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The key to American Exceptionalism

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”

Andrew Carnegie refined the quote more recently when he said, “Anything worth having is worth working for.”

The really cool part about both of those quotes isn’t the deeply rooted truth in both of them, but the fact that in both cases, the onus is put upon the audience. The invisible ending to both quotes is, “So, what you are going to do about it?”

* * *

It’s been a little more than 20 years now, but I can still vividly remember the day the high school history teacher paused our government teacher’s lecture on political parties to ask what then seemed like a very odd question: “Why is America great?”

To understand the full context of my answer at the time, you have to realize we were in the midst of the first Gulf War, and patriotism was at an all-time high that would only be surpassed by the days following 9-11. If you didn’t tear up upon hearing the opening stanza of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” well … that was just un-American.

So, I rolled out my best, most “Reaganesque” answer: “America is the greatest nation on earth because we are the beacon of freedom for all the world to see, shining the light of liberty to show the way for the rest of the world.”

I believed then, as I believe now, that these United States of America are exceptional in all the world because of who and what we are. Sure, the past few years have been difficult to bear some days. But, as has been the case almost since the inception of our Great American Experiment, a bad day in America is still better than most good days anywhere else.

I didn’t know at the time the history teacher’s question was a veiled opportunity to interview me directly for the American Legion School Award. Each year, a committee selects one boy and one girl from each high school class to receive the award.

You may only be awarded the medallion once in your high school career.

I doubt my answer to the question had as much to do with me winning the award, which still sits on a shelf in my office, as did my performance in the Citizen Bee state competition a few weeks later. But as I was thinking about our nation’s current condition, I suddenly found myself going back to that day.

I think I sort of missed the boat. The Shining City on the Hill is the American ideal, espoused most recently by Ronald Reagan throughout his political career, but originally authored by John Winthrop, one of the original Mayflower pilgrims of 1620.

Yes, American exceptionalism is a deeply rooted concept on our continent. But, that’s not what makes America great. To find that answer, though, the story of Mayflower is certainly an appropriate place to begin.

* * *

Mayflower left Plymouth, England, Sept. 6, 1620, for a two-month trip across the Atlantic Ocean with plans to settle near present-day New York City. The small boat harbored 102 men, women and children, many of whom were Puritans seeking religious freedom afforded in the New World.

Aside from the occasional case of seasickness, the first month of the trip went relatively well. The second half of the trip, however, was a true test of any human being’s character. The Atlantic’s stormy season had just begun, nearly destroying Mayflower in the process.

As a result of the cold, damp and cramped quarters aboard the ship, illness soon spread throughout the passengers. Amazingly, only one of the children died, just three days before land was sighted. Rations aboard Mayflower consisted primarily of fish, hard biscuits, salt pork and dried meats, pickled foods and cereal grains.

As was always the case in that era, there was “water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” even in the shipboard stores. The Pilgrims were correct in their early assessment that shipboard water was often contaminated, leading to illness. So, the primary beverage for everyone aboard Mayflower was alcoholic in nature.

When land was finally sighted, the crew determined they had drifted significantly off course, mainly as a result of the ship’s damage and the Atlantic storms that caused it. An effort was made to turn south toward the intended destination, but that nearly resulted in Mayflower sinking in treacherous seas. Terrified by the ordeal, the crew and passengers all agreed Cape Cod would be “good enough.”

The Pilgrims did not bring any large livestock animals with them on the Mayflower. In fact, the first cattle arrived at Plymouth on the ship Anne in 1623, and more arrived on the ship Jacob in 1624. So, the Pilgrims knew when they were going to settle down at Plymouth Colony, they would have to quickly learn about the indigenous food options.

But despite a lack of long-term sustenance aboard ship, the first order of business was to find juniper wood in the hopes of ridding Mayflower of her rancid smell. The second order of business was to seek out a suitable place to build the new colony — no small feet, considering the swampy conditions in around what would become the Plymouth Colony.

It took more than a month to find a suitable location, and by the time winter set in, only a couple of buildings had been erected. Each family was responsible for building their own house, as well as supplying labor to build community storehouses, a defensive fort, and sheds. But without the time, good weather, and enough manpower to quickly build a house, many of the Pilgrims continued to live onboard Mayflower throughout the winter.

Eventually, each household had its own garden, as well as a field plot just outside of the town to grow corn, beans, peas, wheat, and other crops that required more space to grow, as well as to raise larger livestock. Horses and oxen did not begin to arrive until more than a decade after the colony’s establishment, which meant much of the work in Plymouth Colony was manual in the crudest form.

There was plenty to eat. The bay was full of fish, clams, mussels and other shellfish and lobster, but the colonists were poorly equipped for fishing. They also brought seeds along, but they were seeds for English gardening and row cropping, not necessarily made for planting on Cape Cod.

Getting through the first few months was a challenge, to say the least. But, if Plymouth Colony was to survive, it needed a significant helping hand.

Enter Tisquantum, otherwise known as “Squanto.”

A member of the indigenous Wampanoag confederation of tribes, Squanto had been taken into slavery by one of the English captains who had explored Cape Cod with John Smith (yes, “Pocahontas” fans, that John Smith) a few years earlier. Squanto was taken to Malaga, Spain, where he was to be sold into slavery, but was instead rescued by some local friars.

They then took him to another English captain who returned him to Cape Cod about two years before Mayflower’s arrival.

Modern day history books teach our kids that Squanto was a “really nice guy” who helped the Pilgrims get through their first full year, teaching them Wampanoag techniques for planting and growing corn. And that may have been true in the early days of the relationship between the English and the natives.

And, for his part, Squanto had a reputation as an excellent negotiator as the go-between for the English and native people. But, he also had a darker side. Knowing firsthand the natives’ fear of the English, their guns and their technology, he leveraged it for his own gain by demanding tributes in exchange for protection from the English.

Eventually, he went too far, convincing the Pilgrims that some of the tribes within the Wampanoag Confederation were conspiring against the English. When Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, learned of Squanto’s treachery, he demanded the Pilgrims turn him over so that he may be put to death for his crimes.

The peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the natives, which Squanto helped negotiate, clearly obligated the colonists to comply. But, Gov. William Bradford had another pressing issue to contend with. A ship had come upon the horizon, and not knowing if it was a French (enemy) warship, he refused to turn Squanto over until he knew the identity of the ship.

That’s a lot of adversity to work through, particularly when nearly 2,800 miles away from “home.” There was no turning back, though, which probably provided a stern incentive for the colonists. It truly was a “life or death” situation at Plymouth Colony — one that didn’t always end well for the colonists, if Jamestown was any indication.

But the Pilgrims fought for what they wanted; they worked for it. Much the same way their progeny would fight for and work tirelessly for a free and independent nation a little more than a century and a half later.

America may not be shining the light as brightly as it once did, but it is still that shining city on the hill our forefathers envisioned. But it’s the greatest nation on earth because there are still people out there who believe it’s something worth working — or fighting — for.