“Western Civilization is merely a footnote to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead
“God is smarter than Plato.” William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation
“Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:
“Being now passed the vast [Atlantic] ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succor; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to know places much more to search unknown coasts.” The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2013, p. A 14
“In the fall of 1621, some 50 of the Puritans who had left the Old World in search of religious freedom sat down in their tiny thatched hamlet of Plymouth with their Wampanoag neighbors to feast on turkey, venison, corn and cod. They also gave thanks for surviving their first terrible New England winter, whose cold and privation had carried off half their community.” Myron Magnet, The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2013, p. A 13
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The following editorial has been posted by the Wall Street Journal annually since 1961. The first component was written by a 17th century traveler. The second by Vermont Royster to accompany it.
The Desolate Wilderness
The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2013, p. A 14
Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:
So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.
When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.
The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.
Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.
Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.
If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.
Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.
This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.
And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.
So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.
For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.
His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.
How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places — only to find those men as frail as any others.
So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?
Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.
But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere — in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.
We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.
And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.
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Giving Thanks in the Land of the Free
Americans have long treasured their right to worship as they choose.
Myron Magnet, The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2013, p. A 13
In the fall of 1621, some 50 of the Puritans who had left the Old World in search of religious freedom sat down in their tiny thatched hamlet of Plymouth with their Wampanoag neighbors to feast on turkey, venison, corn and cod. They also gave thanks for surviving their first terrible New England winter, whose cold and privation had carried off half their community.
Continual waves of pilgrims fleeing religious persecution would follow them across the sea. Their sense of providential escape from foreign oppression stayed vividly alive in the American memory, and ultimately helped guide the Founding Fathers to make a revolution and fashion a new kind of government.
Hard as it is to believe at this distance of time, British law once jailed non-Anglican Protestants like the Pilgrims for worshiping as they chose. The law also barred them from the universities and public office. Thousands of Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others left their native land, bringing to the New World their Dissenting tradition of self-government, individualism and personal responsibility. They had long run their own congregations, hired and fired their own ministers, read the Bible and freely judged its meaning for themselves. They believed that each individual has a direct relation to God independent of, and higher than, any worldly authority.
As late as the 1750s, Constitution-signer William Livingston was still reminding readers of his influential magazine, The Independent Reflector, how “the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment” drove them “to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.”
Decades later, Chief Justice John Jay wrote a gripping account of how his grandfather, a French Protestant, had returned home from a trading voyage abroad in 1685 to find his family and neighbors gone, their church destroyed. While he had been away, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had extended religious toleration and civil rights to Protestants for almost a century. Jay’s grandfather was lucky to be able to sneak aboard one of his ships and, like many others, sail away to freedom in the New World.
With this long history, Americans have had an almost physical thirst for liberty, as people do who truly know its opposite, like Eastern Europeans who once lived under communist tyranny. Long before Emma Lazarus wrote her Statue of Liberty verses about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, George Washington noted that for “the poor, the needy, & the oppressed of the Earth,” America was already “the second Land of promise”—the Promised Land. It offered, said James Madison, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”
That thirst for liberty led the Founders to revolt when they thought that George III was squeezing upon them the tyranny that had crushed their forebears. It also led them to hedge their new government with every safeguard to keep them free.
To protect life, liberty and property from what they called the depravity of human nature—from man’s innate capacity for inhumanity to others—the Founders knew they needed some kind of government armed with power. But since the officials who wield such power have the same fallen human nature as everyone else, who can be sure that they won’t use it to oppress others? Who can guarantee that imperfect men wouldn’t turn even the democratic republic the Founders were creating into what Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee called an elective despotism?
The Constitution they wrote in the summer of 1787 explicitly limited government’s powers to what they deemed absolutely essential. They divided and subdivided power, and they made each branch of government a watchdog over the others. But they also recognized that constitutions are only what they called “parchment barriers,” easily breached if demagogues subvert the “spirit and letter” of the document.
In the first State of the Union address, George Washington stressed that the ultimate safeguard against such a danger is a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty. “The security of a free Constitution,” he said, depends on “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them.”
If citizens start to take liberty for granted, he said, the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out, for “no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”
It’s that culture of liberty we nourish by recalling that our forebears came to these shores in search of freedom—and by giving thanks that they found it.
Mr. Magnet is editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His new book is “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817” (Norton).