Plymouth 'Rock' or 'Putty'?

By Shi, David | The Christian Science Monitor, November 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Plymouth 'Rock' or 'Putty'?


Shi, David, The Christian Science Monitor


MEMORY'S NATION: THE PLACE OF PLYMOUTH ROCK

By John Seelye

University of North Carolina Press 704 pp., $39.95 A mythic sense of purpose has long animated the American experience. From the Colonial period to the present, powerful icons such as the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty have helped consecrate national ideals and institutions. In "Memory's Nation: the Place of Plymouth Rock," John Seelye analyzes how Americans over two centuries have revised the meaning of their oldest national monument. Seelye, a distinguished professor of American literature at the University of Florida, is ideally suited to explore the ironic history of Plymouth Rock in the American imagination. He begins by disclosing an awkward fact: The Pilgrims themselves never attached any significance to Plymouth Rock. The myth of the rock first emerged not in 1620, when the hardy Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, but over 150 years later, during the turbulent months leading up to the American Revolution. In 1774, Plymouth patriots decided to move the lonely boulder from the beach to the courthouse and place it next to the liberty pole they had erected to protest British tyranny. In the process of using 30 oxen to move the rock, however, it was accidentally broken into two pieces. The rebels decided to leave the lower half in place and interpreted the accident as an omen foretelling the division of the British empire. With scholarly patience, Seelye details the ways in which New England politicians, ministers, and moralists sustained and manipulated the myth of Plymouth Rock in scores of sermons, toasts, political speeches, plays, paintings, and histories. During the 19th century, prominent New Englanders used the iconic power of Plymouth Rock to symbolize diverse values such as rugged individualism, religious liberty, social pluralism, communitarian democracy, and territorial expansion. Plymouth Rock was most often used to symbolize New England's contribution of rugged independence and pious devotion to the foundations of American culture. A speech by Massachusetts Sen. George Frisbie Hoar in 1895, the 275th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing, echoed claims made by many others: "When religious liberty set her foot on the rock at Plymouth, her inseparable sister, political freedom, came with her." During the 1890s and after, however, the manipulation of Plymouth Rock's meaning took an ugly turn. …

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