In August 1619, a pirate ship, the White Lion, stopped at Jamestown and traded 20-some captive Africans for food. The Africans were treated as indentured servants and soon released.
Fifteen months later, in November 1620, an English ship blown off course on its way to Virginia ended up off the barren coast of Massachusetts. It landed more than 100 men, women and children. Those voyagers founded Plymouth Colony.
Which event mattered more?
Last year, the New York Times declared that the arrival of the captives in Virginia was the “true beginning” of America — an America that the Times characterized as a “slavocracy.” The Times calls its campaign to promote this story The 1619 Project. In my new book, “1620,” I argue that the arrival of the Pilgrims along with dozens of non-Pilgrims (“strangers” as the Pilgrims called them) aboard the Mayflower is the real beginning of America.
Why? Because before this mixed group stepped ashore, they signed an agreement, which we now call the Mayflower Compact. In that document, they set aside their deep divisions and voluntarily joined together to govern themselves with “just and equal laws.” This was the very beginning of principled self-government among European settlers in the New World. The Mayflower Compact is not quite 200 words long, but those words pack almost as much meaning as Thomas Jefferson distilled into the Declaration of Independence 156 years later, or Abraham Lincoln in 1863 condensed into the Gettysburg Address.