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THE MAYFLOWER’S LESSONS FOR TODAY’S WASHINGTON

November 30, 2010

The Mayflower Compact, the first in our American history overarching political differences is in severe contrast to our Washington leaders who cannot seem to do so at a time when our nation is at a crossroads.  Instead of forging ahead to make compromises for the sake of the nation, America’s political leaders appear to be more interested in scoring partisan victories against their political rivals.

Even before landing at Plymouth Cove in 1620, the Pilgrims — yeoman, artisans, farmers and laborers — all common folk and many riddled with disease, signed the Mayflower Compact on a rocking 180-ton ship.  The signature process had been rocky, as well; sounds just like Capitol Hill today. 

On board the Mayflower, there were two factions: the larger consisting of radical separatists from the Anglican Church, which they thought was becoming too Catholic.  The other, of different persuasion and motivation, included the ship’s captain and crew.  This row was not so much over theology, but a multitude of concerns (including even the beer supply).  Amidst this arguing, someone looking at the wild land ahead supposedly said, “If we don’t all stand together, we’re all wolf’s chow anyway.”  The Compact was our first historical achievement of rising above factions to find common ground.  Now we ask, what about a compact for the next two years between Capitol Hill and the White House? Are the Pilgrims that much wiser than us?

By the first spring, half had perished. Yet, come the autumn, believe it or not, these Pilgrims were deeply thankful.  As much as we enjoy our Thanksgiving bounty, the Pilgrims enjoyed a cornucopia of squash, corn, peas, wild duck, and geese. 

In 1630, the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a far grander affair.  John Winthrop’s armada of seventeen ships brought to America merchants and landed gentry.  Compared to the communal mentality of the lower-class Pilgrims, Winthrop’s companions were of an individualist spirit and commercial savvy.  Winthrop’s ringing sermon on board the Arabella made him the first great American orator: “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of the people are upon us.” 

President Jack Kennedy would echo these words. President Ronald Reagan would touch it up a bit as a “shining city on a hill.”  The flourish was likely contributed by Peggy Noonan’s melodious tweaking of King James’s Gospel of Matthew.

I worked for one President of the United States, brilliant in some ways, who so unwittingly condemned himself to failure and disgrace by covering up an illegal act that he himself did not even initiate.  So great was his penchant for secrecy.  But there was another quite different President I worked even more intimately with during his White House crisis: Iran-Contra. This president got into a hole, but got out because he saw “the shining city upon the hill.”  He then began the waltz with Gorbachev that ended the Cold War without firing a shot – one of the greatest achievements of our age.

As we enjoyed this 2010 Thanksgiving holiday, we’re not fully out of the recession and many remain unemployed.  We live with many misfortunes: those fighting cancer or prolonged terminal illness, or recovering from natural disasters.  The Pilgrims too were not Pollyannas, for they endured after 50% died. 

The Pilgrims endured because they were able to forge great compromises.  The arduous journey and the need to survive in the American wilderness forced the Pilgrims to look past political and religious differences.  The Plymouth Colony, unlike other such settlements, worked with the Native Americans to ensure their survival.  As Nathaniel Filbrick brilliantly points out in his book Mayflower, “Placing their faith in God, the Pilgrims might have insisted on a policy of arrogant isolationism.  But by becoming an active part of the diplomatic process in southern New England – they had taken charge of their own destiny in the region.”

Now our nation faces the challenge of overcoming political deadlock to avoid a future of slow economic growth, a bankrupt government, and a loss international prestige and influence.  The future rests on the shoulders of six leaders: the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Senate Minority Leader.  Much as on the decks of the Mayflower, it is the ability of these individuals to look beyond party and faction that will determine whether or not this nation, that city on a hill, will endure.

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