Four hundred years ago this month, a group of courageous Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic on a ship seasoned from years of service in the English Channel to arrive in America. Their ship was the Mayflower. On it, it bore a people with characteristics — bold, daring, foolish, devout — essential to the founding of a new nation that would become the envy of the world.
The 1620 Project is about understanding how all these characteristics are essential to understanding the American founding, and how they provided the basis for so much of what makes this nation great. It features the writings of prominent intellectuals, academics, and historians on the importance of 1620 to our understanding of who we were and who we are.
First, a word on what this project is not. It is not intended to serve primarily as a direct refutation of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, or of its award-winning and controversial creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, because both are self-refuting. When you assemble an entire project around the idea that preserving slavery was the primary motivation for the American Revolution, and around the audacious claim that “our true founding is 1619 not 1776,” then subsequently retract or eliminate both claims while pretending they were never made, there is little more to be done to build on such a gigantic acknowledgment of error.
Nor does this project claim, as Hannah-Jones did, that 1620 represents the true American founding. That date is 1776, and there should be no historical dispute about it. The ideas assembled in that singular year were of such a unique combination and importance in human history, it would be playing contrarian games to insist otherwise.
Instead, what this project proposes is that we ought to appreciate the truth about 1620 amidst a time of constant historical revisionism: that it represents not just a convenient myth about the nation, but something that was essential to our founding.
We find that in the risk-taking character in the people who crossed the dark waves of the Atlantic, mindful of all the courage it would take to navigate a new world filled with enormous potential for disease and death. We find it in their deeply held religious beliefs, rejecting the hierarchy of the European church and its rules and restrictions contrary to Scripture in favor of a world where you need not go through another to come before God and worship. And we find it in their sheer audacity — a group of a few more than 100, fewer than half of them adult men, so committed to an idea and a belief in the rightness of their purpose that they would flout any pressure, any government, any restriction, even from the high monarch of England, James I.
The Mayflower Compact, written in anticipation of potential conflict and disunity upon their landing, made a nod to King James in its opening. It should also be made clear, however, that the group would bow only to “such a government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose.”
It is a simple document to read today — simple, but enormously powerful. It represents an assumption of equality under the law that would stretch from that moment into the future.
Along the way, the Pilgrims encountered one disaster after another. Before they turned west, they tried to head for Holland and were betrayed by the captain they hired. When the men escaped on a ship, their wives and children were imprisoned.
They worked menial jobs while practicing a form of zealous faith looked on as extreme even by the Puritans. Their plans fell through again and again before the journey began. And when they arrived, they came upon a land ravaged by plague and thrust into the onset of a harsh and unforgiving winter. Before the spring, half of them would be dead.
But what the Pilgrims represented together was a community with the attributes willing to go on an “errand into the wilderness.” They believed, as Hebrews 11 told them, that they were “strangers and exiles on the earth…seeking a country of their own.” That was a country God would prepare for them — if they were bold enough to seek it.
These ideas did not just come from Europe. As Calvin Coolidge said on the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock, “They came not merely from the shores of the Old World. It will be in vain to search among recorded maps and history for their origin. They sailed up out of the infinite.”
There was among them small trace of the vanities of life. They came undecked with orders of nobility. They were not children of fortune but of tribulation. Persecution, not preference, brought them hither; but it was a persecution in which they found a stern satisfaction. They cared little for titles; still less for the goods of this earth; but for an idea they would die. Measured by the standards of men of their time, they were the humble of the earth. Measured by later accomplishments, they were the mighty. … In appearance weak and persecuted they came rejected, despised an insignificant band; in reality strong and independent, a mighty host of whom the world was not worthy, destined to free mankind. No captain ever led his forces to such a conquest. Oblivious to rank, yet men trace to them their lineage as to a royal house.
Our nation and the creed it represents is under constant assault from the forces of revisionism, backed in a culture war by woke corporations, big tech, and the most malevolent forces within our media, all seeking to deny the value of the courage and dedication at the heart of America’s creation. The 1620 Project is about rediscovering this incredible true story, and, for the reader, finding the lessons about what it means for us as guardians of this inheritance today.