From a letter on the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, December 22, 1870.
No one can appreciate more highly than myself the noble qualities of the men and women of the Mayflower. It is not of them that I, a descendant of the “sect called Quakers,” have reason to complain in the matter of persecution. A generation which came after them, with less piety and more bigotry, is especially responsible for the little unpleasantness referred to; and the sufferers from it scarcely need any present championship. They certainly did not wait altogether for the revenges of posterity. If they lost their ears, it is satisfactory to remember that they made those of their mutilators tingle with a rhetoric more sharp than polite.
A worthy New England deacon once described a brother in the church as a very good man Godward, but rather hard man-ward. It cannot be denied that some very satisfactory steps have been taken in the latter direction, at least, since the days of the Pilgrims. Our age is tolerant of creed and dogma, broader in its sympathies, more keenly sensitive to temporal need, and, practically recognizing the brotherhood of the race, wherever a cry of suffering is heard its response is quick and generous. It has abolished slavery, and is lifting woman from world-old degradation to equality with man before the law. Our criminal codes no longer embody the maxim of barbarism, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but have regard not only for the safety of the community, but to the reform and well-being of the criminal. All the more, however, for this amiable tenderness do we need the counterpoise of a strong sense of justice. With our sympathy for the wrong-doer we need the old Puritan and Quaker hatred of wrongdoing; with our just tolerance of men and opinions a righteous abhorrence of sin. All the more for the sweet humanities and Christian liberalism which, in drawing men nearer to each other, are increasing the sum of social influences for good or evil, we need the bracing atmosphere, healthful, if austere, of the old moralities. Individual and social duties are quite as imperative now as when they were minutely specified in statute-books and enforced by penalties no longer admissible. It is well that stocks, whipping-post, and ducking- stool are now only matters of tradition; but the honest reprobation of vice and crime which they symbolized should by no means perish with them. The true life of a nation is in its personal morality, and no excellence of constitution and laws can avail much if the people lack purity and integrity. Culture, art, refinement, care for our own comfort and that of others, are all well, but truth, honor, reverence, and fidelity to duty are indispensable.
The Pilgrims were right in affirming the paramount authority of the law of God. If they erred in seeking that authoritative law, and passed over the Sermon on the Mount for the stern Hebraisms of Moses; if they hesitated in view of the largeness of Christian liberty; if they seemed unwilling to accept the sweetness and light of the good tidings, let us not forget that it was the mistake of men who feared more than they dared to hope, whose estimate of the exceeding awfulness of sin caused them to dwell upon God’s vengeance rather than his compassion; and whose dread of evil was so great that, in shutting their hearts against it, they sometimes shut out the good. It is well for us if we have learned to listen to the sweet persuasion of the Beatitudes; but there are crises in all lives which require also the emphatic “Thou shalt not” or the Decalogue which the founders wrote on the gate-posts of their commonwealth.
Let us then be thankful for the assurances which the last few years have afforded us that:
“The Pilgrim spirit is not dead,
But walks in noon’s broad light.”
We have seen it in the faith and trust which no circumstances could shake, in heroic self-sacrifice, in entire consecration to duty. The fathers have lived in their sons. Have we not all known the Winthrops and Brewsters, the Saltonstalls and Sewalls, of old times, in gubernatorial chairs, in legislative halls, around winter camp-fires, in the slow martyrdoms of prison and hospital? The great struggle through which we have passed has taught us how much we owe to the men and women of the Plymouth Colony,–the noblest ancestry that ever a people looked back to with love and reverence. Honor, then, to the Pilgrims! Let their memory be green forever!