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Plymouth 'rock' or 'putty'?

By David Shi / November 25, 1998



MEMORY'S NATION: THE PLACE OF PLYMOUTH ROCK

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By John Seelye

University of North Carolina Press

704 pp., $39.95

A mythic sense of purpose has long animated the American experience. From the Colonial period to the present, powerful icons such as the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty have helped consecrate national ideals and institutions.

In "Memory's Nation: the Place of Plymouth Rock," John Seelye analyzes how Americans over two centuries have revised the meaning of their oldest national monument. Seelye, a distinguished professor of American literature at the University of Florida, is ideally suited to explore the ironic history of Plymouth Rock in the American imagination.

He begins by disclosing an awkward fact: The Pilgrims themselves never attached any significance to Plymouth Rock. The myth of the rock first emerged not in 1620, when the hardy Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, but over 150 years later, during the turbulent months leading up to the American Revolution.

In 1774, Plymouth patriots decided to move the lonely boulder from the beach to the courthouse and place it next to the liberty pole they had erected to protest British tyranny. In the process of using 30 oxen to move the rock, however, it was accidentally broken into two pieces. The rebels decided to leave the lower half in place and interpreted the accident as an omen foretelling the division of the British empire.

With scholarly patience, Seelye details the ways in which New England politicians, ministers, and moralists sustained and manipulated the myth of Plymouth Rock in scores of sermons, toasts, political speeches, plays, paintings, and histories.

During the 19th century, prominent New Englanders used the iconic power of Plymouth Rock to symbolize diverse values such as rugged individualism, religious liberty, social pluralism, communitarian democracy, and territorial expansion.

Plymouth Rock was most often used to symbolize New England's contribution of rugged independence and pious devotion to the foundations of American culture. A speech by Massachusetts Sen. George Frisbie Hoar in 1895, the 275th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing, echoed claims made by many others: "When religious liberty set her foot on the rock at Plymouth, her inseparable sister, political freedom, came with her."

During the 1890s and after, however, the manipulation of Plymouth Rock's meaning took an ugly turn. Henry Cabot Lodge and others eager to promote American expansionism abroad portrayed the Pilgrims as people determined to conquer a continent and establish an empire.

Lodge was also concerned about the flood of new immigrants coming to America from alien lands such as Eastern and Southern Europe, and he tried to transform the symbolic power of the rock into an icon of exclusion.

Seelye's survey of the multiple meanings of Plymouth Rock is stippled with keen insights and wry ironies that make for fascinating reading. Equally enlightening is his account of Plymouth Rock's evolution as a shrine and tourist attraction.

In 1880, the top half of the rock, weighing some 7,000 pounds, was reattached to its base and moved back to the wharf, where the date 1620 was incised into the surface. An elegant stone canopy was added. Yet many of the millions of pilgrims who have visited the shrine over the years have been disappointed. The actual stone seems too small to carry so much mythical meaning. Said one recent visitor: "I've turned over bigger rocks than this mowing grass."

How could such a modest boulder carry such profound symbolism?

Seelye's answer is compelling: "What is important about the Rock has nothing finally to do with its dimensions ... but is entirely a matter of the way in which it has served generations of its celebrants as a symbol of arrival."

While comprehensive, his account of Plymouth Rock's powerful symbolism fails to mention those Americans who have felt no affinity with its heritage. As Malcolm X once declared, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on us."

Today, Plymouth Rock receives little attention outside its native region. "As a political image," Seelye acknowledges, "the Rock today is as dead as the proverbial stone." Plymouth Rock was long ago displaced by the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell as the nation's foremost symbols of freedom.

Likewise, the Thanksgiving holiday has supplanted the beloved boulder as our primary Pilgrim icon and occasion for annual celebration. Yet as a complex idea and an elastic ideal, Plymouth Rock endures in Seelye's telling as a symbol of New England's fluctuating stature and concerns.

As "Memory's Nation" reveals, monuments are more than physical markers; they are also repositories of cultural memories and desires.

* David Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.