“We have come to this Rock, to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty, which they encountered the dangers of the ocean (to establish) …
Advance, then, ye future generations! We would hail you, as you rise in your long succession, to fill the places which we now fill, and to taste the blessings of existence where we are passing. … We bid you welcome (and) we greet your accession to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed.”
– Daniel Webster, “The First Scene of Our History” Oration at Plymouth Rock, 1820
We are at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. For many of us, this weekend – and especially Thanksgiving Day – involved family traditions, such as announcing specific reasons for thankfulness while at the dinner table, before proceeding to the meal and the football games. Not only does such a tradition help convey the meaning of Thanksgiving, it also provides cohesion for family members.
Similar to our families, our nation also needs the power of tradition to encourage our cohesion in these difficult days. In other words, we need to be reminded from time to time about our common history and our common good. The great 19th-century American orator Daniel Webster recognized this truth with his oration at Plymouth Rock to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the Pilgrim landing.
In this powerful two-hour speech delivered at Plymouth Rock, Webster situates his remarks within the historical chain of past, present and future Americans rather than simply and more narrowly focusing on only the “generation of the living.” Webster extends his heartfelt thanks to the Pilgrims for what they have bequeathed to his generation as he anticipates future generations – such as our own –inheriting a nation with tremendous potential for the good.
In 1920, one century after Webster’s oration, President Warren Harding, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and others delivered tributes once again to the Pilgrim landing. Lodge was well-qualified to speak at the ceremony. With a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, Lodge spoke about how the humble and, yes, imperfect settlement at Plymouth Rock would evolve and become profoundly consequential as a nation in world history – especially in contributing to the victory of the allied powers in the war recently concluded. In other words, Lodge took this important occasion to remind Americans about our common history and our common good.
Once again in 2020, and only three years from now, most of us will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. My hope now and at that time will be that we refrain from assuming a sense of 21st-century moral superiority. Rather, may we as a nation embrace our past and embrace the words of Webster, Lodge and others as we remember and value our common history and our common good.