U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Our Pilgrims, Some Progress

I’ll keep this post brief–it’s a holiday weekend and I am grading like a fiend.

My first-grader asked me about the Pilgrims yesterday after having seen a movie in school about a mouse who stows away aboard the Mayflower. She liked the mouse, didn’t know what she thought about the Pilgrims, but was curious about the Compact made aboard the Mayflower. She said that she would like to see the original document (which made my heart leap) to check if the mouse’s prints were on it (my heart sank). So I told her that the mouse was fiction, the compact was not. I then wondered why we need to include mice in historical stories, why not just make either a movie about a mouse or a movie about the Mayflower. But then she asked a question that put things back in perspective–did any girls (read: women) sign the compact? After my response, her heart sank.
A teachable moment? Well, she thought so. We talked about who these Puritan-Separatists were; why they felt the need to make a dangerous trek across the sea; and why that compact might have made it possible to survive a pretty terrible first year. She took all that in, and wondered aloud why the women and the Native Americans didn’t get to sign the compact later. She even knew enough to point out that the Pilgrims were supposed to land somewhere else. A gesture from my first-grader toward to a point made in recent cover of the ‘New Yorker’ which illustrated, as Nathaniel Philbrick has observed, that the Pilgrims might be considered America’s first illegal immigrants.
In a gesture toward my kid’s pragmatism, I think it’s time to renew our interest in compacts and covenants, if only to imagine whether there is such a tradition left in a nation of contracts, commerce, and conspicuous consumption.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you for sharing. It is interesting to present information such as the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers in a new light to my history students. Suggesting the Founding Fathers were committing treason and the same thing the Southerners were doing when they seceded always sparks good discussion and inquiry on behalf of my students. Good to hear that even at a young age such content is being absorbed by younger generations. Additionally, I am going to be sharing this image in my classroom – pose a couple critical thought questions.

  2. “the Pilgrims might be considered America’s first illegal immigrants.”

    Surely others can claim that honor. Leif Ericson, the Spanish in St. Augustine, the settlers in Roanoke, the Jamestown colonists, etc. Does Philbrick explain what disqualifies the others?

  3. Can you have illegal immigrants without a conception of a state physically defined by borders open to all citizens and closed to at least some non-citizens?

    The Nauset and other New England tribes certainly didn’t have any such conception…and I’m not even sure that 17th-century European states did yet.

    I understand the rhetorical power of calling the Pilgrims (still too often confused, at least by my students, with the non-separatist Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) “illegal immigrants,” but it comes at the cost of naturalizing a set of categories that we’d better off historicizing.

    @ R. Adams

    John Murrin, anything but a neo-Confederate, wrote a very interesting paper years ago (I don’t know if he ever published it) arguing that the states that attempted to secede in 1861 had a much more robust sense of common and distinct national identity than the thirteen colonies had had in 1776.

    As R. Adams suggests, if one accepts the legitimacy of the American Revolution, the case against secession in 1861 can’t really be made on the basis of a principled objection to revolution as such.

    On the other hand, as far as I know, Southerners in 1860-61 did not appeal to the Declaration of Independence. Despite that document’s rousing defense of the right of revolution, its affirmation that all men are created equal was explicitly rejected by such prominent Southerners as John C. Calhoun (back in the 1840s) and Confederate VP Alexander Stephens. Confederate (and later Neo-Confederate) cases for the legitimacy of secession tended to be based on a reading of the Constitution and an argument that the Republicans (and the North) were violating or threatening to violate it.

  4. Your child is very lucky to have you for a father, filling in the gaps left in her history education left by our schools. I feel like the fact that such a naturally interesting and complex topic as the Mayflower Compact is reduced to a cartoon involving a mouse is an example of how we as a nation choose to simplify our history in order to skim over the bits we don’t like in the creation our national narrative. While the argument may be made that a first grader can not fully grasp the complexities of the events, does this not mean we shouldn’t start exposing complex ideas early so they are familiar with them later on in their schooling career? We most certainly introduce our simplistic, nationalistic narrative early and elaborate on it as our children progresses through school.

    I apologize if this post comes off as combative, it is not meant to. Being a teacher who is impassioned about portraying a well rounded picture of America, the over simplification of history bothers me (more specifically the implications the oversimplification carries with it).

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