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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

NYT: Kenneth C. Davis on America's Foundational Myth

Kenneth C. Davis, author of America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, has an interesting guest column in the New York Times today.

The myth Mr. Davis addresses is that the Mayflower Pilgrims were the first Europeans to arrive in America seeking religious freedom. Davis writes about a group of French Calvinists, or Huguenots, who arrived in Florida in 1564 to escape from the sectarian fighting between Catholics and Protestants that had been going on in France. This was much earlier than the arrival of the Pilgrims celebrated in our Thanksgiving story; the Pilgrims did not depart for the 'New Word' until 1620.

Things didn't turn out well for these early French colonists. In 1565, Philip II, the Catholic King of Spain, "issued orders to 'hang and burn the Lutherans' (then a Spanish catchall term for Protestants)" and the group was, accordingly, wiped out in what Davis calls "a holy war".

In his column Mr. Davis notes other episodes of religious intolerance in America's history, including the executions of Quakers between 1659 and 1661, anti-Catholic laws, and anti-Catholic "Bible Riots" in 1844 that killed more than a dozen in Philadelphia. "Our history," he writes, "is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance."

On Thanksgiving Day tomorrow, as this nation pauses to reflect on where we are and where we are going, Mr. Davis' article is a good reminder of the importance of vigorously defending two principles: First, allowing individuals the freedom to either practice the faith of their choice or none at all. And second, the critical importance of keeping separate church and state.

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