History and Biography, Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower

A few years ago, not more than four, I decided it was time to enlarge my understanding of period of American history I had studied very little: the 17th century, give or take, from the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 through the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-76).

I bought three recent books and began reading the first, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award a few years ago. It’s a very readable book, and I immediately began to enjoy it. That it took me until I was on a recent flight to Seattle to finish it is no reflection on the book itself. It is simply a consequence of the fact that, though I read quite a bit, my reading time — with mental energy for history and in a situation where I can sit and mark up a book — is quite limited. So I read dozens of other books — mostly fiction — while I was reading this one off and on.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower

Some of the roots of our national founding are in that period, I knew — including some of our early challenges with respect to religious freedom. I also expected the ambivalence of Pilgrims, and later Puritans, toward the indigenous peoples. I expected fear, heroism, bloodshed, confusion, brutality.

I suppose I expected insights into the challenges of diverse peoples attempting to coexist. But as I began to read, there were some interesting surprises on that theme. And there were sad accounts of what I had mostly forgotten, the beginning of the slave trade in New England, involving native slaves.

I will not attempt here to give a comprehensive account of Mayflower or even to summarize the history it presents. And I know it’s just one man’s interpretation of events and personalities, colored by (among other things) his sense of the history’s relevance to our time. That’s one of the reasons why I already have two more books to read about the same period.

Here are a very few striking thoughts from the book. Most pertain to two different situations in which it was necessary for two diverse groups of people to coexist — a theme I’ve been pondering in other contexts lately.

Philbrick writes:

Even though they had existed in a theocratic bubble of their own devising, the Pilgrims recognized the dangers of mixing temporal and spiritual authority. One of the reasons they had been forced to leave England was that King James had used the ecclesiastical courts to impose his own religious beliefs. In Holland, they had enjoyed the benefits of a society in which the division between church and state had been, for the most part, rigorously maintained. They could not help but absorb some decidedly Dutch ways of  looking at the world. For example, marriage in Holland was a civil ceremony, and so it would be — much to the dismay of English authorities — in Plymouth Colony.

As had been true for more than a decade, it was Pastor John Robinson who pointed them in the direction they ultimately followed. In his farewell letter [before they left for the New World without him], Robinson had anticipated the need to create a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree. With so many Strangers [non-believers brought to the colony for their necessary skills] in their midst, there was no other way. They must “become a body politic using amongst yourselves civil government,” i.e., they must all agree to submit to the laws drawn up by their duly elected officials. Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America. (pp. 40-41)

To me this bit of history was worth the whole price of admission. It’s already had some attention at my political blog. But this is not that blog.

Now, we interrupt the theme of coexistence for this brief tribute to private property and economic freedom — that is, to capitalism.

The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims has grown crops communally — the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In April, [William] Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled upon the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved. (p. 165)

But back to our theme of diverse peoples coexisting (or not). After noting that the cost of King Philip’s War so crippled the economy of New England that it took a century to recover, Philbrick writes:

The war that was to have removed forever the threat of Indian attack had achieved exactly the opposite of its original intention. . . . Over the course of the following century, New England was ravaged by a series of Indian wars. . . . By doing their best to destroy the Native people who had welcomed and sustained their forefathers, New Englanders had destroyed their forefathers’ way of life. The Pilgrims had come to America not to conquer a continent but to re-create their modest communities in [Europe]. . . . The Pilgrims’ religious beliefs played a dominant role in the decades ahead, but it was their deepening relationship with the Indians that turned them into Americans.

By forcing the English to improvise, the Indians prevented Plymouth Colony from ossifying into a monolithic cult of religious extremism. For their part, the Indians were profoundly influenced by the English and quickly created a new and dynamic culture full of Native and Western influences. For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is its diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been from the very beginning.

By the midpoint of the seventeenth century, however, the attitudes of many of the Indians and English had begun to change. . . . Both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other. (p. 346-47, my italics)

If Philbrick’s own theme wasn’t already clear, here it is more explicitly. I’m not saying he’s wrong.

For peace and for survival, others must be accommodated. The moment any of them gave up on the difficult work of living with their neighbors — and all of the compromise, frustration, and delay that inevitably entailed — they risked losing everything. It was a lesson that [William] Bradford and Massasoit had learned over the course of more than three long decades. That it could be so quickly forgotten by their children remains a lesson for us today. (p. 348)

My next book about the period is Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, which I have already begun to enjoy.

After that, I’m planning to read David D. Hall’s A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England. I’m not a big fan of the Puritans, but I do think I should better understand them and their impact.

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