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  • The Mayflower and the Slave Ship:Pilgrim-Puritan Origins in the Antebellum Black Imagination
  • Kenyon Gradert (bio)

James McCune Smith was sick of the Mayflower. In a letter to Frederick Douglass, the renowned black physician and writer complained that the "literary world" was forever "repeating the dose, ad nauseam, of that 'solitary ship'" as the mythic source of American democracy. "I presume when we blacks get a literature, we may speak with pride of that other 'solitary ship' which landed some hundred Africans in the James river" the year prior in 1619, he quipped, noting that the slave ship "kick[s] up a bigger dust in the year of grace 1852, than ever the May Flower [sic] did" ("Letter" 1).1

Jonathan Seelye documents how the Mayflower became a central symbol of America by the mid-nineteenth century, but in the decades before the Civil War, abolitionists increasingly wielded the ship as a foil to the slave ship as two rival symbols for America's future. In 1839, Massachusetts congressman Robert Charles Winthrop (descended from the Puritan governor John Winthrop) juxtaposed the Mayflower and the slave ship, "laboring under the divided destinies of the same nation … like the principles of good and evil advancing side by side on the same great ocean of human life."2 As he wished that "some angel arm" would have "dash[ed] down" America's first slave ship (Address 56), Winthrop simplified America's most vexing problem into opposed origins and destinies, bracketing any practical consideration of anti-slavery organization with vague wishes for divine intervention instead.3 Furthermore, Winthrop did not seem to mind that sinking the slave ship would have drowned the twenty slaves aboard, revealing another way in which origin stories were abstracted from political complexities: the Jamestown slave ship was not merely a symbol of spiritual evil but also the source of the first African people in British America, a group fighting to define American and African American origins on their own terms.

While Paul Gilroy urges us to see the slave ship as a central symbol of modernity's emergence from "routes" rather than "roots," from the blending of ideas on the black Atlantic rather than static national traditions, Winthrop and McCune [End Page 63] Smith reveal how the Mayflower and the slave ship emerged as important and increasingly entangled roots in the antebellum American and African American imagination, in the process opening a window onto a complex negotiation of origins among antebellum African American writers.4 While abolitionists' readings of the Pilgrim-Puritan past were usually advanced by white New Englanders such as Winthrop, who were often proud blood descendants, the question of color remains: what did the spiritual legacies of the Pilgrims and Puritans mean, if anything, to those who had arrived at America by way of the slave ship rather than the Mayflower?5

Black writers responded to this origin story with striking frequency and—perhaps more surprisingly—seldom with McCune Smith's dismissiveness. Although they used the Puritans and Pilgrims less frequently and more variously than their white allies, they revealed the utility of this origin story in the breadth of their interpretations. Whether black writers tended toward integration or separatism, Garrisonian abolition or black nationalism, domestic activism or emigration, Pilgrim-Puritan origins continued to arise in surprising locations. Many wrote with seemingly genuine admiration for and investment in the Puritans' legacy. Others invoked "Pilgrim liberty" more strategically to goad white audiences with their own professed values. Emigrationists even cited the Pilgrims as a reason for black people to leave America. McCune Smith was among the rare few who critiqued the Mayflower outright. What almost no major black writer of the period did was ignore the Pilgrims and the Puritans altogether. As I have noted in other work, this national origin story was unavoidable for black writers because it was as pervasive among their white abolitionist allies as it was among the nation at large—most prominently in George Bancroft's multivolume History of the United States (1834-75), which traced a providential arc from liberty-loving Puritan roots to national destiny.6

Amid these diverse engagements with the Protestant past, these writers shared a common...


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