Plymouth Rock Oration
"PLYMOUTH ROCK ORATION"
The citizens of Massachusetts in 1820 knew themselves to be the fortunate heirs of history. They had survived interminable battles with indigenous peoples, fought for and won independence, and helped establish the foundations of republican government. Recent years, however, had been less than kind: a constitutional crisis had rocked those foundations, financial panic threatened to undermine the economic vitality of the region, and the shadows of slavery were darkening the national landscape. Now was the ideal time, then, to remind Bay Staters of their storied past and to brighten the prospects ahead. The bicentennial celebration of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock would serve these purposes well, and no one was better suited to provide its keynote address than Daniel Webster.
THE ORATION IN CONTEXT
Born in New Hampshire of modest circumstances, Daniel Webster (1782–1852) moved to Boston in 1816, where he launched a public career of remarkable success in law, politics, and civic leadership. In an era known as the "golden age of oratory," Webster stood without peer as a spokesman for American nationalism. A Federalist by party affiliation, he provided eloquent testimony to America's unique station in the world; an adopted son of Massachusetts, he was especially proud of the Bay State's distinctive place in the annals of freedom. Webster was therefore the logical choice to speak before a crowd of fifteen hundred assembled in Plymouth's First Parish Church on 22 December 1820 for a public anniversary celebration of the Pilgrims' landing. So electrifying was the effect that one observer feared that "blood might gush from my temples" (Peterson, p. 107). Upon reading the address afterward, John Adams declared that it "ought to be read at the end of every century, and read at the end of every year, for ever and ever" (Peterson, p. 107). In the early twenty-first century the "Plymouth Rock Oration" remains, as Merrill Peterson has written, "a literary classic, long celebrated for its soul-stirring passages, recited by generations of schoolboys, and cherished as a primer of New England principle" (p. 107).
How to account for the power of Webster's words? The occasion itself was scarcely novel: Plymouth Rock celebrations dated back to 1769. The oration's general themes—courage, freedom, endurance, pride, hope—were certainly familiar to generations of New Englanders as the stuff of civic ceremony. Perhaps it is enough to say that Webster lent to these commonplaces a singular force of imagery and expression and gave to them a degree of artistry seldom accorded public declamations. Underwriting all of this was an unshakable conviction that the Pilgrim past, the Massachusetts present, and the American future were united in a single destiny. The rhetorical work of the speech is thus devoted to strengthening that conviction in its listeners, to assure them that they were actors in a sacred myth of human progress. A brief review of the oration will illustrate Webster's rendition of this story.
TIME AND PLACE IN THE TEXT
The address is organized, as tradition dictates, with reference to past, present, and future. At the same time Webster is careful to not to allow these temporal planes to remain mere abstractions. Rather, he stresses the immediate and concrete experience of occupying a place sanctified by the presence of New England's forefathers. "There is," he announces,
a local feeling connected with this occasion, too strong to be resisted; a sort of genius of the place, which inspires and awes us. We feel that we are on the spot where the first scene of our country was laid; where the hearths and altars of New England were first placed; where Christianity, and civilization, and letters made their first lodgement, in a vast extent of country, covered with a wilderness, and peopled by roving barbarians. (P. 67)
This conjunction of place and origins is key to the overall meaning and force of the speech: it gives to lived experience a ground, source, and direction that will superintend the unfolding message. Webster says, in effect, that here is not just any place or any people coughed up on foreign shores: this is, rather, sacred ground to which the present generation owes obeisance. The identification of the present with the past is further cemented by the duty not only to acknowledge but also to be emotionally invested in a collective legacy. Thus "we have come to this Rock," Webster notes, "to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty" (p. 66).
In the oration, Webster addresses the question of slavery by folding it within the foundational myth already established.
It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer. I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of the furnaces where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those who by stealth and at midnight labor in this work of hell, foul and dark, as may become the artificers of such instruments of torture. Let that spot be purified, or let it cease to be of New England.
Webster, The Speeches of Daniel Webster, p. 113.
The present generation is thus tied to the past as in a covenant. Chief among the principles that command mutual assent, Webster observes, are those relating to free and equal access to property under a republican form of government. Here the speaker's Federalist sentiments are revealed; but more broadly understood, Webster's point is that property under such conditions represents a kind of shared investment in the land that will stabilize and give permanence to the collective trust. "There is a natural influence belonging to property," Webster argues,
whether it exists in many hands or few; and it is on the rights of property that both despotism and unrestrained popular violence ordinarily commence their attacks. Our ancestors began their system of government here under a condition of comparative equality in regard to wealth, and their early laws were of a nature to favor and continue this equality. (P. 100)
The generic expectations associated with ceremonial speaking do not typically include explicit reference to political issues. Webster, however, seizes on this conspicuous occasion to address the volatile question of slavery in a fashion that manages at once to attack the benighted system of slavery and to make such an attack consistent with the hallowed principles of New England's legacy. Such a legacy, Webster understood, could not be limited to the past alone. Indeed the full rhetorical force of his oration cannot be realized until its message is extended to future generations. Looking now ahead to those who will come after the efforts of this day, Webster assures his audience that
when, from the long distance of a hundred years, they shall look back upon us, they shall know, at least, that we possessed affections, which, running backward and warming with gratitude for what our ancestors have done for our happiness, run forward also to our posterity, and meet them with cordial salutation, ere yet they have arrived on the shore of being. (P. 118)
Webster's "Plymouth Rock Oration" stands as a classic example of nationalist rhetoric, in which local pride of place and time animates a universal vision of America's unique past, present, and future. The story it tells has been told many times since but never more eloquently.
Webster, Daniel. The Speeches of Daniel Webster. Edited by B. F. Tefft. New York: Lincoln Centenary, 1907.
Browne, Stephen H. "Reading Public Memory in Daniel Webster's Plymouth Rock Oration." Western Journal of Communication 57 (1993): 464–477.
Erickson, Paul D. "Daniel Webster's Myth of the Puritans." New England Quarterly 57 (1984): 44–64.
Stephen Howard Browne