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 not trying to beat a thoroughfare of freedom across the wilderness. Rather, they accepted slavery and refused to extend religious liberty to others. Despite the iconic day of thanksgiving providing a “heartwarming story of two peoples feasting together instead of fighting each other,” Pilgrim settlers often wronged the natives. Furthermore, Plymouth was soon overshadowed by the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By this reckoning, the Pilgrims were historically negligible and morally unworthy of our admiration — their significance derives from our printing their legend rather than the facts.

Turner’s book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims, alternately affirms and challenges both the popular mythos and its critics. Beginning with the separatist movement in England and continuing until Plymouth was incorporated into Massachusetts in 1691, Turner provides an engaging account of the Pilgrims, from Calvinist theology to colonial politics. While validating some criticisms, he asserts that the Pilgrims matter for more than their legend, and he deftly uses the history of Plymouth to explore ideas of liberty in the American colonies.

This should be of particular interest to conservatives as we debate rival claims about the founding principles of our nation, which the study of colonial life places in context. Though the Declaration of Independence asserts a right to liberty, we do not all mean the same thing by it. Turner demonstrates that colonial ideas of liberty were not uniform, even in Plymouth, though there was a dominant theme. The Pilgrims and their descendants understood liberty not as individual freedom to live as one pleased; when they encountered that kind of freedom at Thomas Morton’s Merry Mount settlement, they saw it as “licentiousness and recklessness.” Rather, the Pilgrims sought freedom for Christians, redeemed from bondage to sin and Satan, to live in accord with Scripture, covenanting as a congregation free from the dominion of the corrupt Church of England.

In Turner’s telling, this understanding was essential to the development of New England Congregationalism. The establishment of Massachusetts did not efface Plymouth but fulfilled it, for “England’s transplanted puritans were remaking themselves in Plymouth’s image” as new towns formed their own covenant churches. An ocean away from England, the theoretical distinctions between the Plymouth colonists who wanted to separate from the Church of England and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who had wanted to purify it, were negated as the churches of both colonies established themselves as self-governing congregations.

The development of New England Congregationalism alone would suffice to secure the Pilgrims’ place in history, but Plymouth also had the distinction of initiating political self-government in New England. The colony held annual elections with a franchise much broader, albeit still limited, than that in England, and trial by jury was a fundamental right. Most adult men could aspire to participation in both the religious and political government of the colony. But this communal liberty did not imply broad personal liberty. The Pilgrims believed that government had a responsibility to constrain individuals to conform to the righteous mores of the community, and they had no qualms about regulating matters from speech to sex to attire.

Church membership was voluntary, with prospective members rigorously scrutinized, but the Pilgrims did not want to establish “a bastion for religious toleration and freedom.” Though church membership was not required, attendance often was, and taxes funded a local church and minister. Though only members were fully subject to the discipline of the church, the faithful still sought to maintain political control of the community. From the beginning Plymouth included people who were not members of the Pilgrims’ separatist congregation, while others, such as slaves and Native Americans, existed outside the political community and its protections even if they shared the Pilgrims’ faith.

The Pilgrims expected “godly magistrates to support true churches,” a responsibility that included the punishment of heresy. This nonetheless allowed a little space for individual freedom of conscience. Since no one was forced to join the church, dissenters could peaceably remain if they kept a low profile and “did not organize their own religious meetings, spout blasphemies or slander ministers.” Or they could leave. Exile was the preferred method for dealing with persistent nonconformists, who were free to found their own communities and congregations in more congenial environs such as Rhode Island. In time, the Plymouth colony permitted Quaker and Baptist congregations, but they were still “second-class citizens, grudgingly tolerated but subject to significant civil disadvantages.” A particular point of resentment was the maintenance of a religious establishment, and dissidents who refused to pay taxes for this purpose might have household goods seized by officials.

These struggles over religious freedom are at the center of Turner’s examination of liberty and community in Plymouth, with implications that reach far beyond that Pilgrim colony. The nature of the American Founding must be interpreted in the context of colonial character, and the New England colonies, beginning with Plymouth, were established by Reformed Protestant communitarians, not incipient individualists. Though colonial life was not monolithic, and there were many changes in the decades between the end of Turner’s Plymouth narrative and the struggle for American independence, much remained the same. In Massachusetts, a religious establishment persisted for decades after the War for Independence, and New England community life during the Founding era had much in common with that of the Pilgrims.

No longer. Turner’s book is a reminder of how alien the Pilgrim way of life is to modern sensibilities, even for self-proclaimed conservatives, and it sometimes seems that no faction in the Right’s current debates wants Plymouth’s mantle. Despite the Pilgrims’ prominence in our national narrative, classical liberals must consider Plymouth defensible only compared with its contemporaries as an early step on the road to enlightened liberty. Many advocates for “post-liberal” or “common good” conservatism have also been reluctant to claim the Pilgrim heritage, even though it provides a counternarrative to the story of the Founding as an exercise in liberal political theory. (Sohrab Ahmari may be emerging as a notable exception, but colonial New England’s anti-Catholicism antagonizes many on the post-liberal right.)