[For this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, I wanted to continue exploding some foundational American myths. Leading up to my favorite crowd-sourced post of the year, so please share your own non-favorites—in every category—for that collective airing of grievances!]
On one way to challenge a foundational myth and one way to reframe it.
First things first: I believe it’s important to say that I’m by no means a hater of the Massachusetts Pilgrims/Puritans. To put it most simply: anyone who visits the recreated Plimoth Plantation site (now part of the renamed Plimoth Patuxet museums and historic site) can’t help but feel just how isolated and frightening that space would have felt to this community of exiles as they emerged from a horrific Atlantic voyage and tried to survive in this new home. Of course they were significantly helped in that effort by Tisquantum, a fact that William Bradford himself acknowledges in his chronicle of the community Of Plimoth Plantation and that to my mind adds to the inspiring elements (if, as I write in that post, not only them) of this early American cross-cultural community. All of which is to say, if we remove the mythologizing pressure of “America’s Hometown” and just think about what this community experienced, there are plenty of reasons to see the Massachusetts Puritans as an impressive part of early American history.
The problem is, that “America’s Hometown” label and all the related mythologies of the Pilgrims/Puritans as a collective origin point has endured and continues to operate in our national narratives. One of the central elements of that mythos is that the Pilgrims/Puritans journeyed across the Atlantic in search of “religious freedom,” thus originating that essential element of America’s ideals. They certainly were looking for a place where they could practice their own extreme Protestant religion without being persecuted, but it’s just as accurate (and when it comes to these myths more important) to note that said practice depended precisely on persecuting those who didn’t adhere to their beliefs. Don’t believe me? Just ask Anne Hutchinson, or Roger Williams, or Thomas Morton, among many others. For those of us who would agree that the protection of religious freedom was one of the most radical ideas found in the U.S. Constitution and framing, it’s just not the case that we can look to the Puritans as an origin point or embodiment of that principle.
However, to repeat the final point from my first paragraph, if we can set aside that false and destructive mythos of the Puritans as America’s originating community, there are indeed inspiring histories and stories there, including those around cross-religious relationships. One of the best scholarly books on that latter topic is my colleague and friend Michael Hoberman’s masterful New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America (2011). The relationships Hoberman traces in his book weren’t simple or solely supportive, but neither were they anywhere near as divisive or discriminatory as the treatment of Hutchinson/Williams et al. Indeed, one of Hoberman’s main arguments is that, perhaps despite their own instincts or intentions, many Puritans did learn about religion, spirituality, culture, and more from their encounters with Jewish Americans throughout the colonial period. That’s a history, rather than a mythology, of religious tolerance well worth remembering.
Next non-favorite myth tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites, myths and everything else, you’d share?