Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock

Article excerpt

Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock. By John Seelye. Chapel Hill, 1998 (The University of North Carolina Press, Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27514), $39.95.

What does it mean to identify oneself with Massachusetts? Ever since John Winthrop proposed the Puritan mission to build a "city on a hill," residents of the Commonwealth have been discussing that question. What is the role the Commonwealth plays in the national scene? Ever since the Pilgrim bicentennial at Plymouth Rock, politicians and later historians have been proposing answers, often in conflict with each other. (See Jack P. Greene's Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies & the Formation of American Culture [Chapel Hill, 1988] for a recent response.) The answers are not simple. Nor can they win consensus. But the questions are of indisputable import to many of us who read this journal. And this is why John Seelye's study of Plymouth Rock is a major contribution to the discussion.

This is not a history of the rock itself, though it does attend to that subject. Rather John Seelye gives us a thorough account of the different ways Americans have thought about the rock and the Pilgrim settlers. When the Pilgrims set foot on this rock, did they come to realize a religious vision or did they come to plant the seeds of what would become American liberty? Should they be remembered as hard working models of Yankee rectitude or as tight-fisted tricksters? Beginning with the generation of 1776, Seelye recounts, in impressive detail, the different answers each generation has given to these questions. Indeed, he provides a splendid example of the vital role history plays in the creation of a group's sense of identity and the sometimes bitter conflicts that ensue. While the generation of Samuel Adams remade the Pilgrim saint into a pioneer advocate of eighteenth-century liberty, the suc=edi generations continued to rework the images. Trinitarians and Unitarians fought over the Pilgrim Fathers. Early feminists turned the Pilgrim Fathers into heavy-handed patriarchs. Abolitionists disputed possession of the rock with conservatives. …

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