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Oration - Pilgrims - 1853 Massachusetts
Charles Sumner - 08/01/1853

A Finger-Point from Plymouth Rock.

Remarks
At the
Plymouth Festival,
On
The First of August, 1853.
In Commemoration of
The Embarkation of the Pilgrims.
By
Charles Sumner.

Boston:
Crosby, Nichols, and Company,
111 Washington Street.
1853.


Remarks.

The President, in giving the next toast, said they had already been delighted with the words of a distinguished member of the Senate of the United States. They were favored with the presence of another; and he would give us a sentiment:–

The Senate of the United States,–The concentrated light of the stars of the Union.”

Hon. Charles Sumner responded as follows:–

Mr. President,–You bid me speak for the Senate of the United States. But I cannot forget that there is another voice here, of classical eloquence, which might more fitly render this service. As one of the humblest members of that body, and associated with the public councils for a brief period only, I should prefer that my distinguished colleague [Mr. Everett], whose fame is linked with a long political life, should speak for it. And there is yet another here [Mr. Hale], who, though not at this moment a member of the Senate, has, throughout an active and brilliant career, marked by a rare combination of ability, eloquence, and good humor, so identified himself with it in the public mind, that he might well speak for it always, and when he speaks all are pleased to listen. But, sir, you have ordered it otherwise.

From the tears and trials at Delft Haven, from the deck of the “Mayflower,” from the landing at Plymouth Rock, to the Senate of the United States, is a mighty contrast, covering whole spaces of history, hardly less than from the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus to that Roman Senate which, on curule chairs, swayed Italy and the world. From these obscure beginnings of poverty and weakness, which you now piously commemorate, and on which all our minds naturally rest to-day, you bid us leap to that marble Capitol, where thirty-one powerful republics, bound in indissoluble union, a Plural Unit, are gathered together in legislative body, constituting a part of One Government, which, stretching from ocean to ocean, and counting millions of people beneath its majestic rule, surpasses far in wealth and might any government of the Old World when the little band of Pilgrims left it, and now promises to be a clasp between Europe and Asia, bringing the most distant places near together, so that there shall be no more Orient or Occident. It were interesting to dwell on the stages of this grand procession; but it is enough on this occasion merely to glance at them and pass on.

Sir, it is the Pilgrims that we commemorate to-day; not the Senate. For this moment, at least, let us tread under foot all pride of empire, all exultation in our manifold triumphs of industry, of science, of literature, with all the crowding anticipations of the vast untold Future, that we may reverently bow before the forefathers. The day is theirs. In the contemplation of their virtue we shall derive a lesson, which, like truth, may judge us sternly; but, if we can really follow it, like truth, it shall make us free. For myself, I accept the admonitions of the day. It may teach us all never, by word or act, although we may be few in numbers or alone, to swerve from those primal principles of duty, which from the landing at Plymouth Rock, have been the life of Massachusetts. Let me briefly unfold the lesson; though to the discerning soul it unfolds itself.

Few persons in history have suffered more from contemporary misrepresentation, abuse, and persecution, than the English Puritans. At first a small body, they were regarded with indifference and contempt. But by degrees they grew in numbers, and drew into their company men of education, intelligence, and even of rank. Reformers in all ages have had little of blessing from the world which they sought to serve; but the Puritans were not disheartened. Still they persevered. The obnoxious laws of conformity they vowed to withstand till, in the fervid language of the time, “they be sent back to the darkness from whence they came.” Through them the spirit of modern Freedom made itself potently felt, in its great warfare with Authority, in Church, in Literature, and in the State; in other words, for religious, intellectual, and political emancipation. The Puritans primarily aimed at religious Freedom; for this they contended in Parliament, under Elizabeth and James; for this they suffered; but so connected are all these great and glorious interests, that the struggles for one have always helped the others. Such service did they do, that Hume, whose cold nature sympathized little with their burning souls, is obliged to confess that to them alone “the English owe the whole Freedom of their constitution.”

As among all reformers, so among them were differences of degree. Some continued within the pale of the National Church, and there pressed their ineffectual attempts in behalf of the good cause. Some at length, driven by conscientious convictions and unwilling to be partakers longer in its enormities, stung also by the cruel excesses of magisterial power, openly disclaimed the National Establishment and became a separate sect, first under the name of Brownists, from the person who had led in this new organization, and then under the better name of Separatists. I like this word, sir. It has a meaning. After long struggles in Parliament and out of it, in Church and State, continued through successive reigns, the Puritans finally triumphed, and the despised sect of Separatists, swollen in numbers, and now under the denomination of Independents, with Oliver Cromwell at their head and John Milton as his secretary, ruled England. Thus is prefigured the final triumph of all, however few in numbers, who sincerely devote themselves to Truth.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth were among the earliest of the Separatists. As such, they knew by bitter experience all the sharpness of persecution. Against them the men in power raged like the heathen. Against them the whole fury of the law was directed. Some were imprisoned; all were impoverished, while their name became a by-word of reproach. For safety and freedom the little band first sought shelter in Holland, where they continued in indigence and obscurity for more than ten years, when they were inspired to seek a home in this unknown Western world. Such in brief is their history. I could not say more of it without intruding upon your time; I could not say less without injustice to them.

Rarely have austere principles been expressed with more gentleness than from their lips. By a covenant with the Lord, they had vowed to walk in all his ways, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them,– and also to receive whatsoever truth should be made known from the written word of God. Repentance and prayers, patience and tears, were their weapons. “It is not with us,” said they, “as with other men, whom small things can discourage or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again.” And then, again, on another occasion, their souls were lifted to utterance like this: “When we are in our graves it will be all one, whether we have lived in plenty or penury, whether we have died in a bed of down or on locks of straw.” Self-sacrifice is never in vain, and they foresaw, with the clearness of prophecy, that out of their trials should come a transcendent Future. “As one small candle,” said an early Pilgrim Governor, “may light a thousand, so the light kindled here may in some sort shine even to the whole nation.”

And yet these men, with such sublime endurance and such lofty faith, are among those who are sometimes called “Puritan knaves” and “knaves-Puritan” and who were branded by King James as the “very pests in the Church and Commonwealth.” The small company of our forefathers became the jest and gibe or fashion and power. The phrase “men of one idea” had not been invented then; but, in equivalent language, they were styled “the pinched fanatics of Leyden.” A contemporary poet and favorite of Charles the First, Thomas Carew, lent his genius to their defamation. A masque, from his elegant and careful pen, was performed by the monarch and his courtiers, wherein the whole plantation of New England was turned to royal sport. The jeer broke forth in the exclamation, that it had “purged more virulent humors from the politic bodies than guaiacum and all the West Indian drugs from the natural bodies of the kingdom.”

And these outcasts, despised in their own day by the proud and the great, are the men whom we have met in this goodly number to celebrate; not for any victory of war; not for any triumph of discovery, science, learning, or eloquence; not for worldly success of any kind. How poor are all these things by the side of that divine virtue which made them, amidst the reproach, the obloquy, and the hardness of the world, hold fast to Freedom and Truth! Sir, if the honors of this day are not a mockery; if they do not expend themselves in mere selfish gratulation; if they are a sincere homage to the character of the Pilgrims,–and I cannot suppose otherwise,–then it is well for us to be here. Standing on Plymouth Rock, at their great anniversary, we cannot fail to be elevated be their example. We see clearly what it has done for the world and what it has done for their fame. No pusillanimous soul here to-day will declare their self-sacrifice, their deviation from received opinions, their unquenchable thirst for liberty, an error or illusion. From gushing multitudinous hearts we now thank these lowly men that they dared to be true and brave. Conformity or compromise might, perhaps, have purchased for them a profitable peace, but not peace of mind; it might have secured place and power, but not repose; it might have opened a present shelter, but not a home in history and in men’s hearts till time shall be no more. All will confess the true grandeur of their example, while, in vindication of a cherished principle, they stood alone, against the madness of men, against the law of the land, against their king. Better be the despised Pilgrim, a fugitive for freedom, than the halting politician, forgetful of principle, “with a Senate at his heels.”

Such, sir, is the voice from Plymouth Rock, as it salutes my ears. Others may not hear it. But to me it comes in tones which I cannot mistake. I catch its words of noble cheer:–

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth:
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea.”

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