The immigration of the Pilgrims to New England occurred in stages. But that they had to go somewhere became apparent soon enough. Theirs was the position of the Separatist: they believed that the reforms of the Anglican church had not gone far enough, that, although the break with Catholicism in 1535 had moved some way toward the Puritan belief in and idea of religious authority grounded solely in Scripture, by substituting king for pope as the head of the church, England was only recapitulating an unnecessary, corrupt, and even idolatrous order (Gill, 19-21). In one basic respect, the Pilgrims are a logical outcome of the Reformation. In its increasing dissemination of the Bible, the increasing emphasis on it as the basis of spiritual meaning, the subsequently increasing importance of literacy as a mode of religious authority and awareness, a growing individualism was implicit. This individualism may then have easily led to an atomization or dispersion of authority that the monarchy duly feared, and that later generations of Americans could easily label democratization. As a writer in 1921 put it, "They accepted Calvin's rule, that those who are to exercise any public function in the church should be chosen by common voice" (Wheelwright, vii). However much this might emphasize the democratic qualities of the Pilgrims, as dissenters they do suggest at some level the origins of democratic society, in its reliance upon contending and even conflicting points of view, and in its tendency toward a more fluid social structure.
But theirs was a religious, not a political agenda; moral and theological principles were involved, and from their perspective, there could be no compromise. For them 2 Corinthians made it clear: "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." To achieve and preserve a simplicity and 'purity' that they felt had been lost amid the some of the surviving features of Catholicism--the rituals which continued through into the Anglican Church and were epitomized in its statement, "'I believe in...the holy CatholickChurch'" (Gill, 19). To establish themselves as rightful interpreters of the Bible independent of an inherited social and cultural order, they removed from the Anglican Church in order to re-establish it as they believed it truly should be. This of course meant leaving the country, and they left for Holland in 1608.
After 12 years, they decided to move again. Having gone back to England to obtain the backing of the Virginia Company, 102 Pilgrims set out for America. The reasons are suggested by William Bradford, when he notes the "discouragements" of the hard life they had in Holland, and the hope of attracting others by finding "a better, and easier place of living"; the "children" of the group being "drawne away by evill examples into extravagence and dangerous courses"; the "great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world" (Wheelwright, 7-8). In these reasons, the second sounds most like the Pilgrims many Americans are familiar with--the group that wants to be left alone and live in its own pure and righteous way. Behind it seems to lie not only the fear of the breakdown of individual families, but even a concern over the dissolution of the larger community. The concern seems to be that their split with England was now only effecting their own disolution into Dutch culture. But it is also interesting to note the underlying traces of evangelism in, if not the first, certainly the last of the reasons. On the one hand, this strain would find its later expression (and perversion) in such portrayals of the Pilgrims as the Rotunda fresco, where the idea of conversion is baldly fashioned within the image of conquest; here, the Indian is shown as subdued before the word of the "kingdom" even as the Pilgrims are landing, and the Pilgrim is seen as an agent of domination, a superior moral force commanding by its sheer presence. On the other hand, such a portrayal suggests an uneasy tension with the common (and seemingly accurate) conception of the Pilgrims as a model of tolerance. Indeed, the first of their reasons for sailing to America is fairly passive--they want to "draw" others by the example of their prosperity, not necessarily go conquer and actively convert. Such an idea reflects the one that would be expressed explicitly by the Puritan John Winthrop, where the New World would become a beacon of religious light, a model of spiritual promise, a "citty upon a hill."
In any case, from their own point of view, they are 'agents' only insofar as they are agents of Providence, and as Bradford strives to make clear throughout, the narrative of their actions is only an interpretation of the works of God. Thus, in a remarkable instance when a "proud and very profane yonge man" who "would curse and swear most bitterly" falls overboard from the Mayflower and drowns, it is seen as "the just hand of God upon him" (Wheelwright, 14). So too when a member of their party is saved from drowning, or when the initial landing party finds the corn and beans for seed, or with their safe arrival at Plymouth Bay in general, is the "spetiall providence of God" evinced. And Bradford seems to self-consciously maintain this version of the Christian perspective as an historical one, never allowing the reader or student of the Pilgrims to forget that their story is one with a trajectory--coming from its beginnings England, and moving through the beginnings of the 'New World'. This is an emphasis that will serve histories and memories alike, especially in viewing the Revolution and the increased democratization of the United States as some necessary fulfillment of the Pilgrim promise.
the mayflower compact
Naturally, the primary text for later interpreters would be
the Mayflower Compact, which Bradford gives:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwriten, by the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc.
Haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancemente of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hereof to enacte, constitute and frame shuch just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd the .11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our soveraigne lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620 (Wheelwright, 32-33)
Bradford writes of the Compact, that it developed partly in response to "the discontented and mutinous speeches" of some of the "strangers"--colonists who had travelled with them but who "were uncommitted to church fellowship"--and that it asserted and firmed the Pilgrims' "owne libertie; for none had the power to command them, the patente they had being for Virginia, and not for New england...." The Compact thus arose out of a need to maintain social and civic coherence, to ensure that the officials elected and the group as a whole would have some legitimation against challenges to its "legal authority" (McQuade, 140; Wheelwright, 32). Michael Kammen, however, notes a "tradition" in the early 19th century "in which the Compact was viewed as part of the repudiation of English domination" (Kammen, 64). Surely there are evident democratic tendencies in the text, wherein a code established from the consent of the people becomes the underpinning of a society of "just and equall lawes," where the officials and figures of authority are all elected. But as "loyall subjects" to the "dread soveraigne Lord, King James," their task is twofold: to maintain a degree of independence that would allow them to live in accordance with their Separatist views, but also to keep the ties to England strong enough so that those who did not share their religion nevertheless would be bound by an order ultimately traceable to the Crown. The misreadings that Kammen notes will be discussed further in following sections.
thanksgiving and the indians
The first few months were grueling for the Pilgrims. Half of their 102 members perished: "of the 17 male heads of families, ten died during the first infection"; of the 17 wives, only three were left after three months. When such devastation is seen against the following summer, when conditions improved so that Bradford would write of "all things in good plenty," the sincerity of 'Thanksgiving' becomes apparent. Regardless of how far removed one may be now or even may have been when it was established as a national holiday in 1863, the sense of Providence had undoubtedly been heightened to an extreme pitch for the Pilgrims. After such devastating sickness, everyday survival itself was probably seen as cause for gratitude, but when given a full and prosperous harvest (with the help and instruction of Native Americans such as Squanto), the previous ordeal could be understood as a trial by God, a test of faith, the heavenly reward prefigured by an earthly one.
The institutional--by which is meant primarily the Capitol's--portrayal of Native Americans throughout the establishment of Plymouth Plantation stands in curious relation to Braford's narrative. First of all, there is the initial landing party, with its description of the men led by Captain Miles Standish, firing shots into the darkness at "a hideous and great crie." This they mistook for a "companie of wolves, or such like wild beasts," until the next morning's skirmish--when the "arrowes came flying" and one "lustie man, and no less valiente" who "was seen shoot .3. arrowes" and "stood .3. shot of a musket..." (Wheelwright, 25-26). This is hardly the humble servant offering up the corn at the mere sight of the Pilgrim's arrival (see the Rotunda fresco). And when Samoset, the first representative of the Indians, comes to speak (in "broken English") with the Pilgrims, "he came bouldly amongst them" (emphasis added); and having had previous contact with Europeans, he presumably knew as much or more about the Pilgrims than they about him. Squanto, who had been to England and could communicate well with the colonists, and who taught them "how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and to procure other commodities," is understood by the Pilgrims as "a spetiall instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation" (Wheelwright, 41). Regardless of the sense of utility in such an expression (all things being for them the effect or instrument of God), there is an undeniable gratitude, and even the sense of dependence that those must have before one who would provide aid and instruction. The treaty with Massasoit was initiated not by the Pilgrims but by the sachem himself, who had already made an equivalent pact with earlier explorers. The success of the treaty during Massasoit's lifetime suggests an equality, fairness, and tolerance that would be idealized and wistfully re-presented in various remembrances of the overall colonial experience. It allows both the positive exemplar of the 'Indian' in Massasoit, and reassurance of European good-faith in dealing with him. It follows:
.1. That neither he (Massasoit) nor any of his, should
injurie or doe hurt to any of their peopl(e).
.2. That if any of his did any hurte to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
.3. That if any thing were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do like to him.
.4. If any did unjustly warr against him, they would aide him; if any did warr against them, he should aide them. He should send to his neighbours confederates, to certifie them of his, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.