Second Nature

A depiction of early settlers of the Plymouth Colony sharing a harvest Thanksgiving meal with members of the local Wampanoag tribe at the Plymouth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1621. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Looking at the Thames but thinking of the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Marlow observes to his fellow passengers aboard the Nellie: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” He could have been looking at the Mississippi, and the point would have remained the same: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.”

Some of our progressive friends would like us all to believe that the “real” history of the United States begins in 1619, with the arrival of the “different complexions” of first African slaves on what would later be U.S. soil. That is a critical and horrifying chapter in our national history, though African slavery in the Americas began in the 15th century under Spanish auspices rather than in the 17th century under those English privateers. As it turns out, this question is one of those things that tradition and conventional wisdom get right:

The story begins on December 21, 1620, when the Pilgrims first went ashore at Plymouth.

The Pilgrims were everything we are: immigrants, God-fearing radicals, and legalistic compact-makers of a practical bent, explorers, crackpots, idealists, capable of shocking brutality, instinctive capitalists, adventurers, irreconcilable, always eager to immanentize the eschaton, with one foot in the city on a hill they were building in the New World and one eye on the New Jerusalem they hoped to inhabit in the next. All the best and the worst of us is right there, at the beginning, on the Mayflower, these maniacs getting off of boats in Massachusetts in the dead of winter, these indigestible seeds coughed up by Europe, literally blown by the winds until they landed on just the right soil for the kind of seeds they were. It is too improbable a story to have made up. My friend Jay Nordlinger is fond of quoting George H.W. Bush’s question, whether our nation is to be a “unique nation with a special role in the world” or simply “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” Bush knew what he thought. (Jay knows, too.) And so did the Pilgrims, who had gone to such great literal lengths—about 3,000 nautical miles—to set themselves apart.

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