If you think the political climate in America is hostile to compromise, consider what the founders of the first Thanksgiving faced in the 17th century.
That story is getting renewed attention this holiday, thanks to a new documentary on the Pilgrims by filmmaker Ric Burns. It debuted on public television earlier this week, and there’s a repeat airing on Thanksgiving at 8:30 p.m. Humanities magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has a lively article about the film by Craig Lambert, available online at http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/novemberdecember/feature/who-were-the-pilgrims-who-celebrated-the-first-thanksgiving.
For those who think that compromise was a lot easier in the good old days of America’s past, the Pilgrims provide interesting evidence to the contrary. They fled England seeking freedom to worship as they pleased, but they weren’t too keen on extending that freedom to others.
Kathleen Donegan, a Berkeley professor interviewed for the documentary, points out how rigid the Pilgrims were: “Actually, the Pilgrims saw the world as a wilderness, in which the one right way of practice toward God might cultivate a garden — and you needed a hedge around that garden to protect it from the wilderness.
“They were terrified of contamination. The Pilgrims were not for freedom of religion. Quite the opposite: They had very specific ideas about how to worship God and were intolerant of deviations.”
To protect themselves from views different from their own, the Pilgrims planned to allow no one but fellow Pilgrims on their voyage to America. They referred to members of their community as “saints” and non-Pilgrims as “strangers.” They wanted no “strangers” aboard the Mayflower when it set sail for the New World.
But to make the expedition financially viable, the Pilgrims had to relent, allowing outsiders into the group. Even with this extra support, the project seemed doomed from the start. The voyage was badly timed, with colonists arriving in America near the end of 1620, too late to plant crops. They shivered and starved through a terrible first winter.
“Predictably, there had been friction between the saints and strangers,” Lambert notes. “Nonetheless, before disembarking on November 11, 41 of the adult men signed a simple agreement, hardly more than a sentence long, to band together into a ‘civil body politic’ with the power to enact laws.”
That agreement, known as the Mayflower Compact, helped advance the principle of consent of the governed in America. It also demonstrated that people who didn’t agree on everything could find common ground and build a community. As the founders of the first Thanksgiving learned, compromise isn’t a dirty word. That’s something we modern Americans should keep in mind in this autumn of our political discontent.