Missing the Point of Plymouth Rock

David Randall

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by National Review on April 6th, 2020.

Of course the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 explains American history. Of course the 1619 Project’s shoddy exercise in vituperation is meant to delegitimize America. John G. Turner’s recent article in National Review is an extended exercise in missing the point.

Turner, a scholar of the history of American religion, and the author of a recent book on the Plymouth colony, surveys the debate about the New York Times’s 1619 Project with the traditional attitude of a liberal scholar — a facile resort to moral equivalence.

Turner, positioning himself as the neutral and expert arbiter, frames the 1619 Project and its critics as equally mistaken — the one unduly obsessed with the 1619 arrival of blacks in Virginia as the foundation of an America built on slavery, and the other unduly obsessed with the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, as the foundation of an America built on liberty. Neither view, says Turner, is correct. Nor are views of America as built on liberty in 1776 or 1787. All the supposed foundations of liberty are compromised by racism or elitism: The proper way to understand America is to look at the endless details of Americans’ flaws, and not their sweeping aspirations.

Turner’s entire approach is misguided. To begin with, he obscures the 1619 Project’s entirely unprofessional abuse of historical facts to create a denigratory Black Legend of American history — an abuse entirely absent in the 1619 Project’s critics. The 1619 Project includes errors of astonishing magnitude, such as:

  • Obscuring the long history of slavery throughout the world, not least in Africa, to create a false impression that slavery is a uniquely American institution.
  • Falsely foreshortening the history of chattel slavery in America, so as to claim that the chattel slavery that developed by ca. 1680 already existed in Virginia in 1619.
  • Falsely claiming that Americans fought the American Revolution to protect slavery — and, after revision under fire, still using the deceptive qualifier some Americans — when there is no evidence that any American rebelled against Britain to defend the slave regime.
  • Sweeping aside the substantial evidence of racially egalitarian and abolitionist sentiment involved in the composition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to present a grotesque caricature of these documents as exercises in white supremacy and the protection of slavery.
  • Falsely attributing the development of elements of modern capitalism, such as double-entry bookkeeping, to the plantation South.
  • Committing elementary accounting errors so as to attribute most antebellum American growth to slavery, even though the free North’s war-winning economic preponderance over the slave South would be inexplicable if slavery had truly been so profitable.
  • Eliminating all examples of black reformism and cross-racial reformist alliances so as to argue that only monoracial black resistance has had any importance or success in American history.
  • Caricaturing Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist who disliked blacks, against the overwhelming evidence of his longstanding commitment to blacks’ civic and human dignity, far beyond that of most white Americans of his day, and fundamental to his political strategy, which culminated in one of the great emancipations of human history, as well as the vast majority of the spadework for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would finally abolish slavery throughout the United States.

So many scholars have criticized the 1619 Project because it commits malpractice whenever it speaks on any matter of American history.

Turner then claims that the focus on 1620 and liberty as the foundation of American history is somehow misguided, both because Plymouth and its liberty were not that important in American history and because the Plymouth colony was complicit in an original national sin at least as important as slavery, the conquest of Indian land and the expulsion of Indian peoples. Both arguments are fallacious.

The argument for the importance of Plymouth and liberty was always made by intelligent Americans who were perfectly aware of historical nuance in the story of America’s origins. But the perfectly tenable argument, well-supported by facts, would be something like this:

The history of liberty depends upon the slow transformation, and expansion, of a number of discourses and institutions of liberty. The Puritan conception of communal liberty of conscience vis-à-vis royal authority, and the remarkably egalitarian self-rule of the Puritan township, constituted the strongest seed of liberty in all the English colonies on the North American mainland — and, indeed, a discourse and practice of liberty virtually unparalleled in world history until that point. Plymouth Colony influenced the immediately succeeding Massachusetts Bay settlement, not least by providing a model that shifted it, unexpectedly, from affiliation with the Church of England to independent congregationalism — thus transforming all of New England’s Puritan religion into a model of egalitarian liberty, which would be enormously influential for American politics. The Mayflower Compact likewise set the mold for consensual self-government, as ideal and practice, which would also spread throughout New England.

New England, spared the diseases that killed so many 17th century colonists in the Chesapeake colonies, became the most culturally and political influential of the colonial regions, by dint of an ever-expanding population, a mature commercial class, influential divines such as Jonathan Edwards, and finally the constellation of political thinkers and warriors of the Revolutionary Era. This constellation included notables such as John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Ethan Allen, and the émigré Bostonian Benjamin Franklin. Alongside these leaders, the mass of Massachusetts farmers and Boston workingmen, formed in a culture, society, and government they had inherited from Plymouth, constituted the revolutionary vanguard of the American colonies, and swept their more hesitant peers away from compromise with Britain’s Parliament and toward the Declaration of Independence. Revolutionary New England in turn provides the hinge that links the narrower Puritan liberty of Plymouth with the universal American liberty of the future. Revolutionary-era Boston was the home of black Revolutionary martyr Crispus Attucks and pioneering and emancipated black poetess Phyllis Wheatley. Every state in New England abolished slavery between 1777 and 1784.

Is this the entire story of American liberty? No, of course not — as the names of the eminent Virginians George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison amply testify. But it is the essential, central component of that story. The narrative of New England liberty as the heart of America is true — as the 1619 Project’s narrative of slavery as the heart of America is false, and Turner’s narrative of white mistreatment of Indians, somehow to incorporate every mutual slaughter from King Philip’s War (1675–78) and the The Raid on Deerfield (1704) to Bloody Point Massacre (1850) and the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890), is — to be charitable — insufficient. Turner might add that the moral condemnation of America, on behalf of American Indians, is itself a product of the New England tradition, by way of writers such as the Massachusetts-born Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the seminal, sentimental A Century of Dishonor (1881).

Turner concludes his essay with the banality that, “A single birth year cannot unlock the very meaning of the nation, not least because how historians and others explain the past hinges on how they understand the present.” But it is precisely the continued meditation on liberty, and the multiplication of events, that makes 1620 so important. Every generation of Americans has built upon the traditions of liberty they inherited from Plymouth, and every generation of Americans has meditated upon what we owe to Plymouth. Plymouth becomes more important with every year, not less, as the ripples of its impact grow and grow. There is a wonderful, complex story to be told of how Plymouth and 1620 roots itself ever deeper in the American present. To pretend that story does not exist is not to be sophisticated, but to be blind.

Photo by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g07155. Public Domain.

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