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By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD

Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven By Charles Lucy  c.1847

Why do Pilgrims occupy such an enduring part in the American imagination? Jamestown was settled earlier than Plymouth, was larger and its settlers suffered physical conditions as grim as the Pilgrims experienced. The answer is that the Jamestown settlers were quite different than the Pilgrims and the political conditions under which Jamestown was settled were quite different than for Plymouth.

The Pilgrims were men, women and children who subscribed to a covenant in which they agreed to abide by doctrines of religious faith and to govern themselves as a political community. The covenant sustained the families as religious separatists in England who were persecuted for their religious beliefs and after fleeing England, sustained them as exiles in Holland for nearly two decades. The covenant sustained the families during the frightening voyage of the Mayflower and the first horrific year in Plymouth when half of them died. After landing in Plymouth their covenant was expressed as the Mayflower Compact that established the first fully representational government in America.

The Pilgrims found solace in Holland with the tolerant Dutch who allowed them to practice their religion as they wished and to pursue productive lives in the textile trades. Tolerance shown Pilgrims in Holland was absorbed by them and influenced their relationship with the neighboring Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims negotiated a peace treaty with the Wampanoag that satisfied the needs of both communities. Both parties accommodated each other from time to time to preserve peace that lasted over forty years.

In addition to inaugurating the feast of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims ought to be remembered because they laid the foundation of representational government and because they demonstrated that tolerance and accommodation were sustainable policies for peace. Their story needs retelling so that it becomes a national memory and part of our national identity.