1619 or 1620?

They Knew They Were PilgrimsHistorian John Turner, author of a new book on the Plymouth Colony, helps us sort this out. Here is a taste of his piece at The National Review:

Some of the critics have gone so far as to propose alternative “birth years.” Last fall, the National Association of Scholars launched a 1620 project, a series of videos and essays rebutting the Times project. Why 1620? It was “the year in which the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed,” explains the organization’s president, Peter Wood. Similarly, The Federalist has solicited essays celebrating the “anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock.” This year is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on our shores. To those who place religious and political liberty at the heart of the American experiment, that event makes an attractive starting point.

The 1620 proposals are a throwback to 19th-century views of American origins. On the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rhapsodized that they had arrived with “intelligence,” “the inspirations of liberty,” and “the truth of divine religion.” Politicians and historians pointed to the Mayflower Compact, a makeshift political agreement forged before the Pilgrims stepped ashore. Once Americans associated the Pilgrims with an annual Thanksgiving feast, their pride of place in the story of the nation’s origins became assured.

Even as Webster lionized them, though, many historians knew that the Pilgrims could not bear the weight of the historical significance placed on them. To begin with, they weren’t first: The less pious and more contentious colonists in Jamestown had arrived in 1607. Even more to the point, the Pilgrims were fewer and more inconsequential than their subsequent place in history would suggest. Plymouth Colony never really thrived. Its settlers eked out a living on land of dubious fertility, and other colonies came to dwarf it in terms of population, economic clout, and military power. Ready to tell new stories about the American past, academic historians eventually kicked the Pilgrims to the scholarly curb.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to pay attention not just to the Mayflower, the rock, and the feast, but to the chain of events that preceded and followed 1620. Before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, an epidemic brought by European fishermen and traders had wiped out a previously thriving Wampanoag community there. Like English colonists elsewhere, the Pilgrims and their descendants then stripped Native populations of their land through dubious property transactions and episodic wars. Many Americans have spoken of slavery as the nation’s “original sin,” but conquest and displacement of Natives are just as original to the early history of English colonization — and Plymouth is one of many starting points for these grave sins.

Read the entire piece here.

Kudos to The National Review publishing Turner’s piece. But they could not let it stand alone without a rebuttal.

Read David Randall’s response here. Now that’s more like it. 😉