At a modest but significant ceremony on July 12, 1897, the Church of England formally returned to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the original manuscript of Governor William Bradford’s The History of the Plymouth Plantation, the irreplaceable first-hand chronicle of the early years of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony. Delivering the acceptance oration for the State of Massachusetts at the Commemoration, the late Governor Wolcott floridly stated concerning the small Mayflower congregation: “They established what they planned. To them a mighty Nation owes its debt. In the varied tapestry which pictures our National life, the richest spots are those where gleam the golden threads set in the web by that little band.”

As we stand at the eve of another Thanksgiving, that traditional day of showing special gratitude to God, a festival day that the Pilgrims instituted, we ask: What is the true legacy of the Plymouth settlement to our nation? What was the symbolic flame they kindled that still sparks our imagination?

At first appraisal, it would seem that the Pilgrim Fathers have enjoyed the esteem of later Americans out of all proportion to the importance of their colony in the seventeenth century. Plymouth was to know none of the economic affluence of Virginia; in population and political power it would be far overshadowed by Massachusetts Bay; internationally it was always eclipsed by strategically important Quebec, Louisburg, Boston, or New Amsterdam. Yet its contribution to the American ideal cannot be denied, an inspiration based on principle and faith rather than power and wealth.

First, in drawing up the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrim Fathers demonstrated a clear desire to live under the rule of law, by self-government, ...

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