Plymouth, Massachusetts might not be the oldest European settlement in the United States, but you can safely say it’s where England got its foothold in America. They might have landed in Provincetown first, hit a few places along the Cape Cod coast as they looked for a better place to settle, and maybe they would have been better off if they’d landed in what would become Boston or Providence, but they landed here. And the great floodgates of immigration began, changing this continent forever.
That narrative of settlement and conquest is… complicated. But you can make a good case that the Mayflower Pilgrims’ pilgrimage was driven by religious freedom and a desire for peaceful coexistence with the Native American population. They happened to settle in a place where the native population had recently been decimated by disease, making for a bit more elbow room to root themselves in the place, but let’s stay on point. That first generation tried to fulfill the mission as best they could.
To honor those noble intentions, and to put a spotlight on the best virtues that we humans aspire to, the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth conceived of a huge statue that would dominate Plymouth Harbor. The original monument was supposed to be 150 feet tall and right on the water. Reason eventually took over and they moved the monument to the top of a small hill with a commanding view of the harbor, then shortened it to 81 feet.
The National Monument to the Forefathers is believed to be the tallest granite statue in the world. There is impressive detail in the carvings and a sense of Victorian optimism about what we aspire to be throughout. The cornerstone was laid in 1850 and the monument completed in 1889. That’s a lifetime for someone in the middle of the 19th century. Throw in the Civil War and violent conflict with Native Americans as the country was settled ever westward and those ideals were challenged even as the monument was being built.
Today the National Monument to the Forefathers stands in dignified silence, 132 years after the dedication ceremony and a year after the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Plymouth by those Mayflower Pilgrims. That big party got cancelled last year with the pandemic, the narrative of living up to the best of virtues is more challenging than ever as we Americans sort out just who we want to be, but the monument stands. Still waiting for us to measure up.