THE PILGRIM, AND THE AMERICAN OF TODAY—1892
By Charles Dudley Warner
This December evening, the imagination, by a law of contrast, recalls another December night two hundred and seventy years ago. The circle of darkness is drawn about a little group of Pilgrims who have come ashore on a sandy and inhospitable coast. On one side is a vexed and wintry sea, three thousand miles of tossing waves and tempest, beyond which lie the home, the hedgerows and cottages, the church towers, the libraries and universities, the habits and associations of an old civilization, the strongest and dearest ties that can entwine around a human heart, abandoned now definitely and forever by these wanderers; on the other side a wintry forest of unknown extent, without highways, the lair of wild beasts, impenetrable except by trails known only to the savages, whose sudden appearance and disappearance adds mystery and terror to the impression the imagination has conjured up of the wilderness.
This darkness is symbolic. It stands for a vaster obscurity. This is an encampment on the edge of a continent, the proportions of which are unknown, the form of which is only conjectured. Behind this screen of forest are there hills, great streams, with broad valleys, ranges of mountains perhaps, vast plains, lakes, other wildernesses of illimitable extent? The adventurers on the James hoped they could follow the stream to highlands that looked off upon the South Sea, a new route to India and the Spice Islands. This unknown continent is attacked, it is true, in more than one place. The Dutch are at the mouth of the Hudson; there is a London company on the James; the Spaniards have been long in Florida, and have carried religion and civilization into the deserts of New Mexico. Nevertheless, the continent, vaster and more varied than was guessed, is practically undiscovered, untrodden. How inadequate to the subjection of any considerable portion of it seems this little band of ill-equipped adventurers, who cannot without peril of life stray a league from the bay where the “Mayflower” lies.
It is not to be supposed that the Pilgrims had an adequate conception of the continent, or of the magnitude of their mission on it, or of the nation to come of which they were laying the foundations. They did the duty that lay nearest to them; and the duty done today, perhaps without prescience of its consequences, becomes a permanent stone in the edifice of the future. They sought a home in a fresh wilderness, where they might be undisturbed by superior human authority; they had no doctrinarian notions of equality, nor of the inequality which is the only possible condition of liberty; the idea of toleration was not born in their age; they did not project a republic; they established a theocracy, a church which assumed all the functions of a state, recognizing one Supreme Power, whose will in human conduct they were to interpret. Already,