The pilgrims are a little complicated for us moderns. They were dissidents and nonconformists and in some sense civil libertarians, and at the same time they were fanatics who imposed a nearly absolutist conformity on their colony. They were too radical to remain in England and too English to resettle permanently in Holland. They were, to be sure, a complicated bunch.
But one thing is clear about them, even to us, separated though we are by centuries of history: They did not come here to be taken care of.
A man will get on a boat for any number of reasons. In less comfortable eras, men got on boats to trade and to seek material advancement when the routes to riches were closed to them at home. They got on ships to flee political and religious persecution, to put some distance between themselves and tyrants in the dark years before we — we Americans, above all — figured out how to put the king in a box and more or less keep him there.
Kings had their uses for ships, too. If you tried to explain to the emperors of old that the American people enjoy ready access to the fruit (which is to say, the economic output, including literal fruit) of all the world’s makers and refiners and traders, that this enormous abundance is brought almost literally (and, in many cases, literally) to the doorstep of every American household, no matter how obscure its circumstances or modest its means, that the best tea from China could be had at a pittance and that the ordinary workingman could enjoy wine from France and fish from Newfoundland at every meal, if he chose, while the greatest engineers and artisans of Germany, Japan, and his own country competed to build his conveyances and his instruments of domestic convenience, he would simply not believe you. If you further tried to explain to him that many Americans considered this relentless influx of all the best that the world has to offer a problem, he’d have been puzzled. Opening up the trade routes and keeping them open is the main reason the ancient empires had navies. It is why, contrary to the legend, Rome didn’t actually salt the fields at Carthage: The Romans cherished their access to imported grain. They would not salt the Carthaginian fields any more than they would have salted their own.
No, the Romans got back on their boats and went home, ensuring that boats full of North Africa’s finest products came after them.
We do not have to get on any boats.
We get on boats for fun. (I just got off one.) We get on boats to amuse ourselves. And, in some of our more serious cities — cities like Houston and San Pedro — boats still do their traditional work, bringing the best the world has to offer to us and bringing the best we have to offer to the world. If you have never toured the Port of Los Angeles (America’s Port, they call it!), then you have missed out on one of the wonders of the world, something that should make as big an impression on the mind of the thinking man as the Himalayas make on the minds of the more poetic type. It is wondrous to behold — dirty and loud and apparently chaotic (especially if you don’t understand what’s going on) but magnificent in its innovation and abundance.
Which is to say, America’s Port is a lot like America.
There is more to life than material abundance, as the pilgrims appreciated better than most. But let’s not turn up our noses at that material abundance. Centuries of dishonest and romantic nonsense notwithstanding, there is nothing ennobling about poverty, at least poverty into which one is mired without choice as opposed to personal austerity chosen for a higher purpose. Poverty is in fact a great evil, and the cure for it is wealth — there is no other. The wealthy society has the means to alleviate the suffering of those who cannot care for themselves, while the poor society does not.
“Feed my sheep,” said the Lord.
Of course we will. But . . . “feed them what?” the disciples must have wondered. Loaves and fishes in the case of that extraordinary miracle near Bethsaida, loaves and fishes beyond counting in the case of the ordinary miracle of everyday life in these United States.
England must have been comfortable — and so was Holland, the separatists’ first place of refuge. Both were wealthy countries, maybe even too wealthy for the pilgrims. William Bradford bemoaned the “great licentiousness of the young people of the country and the many temptations of the city.” (Bradford could have been writing about Amsterdam, which apparently has always been Amsterdam, but was in fact writing about another Dutch city, Leiden, which suffered on account of its “wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes.”) If they had had a little less religious scruple, if they had only been a little more accommodating, then they might have had very comfortable lives without ever bothering the turkeys of the New World.
But they wanted something more than to be taken care of.
We, their heirs, are very comfortable. For those comforts, we should be grateful. And, generally speaking, we are, though we are a funny bunch: We’ll spend significant sums of money to buy equipment to keep ourselves comfortable while going camping, the main purpose of which is to remind us how less comfortable life is away from the nice homes and communities we have built for ourselves. (As any hunter knows, camping isn’t an end, but a means.) But the pilgrims did not come here to be comfortable, and we are not here only to be comfortable, either. We are here to do the Great Work. We give thanks that we are not obliged to do it while hungry and cold, but the work remains, as it always has, for all of us pilgrims.