This archived article was written by: Joshua H. Behn
Robert E. Lee thought that history had an important place in our lives when he wrote that “It is history that teaches us to hope.”
History is a funny thing. It may not have taught us to hope, but it has taught other lessons: how to fear, how to hate, how to mourn and how to expect the worst in humanity. Show me a nation of grand ideas and noble deeds and I will reveal to you the crushed bones of those that same nation is built upon.
Humankind is neither wholly sublime nor evil; rather, elements of both. At times, so full of light and yet at others, bound by darkness; a duality of nature that has perplexed scientists and entranced philosophers.
Shakespeare wrote “what a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel” and Michael Shaara countered with “Well, if he’s an angel, alright. But he damn well must be a killer angel.”
Eastern and Polytheistic religions have long noted this duality in man and believed that it was a true expression of harmony in the universe: light and dark. Both cosmic forces must co-exist and neither can exist without the other.
To Western thought, this is an alien concept. We acknowledge that these two forces exist but pit them against each other in such a way that only one can dominate in the end. God will eventually vanquish the devil and bring everlasting peace. Yet, peace of this kind may not necessarily be true harmony and it never crosses our minds that the elimination of one might cause the other to cease to exist. Balance is homeostasis which is harmony.
But I digress. I didn’t take up the pen to convince CEU of the Yin-Yang concept, rather the constant pull of good and bad in the history of our country.
Living in Massachusetts, I have the opportunity to visit places having historical significance. Recently, I found myself in Plymouth and in the silence of evening looked on the Plymouth Rock; gazed on the statue of Chief Massasoit (whose twin interestingly enough stands outside the Lee library on the campus of BYU); meditated among the shale headstones of the Old Burial Ground; and wandered among the maze of 18th century homes. But, one landmark in particular caught my attention.
On Pilgrim Hill there is a monument-tomb dedicated to those who perished in the frightful first winter of 1620. Of the 102 who disembarked in Plymouth harbor only 50 were left the following spring. None were spared, whether they are pious elder, gallant soldier or suckling child. On this monument is an inscription that seems to deify their efforts:
“Reader! History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this Pilgrim band … They laid the foundations of a state wherein every man through countless ages, should have liberty to worship God in his own way. May their example inspire thee to do thy part in perpetuating and the spreading the ideals of our republic throughout the world.”
This is the very founding myth, of a people who braved the unknown to establish a promised land, a free and independent country, dedicated to the principles of religious tolerance. This myth has faithfully endured these 389 years. But the reality couldn’t be more different …
It is true that a congregation of Pastor John Robinson’s religious separatists left England to escape Puritan intolerance. However, this journey began in 1609 (much earlier than the subscribed 1620 voyage) settling in Leiden, Holland. Holland was one of the freest societies in Western Europe at that time and they were able to practice their faith without much opposition.
Years went by and their children began to grow. They soon realized the universal truth that all immigrant populations come to experience, the eventual assimilation of the predominant culture among which they live. The Separatists still strongly considered themselves Englishmen and wished to keep their customs, so eventually turned their eyes to the British colonies in the New World.
The separatist leaders understood that they didn’t have the ability to fund the expedition and were forced to form a business venture with a group of London businessmen. The terms of the agreement were far from optimum and the separatists found themselves in a sort of indentured servitude, where all profits for the first seven years would be sent back to England. The voyage was begun not on ideas of a republic, but on ideas of money and trade.
Everything in the new colony was temporary from their form of governing, to their religious identity and even their interactions with the native populations. All would change as new bands of immigrants crossed the ocean in their wake, to supplant their established way of life.
To govern themselves, upon their arrival in the New World, they formed the Mayflower Compact (a document which has been touted as the first completely democratic form of government). Yet, it was necessity rather than the thought of creating a new form of government that inspired them. They were far from the protection of the arm of the King in a wild land populated by unknown natives. They would face famine, cold, pestilence and attack and depended upon agreeing to give up their individual wills for the survival of the colony.
They disembarked: a motley crew of passengers, made up of not only congregation members, but also soldiers, tradesmen and others who signed on for the prospect of a better life. They required strong leadership that would be obeyed. Their very lives depended on surrendering their wills to chosen leaders. They knew well that the actions of each could spell doom for their neighbor.
They practiced a very personal faith that was without the trappings of superfluous religion. They were a simple people that celebrated life with song and laughter. Within 50 years, they would be governed by contrary ideological influences from new comers who were somber and felt that levity should have no place in pious living. Dancing, singing and even the celebration of holidays were forbidden.
The arrival of the Pilgrims also facilitated a complete change of the balance of the political power in the region among the Native populations. The situation between various tribes was hardly harmonious and nebulous at best. They would form alliances based on expediency. Some tribes (such as Massasoit’s Wampanoags) sought alliances with the Plymouth colony in order to gain advantage over neighboring enemy tribes. They used each other, the Pilgrims for survival and he natives for industrial and technological prowess.
To their credit, the Pilgrim and Native Leaders who were allied with one another were surprisingly accommodating much to the detriment of other tribes (friendly and enemy alike) who were wary or downright hostile to the new comers.
The working relationship between the newcomers was in part because of the Pilgrims relatively weak community, who were seen as being quickly subdued in the event they turned on their allies. Their days were spent struggling for survival and food, rather than a focus on territorial expansion and what little expansion occurred was done through fair purchase agreements and treaty. Contrary to the words of Lincoln’s inaugural address citing them “bringing forth a nation conceived in Liberty,” the Pilgrims were no more worried about an experiment in government than they were of trade in the orient.
Once Plymouth was established, the Pilgrims were soon replaced by a steady influx of immigrants who were seeking their fortunes. They would achieve their goals through a combination of land grabbing that would quickly change this status quo, plunging the native population into turmoil.
The Pilgrims are credited with the founding of America and yet, their role was a relatively short lived and minor one, in control of their colony for perhaps 20 years at best. Their luck at establishing a permanent British settlement was simply the small foothold that would be the launching point of those who came later. Plymouth was a settlement with limited possibilities and would be displaced in influence by the rise of other surrounding communities with better natural resources capable of supporting larger populations. The next generation of Puritan settlers would expand settlements to areas that had superior natural resources, pushing the native tribes to the west in a power struggle of misunderstanding, bigotry and eventually, genocide and war.
These ruthless settlers would lay the foundations of America, their religious intolerance, brutality and greed paving the way for the creation of more tolerant colonies such as Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, established by those banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Extremists such as Cotton Mather have had far more of an influence on our history than Governor Bradford, and yet it is the Pilgrim and not the Puritan establishment which is credited in the founding myth.
Is it because of their courage to remove themselves to a completely unknown land that we honor them so? Or is it much more of an exercise in denial, where we can’t find it in ourselves to glorify the barbarity of the Puritanical leadership?
Founding myths are hardly unique to the US. Nearly every great civilization has created them to give a divine blessing: Rome has Romulus and Remus; Egypt has Osiris and Isis; England has William the Conqueror; and the Catholic Church has St. Peter. These stories (all with some basis in historical fact) helped to unify their citizens into a geographic and political framework that instilled national pride and a grand purpose of being.
The truth of “we killed the natives, pushed the survivors off their land and made fortunes off of their former homes” would hardly be as effective in stirring patriotic fervor (creating the exact opposite, feelings of shame and divisiveness).
I hear it constantly said that the United States was formed by divine providence and that we are therefore the very best nation in the world. Every great people made this same claim throughout history. Granted, we were able to create a relatively strong functioning form of government where so many other civilizations had failed and many of our citizens were able to enjoy freedoms that were off limits to the rest of the world. Yet, our nation is imperfect and has played the part of tyranny perfectly to those in the minority or without money.
The Pilgrim myth is one of many that we use so that we can forget that we are simply a nation whose history has been made up of men and women who have made good and bad decisions. Our forefathers were human and we should acknowledge that very humanity by accepting both the noble things done and the shameful things, for all were done in our name, a name which we have inherited, whether we like it or not.
We are phenomenal at espousing the good things that our country has done, and it is certainly a virtue to do so. But is this truly being honest with ourselves and the rest of the world? I propose that we look at our own nation with an introspective eye and see the complete picture. Not to atone or to have reparations demanded, but to understand our very imperfect nature and serve as a lesson for our future conduct.
We need to own up to the facts we would rather not discuss: That we did inter Japanese Americans during World War II; that some of our troops did in fact massacre innocent civilians at My Lai; and that we erroneously came to the conclusion that there were weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
Some would claim that we would shame ourselves by airing out our dirty laundry, but I believe with all my heart that true shame lies in silence. Let us open the windows to our past for as Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
When we have done this, then our history will truly teach us to hope.