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The western spirit


Painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood

Sarah Palin seems to have the western spirit, which was going strong even before 102 men, women, and children left Plymouth on 5 September 1620 in two ships to sail west across the Atlantic. They immediately discovered that the Speedwell was not going to stay afloat, and turned back, piled everyone into the Mayflower and set off again on the 6th.

Loaded into the Mayflower with their ploughs, guns, a spaniel and a mastiff, they were so crowded that many men slept on deck, sheltering under rowboats. They were headed straight into the equinoctial gales of the Atlantic.

I experienced one of those gales in a big, modern ship. It was frightening and immense.

Halfway across, storms cracked the Mayflower's main beam, but they managed to repair it, and they sailed on, not toward civilization, but toward a wild and unknown continent.

Whatever persuaded them to make the voyage?

According to their own journals they decided to go to America because they wanted to share the Gospel and worship as they pleased and because they longed to retain their English language and customs. (To worship freely they had earlier left Britain for the Netherlands.) If they didn't also have a spirit of adventure, I'd be surprised.

By late November, after almost two months on the Atlantic, they had been blown off course, and decided to land wherever they could. But as they gazed at the wintry wilderness of Cape Cod they realized they had to have some kind of plan of action when they arrived.

On deck they drafted an amazing agreement. They bound themselves to cooperation and self-government under majority rule.

They did not waffle, or pile sentence on top of sentence. Their Mayflower Compact was just three sentences long. (Long sentences, I have to admit.)

They didn’t go into detail because their lives were already governed by the Ten Commandments and by the teaching of Christ to love God and each other. Their agreement to govern themselves cooperatively and democratically was remarkable then. Looking at many countries, it is still remarkable today.

After they landed on the Cape they fished, and hunted for food with the help of the spaniel and mastiff. The Indians brought them corn. Nevertheless half the Pilgrims died of malnutrition and exposure before a year had passed. The Indians also suffered. They had no resistance to infectious diseases from Western Europe, and many of them died. (Edward Winslow left a fascinating description of relations with the Indians, and a journey to visit the ill Indian chief Massasoit.)

By 1640 there were 20,000 British settlers in New England, and they were flourishing. Despite death and loss, and sometimes despite themselves, their can-do spirit helped to plant freedom in America.

Comments (1)

Sandra Hurt-Norris:

I would like to think that Americans still possess that spirit but I see the push to socialize us is slowly making us into a country of whiners etc.

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