|Plymouth Rock today
As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, which started out from the Dutch city of Leiden where they’d lived in exile, worried the fur traders. In the common Thanksgiving story, it’s usually left out that the Pilgrims weren’t en route to Massachusetts at all (which lay outside English territory) but instead had been granted the island at the northern limit of the Virginia colony: Manhattan. (Virginia’s claim to Manhattan was long-standing. When John Smith wrote to Henry Hudson about a Northwest Passage, it was because the river he was describing was part of Virginia.)
After a rocky start, where the Pilgrims were forced to abandon one of their two ships—perhaps because of sabotage by Dutch merchants—they continued on to the New World on the Mayflower, disembarking in Plymouth after a half-hearted attempt to sail further south. When it became clear that the English settlers were not going to move to Manhattan, Dutch traders hurriedly began staking a firmer claim to their territory.
By 1820 — the 200th anniversary of their arrival — the Pilgrims had long been an important part of the cultural DNA of New England, a section of the country that saw itself as separate from (and inherently better than) both the south and the Mid Atlantic states. As an anonymous contributor to the second volume of the New England Quarterly wrote in 1802: “If the inhabitants of New-England are superior to the people of other countries, their superiority is to be attributed to their moral habits.”
In the 1740s, a 94-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had first identified Plymouth Rock as the spot where the Pilgrims had come ashore; on the eve of the Revolution, the boulder was dragged by a team of twenty oxen to Plymouth’s town square to be placed at the foot of a liberty pole. During the move the rock broke in two — a sign of America’s impending war with Britain, some thought — which only served to endow it with greater meaning.
At the December 1776 Pilgrim anniversary, Sylvanus Conant, a descendant of Plymouth resident Roger Conant (who’d gone on to found the town of Salem), preached a sermon in “grateful memory of the first landing of our worthy ancestors” where he laid out the case for the Pilgrims as God’s chosen people. Conant compared the Pilgrims to the Israelites exiled to the wilderness, a “little persecuted flock,” and noted that despite their many afflictions, God “set their feet upon a rock, and established them so firmly that none of the powers or machinations formed against them have been able to pluck them up; but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”
Conant also compared the persecution of the Pilgrims to the impending war. In the same way the Mayflower’s passengers had fled oppression under King James I, so, too, would the American Revolution throw off the shackles of King George III. Though Conant wasn’t explicit, his meaning was clear: the Pilgrims had come to America as a place of exile; their descendants — by overthrowing the British monarchy of Old England and completing the journey — would truly make New England the Promised Land.
On Forefathers' Day — December 22, 1820 — John Quincy Adams gave a speech in Plymouth where he outlined the Pilgrims as America's true founders. After first dismissing older settlements like the 1607 colony in Jamestown, Virginia (“avarice and ambition had tuned their souls to that pitch of exaltation. Selfish passions were the parents of their heroism”), Adams noted that it was “reserved for the first settlers of New England...to trample down obstructions equally formidable, to dispel dangers equally terrific, under the single inspiration of conscience.” Indeed, most remarkable to Adams were not the religious struggles of these Pilgrims — a term he helped popularize with this speech — but their civic-mindedness. In drawing up and signing the Mayflower Compact while at anchor off the coast of the Massachusetts, Adams argued that the Pilgrims created
the only instance in human history of [an] original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.Of course, by the end of the 19th century, the story of the Pilgrims would have grown far beyond the confines of New England and become an integral part of the new Thanksgiving Holiday.
Happy Forefathers' (and Foremothers') Day!