“The Puritan and Pilgrim stand
A bannered nation on that strand.
This is the heritage they gave
To you, as sons of sires thus brave.”
E. S. Sayer, “Our Heritage” (1853)
Christopher Caldwell has published an interesting essay on the seventeenth-century English conquest of New England, and more particularly on the fading luster of the old American myths of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. He was prompted to write this essay by the silence in which the quadricentennial anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth Rock was this year allowed to pass. There is much to learn and ponder in Caldwell’s essay, and I recommend it to you; but I would here like to consider a quote it contains from the historian David J. Silverman, author of This Land Is Their Land (2019).
Caldwell tells us that Silverman asks,
“Why should a school-age child with the last name of, say, Silverman, identify more with the Pilgrims than the Indians?”
This is a reasonable question. But to me it naturally suggests this parallel question.
“Why should a school-age child with the last name of, say, Smith, identify more with the Jews than those with whom the Jews have fought?”
I hope my question will also be taken as reasonable, and not traduced as Jew baiting. Since it appears that Silverman does not identify with the Pilgrims, and therefore does not identify with the people who identify with the Pilgrims, is there any reason for the people who identify with the Pilgrims to identify with Silverman and the people with whom he identifies? Or, to state the question somewhat differently, if Silverman refuses their myths, should they not also refuse his?
Myth is folklore. It is the common lore of a people, and to learn the lore of a people as a disciple is a very large part of what it means to be a member of that people. This lore mostly takes the form of “song and story,” and a disciple receives these songs and stories as his spiritual heritage. This is what distinguishes the disciple from the detached scholar, the dabbling dilettante, or the hostile critic. Davy Crockett is, for instance, a hero to a disciple who receives the old American mythos as his spiritual heritage, whereas he is an historical figure to a scholar, an entertaining character to a dilettante, and an abominable villain to a hostile critic.
I am not going to say that Silverman ought to identify with the Pilgrims, although I think such an argument could be made. He is, after all, enjoying the physical heritage of the Englishmen who extirpated the Red Man with iron and fire. I will simply register the fact that he does not identify with the Pilgrims, but rather with the Wampanoags, and leave the casuistry to him.
From a political point of view, it is simply a fact that many people with “the last name of, say, Silverman,” are very far from being disciples of the old American mythos, and are, in fact, its harshest critics. They are disciples of a rival spiritual heritage, and this rival spiritual heritage is aggressively proselytizing, iconoclastic and blasphemous.
For two religions to peacefully coexist in the same space, they must work out a modus vivendi that controls proselyting, iconoclasm and blasphemy. Both religions must agree to refrain from poaching the other’s children, vandalizing the other’s property, and outraging the other’s sensibilities. This modus vivendi may require some hypocrisy, but some hypocrisy is better than a whole lot of religious war.
Disciples of rival spiritual heritages in the post-American United States obviously needs to work out a modus vivendi along similar lines. The alternative is a whole lot of “religious” war, declared or otherwise.