Politics and Pilgrims

From THE KENTUCKY GAZETTE, used by permission




Reflections on politics and pilgrims as America's Holiday arrives

Politicians often invoke heroism and liberty when speaking of first thanksgiving

As another Thanksgiving approaches it is time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Kentuckians are a tradition-bound people. They have a wonderful sense of history. Like so many other Americans, Kentuckians will celebrate with family, feasting and merriment. For those good citizens of the commonwealth who still live on farms, the harvest is done and a well-deserved rest takes place before winter's work commences in earnest.

While Kentucky does not have a strong New England connection, its people embrace the legends of the Pilgrim story. Thanksgiving, Christmas and a number of other holidays were appropriated by Madison Avenue to create a vast commercial empire. Billions of dollars are spent annually on gifts, food and decorations. For many years the more rural southern states did not celebrate the holidays with the same monetary dedication of more urban states. As the 20th Century progressed, Kentuckians embraced the various holidays with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the nation.

Thanksgiving has been called that "most American" of holidays. No matter what your politics, no matter what your background, Thanksgiving seemed a truly American experience. Pageants and parades honored the bravery and achievements of the Pilgrims who settled on the rocky forbidding coast of Massachusetts in December 1620.

Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims became a symbol of the American spirit. After winning independence from the British Crown, the colonies, now a new nation, desperately needed legitimacy. In other words, we needed a heroic history. The Pilgrims would become the stuff of legends.

Politicians adore the Pilgrims. Countless speeches and grand orations have poured from the lips of our statesmen. The Pilgrims are used as examples of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the beginnings of constitutional government (the Mayflower Compact), and a host of other freedoms. The Pilgrims are lauded for their bravery and intrepid spirit. All of these attributes play nicely in political declamations. Nonetheless, with all symbolism aside, do we really know much about people we annually commemorate?

One of the best ways to discern the spirit of a people is to look at their laws. What were some of the legal dictates handed down by our freedom-loving Pilgrims? Certainly the Pilgrim's view of freedom, was not the freedom of latter times. Modern Americans would cringe at some of the restrictions imposed on the daily activities of the citizens of the Plymouth Colony. In fact, present day society would be up in arms if the laws passed by the Pilgrims were placed in today's legal code. The colony decided to keep their legal code as close to England "as near as may be."

Some examples of the more extreme Pilgrim laws include capital punishment for treason, murder, diabolical conversation, willful burnings of ships or houses, violation, and unnatural crimes (sexual in nature). Other crimes that were punishable with fines, whippings and imprisonment were: excessive use of alcohol (in 1667 cider was included), selling alcohol or firearms to the Indians, "firing a gun in the night, save at a wolf or for a man lost." Two shots were for a house on fire, three for a "general alarm." In 1675, the law was amended to prohibit firing a gun at night except at wolf or Indian.

In 1638, an anti-tobacco law was passed forbidding the "drinking" of tobacco (smoking was referred to as drinking in some old colonial records) on the highways, out of doors within a mile of a dwelling house, or while at work in the fields. The same year the Plymouth Court decided to pass a law regulating wages. Laborers were to have 12 pence a day with board, 18 pence a day without. This unpopular law lasted only nine months.

Members of the court were not exempted from fines. The Plymouth General Court met at seven in the morning during summer months and eight in the morning during the winter. Justices could be fined six pence for tardiness. Fines and physical punishments were meted out to those who were tardy or derelict in attending church services. Members of the congregation could also be struck across the knuckles with a hickory stick if they dared doze during two-to four-hour sermons.

As more and more immigrants who were Puritans came into the area of Massachusetts Bay, more laws were passed restricting the freedom of religion. Quakers in particular were targets of religious persecution. Baptists were also reviled. Those of the Quaker faith were whipped, fined and banished from the colony. If the offending individual had the audacity to return to Massachusetts after suffering banishment, the offending party could be put to death. The magistrates were astounded to see a banished Quaker return to the colony. Even on the gallows the Quakers refused the request of the authorities to leave and have their lives spared.

Some of the more stubborn Quakers kept returning time after time to Massachusetts. In 1657 Nicholas Upshall came back from Rhode Island only to be forcibly carried back to that place by the Massachusetts authorities. Humphrey Norton was banished to Rhode Island and defiantly reappeared. He was taken back to Rhode Island, but came back to Massachusetts while court was in session. He came before the court and gave Judge Thomas Pence a tongue-lashing. Norton called Thomas a liar and a "malicious man." He went on to say that the judge processed a "clamorous tongue," and acted like a "scolding woman." Judge Thomas ordered Norton to be publicly whipped and banished again.

The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies were as obsessed with witchcraft as Salem would be in later times. The laws were stringent against the practice of witches. One of the penalties for practicing the "evil arts' was death. In 1661, Dinah, the wife of Joseph Sylvester accused her neighbor's wife of talking with the devil who was in the form of a bear. The Sylvesters' neighbors sued them for slander and won. Mrs. Sylvester was ordered whipped or pay the accused five pounds. She paid the fine.

The sorry spectacle of witch-hunting marred magisterial dignity for many years in the American colonies. Boston saw its first execution for witchcraft in 1648, when Mary Jones was hanged. Virginia also executed those who refused to repent of sorcery. In no way did America equate the prosecuting zeal of Europe when it came to witchcraft. Tens of thousands of innocent people, mostly women, were tortured, hanged, or burned alive by the civil and religious authorities. The infamous Salem witchcraft trials executed 20 as compared with one district in Italy that burned a thousand "witches" in one year and averaged the execution of one hundred more annually for a number of years.

Not all Pilgrims were of the godly sort. One John Billington has the dubious distinction of being the first murderer in Plymouth. He was also the first malefactor in the colony having been hailed before the court in 1621. The more law-abiding members of the community tried in vain to subdue the raucous Billington. In 1625, William Bradford called Billington a "knave, and so will live and die." In 1630 Bradford's prophecy came true when Billington shot, and fatally wounded John Newcomen for interfering with his hunting. Billington was found guilty of murder and executed.

The Pilgrim story is often used in political speeches and has become a part of the legend of the settlement of America. The drama, nobility of purpose and sheer hardiness of this little band of religious men and women has rightly inspired generations of Americans. There is enough truth recorded in the Pilgrim saga to warrant their honorable place in the history of our nation. But there is also a debt to be paid to these heroes of the frontier. We owe them respect as human beings with human frailties. From a very doubtful beginning in the frigid winter of 1620, the Pilgrims of Plymouth gave us a sense of pride and purpose as Americans. Thanksgiving was only a small part of their story. But what a grand story it was, and still remains, nearly four centuries later.

Kentucky proudly celebrates Thanksgiving along with her sister states. Kentucky politicians still evoke the spirit of the Pilgrims. Kentucky school children still have pageants commemorating the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims and their feast with the Indians still gives us hope of for a world of toleration and mutual respect. And yes, politicians throughout the years could not help but change the dates of our official Thanksgiving much to the chagrin of political partisans. When Congress changed the traditional date of the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday of the month, some of Franklin Roosevelt's adversaries in Kentucky were overheard to say, "Well, the last Thursday in November was good enough for God and the Pilgrims, but leave it to Roosevelt to change the day to suit himself." Ah Kentucky politics, you just can't get away from it, not even for the holidays.

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