the Pilgrims - a rock does not speak or fight back, after all. The rock is mentioned for the first time in 1741 and in the following decades is cherished, fenced in, and protected against the weather - especially after 1774. In the 1830s, the famous French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the cult around Plymouth Rock, which then was in full swing:

This rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. Does not this sufficiently show how all human power and greatness are entirely in the soul? Here is a stone which the feet of a few poor fugitives pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, a fragment is prized as a relic. (Democracy Vol. 1 34)

The term ‘relic,’ of course, already connotes the sacral and holy that turns a worldly thing (here a rock) into an object of worship. This symbolic surplus constitutes the mythic quality of lifeless matter in the foundational framework of a nation. Udo Hebel has in great detail chronicled the rise and demise of Plymouth Rock’s role in the New England imaginary and in that of the nation. He has pointed out that the “history of the commemoration of the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth harbour as Forefather’s Day dates back to 1769” (“Rise” 142), even as Plymouth Rock’s symbolic power diminishes with the rise of Thanksgiving as the more prominent national holiday. To be chosen to compose and to deliver the annual Forefather’s Day oratory next to the rock was one of the greatest honors that could be bestowed upon a member of the community. Among the more famous speakers chosen for that occasion was the lawyer, politician, and orator Daniel Webster, who gave an address called “First Settlement of New England” at the bicentenary celebration of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth in 1820; the bicentenary was organized by the newly founded Pilgrim Society, which not only took good care of the rock but by 1824 had turned Plymouth into a popular tourist attraction (cf. Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 45). Webster’s speech shows how the effort of commemoration is inextricably intertwined with mythmaking, and contains all the elements characteristic of the Pilgrim’s myth of origin in New England. First, he delineates the ‘new world’ as a safe haven for the religious refugees from England, calling New England “the place of our father’s refuge” (“First Settlement” 26). Second, he strongly idealizes the Pilgrim Fathers and their “voluntary exile,” states that they sought “a higher degree of religious freedom” and “a purer form of religious worship” (ibid. 29), and turns them into victims and quasi-martyrs: theirs “was a humble and peaceable religion, flying from causeless oppression” (ibid. 31). Third, Webster mythologizes the landing and fetishizes the rock by invoking its spiritus loci, which “inspires and awes us” at this “memorable spot [...], this Rock [...] on which New England received the feet of the Pilgrims” (ibid. 27). Fourth, Webster emphasizes the distinctness of the Plymouth Colony from all other colonial projects past and present. He even casts the Pilgrims’ arrival at the shore as a radical and singular form of a new beginning built upon religious prophecy that made them feel and act ‘at home’ in the ‘new world’ immediately (cf. ibid. 36) thanks to the Mayflower Compact. Their settlement was not a colonial outpost or a mere extension of the motherland, but marked a radical new beginning “with the very first foundations laid under the divine light of the Christian religion” (ibid. 36) that led to progress and democracy built on “morality and religious sentiment” (ibid. 49). Briefly chastising the slave trade and the institution of slavery, Webster concludes, “let us not forget the religious character of our origin” (ibid. 51). His speech explicitly declares the Pilgrims to be the true founders of the United States of America by inextricably linking the US of 1820 to the New England beginnings of 1620 and assigns this colony an exceptional status. The Pilgrims’ endeavor thus figures as an exceptional venture, and the moment of landing is described as a singular temporal constellation, or kairos. While Webster explicitly refers to the Pilgrims, the Puritans are also championed in his skilful oratory.

Forefather’s Day annually commemorated the landing of the Pilgrims in North America and gave ample opportunity for public addresses to affirm the Pilgrims’ importance for the American republic. Among the orators were poet William Cullen Bryant (who could trace both of his parents back to the Mayflower), lawyer and politician Rufus Choate, Samuel Davies Baldwin (who gave a speech titled “Armageddon: Or, the Overthrow of Romanism and Monarchy; the Existence of the United States Foretold in the Bible”), as well as Massachusetts politician John Gorham Palfrey, author of a compendious pro-Puritan history of New England (cf. History). All in all, these commemorative speech acts were important cultural practices and political rituals that further bolstered the myth of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in the Promised Land.

Other facets of 19th-century American memorial culture reveal the foundational quality attributed to the Pilgrims and the Puritans as mythical figures of the American past. In the same way that the (competing) origin myth of Virginia became part of the national mythical repertoire, the myth of the Pilgrims and Puritans quickly achieved a national dimension. In the United States Capitol, there are three images of Pilgrims and Puritans in and around the rotunda, and additional images of individuals can be found in the Statuary Hall (a statue of Roger Williams) and in the Hall of Columns (a statue of John Winthrop). All of these images attest to the centrality of the Pilgrims and the Puritans for the foundational narratives of the nation and frame them in terms of their religiosity as well as of God’s providence. Contrary to the figure of Pocahontas discussed previously, they reference the European, i.e. the English origin of the United States of America.

Illustration 4: The Pilgrims Prepare for the ‘New World’

Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1843).

Enrico Causici’s 1825 relief Landing of the Pilgrims, 1620 in the Capitol depicts a family in a boat welcomed by a Native offering an ear of corn; the fresco Landing of Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., 1620, which is part of the Frieze of American History, is a similarly sedate rendering of the landing. The painting The Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620 (1843) by Robert W. Weir however is placed even more prominently inside the rotunda of the US Capitol. Weir’s painting, like Chapman’s Pocahontas painting, highlights the theme of salvation: whereas “Pocahontas saved Virginia for the Anglican Church, the faith of the Pilgrims saved the United States from paganism” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 39). The painting suggests that “God willed the transportation of Protestantism to America” (ibid.). Weir focuses on the departure from the ‘old world,’ not on the arrival in the ‘new.’ His painting mythologizes the moment of departure and celebrates the trust in God’s providence. Geographically, it identifies the founding of Plymouth Colony as an English/European project, by which we can discern a fundamental difference in perspective between the myth of Pocahontas and the myth of the Pilgrims and the Puritans that would continue to fuel controversial discussions.

All of the visual representations of the Pilgrims and Puritans at the meeting place of the national legislature are highly affirmative and work as foundational representations. They are in accordance with contemporaneous historiographies of the United States, most prominently again those by New England historians such as George Bancroft, author of the well-known History of the United States:

The pilgrims were Englishmen, Protestants, exiles for conscience, men disciplined by misfortune, cultivated by opportunities of extensive observation, equal in rank as in rights, and bound by no code but that of religion or the public will. (History 23)

As a historian of the romantic school, Bancroft sees liberty and God’s providence as the defining moments in American history, and thus also accords the Pilgrims a central role.

Yet, the mythologization of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in the 19th century did not only affirm a regional identity and extrapolate from it a national imaginary, but also pursued three major strategic goals in relation to what New Englanders perceived as rival influences coming from three different directions. First, the New England Way is pitted against the genealogy of the South and its foundational mythology. In his oratory, Daniel Webster takes an abolitionist stance and openly opposes the South’s system of slavery - an opposition he would later compromise in the so-called Webster-Hayne debate. Within the United States, the North and the South became increasingly polarized. It was in the midst of the sectional conflict that Thanksgiving was pronounced a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln in an act that seemed to proclaim the dominance of the North over the South. Thus here it is against the South’s political and cultural aspirations that the myth of the Pilgrims and the Puritans as a foundational American myth is implicitly directed.

Second, the West was perceived by the Protestant elite of New England as a major arena in the cultural battle over dominance with the South and as a fruitful field for missionary activities. Renowned clergyman (and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) Lyman Beecher for example argues in Plea for the West for what Ray Allen Billington refers to as “the Protestant Crusade” (cf. his book of the same title): to spread Puritanism and Protestantism in the West and to contain slavery in the South - an agenda that was shared by many of his contemporaries. In this logic, the West was to become part of the Promised Land of white American Protestants descended from Puritan stock.

Third, we need to consider the narrative that insists on casting the Pilgrims and Puritans as the founders of New England and of the nation as a reaction to the contemporaneous non-English Catholic (and Jewish) immigration from Europe. Mythologizing the Protestant rebels helped to establish a hierarchical contrast to the Catholic newcomers: The “Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the prin?ciples of our government, for patronage and support,” Beecher somewhat selfrighteously contends (Plea 61). In opposition to other ethnic and religious groups living in and coming to the USA during the second half of the 19th century, the “Plymouth settlers [were cast] as a master race” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 145-46).

Throughout the 19th century, the laudatory commemorations of the Pilgrims and Puritans in public and political discourse continued, and “by the end of the century the Puritans were generally regarded as the founders of American democracy” (Hall, “Introduction” 1). This hegemonic discourse is obviously exclusionary - for one thing, because it is profoundly racialized.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics