Commentary: What we can learn today from the pilgrims

By David M. Bradford
Posted 11/24/21

This Thanksgiving marks the 400th anniversary of the “first Thanksgiving,” when roughly 65 pilgrims “entertained and feasted” with over 90 Pokanoket Indians for three days in …

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Commentary: What we can learn today from the pilgrims


This Thanksgiving marks the 400th anniversary of the “first Thanksgiving,” when roughly 65 pilgrims “entertained and feasted” with over 90 Pokanoket Indians for three days in October 1621.

While there are many reasons to be thankful at this time of year, there are three for which every American should be especially grateful. The Founding Fathers formed our nation upon values necessary for our constitutional republic to work. We would be wise to understand the secret to the success and longevity of our republic.

What are these foundational values and what do the pilgrims have to do with them?

Author Os Guinness refers to them as the Golden Triangle of Freedom because they are uniquely linked within American culture and governance: faith, freedom and virtue. Each is mutually dependent upon the other two for the whole to work. Like a three-legged stool, one cannot stand without the essential support of the other two. To the extent one is undermined, attacked or destroyed, all three are weakened or broken entirely.

For example, faith requires freedom and virtue. No one will genuinely embrace a faith that is forced upon them. True convictions must be arrived at freely, the result of authentic belief and conscience. George Washington declared in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” John Adams echoed this sentiment, saying, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Next comes virtue, which requires faith and freedom. Virtue is an act of the will of free men and women that cannot be coerced under threat of punishment. Only a person who recognizes their accountability to a supreme authority can be counted upon to think and act in ways that voluntarily subjugate their self-interests to the interests of others. Explaining the connection between virtue and faith, Founder Benjamin Rush wrote, “Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families.”

Finally, freedom requires virtue and faith. Freedom cannot exist where vice and iniquity are uncontrolled. Unconstrained liberty without virtue results in anarchy. Declaring the link between freedom and virtue, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

I believe the ideals of faith, freedom and virtue are values that resonate with most Americans. Too many today do not understand the essential, interdependent nature of these values and the necessity for each American’s unwavering allegiance and support of them. George Mason, an author of the Bill of Rights, wrote, “No free government, or the blessings of liberty can be preserved to any people, but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

So what do the pilgrims have to do with America’s founding values?

What we see in the pilgrims is the historical precedent and exemplar for each indispensable support of our American republic:

  • Freedom, through the providential seeds of self-governance contained in the Mayflower Compact, a covenant established whereby a group of people asserted the rights of kings and promised obedience to one another in a “Civil Body Politic.”
  • Virtue, through dedication in sharing the love of God within their families and their Plymouth community and among their Native American neighbors.
  • Faith, through their utter dependence and legendary trust in the providence of God and Jesus Christ to fulfill his divine purposes in their lives.

While a group here or there may contend with the pilgrims’ identity as “exemplars” regarding any one of these core values, no other group of people in history exemplifies all three of these mutually dependent American values better or more completely than the pilgrims!

The pilgrim legacy is uniquely suited to transcend politics and resonate with all Americans, regardless of ideology or political affiliation. The pilgrim and Wampanoag histories tell a story that our nation needs to hear. Their friendship exemplified the respect, cooperation and mutual edification that we yearn to see exhibited by our fellow citizens today. The underlying and indispensable principles of faith, freedom and virtue are the birthright of every American. They also contain the values that each citizen can admire, accept and be willing to model, as well as teach to their children.

As you enjoy precious time with your family this Thanksgiving, take a moment to share with your loved ones the unique privilege we enjoy as Americans: the blessings of faith, freedom and virtue. May these values be displayed in abundance in the days ahead. Our very nation could depend upon it!

David M. Bradford is a 12th-generation direct descendant of Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford and life member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants for the state of Delaware, where he recently completed a second term as governor. David has portrayed William Bradford and shared his account of pilgrim history throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania.