- Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 November 2008 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 26 November 2008 05:00
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With their abiding faith and their supposedly rigid puritan ways modern historians and academics often marginalize the role of the Pilgrims in early American life.
To many their lifestyle seems too far removed from modern day America to be relevant. That is a poor reading of history. These early American settlers are not just characters in a school play. They also represent the formative stages of our present day notions of self government, free enterprise, and what has become the American character.
In 1620, when this intrepid set of colonists set out on their journey, things weren’t going well on the American Continent. Jamestown, the first English Colony, wasn’t a success. Disease ravaged the settlement, it wasn’t making money, and the investors lost their capital. It only hung on because England desperately needed an outpost in the New World.
America, to many at that time, wasn’t a choice destination. But one group saw it differently. To them the new world was a salvation, and like future immigrants in centuries to come, they would risk everything they had to get there. Their reasons were based on a principled desire to practice their faith as they saw fit. In contrast to what they saw as the Church of England’s focus on ritual, they believed in a simpler form of worship where everyone found his or her salvation on a personal level.
Their plan was to secure investors, buy ships, hire men to do the things they couldn’t, such as build houses and organize defenses and go to the Virginia Colony. However, making their business plan would turn out to be the easy part.
On their voyage they encountered a storm that was so strong it caused a main beam to buckle. Showing an impressive sense of innovation, something that would come to be one of the hallmarks to the American approach to life, they used the screw on their printing press, certainly not its intended use, to rig a jack to hold the ship together. It was an inspired bit of engineering and it saw them all the way to America.
However, that same storm caused them to make landfall several hundred miles north of where they intended. Their supplies were low and they knew they were on their own. They also knew that they needed a way to govern their affairs. Otherwise they wouldn’t survive. With that in mind, they signed the Mayflower Compact. This was an agreement to establish a majority-based governance of the colony. It would remain in force, separate from English Law, until 1691. It was the first statement of self government and majority rule on the American continent. John Adams considered it a foundation stone to the Declaration of Independence.
But their most remarkable achievement was in their practical understanding of economics. Their investors wanted the land farmed in common. This early form of socialism prompted what the Pilgrims called the “starving time” and the investors got nothing. But in their third year, citing the Biblical precept, “that which you sow, shall you also reap” they did what they wanted to do in the first place and farmed their own plots. The result was a massive improvement in agricultural production. The colonists had more food, were able to buy goods from England, and the investors started seeing a return. That was something that didn’t happen in Jamestown until the colony began the large scale export of tobacco.
In 1623, after several tough years, the Pilgrims had their first true feast. The colony was at long last a going concern. The Pilgrims, through self government, innovation, free enterprise, and faith, had demonstrated some of the most impressive traits of the American character.