What Does the Pilgrim Stand for in
Our National Life and Character?
Answered by Descendants of the Pilgrims
Hon. Asa P. French, US District Attorney: “Freedom and Equality”
Mr. Arthur Lord, President of the Pilgrim Society: “Strong Individualism”
Rev. Dr. George Hodges, Dean Episcopal Theological School: “Toleration in Religion”
Mr. Morton Dexter, Author of "The Story of the Pilgrims”: “Liberty and Toleration”
BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE December 19, 1909
Freedom and Equality
Asa P. French
In any discussion of the extent to which the principles, political, social and religious, of those whom we reverently call the Pilgrim Fathers, still endure and are discernible in our national life, institutions and character, there is manifest danger of fanciful exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is interesting and perhaps not wholly unprofitable to conjecture, even though it may idle to attempt to demonstrate, how far the destinies of the colossal nation which has been built, in part, upon the foundation which the Pilgrims laid, have been shaped by the characteristics of the handful of wandering outcasts who, in order that they and the generations succeeding them might enjoy religious freedom, braved the dangers of a trackless wintry ocean and the hostile tribes of an unknown continent.
We are now, old men and children, eight or ten generations away from that handful of intrepid seafarers who, in November 1620, rounded Cape Cod, there within the shelter of its protecting arm drafted the earliest of written constitutions, and a month later made at Plymouth the first settlement of New England.
It would naturally be surmised, even if it were not known, that individually these men were of different temperaments, of unequal education and of diverse antecedents. That collectively and as a body politic, they personified many of the characteristics ordinarily ascribed to heroes and to saints cannot be doubted. No student of history is without a well-defined conception of the qualities for which they were conspicuous, and it may at least be premised without fear of contradiction that the stream of American citizenship at this, its principal source, sprang from honesty, sincerity, simplicity and freedom of conscience, from fear of God and implicit trust in his providence. It is not necessary to claim that these were qualities and aspirations of which, even at that age, the Pilgrims had a monopoly. They were undoubtedly, however, the dominating influences at the birth of the nation. From that time on, incessantly, there have come countless tributaries to the ever-widening, deepening stream from all quarters of the globe, bringing new forces, new ideas, new dangers. But it is a stream whose resistless current from its origin has been freedom and equality, and that current, as we fondly hope, can never be stayed or diverted.
By striking contrast, one of the earliest institutions of the Jamestown colony was slavery, and it is fair to say that more than two centuries later, in that most unhappy struggle, which is the dark cloud of our history, it was the fundamental principle for which the Pilgrims stood and which had been propagated from New England stock, that inspired northern patriots to assert, and northern arms to maintain, the cause of universal freedom.
The civil war was the spirit of Plymouth arrayed against the spirit of Jamestown. This is quite enough to claim for the influence of the Pilgrim in the establishment and development of the political and social institutions and privileges of which we are justly proud. But can such a claim be justified?
It seems at least to be undisputed and indisputable that in the comfortless cabin of a little vessel riding at anchor within the sight of a wild and hostile land, to be transformed as a result of their struggles and privations and by the light of their principles into the greatest nation of the world, a band of obscure refugees first discovered and formulated the doctrine of constitutional free government, and it may be confidently prophesied that the doctrine thus first enunciated and afterward expanded and applied by those who, coming later, have joyfully and gratefully accepted its benefits and its responsibilities, is and will remain, the characteristic strength and glory of this country so long as honesty, sincerity, justice and fear of God-the fundamental virtues of the Pilgrims-shall inspire us.
It has been suggested that the eulogist of the Pilgrims readily falls into exaggeration, but if this claim for them be exaggeration, Senator Hoar exaggerated when he said that the signing of the Compact was "the most important political transaction which has ever taken place upon the face of the earth." If it be exaggeration, Henry Wilson exaggerated when he asserted that " This grand compact of government on board the Mayflower, adopted before the men who made it had trod the soil of the continent, will inspire their descendants to struggle on to make equal and just laws for the general good the vital, animating and living spirit of American institutions, as long as the memory of the Pilgrims shall live in the Western world." If it be exaggeration, George Bancroft exaggerated when he wrote, "Here was the birth of popular constitutional liberty. In the cabin of the Mayflower, humanity recovered its rights and instituted government on the basis of equal laws enacted by the people for the general good." Finally, if it be exaggeration, Daniel Webster exaggerated when, in that surpassingly beautiful oration at Plymouth, in 1830, he thrilled his vast audience with these memorable words: "On the bleak shore of a barren wilderness, in the midst of desolation, with the blasts of winter howling around them, and surrounded with dangers in their most awful and appalling form, the Pilgrims of Leyden laid the foundations of American liberty.”
A more distinguished array of witnesses has never been called to attest the significance of a more momentous event. In that stuffy cabin, under the inadequate light of a flickering oil lamp, which ast shadows upon the strong and careworn but serene faces of the men who, one after another, stepped forward and devoutly attached their signatures to the Compact - Carver first, then Bradford, then Winslow, then Brewster, and the rest - the little manuscript could have been but dimly legible. Yet with what mighty radiance has it shone down the path of time! In the diadem of freedom, the unpretentious covenant of this handful of weak and weary fugitives, ratified amid no glitter of armor nor blare of trumpets, nor thunder of cannon, sparkles with the same luster as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Proclamation of Emancipation.
This has been the Pilgrims' legacy to us and to those who shall come after us through the ages.
Asa P. French
In his own handwriting
Asa Palmer French (1860-1935) U.S. District Attorney - Braintree, MA and Deputy Gov. General of General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Plymouth, MA (1917-1919).
He was the great grandfather of Connie Baxter Marlow. This document was discovered by Connie in a trunk in the basement of the French home in Braintree, MA in 1998
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