So Over the Pilgrims

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:

Happy Thanksgiving, You Buckle-Hatted Jackasses.

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.

  • EldoonFeeb

    The South Carolina soldiers were also forgotten because after the Civil War a lot of Southern history was swept away — except for the hard to ignore bits about Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Patrick Henry. History is written by the winners, right? That’s also why so many people believe the Pilgrims were the first colonists, even though there were already settlements in the South. It’s why they believe all settlers came for religious freedom rather than for economic reasons.

    • alfaretta

      “The First Thanksgiving” wasn’t even the first Thanksgiving held in what’s now the US. Spanish settlers had held Thanksgivings in the previous century, 1565 in St. Augustine, 1598 in El Paso.

    • Raymond

      Wow, you mention South Carolina and a few of the Framers/Founders and omit as many often do, SC’s convention delegate Charles Pinckney(who with James Madison)fought very hard against the many who wanted folks who were Xians to run the gov’t,, but he and Madison almost singlehandedly were the main dudes for promoting Article VI included in the final charter as it deals with the no religious test to hold public office. Pinckney wanted an even wider divide between gov’t and religion, wanting gov’t to never pass any laws on the subject of religion, as he truly wanted religious liberty for all with no one dictating to others what to do as regards personal religious belief/non-belief. BUT, as it stands on the books it’s prohibited for anyone to pass a test of their religious beliefs, to hold office, due to the majority Xians who think, collectively, atheists are the most vile of almost any group, thereby implying a test for them to hold a public office, since most Xians say they’d never vote for an atheist, which is ironic since many of the most intelligent in this country are…you guessed it…atheists..

  • vasaroti

    If they were still here, they’d blend ring in with the other crackpot sects. They killed unarmed Pequot Indians, including burning alive women and children who had hidden in a longhouse.

    The association of Pilgrims with freedom is baffling. They left the Netherlands because their kids were being exposed to too much freedom.

    • Raymond

      I’m not sure if the Dutch should be regarded so highly, as they ‘bought’ Manhattan for trinkets without finding out from the Indian tribes to whom they gave the trinkets to, their views on land ownership. The Native tribes had no concept of owning land as they would hunt in an area and if they encroached on others, they would give symbolic trinkets as compensation for using the area so close to the other tribe, but the Dutch stupidly thought they had ‘bought’ the land with the trinkets and I’m sure that played out as really a lot of conflict among the colonists and the Native tribes.

  • kenneth

    The Pilgrims were quite literally the Taliban of Protestant Christianity.

  • kessy_athena

    Well, considering that calling someone “Puritanical” isn’t exactly a nice thing to say, I’m not so sure it’s accurate to say that the Pilgrim myth has a strangle hold on the public consciousness. You have the happy turkey eating buckle hatted guys meme, and you have the meme of the people who picketed Shakespeare and were so crazy even Cromwell didn’t want them. They sort of coexist. And to be fair, neither is entirely accurate. For example, only about half of the original colonists who arrived at Plymouth were actually Pilgrims.

    • UrsaMinor

      You have the happy turkey eating buckle hatted guys meme

      Actually, it’s the other way around . The buckle-hatted guys ate the turkey (who probably wasn’t very happy).

      • kessy_athena

        No, no, it was the buckles eating the turkey.

        • UrsaMinor

          Perhaps this is why they’ve fallen out of favor. I do so dislike carnivorous fashion accents, don’t you?

          • Raymond

            Ha Ha Every time I come here I get a chuckle from you guys’ banter. ‘…buckles eating the turkey.’

    • Raymond

      Unless I’m mistaken, wasn’t the lady Quaker Mary Dyer of Rhode Island hanged and martyred in Boston Common, circa 1660, simply due to her becoming a Quaker after chunking her Puritan beliefs?Kinda like being an Islamist Taliban, and switching to a Xian Talibangelist.

  • Noelle

    So whose idea was it to plop a 4-day weekend in November where we can stuff ourselves with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy? I’m all for school plays and Charlie Browning that person.

    • vasaroti

      I once saw a Thanksgiving play give by Catholic 3rd-graders. My mind boggled.

  • Kodie

    At least one of the two times I’ve taken a Duck Tour in Boston, the guide talked about how awful the pilgrims really were. Briefly, of course, and with humor – it’s not something you go on a tirade about when you have a truck/boat full of tourists. That said, when I’m driving back from New York and I see the first sign that I’m in Massachusetts (literally has a picture of a buckle hat on it), I can’t say I hate to see it, since it means I’m almost to the ‘Pike.

  • smrnda

    Dutch merchants (at least to my knowledge) always seemed to have the freedom thing down a bit better than others. I recall that during a period where they more or less shut out all other foreigners, the Japanese still maintained contact with Dutch merchants since they just wanted to buy and sell and not promote religion. Perhaps a degree of affluence and worldliness has some benefits.