Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Re-Writing History, Conservative Style

During the Thanksgiving season, many conservatives love to comment on the Pilgrims. Most are so blinded by their religious beliefs that they re-write the story of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and other early American colonists.

For example, they love to claim that the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom. This is akin to claiming that Islam is a religion of peace. Writing in his diary of their stay in Holland, Pilgrim leader William Bradford lamented:
...Of all sorrows most heavily to be borne, was that many of the children... [as a result of] the great licentiousness of youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents. Some became soldiers, others took upon them far voyages by sea, and other some worse courses, tending to dissoluteness, and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God. So that they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.
According to Bradford, becoming a soldier or a sailor was a "dishonor of God". And so he and his band rounded up the kids and fled Holland for the comfort of the New World. In other words, while in Holland the Pilgrims enjoyed a level of freedom virtually unrivaled in Europe, but it was not freedom that they sought. They wanted to live in a Christian "utopia", which they could not do in Holland because others did not share their stifling ideology.

The Puritans were similarly disinterested in religious freedom. When Roger Williams questioned the civil authority of religious leaders, he was banished from the colony. These theocratic tendencies were not limited to colonies founded on explicitly religious principles, nor were they limited to the very early colonies. Maryland, which was originally founded as a haven for Catholics, was witness to a Puritan revolt called the "Battle of the Severn" that resulted in the burning of many Catholic churches in the 1650s. In 1649 Maryland enacted a Toleration Act, which stated:
that noe person or psons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion not in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beliefe or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent…
While this might seem rather tolerant, the act also prohibited any form of blasphemy:
That whatsoever pson or psons within this Province and the Islands thereunto belonging shall from henceforth blaspheme God, that is Curse him, or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the ffather sonne and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said Three psons of the Trinity or the Vnity of this Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachfull Speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, or any of the said three psons thereof, shalbe punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires…
This was their idea of tolerance! Mere denial of the Trinity was cause for death. In other words, you were free to believe as you chose, so long as you believed what the authorities demanded. While the blasphemy laws were not enforced, their existence indicates the degree to which dissenting opinions were tolerated in many of the colonies.

Conservatives also love to claim that the Pilgrims were the founders of America. Such a claim ignores the fact that the Pilgrims landed in the New World eleven years after the founding of Jamestown. The earlier colony however, was an entrepreneurial endeavor, rather than a religious migration, and thus that wouldn't square well with the story conservatives wish to tell.

America was not founded by the Pilgrims, the Puritans, or any such group. America was founded by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al. America was founded by the Founding Fathers--men who defended freedom. The Pilgrims, the Puritans, and their ilk were as opposed to freedom as King George III. To claim otherwise is an injustice to the Founders.

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