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November 27, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Remembering the Old Colony

Ordinarily, when on the Wednesday before the American holiday of Thanksgiving, there appear in The Wall Street Journal a pair of editorials that have be reprinted on the same day every year since they were first written in 1961, I find it touching.

“The Desolate Wilderness” quotes from the account of William Bradford, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, of the circumstances in which a little band of religious dissenters left Holland for the Plymouth Colony the New World, barely a decade after they had fled England:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

Then, in “And the Fair Land” the modern-day commentator in 1961 (presumably Vermont Royster, who for 40 years would be a Journal reporter, columnist and editorial writer) describes how he has been traveling around the country, marveling at how big and rich it is, speculating on how much richer it may become, feeling optimistic.

Yet to be honest, he writes, he must also note “the air of unease that hangs everywhere.”

His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places — only to find those men as frail as any others.

What reassurance can the traveler offer his countrymen? Not over-much, he says. It is true that the world is still a dangerous place.  He cannot claim that communities will always answer up; “nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.”  (Certainly no one can who remembers the Civil War.)

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

Thankful though I am, this year I was struck by what the Journal account leaves out of the story. The little ship that left Holland with the Pilgrims that July day in 1620 — the Speedwell — was only half full.  It carried 46 “saints” of the dissident congregation, as they called themselves.

In Southampton, they met the Mayflower, carrying quite a different group of passengers bound for the same destination — “strangers,” as the Pilgrims knew them, ordinary folk from London or southeastern England who had been recruited by the merchant adventurers who had chartered the ships to found the colony. The strangers were seeking economic opportunity, not spiritual salvation. They were happy enough in the Church of England, in which they had been raised. After six weeks of misadventure with the leaky Speedwell, only the Mayflower left England.  Fewer than half its passengers were saints.

True, saints and strangers alike (and even a few indentured servants) signed the “Mayflower compact,” a document made famous by John Quicy Adams in 1802. But as soon as they arrived, they started bickering. There were no fancy families among them.  Those best known to posterity (thanks to the poet Longfellow) turned out to be strangers, not saints — Myles Standish, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. But it was the saints who were determined to impose their views, and the community that eventuated — New Plimoth — nearly foundered because of their visceral dislike of private gain. They were the original blue noses, censorious and cocksure.

And so it went. When another band of colonists, mostly indentured servants, set up shop as Merry Mount in what is the present-day city of Quincy, 25 miles north, (and, at its center, erected an 80-foot-tall maypole with antlers at its top!) the Pilgrims quickly subdued the settlement and exiled its leader to New Hampshire. Soon they found Puritan allies in the new colony that settled in nearby Boston — the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

“The Pilgrim saddle is always on the Bay horse” a folk saying of the time had it, reflecting the fact that the Old Colony was more successful exporting ministers to the rest of New England than any other commodity to England itself. And when the first Quakers began to turn up, Plimoth was even more intolerant of them than Boston. But the Bay Colony started a college (Harvard) in 1636; Plimoth didn’t build a schoolhouse of any sort until 1677. By then it was too late.

(All this can be found in George Willison’s leisurely and beguiling Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes, published in 1945 and long since out of print.)

When the restoration of Charles II collapsed in 1688, all previous charters granted to North American colonies went up for grabs. A great tug of war ensued between New York and the Bay Colony, with New York claiming New England, and Boston claiming everything from Vermont to Nova Scotia. The Bay dispatched Rev. Increase Mather to London with a purse of £1700 to lobby for its independence. It turned out to be enough

Amid the maneuvering, the Old Colony collapsed as well, 73 years after it was chartered.  Too poor and too riven to raise £500 with which to petition for a renewed grant of its own, it was absorbed into the far more successful Massachusetts Bay Colony.  If the. Mayflower saints and the Southampton strangers had kept their compact just a little longer, their children might have inherited a colony very much like Rhode Island — small, but with a state house of its own after the Revolution, and two senators and a representative or two under the Constitution. Instead, all that remains of the Old Colony is the strange straight line of its boundary among towns on the Massachusetts map.

The moral of the story is that America’s first civil society failed — failed because of an excess of religious certitude. Up around it grew a far more resilient political culture, tolerant of diversity and confident that, for the most part, the best ideas would prove themselves in competition with one another.

A case in point: the present-day editorial in the Journal last week noted that eight of New Orleans 35 Catholic schools had reopened for business, while all of its 117 public schools remained closed. It proposed turning the entire city into a charter and voucher experiment, with the Catholic schools free to compete for public contracts.  The Pilgrim fathers would not have considered that cause for thanksgiving!

All the more reason to keep in mind the cautionary tale of the failure of British North America’s first civil society.

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