In defense of the Pilgrims

By what right did 100 English Puritans, remembered as “the Pilgrims,” arrive at Cape Cod late in the year in 1620 and establish a new settlement called Plymouth Plantation? None was needed. Or if you prefer, by the right over the earth which God granted to all mankind when He told Adam and Eve:

Be fruitful and multiply: fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, and over every living thing that moves on the earth… Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. I also give every green plant as food for all the wild animals of the earth, for all the birds of heaven, and for everything that creeps on the earth in which is the breath of life. (Genesis 1:28-30)

The Pilgrims came to North America, not with the intention to harm anyone or to take the fruit of anyone else’s labor, but rather, to provide for their own sustenance through their own labor, and to practice their religion in peace. They had no authorization from the English king to settle in New England. They did have authorization from the English king to settle in Virginia, which had been carefully procured through their contacts in the Virginia Company. It seems clear, however, that they had few scruples about acquiring such authorization, regarding it rather as a guarantee that the monarch wouldn’t physically destroy any settlement they might establish. They had considered settling in Guyana, and ruled it out partly because the Spanish would likely destroy such a colony militarily, especially if it flourished. They had no authorization from the native Americans to settle. That is not because they regarded the natives as inherently inferior or as lacking human rights, as a certain detail in William Bradford’ history Of Plymouth Plantation makes especially clear. Having just reached Cape Cod, late in the year and short of supplies, at one point the Pilgrims took some food from the Indians after these had run away in fear:

After this, the shallop [a light sail-boat] being got ready, they set out again for the better discovery of this place, and the master of the ship desired to go himself, so there went some 30. men, but found it to be no harbor for ships but only for boats; there was also found two of their houses covered with mats, and sundry of their implements in them, but the people were run away and could not be seen; also there was found more of their corn, and of their beans of various colors. The corn and beans they brought away, purposing to give them full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them (as about some six months afterward they did, to their good content). And here is to be noted a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that hear they got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved, for they had none, nor any likelihood to get any till the season had been past (as the sequel did manifest). Neither is it likely they had had this, if the first voyage had not been made, for the ground was now all covered with snow, and hard frozen. But the Lord is never wanting to his in their greatest needs; let his holy name have all the praise.

In short, they stole.

About the later end of this month, one John Billington lost himself in the woods, and wandered up and down some five days, living on berries and what he could find. At length he lit on an Indian plantation, twenty miles south of this place, called Manamet, they conveyed him further off, to Nawsett, among those people that had before set upon the English when they were coasting, whilst the ship lay at the Cape, as is before noted. But the Governor caused him to be inquired for among the Indians, and at length Massassoyt sent word where he was, and the Governor sent a shallop for him, and had him delivered. Those people also came and made their peace; and they [the Pilgrims] gave full satisfaction to those whose corn they had found and taken when they were at Cape Cod.

Clearly, the Pilgrims did not regard their moral rules as applying only among themselves. They didn’t feel too guilty of a theft of food that they desperately needed, rather thanking God for the opportunity. But they were determined to repay it, and they did so. Indians and whites alike were men, and had the rights of men. The Pilgrims came neither to enslave, nor to dispossess. They did not initiate violence, and though heavily armed and not afraid to use force in a just cause, they sought a path of peace amidst the endemic warfare of the Indian tribes. They were not particularly resentful when the Indians did resort to violence, for they held themselves to a higher moral standard than they expected of the Indians, having benefited from the light of the Gospel, as the Indians had not. They were not violating the rights of the native Americans of those times by settling among them, just as undocumented immigrants today are not violating the rights of native Americans today by settling among us. Human rights consist in the safety of one’s person and property. Against this, one might suppose that there is some sort of a collective right over a slab of territory, which is controlled by the “sovereign” government or the majority or whatever, such that unauthorized immigrants like the Pilgrims or Mexican fruit-pickers are violating. But there isn’t. That’s why the Pilgrims did nothing wrong, and why it’s quite right that Americans continue to take pride in them and celebrate them.

If you accept this, you can accept the story of the First Thanksgiving in the proper spirit: as a sort of national epic for America, a great and heroic adventure leading to the founding of a nation, with this distinction from most other national epics: that it is (a) true, and (b) peaceful. It is a story of great faith and courage, but also of humility. Its heroes are common men. They take no credit but give it to God. It began with some rural Englishmen who took it upon themselves to be more devout than was fashionable at the time. They wanted to restore pristine Christianity. They began to assemble in certain congregations, and to be persecuted. Having heard that there was religious freedom in Holland, they resolved to emigrate. It is interesting to compare their twelve years’ sojourn in Holland with their arrival in America. From Bradford’s account, they seem to have asked no one’s leave to settle there, nor to encountered any hindrance to so doing. Bradford does not specially remark that Holland had open borders. It suffices to say that Holland was a “civil [civilized] country.” The Puritans had fears about moving to Holland:

Being thus constrained to leave their native soil and country, their lands and livings, and all their freinds and familiar acquaintance, it was much, and thought marvelous by many… to goe into a country they knew not (but by hearsay), where they must learn a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, it being a dear [expensive] place, and subject to the miseries of war [Holland was chronically at war with Spain, which claimed sovereignty over it], it was by many thought an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, and a misery worse then death. Especially seeing they were not acquainted with trades nor traffic, (by which that country doth subsist,) but had only been used to a plain country life, and the innocent trade of husbandry. But these things did not dismay them (though they did some times trouble them) for their desires were set on the ways of God, and to enjoy his ordinances; but they rested on his providence, and knew whom they had believed.

It is striking that simply being driven out by force on the grounds that they were foreigners with no right to live in Holland isn’t listed even among the things that they feared.

The twelve years that the Pilgrims sojourned in Holland were years of truce in its war with Spain, and the renewal of that war was one reason the Pilgrims wanted to leave. Another was that the culture of Holland was ill-suited to the very religious lifestyle they preferred. It was, in particular, a bad influence on their youth. (I sort of like it that this archetypically social-conservative angst played its role in the nation’s founding.) It’s hard to tell from Bradford’s history whether they had prospered in Holland or not: it seems they were well-received but had chronic economic difficulties. But they also seem to have wanted vaguely to do something great for the Lord, to set in motion some great providential design. In that, they succeeded! We know that part of the story, perhaps, better than they ever did, for what was abstract to them has become concrete to us. We see the reality of which they saw but the dream and the foreshadowing. Organizing the voyage was very complicated and full of travails and setbacks and negotiations that went awry: Boston, a few years later, was much more successful, but it probably couldn’t have happened without Plymouth Plantation. Boston was the masterpiece of venture capitalism to which Plymouth Plantation was the snafu-ridden pilot project. Half the company died in the winter of 1620-21, so you can imagine the gratitude a year later when they had managed to raise crops, store food for the winter, and establish peace with neighboring Indian tribes, with much help from Squanto, an Indian who had been in Europe and spoke broken English and who became their friend and ally, now instructing them how to grow corn in New England soil, now acting as a diplomat to neighboring tribes. The first Thanksgiving was in November 1621.

Puritan New England, more than Virginia, is where the American civilization we know today was born. There was a Lord of the Flies element in the history of early Virginia, a breakdown of civilized values when they were removed beyond the societal matrix which maintained them. Not a complete breakdown, but enough to give a toehold to a barbarous institution which tainted American history for centuries thereafter: slavery. The whole southern United States became a slave society. It was the little undocumented colony of religious refugees that flourished through equality and freedom, setting a new pattern of society which has become American democracy, now widely emulated around the world. Civilized values held firm among the Pilgrims because they were founded on religion, and the civil constitution grew out of them. It is thanks to the Pilgrims that America became a bastion of freedom, and thanks to America that the West remained the bastion of freedom through the two world wars. The dividends from the Pilgrims’ venture exceed all calculation.

Now, if you reject the simple and natural idea that people such as the Pilgrims have a right to go and settle in a new place with the intention of living peaceably by their own labor and have no need for anyone’s authorization in order to do so, you can’t appreciate this story. You’re compelled to disapprove. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ kind friend, the cultural bridge between the Old and New Worlds, becomes a traitor. The Pilgrims are invaders. VDARE says this explicitly:

Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday, started in the year 1621 by the Pilgrims, a group of people entirely white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. It has nothing to do with immigration.

But increasingly every year, the cultural establishment tries to make Thanksgiving about immigration...

But the Pilgrims were not immigrants—they were either colonizers or invaders, depending on your point of view.

Of course “colonizers or invaders” might be a good way to describe some modern immigrants.

There’s no “depending on your point of view” about it. Indeed, that expression is a good example of the rotten moral relativism that seems to lie at the heart of much nativism. What are we to understand here? That the Pilgrims were invaders and we should disdain them as such? Or that “we”– Americans– should, from our “point of view,” regard the Pilgrims as “colonists,” and can approve of them, but we should disdain the “invaders” among modern immigrants — and also, presumably, native Americans are entitled to be just as disdainful of the Pilgrims from their “point of view?” What kind of a holiday can Thanksgiving be under this interpretation? Are we celebrating a successful invasion– not celebrating that what the Pilgrims did was good, but only that “we” happened towin?How could anyone feel festive with such amoral notions in their minds?

No, the Pilgrims were in the right, objectively in the right, they did a brave and heroic thing, and sowed the seeds for a vast harvest of benefit to all mankind, though they were but common men, innocent country people, seeking not glory, but more or less just to go to church on Sunday unmolested. They showed heroic courage, yet without the violence that has so often accompanied courage in history, and marred it. It is a fitting tribute to the Pilgrims that the holiday they have bequeathed to us– though, also fittingly, it wasn’t instituted as a holiday by them, but long afterwards– celebrates not their courage but God’s gifts, for they chose, rightly, to take credit for nothing but give all the credit to God. Let me finish with more words from William Bradford.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader too, when he well considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which wente before), they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seeke for succor. It is recorded in scripture as a mercy to the apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians shewed them no small kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they met with them (as after will appear) were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wildemes a more goodly country to feed their hopes ; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face ; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to seperate them from all the civil parts of the world. If it be said they had a ship to succor them, it is trew; but what heard they daily from the master and company? but that with speed they should look out a place with their shallop, where they would be at some near distance; for the season was such as he would not stir from thence till a safe harbor was discovered by them where they would be, and he might go without danger; and that victuals consumed apace, but he must and would keep sufficient for themselves and their return. Yea, it was muttered by some, that if they got not a place in time, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them. Let it also be considered what weak hopes of supply and succor they left behind them, that might bear up their minds in this sad condition and trials they were under; and they could not but be very small. It is true, indeed, the affections and love of their brethren at Leyden [some of their community had stayed behind in Holland, in the town of Leyden] was cordial and entire towards them, but they had little power to help them, or themselves… What could now sustaine them but the spirit of God and his grace?

Amen to that. Thanks be to God this day for all those who have made long journeys to build America.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith