Reflections on the Pastoral Ideal at America’s First Founding
While my family and I gathered for our big Thanksgiving feast, with Macy’s parade in the background, and lots of southern-style tea and pie, my American-loving friends in England gathered in a stone house and celebrated in their quieter way. I could not help thinking that they, and not I, were closer to the Pilgrims.
As America has just turned the corner on the 400th anniversary of its first Thanksgiving, I am struck by how far the American imagination has drifted from its English origins. It was not just that the Pilgrims who came to our shores were too poor to afford the glitz and glamor of a contemporary popular culture which passes as truly “American” today, but rather that the Pilgrims came to America to establish an agrarian and even pastoral existence which would be purified of Europe’s mercantilism. Their more localized view of property ownership and subsidiarity flies in the face of both modern consumeristic trends and socialistic humanitarianism.
Bringing the Pastoral Ideal to the New World
Only two primary accounts survive of the first Thanksgiving, that of William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation and a letter left by Edward Winslow. Neither account records the original date of the feast, but both give us insight into what the Pilgrims saw as material blessing. Winslow described it thus:
Our corn did prove well, and God be praised… our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together… at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians coming amongst us… Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the Plantation.
Winslow’s was a “vine and fig tree” vision of wealth, one of pastures of plenty and barns garnered with harvest store. In the wildernesses of America, the pleasures of the hunt and the pleasures of the field might forever be intertwined among a new yeomanry. Bradford’s account is full of similar descriptions and crescendos of praise. He hoped his descendants would say, “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice.” Bradford believed that a prosperous and free yeomanry would spring up in America, like to that of the England which he had left, only one of more conscious Christian faith. In this distinctive Old Testament understanding of Divine Providence, the Pilgrims hoped for a new promised land of covenantal faithfulness and household independence. The pleasures of home and hearth, hearty hospitality, and prayerful reflection were to be the traits of their New England.
This is why they had decided not to make Holland, the nation of trade and urbanization, their permanent home, but instead chose the “vast and unpeopled countries in America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation.” The over-developed world baffled the Pilgrims more than the under-developed world of nature. As Bradford explained, “Being now come to the Low Countries [the Netherlands], they saw many goodly and fortified cities… strange fashions and attires; all so far differing from that of their plain country villages…”
Like many now put out of work by COVID, the Pilgrims could not make the adjustment into a modern economy and found that they were sinking further into poverty. Bradford wrote, “Some preferred and chose the prisons of England, rather than the liberties of Holland.” A commercialized popular culture was not their vision for America. They preferred wilderness to urbanization. Theirs was the family altar, rich or poor. Neighborly affection rather than national stimulus would be their safeguard against the storms of the new world.
Reflecting on the Pastoral Ideal
Yet, just two hundred years after the Pilgrims founded an American settlement, American author Washington Irving believed that the hearty old customs of rural life were passing from modern life. “The world was more home-bred, social, and joyous than at present,” he reflected in his Sketch-Book. Americans were no longer interested in the pleasures of the plow and hunt. They craved excitement. “There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream… it has lost many of its strong local peculiarities, its homebred feelings, its honest fireside delights.” Interestingly enough, Irving went back to England to find the lingerings of rural customs which he believed were fading from the American scene.
There in England, Irving rediscovered Christmas as the most important pastoral tradition of the old world, and incidentally passed it on to Dickens, who established the contemporary nostalgic understanding of it. In his “Old Christmas” sketch, Irving represents Christ as the ruddy glow of yuletide, bringing with Him peace and good-will, conviviality, and “a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment.” Irving explained that both yuletide and family were essential characteristics of Christmas, stating, “this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections… once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections.” His vision for Christmas has remained an ideal, but the age-old battle against commercialism begs the question as to whether he was right in his hopes. Is Christmas still a festival or is it a commercial event?
After another two hundred years, the pastoral vision of America left behind by our ancestors fades still more. In an age when we stare at the screen more than on the hearth, we find it harder and harder to imagine the world which our Pilgrim ancestors hoped for in America: one of rural property, fruitful labor, restful repose, and undistracted domestic enjoyment. The change began in the nineteenth century, when property and land were re-envisioned as national capital rather than as local resources for a godly posterity.
The Loss of the Ideal
The first half of America’s national history faired much better for the agrarian ideal than has the second half. After the election of 1800, Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans dismantled Hamiltonian Federalism with its emphasis on national banks, subsidies, and enterprising manufacturers in Eastern cities, and instead positioned American financial interests towards western lands. Jefferson chartered Lewis and Clark to explore the west and helped drive the prices of land in the Northwest Territory and in Kentucky and Tennessee down to within the reach of the average household. This lessened the impact of land speculators and increased the number of homesteads across the Northwest and upper South. During the 1830s, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay dismantled the second national bank, cut federal spending, and lessened tariffs.
Most Americans favored moving west and setting up homesteads to staying inside the wage-labor system in the east. After 30 years of hard work, crop prices were such that the average American farmer could enjoy a prosperous farm with a good orchard in their latter years. Historian Danial Walker Howe in What Hath God Wrought has argued that farmers and local skilled laborers established this rural way of life in the Midwest. As numerous prints from the era demonstrate, cidering, barn-building, corn-husking, and fiddle playing were American pastimes all across the western frontier. The American population continued to be largely rural until the 1920s, after the forging of American industry.
Still, it was only an agrarian vision and not a pastoral one which gained prominence among American households. Historians Gordon Wood and Sean Wilenz have chronicled the contested political grounds for “internal improvements” which birthed the modern party system. Canals snaked through the American interior, bringing indiscriminate waves of settlers with no communal connection between them. Revivalism and abolition fractured Protestant Christians. New small towns sprang up, but with no religious, communal, or ethnic solidarity. Hunting lands shrank exponentially with the growth of American farming. New inventions like John Deere’s steel-tipped plow, McCormick’s reaper, and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin forever tipped the scales towards farming and slavery and dismantled the fur-trading cultures which had dotted the entire Northwest and upper South.
Thus the American economy was ripe for the industrialization of agriculture, which became possible during the railroad era. Railroads quickly swept up the freight from American farmers, pushed mining and agriculture further west, and monopolized the cattle industry. Boom cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis became great centralizing forces of American natural resources. Loggers cut down all the great forests of Michigan’s lower peninsula and sent the timber to big cities, while coal became a more lucrative commodity in the Midwest, employing more and more farmers who could no longer afford to be financially independent on seventy to one hundred acres of farmland. Steel, textiles, oil, and other subsidized industries built new cities and brought more employees to urban centers. New immigrants were financially forced into these industries, as small farms were less and less financially stable operations.
Nevertheless, American small towns managed to hold onto retail, local ownership, and seasonal lifestyles well into the twentieth century, where the drug-store soda-fountain, old fashioned cracker-barrel, and barbershop remained more influential in the lives of many Americans than the radio and cinemas. Yet the allure of popular culture was growing. Soon, Americans did not bother to distinguish between the main-branding advertisements of their products and the local retailers who provided them. With television and finally Broadband Internet, popular culture was piped continually into the home, forever dismantling the rural imagination from within. School consolidation in the 1950s forever ended the one-room schoolhouse tradition and stripped townships of the responsibility of bringing up America’s children. Although America’s most successful entrepreneurial projects had begun in a barn with bailing wire, like Ford’s automobile or the Wright brothers’ airplane, they soon grew into massive industries with hundreds of thousands of workers. Big business and big labor represented two equally divisive forces in American political history. America drifted ever further from the rural ideal of household independence.
Our global supply chains put us in contact with a larger array of goods, but they have negatively impacted local production and retail. Social media compels us to become members of the global village without respect to our local circumstances. The growth of white collar work has made work easier, but it has also centralized the population within urban centers in which progressives have more easily shifted the political terrain. As the 2016 and 2020 election results show, the rural and urban divide has reached a climax, and the suburbs represent America’s swing-votes. Our churches have followed the rural/urban divide. Suburban churches and urban mega-churches have consolidated worshipers around popular culture and “worship music.” Contemporary Evangelical worship has become secular, psychological, and entertainment driven. The rise of “Internet churches” in the wake of COVID has only aggravated the problem.
Recovery of the Pastoral Ideal
It is high time we scour our counties again and bring back some measure of domestic work, faith, and enjoyment. The work must begin locally and it must include a taste for the fundamental simplicities of life. Let us return to our small country churches which we have deserted and left rotting across rural America, and there content ourselves with hymns and Psalms like our Christian ancestors. Let us recover our local schools and family education with equal determination and bring back the moral imagination of the Anglo-American literary tradition found inside the Mcguffey’s readers.
Let us root ourselves into a place, recover the delights of seasonal work, and fill our homes with the sights and smells of a lively countryside. Then let us be thankful for our armchairs, fireside delights, and our family and friends, rather than our noisy entertainments and our bossy politics of power and wealth. Perhaps then we may be able to say with our Pilgrim ancestors, “And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let his holy name have the praise for ever, to all posterity.”
*Image Credit: Wunderstock
E. Wesley Reynolds, III is the Director of the Wilbur Fellows Program at the Russell Kirk Center. He also teaches at Northwood University and has previously worked in public policy with the Mackinac Center. Reynolds is the author of Coffeehouse Culture in the Atlantic World, 1650-1789 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), as well as other articles and reviews.