Years ago some classmates and I did some research on a minor battle in the American Revolutionary war. According to legend, the American side had consisted of local volunteers known as “mountain men,” who had come down from the hills to fight off a British army. They made the hike, fought off a more experienced British army and went back home, or so goes the story.
We quickly realized that this was bullshit. The mountain men were only a small part of the American force, with regular soldiers from South Carolina making up the bulk of the army. The records clearly showed that the regular soldiers did most of the fighting and dying. But for some reason the mountain men were remembered while the regular soldiers were almost completely forgotten.
Our professor joked that the mountain men had a better PR firm. Not far wrong, since a cottage industry of locals had sprung up to sing the praises of the mountain men. But it was also that the volunteers fit the myth of the Revolution that Americans wanted to remember much better that the trained, paid soldiers did.
We like to remember the scrappy underdog who wins on courage and moxy, rather than the regimented soldier that wins through superior numbers and strategy. That’s what we like to remember because that’s what we like to think about ourselves.
Which brings us to another myth, It’s Thanksgiving, which means that it’s time to talk about the Pilgrims. Thomas Kidd has brought out his paean to the Pilgrims again, which I responded to last year. I don’t think that this sort of leftover is as good a year later, so I’ll leave it at that.
The Pilgrims have one hell of a PR firm. As I write, there’s a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special lauding them in the background. Could be worse, they feature heavily in Kirk Cameron’s Monumental.
My problem is that I don’t think the Pilgrims are a myth that’s helpful to us anymore. I’m thankful to see that Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks has given the Pilgrim legend the treatment it deserves, and I think he puts his finger right on the problem:
Dear Pilgrim Forefathers:
In this wonderful nation, at this magnificent time in human history I have many, many reasons to give thanks. Why am I particularly grateful? After centuries of hard work we became the kind of country you people would have utterly despised.
… as we stop pretending you’re the good guys, we appreciate the subversive character of freedom more deeply. We realize it has a pitiless and undeniable logic – in claiming it for yourself, you allow others to claim it for themselves. In ways you can’t predict. In ways you might not like. Freedom spreads, because we always end up discovering we’re going to have to let others have it, to keep it for ourselves.
Thank you, Mayflower crew. You enemies of liberty, you opponents of everything America can be. We’ll take it from here.
As they say on the internet, read the whole thing. It’s wonderful.
The Pilgrims are the founding saints of our civil religion. But they do not fit with the diverse, tolerant country that we’re becoming. As I said last year, the Dutch merchants who got here first and had a more lasting impact are actually better models for the country we want to be. But until the Pilgrim’s PR firm shuts down, I’m afraid we’re stuck hearing about them. It’s unfortunate, because if they were around today, I think we’d all get on a ship and sail away from them.