Four hundred years ago today the Mayflower left England for America, carrying the “Pilgrims” who founded Plymouth Plantation. A century ago this anniversary was a huge deal; now it’s…complicated (thread)
The idea of Plymouth (and New England) as the origin of everything great about the United States has a long history: in the post-Revolutionary era, orators and historians (esp in New England) liked to present the Pilgrims as the pioneers of American independence
They also followed the settlers themselves in seeing Native Americans as either loyal (in the case of Tisquantum/’Squanto’) or (mostly) devilish, rehashing the claim that divine providence cleared away Native people to make room for whites (image from William Bradford’s journal)
Then in the nineteenth century Northerners used the Mayflower to distance the North from southern slavery — here’s Daniel Webster, in his celebrated 1820 oration marking the bicentennial of the Mayflower’s arrival, using Plymouth Rock as an altar of freedom
[This despite the fact that slavery was ubiquitous in seventeenth-century New England; see Wendy Warren’s book New England Bound]
A couple of decades later the Massachusetts politician Robert Winthrop (yes, one of those Winthrops) actually contrasted the slave ship that arrived in Virginia in 1619 with the Mayflower - again, trying to use the Pilgrims to launder American history
At the heart of these visions — which were studiedly antislavery for the most part — was a desire to remove both slavery and Black people from the American past and future. The Mayflower was a vision of a racially pure United States
The same was true when the tercentenary came around in 1920: by then, as John Seelye writes in his fascinating book Memory’s Nation, Plymouth Rock had become an “icon of race purity” in a moment of white fragility about immigration
The celebrations on either side of the Atlantic in 1920 were fascinating. The US and Britain were still reeling from World War I & the ‘flu pandemic; but there were huge events in Britain on September 16 to mark the Mayflower’s departure plus tons of newspaper coverage
Much of this was suffused with ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ - the late 19th/early 20th century idea that an English-speaking whiteness now held forth over the less fortunate peoples of the world. This connection flattered Britain as its imperial powers began to fade
The highlight of the British celebrations was a huge party at the Royal Albert Hall, one of London’s biggest venues, where the prime minister David Lloyd George was due to speak.
But then the PM couldn’t make it and had to send a bombastic message instead. In his absence one of the other speakers deployed Anglo-Saxonism to promote the new League of Nations - which had been partly the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson, but recently defeated in the U.S. Senate
What’s ironic about this is that when the celebrations of the Mayflower’s arrival took place on the American side in December 1820, the orator of the day was…Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson’s nemesis and the senator who killed US involvement in the League
His oration on the tercentenary of the Pilgrims was crabbed and fogeyish — you can imagine him writing to the Times to complain about the #1619Project. No one believed in progress any more, he complained; cynics like HL Mencken had trashed the reputation of the Puritans
The forces of reaction were hardly on the defensive in America: the Klan and Jim Crow were in the ascendancy; the Immigration Act of 1924 would curtail the migrations of the nineteenth/early 20th and console the racial anxieties of many white Americans
In his Plymouth oration Lodge insisted that the Mayflower really was the best of the United States; but he faintly realised that American history was already fracturing - that the idea of the Mayflower as the wellspring of Americanness wouldn’t hold together
The idea of the Mayflower as one colonial settlement among many has become more widely recognised in the US in recent decades, as #VastEarlyAmerica indicates; though the old origin myths die hard. The 1619 Project was in conversation with 1620 as well as 1776
For Britons, though, the eclipse of the Mayflower is more complete: the twentieth century offered a slow retreat of empire; and, for at least some of us, a creeping realisation that the United States would become a superpower without British tutelage or even influence
Even without Covid, here in the UK the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure would have been…complicated; here’s the official website, which confirms that most of the events have been cancelled
The contrast with 1920 is huge: Back then we had weeks of celebrations, the King and the Prime Minister sending messages to packed gatherings in London & Plymouth, and a mini-Olympics in which the US and UK faced off against each other in a sweaty mist of Anglo-Saxonism
In 2020 we’ve got disgraced US ambassador Woody Johnson travelling to Plymouth to launch a robot ship (which won’t be actually be ready to sail to Massachusetts until 2021)…
A silver lining: Britain's most villainous contemporary Anglo-Saxonist has been too busy with his own memory crusade to spend any time on the Mayflower.../
And a write-up of today's muted ceremonies in Plymouth…

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More from @NicholasGuyatt

7 Aug
Have been trying to stay out of the Sean Wilentz/Tom Cotton debate about the supposedly antislavery potential of the Constitution, but a ton of people have emailed me this week so (deep breath) here are some thoughts on Wilentz's piece in @NYRDaily.…
Wilentz is queasy after Tom Cotton claimed him as an ally in the fight against the #1619Project and “radical historical revisionism” which seeks to argue that America was “founded on racism.”…
You can see why Cotton would think Wilentz was a fellow traveller. Cotton insists that America was founded “on the natural equality of mankind and the freedom that flows from that”; SW argues that the Constitution “contained powerful antislavery potential.”
Read 28 tweets
29 Jul
It's dumb to be surprised by anything these days, but the fact that the Washington Post thinks whiteness is a "distinct cultural identity in the United States" means that one of the most important newspapers in America has embraced the logic of Richard Spencer & other neo-Nazis.
Just to be clear - even the Washington Post journo who tweeted out the change to the style guide then conflated "distinct cultural identity" with "an ethnic group," which doesn't fill me with confidence that they've thought this through.
Blackness and whiteness in America are, in historical terms, an oppressive duality based on a dichotomy which doesn't even work visually, let alone scientifically; but Black identities have followed a totally different trajectory to white ones.
Read 21 tweets
17 Jul
Not going to link to it but the Daily Mail’s second attack in a month on one of the BBC’s most prominent young Black journalists ought to be a wake-up call for those within and beyond the BBC who don’t realise the peril we’re in right now. (Thread)
The story comes from Guido Fawkes, a far-right website which has debased our media even further and which regularly offers dog-whistles (and worse) to its readers - check the comments on pretty much any story and marvel at the fact that those are the _moderated_ replies.
Guido is a leading supporter of #DefundTheBBC, a real and growing phenomenon - it’s gone from the fringes of far-right discourse to the centre of the Conservative Party and ‘mainstream’ right-wing media. It’s rooted in the idea that the BBC has a hopeless left-wing bias.
Read 16 tweets
28 Jun
I read Michael Gove’s big FDR speech so you don’t have to. TL;DR - I think FDR would sue. (Thread)
The speech has Gove’s customary grandiloquence and rhetorical excess. The framing device is that the crisis we face is of 1930s proportions, and this means government needs to get radical.
I guess he’s picked FDR, whose New Deal is usually seen as the high-water moment of government interventionism in US history, to show that he’s a visionary not an ideologue: these Tories will take ideas from anywhere as long as they work, etc.
Read 30 tweets
25 Jun
A thread on the outrage (and worse) directed against my colleague Priya Gopal yesterday.
First, the context: during a football match on Monday in which the players agreed to take the knee, local ‘fans’ hired a plane to fly a banner over the ground saying “WHITE LIVES MATTER”.…
This was widely condemned by the footballers themselves, which in turn seems to have triggered those who thought it was a good idea in the first place to hijack a Black Lives Matter tribute by demanding respect for white lives.…
Read 28 tweets
20 May
Wow, this story about Cambridge moving lectures online for next year really blew up, didn’t it? A thread on what it means and what it doesn’t.⬇️…
Disclaimer 1: I teach at Cambridge but am nowhere near the University’s elite squad of contingency planners (yes, it is actually called Gold Team) so these views are personal and lightly informed.
Disclaimer 2: ‘Cambridge’ isn’t a single entity. It's more like a monster with dozens of tentacles; or three dozen monsters who share an enthusiasm for education & fortified wine. Important to remember esp. given role of colleges in planning for 20-21.
Read 22 tweets

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