There must be something deeply ingrained in the human psyche about going on pilgrimages, for when I had a chance last year to take my wife and two small children to visit New England after speaking at a conference, I jumped at the opportunity.
What could be more worthwhile than showing my family the cradle of American liberty? I especially wanted to visit Plymouth, Massachusetts – the cherished landing place of the Pilgrims and, of course, the site of the first Thanksgiving. What better place to introduce my children to the roots of American democracy?
The answer to that question turned out to be more ambiguous than I imagined.
Our first stop was famed Plymouth Rock, of which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s: “Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous. Its very dust is shared as a relic.”
Sheltered by a Greco-Roman monument built in 1921, the Rock looked suitably venerable and was our first encounter with a genuine article from the age of the Pilgrims. Or so we thought until we read the sign standing next to it.
The sign cast doubt on the authenticity of the town’s most famous relic, suggesting that it wasn’t the Pilgrims’ landing place after all. It was just a rock, not the Rock – apparently identified by a frail 95-year-old man in 1741, and then enshrined as a relic by over-zealous citizens over the next two centuries.
OK, scratch the veneration of Plymouth Rock. There was plenty more to see.
Nearby we found the “Mayflower II” anchored in the harbor. A painstaking replica of its namesake, the new Mayflower was constructed in the 1950s as a symbol of the friendship between England and the United States during the Second World War. Staffed by a crew dressed up as 17th-century sailors and Pilgrims, the Mayflower II allows visitors to step back in time to “experience” history.
But in looking at the educational displays before boarding the ship, something didn’t seem quite right. The displays provided considerable minutiae about the operational details of the Mayflower’s voyage as well as various customs of local “native peoples.” What the displays lacked was an explanation of the importance of the Pilgrims to American political history. The Mayflower Compact was mentioned, only to be dismissed. Traditionally, that document – wherein the passengers of the Mayflower covenanted themselves “togeather into a civill body politick” – has been viewed as a landmark in the development of American constitutionalism.
John Quincy Adams, himself a descendant of several Mayflower passengers, praised the Compact in an oration in Plymouth in 1802 as “perhaps, the only instance in human history of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.” While the significance of the Mayflower Compact can be debated, the theory of government which it represents certainly forms an important thread in the history of American political thought.
Nothing about that in the Mayflower II’s interpretive displays, however. Surely this must be an oversight, I thought.
I was disabused of my naivété by the “Captain” of the reconstructed Mayflower, whose primary mission in life seemed to be debunking the illusions of Plymouth visitors. In the tone of an impatient teacher addressing a thick-headed schoolboy, he explained to me that the Pilgrims weren’t interested in democracy and that there was nothing special or important about the Mayflower Compact.
I tried to explain that the point wasn’t that those on the Mayflower thought their compact was so important, but that in later years we could see the impact of their “compact theory” of government on the development of American democracy. The Captain was unimpressed. The point of his lecture was that the Pilgrims really weren’t important, nor was the Mayflower Compact. He added (in case I didn’t know) that the so-called Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves “Pilgrims.” Imagine that! (I restrained myself from pointing out that the local Wampanoags likely didn’t call themselves “native peoples,” either.)
Walking back to our lodgings, I wondered aloud to my wife whether debunkers like the captain understood what they were doing. Their town’s economy was built on its reputation as a hallowed place in the development of America. You can see rocks anywhere. You visit Plymouth Rock – and the Mayflower – because those things are supposed to represent something important in the history of our republic.
But the modern inhabitants of Plymouth try their politically correct best to convince latter-day pilgrims that their town is insignificant. Don’t they realize, I asked my wife, that if people really accepted that view, there would be no reason to come to Plymouth?
Alas, the efforts to reeducate us were just beginning.
The next morning we were off to “Plimoth Plantation,” an elaborate recreation of the original settlement located just outside the current town. For good or ill, Plimoth Plantation is the major tourist draw at Plymouth, and for most visitors it is the lens through which they learn about the Pilgrims and their legacy. The non-profit corporation that runs the Plantation also operates the Mayflower II.
The orientation film at the Plantation’s visitor center set the tone for our visit: The Native Americans of the area were portrayed as supremely virtuous and peaceful, while the Pilgrims and others from England were portrayed as selfish and unsympathetic. Apparently, the operators of Plimoth Plantation see no irony in replacing the myth of the Noble Pilgrim with the myth of the Noble Savage.
The nadir of our Plimoth Plantation experience was a much-touted exhibit bearing the title “Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth & Meaning.”
The exhibit might best be described as one long exercise in belittlement. Reducing Plymouth to insignificance apparently wasn’t enough for the local debunkers. Thanksgiving itself had to be obliterated. The exhibit informed us that the celebration held by Pilgrims was not really a “thanksgiving,” nor was it regarded as the “first” anything. A picture of Pilgrims praying to God before a meal was dutifully denounced for portraying the Pilgrims as unbelievably virtuous.
A steady diet of debunking soon grows tedious, so while my wife and daughter subjected themselves to the exhibit’s official film about the “real” Thanksgiving, I looked about for something else to do.
I was saved by my five-year-old son. I found him lingering in a neglected part of the exhibit, sitting on a stool, wearing headphones, attentively watching a small television screen. When I joined him, he handed me another set of headphones.
The television was running an admittedly retro educational film titled Plymouth Colony: The First Year. Needless to say, the only reason the film was allowed in the exhibit at all was as part of the broader indictment against the “Myth” of Thanksgiving. A sign suggested the proper attitude we should adopt while watching: “This 1961 film continued the ‘Pilgrim’ myth. In these educational materials the colonists were portrayed as impossibly virtuous.”
Fortunately, my five-year-old was having none of it. He was enrapt.
No smarmy political correctness here. The courageous Pilgrims were shown surviving horrible conditions on the Mayflower by drawing strength from – prepare to be shocked – the Bible! They also were shown giving thanks to God, caring for one another, and having an all around good time with the Indians at Thanksgiving.
Eventually my wife and daughter wandered back and joined my son and me. They had tired of the official film’s preachy account of the “real” Thanksgiving.
The four of us then watched the film that the exhibit had been designed to debunk. We learned how the Pilgrims helped bring about something “fine and lasting,” and how from their descendants came the ideals of civil and religious liberty. We even saw the Pilgrims signing the otherwise elusive Mayflower Compact, which we were told “was to become one of the great foundations of American democracy.”
Despite the best efforts of the debunkers, my children were able to hear about the true meaning of the Pilgrims – albeit in a manner not intended by Plymouth’s guardians of political correctness.
Our pilgrimage to Plymouth Rock turned out not to be wasted after all.