While in graduate school, I repeatedly raided the library to take advantage of their collection of out-of-print books by Cleveland Amory. This old-line New Englander possessed many of the biases of his upbringing, but he knew how to put a point. He also wrote one of my favorite descriptions of the Pilgrims, whom it has become all too fashionable to mock in our comfortably distant and comfortably secure times.
Actually, and in severe point of fact, of the forty-one men who signed the famous Compact in the cabin of the Mayflower, though eleven were addressed as “Mr.” and a handful could claim “Master,” not a single one bore the title of “Gent.” And, of original passengers, no less than eighteen were included under the designation “Family Servants and Young Cousins.” Charles M. Andrews, in The Fathers of New England, puts the matter in no uncertain terms. “A group of English emigrants,” he said, “more socially insignificant could hardly be imagined. … Their intellectual and material poverty, lack of business enterprise, unfavorable situation and defenseless position in the eyes of the law, rendered them an almost negative factor in the later life of New England.”
These are harsh words, of course, and they not only fail to do justice to the Pilgrims who were, as a group, perhaps the greatest of all this country’s heroes, but they are also inaccurate about the actual accomplishments of the Pilgrims. These Pilgrims, ironically often blamed for the excesses of intolerance of Boston’s Puritans, from whom they were very different, number among their signal accomplishments the first teaching and practicing of the separation of church and state, the first practicing of freedom of religious worship, the first trial by jury extending to all people, the first abolishing of primogeniture, the first recognition of the rights of women, the first system of free public education and, indeed, the introduction of almost all of our system of equality.
Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?