During the first Republican presidential primary debate, on August 23, former Vice President Mike Pence spoke of founders of the nation conquering the American “wilderness.” It was one of many mentions of American history: Candidates also name-checked the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the legacy of President Ronald Reagan. Toward the end of the evening, Pence stressed the wilderness theme: “If we renew our faith in one another and renew our faith in Him, who has ever guided this nation since we arrived on these wilderness shores, I know the best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”
Historical references are so ubiquitous in presidential debates and stump speeches that they can seem superficial. This year’s Republican candidates seem especially committed to the idea that the past matters, perhaps because of battles over history and ethnic studies curricula spreading in some states. If, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opined, “We cannot be graduating students that don’t have any foundation in what it means to be American,” then perhaps we also need to pay closer attention to what kind of American identity candidates are finding in history.
When Pence referenced conquering the wilderness, he used a keyword lifted from the Puritans. Those early American immigrants make cameos in plenty of political speeches, but often in ways that are misquoted or misunderstood, because their writings reflect a world of the 1600s, whose concerns are not identical to those of our time.
In England, the Puritans constituted a religious minority who opposed the state-sanctioned Church of England, which they believed had betrayed true faith. By leaving for North America, many believed they were testing whether their distinct vision of Protestant Christianity could survive in a new continent.
The concept of conquering a wilderness came into American vocabulary from these immigrants. Between 1630 and 1650, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford penned a history of the Puritans’ settlement of Plymouth, known today as “Of Plymouth Plantation.” In the text, the governor offered a vivid depiction of how the Puritans who sailed to the coast in the autumn of 1620 met a land “with a weather-beaten face” and how “the whole country, full of woods and thickets,” had “a wild and savage hue.”
In reality, Bradford and those who sailed with him on the Mayflower did not encounter a wilderness as we typically use the word now. As even other Europeans like Samuel de Champlain and Captain John Smith acknowledged at the time, these English arrived in long-settled Wampanoag territory. Cornfields, not thick woods, surrounded Patuxet, the town the English renamed New Plymouth. Residents of the town had suffered through a devastating epidemic, possibly caused by rats that had stowed away on ships from Europe, that tore through coastal New England in the late 1610s.
Despite the loss of life, the Indigenous community survived. Yet because Christians did not inhabit these places, Bradford and the other Puritans saw them as part of the “wilderness” that needed to be conquered. Later in the same book, Bradford celebrates the destruction of a Pequot village, which left 400 to 700 dead in a single night. The Puritans rounded up survivors and sold them into slavery.
In his references to wilderness, Pence left unspoken the irony of representing a party bent on restricting access to newcomers while praising the idea that the nation emerged only because newcomers ran roughshod over those who already lived in North America. In his version of early American history, Europeans were the only important actors, so his view of the nation’s history concentrates on them alone.
The second Republican debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley today. Like Pence, Reagan invoked the Puritans to boast of American exceptionalism. In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, he cited a lay sermon delivered in 1629 by soon-to-be governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop, and referred to the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan famously interpreted Winthrop as stating that America was “a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom.” He also called Winthrop “an early freedom man.”
In an interview with Time magazine published last week, Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott repeated this invocation of Winthrop. He stated that he hoped to lead “a team anchored in conservatism that wants to make sure that America remains the city on the hill.”
But Winthrop wasn’t bragging about the colony being a yearned-for destination, like a freedom-minded Emerald City. He didn’t even use the word “shining” at all—that was Reagan’s addition. The original text was Matthew 5:14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill, cannot be hid,” the verse reads in the 1599 Geneva Bible the Puritans favored. Winthrop understood what the apostle meant: Creating a biblically centered community was a challenge, and if the Puritans succeeded, they would be the envy of the world. But if they failed, everyone would see their shortcomings. They would make an embarrassment of the Protestant agenda to reform the world in the way they believed God intended.
Reagan took the line out of context. His proud, sunny version missed the Puritan theologians’ point, which was made at a time when religious wars were driving Catholics and Protestants against each other across much of Europe. For Winthrop and his contemporaries, the fate of the world was at stake. They knew that the English migrants could lose their battle. That possibility did not fit into Reagan’s belief in the inevitability of American greatness. (For what it’s worth, when John F. Kennedy invoked Winthrop’s speech shortly before he became president in 1961, he understood that it referred to a challenge rather than an assertion of inevitability.)
But if Pence and Reagan twisted the meaning of the twinned ideas of conquering wilderness and building a city on a hill, they are right that these concepts are foundational to American history. The English migrants to New England believed that what happened to them had world-historic significance, but that success was not pre-ordained. Bradford and Winthrop each recognized that danger lurked. They believed that survival depended on adherence to their faith—and that even so, the risk of failure was high. Those views shaped early New England and, by extension, much of what became the nation’s culture in the years after the American Revolution.
A different kind of existential threat seems to animate at least some of the candidates for the Republican nomination. In some ways, it appears, these candidates feel the kinds of pressure that the Puritans faced four centuries ago. They too look to stake out a moral position, based on the notion that the future of our culture depends on who comes to occupy the Oval Office.
Though they are battling to govern in the future, the Republican candidates seem obsessed by how we understand the past. Those who cite the legacies of President Reagan and the conquest of wilderness want to emulate what they see as the heroic steps the Puritans took to establish a nation. Yet they seem blind to the complexity of the actual past, in which Europeans pursuing one vision of the future displaced and attacked Indigenous peoples who had their own plans for what was to come. If the Puritans are to serve as inspiration, it seems time to reckon with their actual ideas and actions.