Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

What Liberty Meant to the Pilgrims

An illustration of the pilgrim fathers leaving England (Tony Baggett/Getty Images)
They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, by John G. Turner (Yale University Press, 464 pp., $30)

Superpowers need origin stories — nations no less than comic-book heroes. The Pilgrims are ours. Forget the fortune-hunters of Jamestown; the tale of doughty settlers seeking religious liberty and overcoming hardship to establish the self-governing Plymouth Colony is the origin story we want. As John Turner observes in his excellent new history of the colony, “by the early nineteenth century, the Pilgrims had become symbols of republicanism, democracy, and religious toleration.” The Pilgrims are part of our national pantheon and its narrative of America as a nation devoted to liberty.

Revisionist historians have assailed this mythos, arguing that the Pilgrims were

This article appears as “Colonial Communitarians” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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