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Given nearly ninety-seven years ago, outgoing Massachusetts Governor and Vice-President-elect Calvin Coolidge had cogent observations on those who now almost 400 years ago first encountered the desolate, windswept shores of Cape Cod to establish the Plimouth Plantation. The 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower, finding selfless collaboration necessary between its mix of Saint and Stranger, their ranks decimated by sickness and the onset of winter, pledged themselves to solemn Compact and clung tenaciously on to ideals that would, with time, sprout all across America.
Samoset’s equally intrepid walk into the colony and the resulting partnership between Plimouth and the Wampanoag gave practical demonstration to the depth of faith and fidelity that withstood all challenges. Pressed on all sides and yet not crushed, surrounded by death and the prospect of it yet not destroyed, they labored onward together even when larger, more aggressive neighbors sought to exterminate them, poised to show the epitome of intolerance; while it was the Plimouth colonists who showed the will to defend the lives of the innocent, including their native friends.
The head of the violent chief Wituwamat, displayed on a pike along the colony’s wall, and a bloody flag accompanying it were symbols of this rugged determination to defend life and do what is necessary to confront those who would take it wantonly and mercilessly. Massasoit, saved by the medical care of the colonists from serious illness, along with Samoset and Tisquantum understood this distinction and were thankful for their steadfast friends at Plimouth. Sadly, Massasoit’s son Metacomet (the future “King Philip”) would repudiate this exceptional partnership and go to war to rid the region of outsiders once for all. It was King Philip’s intolerant notion that only one race belonged and all others were unwelcome that inflicted yet more needless loss on both sides.
As Americans gathered in 1920 where that remarkable colony began to commemorate the landing, Coolidge would declare of those Pilgrims, “They came not merely from the shores of the Old World. It will be in vain to search among recorded maps and history for their origin. They sailed up out of the infinite.
“There was among them small trace of the vanities of life. They came undecked with orders of nobility. They were not children of fortune but of tribulation. Persecution, not preference, brought them hither; but it was a persecution in which they found a stern satisfaction. They cared little for titles; still less for the goods of this earth; but for an idea they would die. Measured by the standards of men of their time, they were the humble of the earth. Measured by later accomplishments, they were the mighty. In appearance weak and persecuted they came rejected, despised an insignificant band; in reality strong and independent, a mighty host of whom the world was not worthy, destined to free mankind. No captain ever led his forces to such a conquest. Oblivious to rank, yet men trace to them their lineage as to a royal house.
“Forces not ruled by man had laid their unwilling course. As they landed, a sentinel of Providence, humbler, nearer to nature than themselves, welcomed them in their own tongue. They came seeking only an abiding-place on earth, ‘but lifted up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country,’ says Governor Bradford, ‘where God hath prepared for them a city.’ On that abiding faith has been reared an empire, magnificent beyond their dreams of Paradise.
“Amid the solitude they set up hearthstone and altar; the home and the church. With arms in their hands they wrung from the soil their bread. With arms they gathered in the congregation to worship Almighty God. But they were armed, that in peace they might seek divine guidance in righteousness; not that they might prevail by force, but that they might do right though they perished.
“What an increase, material and spiritual, three hundred years has brought that little company is known to all the earth. No like body ever cast so great an influence on human history. Civilization has made of their landing-place a shrine. Unto the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been entrusted the keeping of that shrine. To her has come the precious heritage. It will be kept as it was created, or it will perish, not with an earthly pride but with a heavenly vision.
“Plymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end. It marks a revelation of that which is without beginning and without end a purpose, shining through eternity with a resplendent light, undimmed even by the imperfections of men; and a response, an answering purpose, from those who, oblivious, disdainful of all else, sailed hither seeking only for an avenue for the immortal soul.”
We are the children of those Pilgrims not because we share in some particular bloodline or can claim direct ancestry to these regal men and women but because we share their resolve through hardship, their humility through selfless collaboration, and their faith in things unseen. We are living pilgrims aspiring to the same heavenly country they did.
“He [Columbus] is entitled to rank forever as the greatest of all explorers. But the glory of his exploit, great as it was, becomes almost unimportant when compared with its results. It marked the inception of the modern era. The minds of men were opened to new thoughts. The gold and silver of America gave a new trend to the life of Europe. The arts began to flourish. The people began to assert their rights. More colonies brought more trade. A new age appeared, great in captains, admirals, statesmen, poets and philosophers, and finally new nations dedicated to human freedom arose on this side of the Atlantic. These are partly the reasons why Christopher Columbus is entitled to be honored” (Calvin Coolidge, from his daily column, October 11, 1930)
There would be no celebrating the BBQ, relaxing in the hammock, or venturing out in the canoe – all words and concepts originating with the people Columbus first encountered – had there been no Columbus to give it enduring importance, meaning, and place to be enjoyed in a little haven of liberty we now call the United States of America. Before we rush to whiteout another chapter of history our own immaturity deems incomprehensible, we would do well to understand the daring Italian as he truly was.
He was one who risked everything to not only open the eyes of Europe to places and people he knew to be where no one else believed them to exist but also to bring Christ to those souls before even meeting and coming to admire them. He believed good deeds should be rewarded and evil deeds punished and so distinguished between the natives who maimed and ate their enemies from those simply trying to defend themselves and live full lives. He saw potential in those who denied it both in themselves and in others, be they native or Spanish. He disdained the sickness of greed that infected those sent with him to exploit the people they encountered and take credit for what others had done. He believed in the better nature of humanity to prevail and that cost him everything in the end. He saw native and colonist working together to build something new from the best of both worlds not another recycled hierarchy of class and caste. He would see his vision of a noble and godly community perverted before his eyes by the same encomienda regime driven at the grasp of hidalgos holding whips over their lessers, compelled by the same arrogance and avarice, covetousness and callousness that had spoiled Spain. His sense of justice was repulsed at the very thought. Above it all he stepped into the dark with a host of villains and skeptics, bearing the false accusations and misdeeds of others, but appealing to the Righteous and Eternal Judge for the rectitude of his deeds and the sincerity of his intentions.
He found light through the door he opened, a light his eyes could not possibly comprehend but would give life and opportunity on a measure unsurpassed in all of human history. Others saw a plump land of mere things to exploit. He is the first to see it with the eye of an American, a shimmering harbor of ideals, a way of thinking and living that does not simply accept the way things are but strives for the way things ought to be and can be if we dare.
We can appreciate what the indigenous give us today because they found meaning and value in the estimation of the man who ventured half-way across the world to confirm they were there and to share the good things he had to give them. Any lack of immunity was no more a weapon known or intentionally used by Columbus than it was in the hands of Powhatan against the colonists of Jamestown one hundred and twenty years later, or the troops who brought influenza home after the Great War. It was Columbus who believed they, the people he would meet, were worth the journey, worth the cost, and worth the knowing. It remains a Happy Columbus Day, America!
As Coolidge would say, “[I]t is a very hasty and ill-considered judgment to conclude that there is more bad than good in any one. We are all a combination of both elements. While we ought not to approve of the evil in ourselves or in others…The only perfect man ate and drank with publicans and sinners. It did not scandalize Him, it was some of those who were not perfect who were scandalized…There is enough good in all of us to support the law of human fellowship. We shall be much more effective for good if we treat men not as they are but as they ought to be. If we judge ourselves only by our aspirations and every one else only by their conduct we shall reach a very false conclusion. When we have exhausted the possibilities of criticism on ourselves it will be time enough to apply it to others. The world needs high social standards and we should do our best to maintain them, but they should rest on the broad base of Christian charity.”