Tag Archives: moral relativism

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: Continue reading “In defense of the Pilgrims” »