Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Charles Beard on the Pilgrims
The New Republic is describing Charles Beard's December 1920 essay "We Shouldn't Be Grateful to the Pilgrims" as "the best hit piece against the pilgrims of all time." Here is part of what he had to say in preparation for the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth:
The solemn hour approaches. It will soon be just three hundred years since the Pilgrims let go their anchor off the coast of Cape Cod. A flood of oratory will surely descend upon us. The New England Societies, the Pilgrim societies, the Forbears societies, the Colonial Dames, and the French and Indian War societies, and all those who need an excuse for a night out will attend banquets given under the benign auspices of astute hotel managers. College presidents, serene, secure, solemn and starched will rise and tell again to restless youths the story of Miles Standish and Cotton Mather. Evangelical clergymen will set aside special days for sermons and thanksgivings. The Archbishop of Canterbury (shades of Laud!) will send a cablegram to the Back Bay Brotherhood! We shall be shown again, as Henry Jones Ford (Scotch-Irish) once remarked, "how civilization entered the United States by way of New England." We shall hear again how it was the Puritans who created on these shores representative and democratic republics, wrested the sword of power from George III, won the Revolutionary war, and freed the slaves. It has ever been thus. Egomania must be satisfied and after dinner speakers must have their fees.
The flood of half truth, honest ignorance, and splendid conceit will produce an equal reaction—a cry of rage and pain from the improvers of America. Mr. H.L. Mencken will burst upon our affrighted gaze in full war paint, knife in teeth, a tomahawk dripping with ink in one hand, a stein of Pilsner in the other, and the scalps of Professors Phelps, Sherman, and Matthews hanging to his belt. He will spout a huge geyser of pishposh and set innumerable smaller geysers in motion near Greenwich village.
In view of the clouds on the horizon and the impending deluge, it would be well to take our latitude now and find our course lest we should be blown ashore and wrecked upon the rocks of Plain Asininity. Nothing would be more sensible than to renew our acquaintance with Green, Gardiner, Prothero, Hallam, Lingard, Clarendon, Ludlow, Bradford, Usher, Bancroft, and the other serried volumes that flank the wall. The record seems to stand fairly clear: an autocratic Stuart monarchy and an intolerant ear-clipping Church, the protests of the purifiers, qui ... receptam Ecclesiae Anglicanae disciplinam, liturgiam, episcoporum vocationem in quaestionem palam vocarunt, immo damnarunt, the propositions of Cartwright, the godliness of the independents, the Mayflower compact. Cotton Mather's Magnalia, and all the rest....