Early American History Through Literature

Published with Permission

Written by Rea Berg


“The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national history holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind. It now spans four centuries, and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening.”1

The words of the renowned British historian, Paul Johnson, remind us as Americans that the story of our country is a good story and one worthy of retelling. Despite our many foibles as a nation and a culture, what occurred on the eastern shores of this rich land in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was remarkable in the annals of human history. The confluence of the streams of spiritual freedom birthed in the Reformation, the revival of Greek and Roman philosophical thought in the Renaissance, and the advance of civil and social notions in the Enlightenment allowed a full flowering of religious and civil liberty to be realized here.

Since many of us are products of an institutionalized educational system where this remarkable story has been blandly presented through the pages of standardized textbooks, it is not surprising that we often approach teaching our country’s history with dread rather than enthusiasm. Fortunately, there is a wonderfully simple remedy for this malady that is guaranteed to inspire even the most reluctant student of history. Here it is:  teach history through literature. As Pulitzer prize-winning author David McCullough advises about teaching history: “Tell stories.”2

The story of America’s founding really begins… in England when the King of England held complete sway over the civil and religious lives of Englishmen. State-mandated religion meant that if you were English you worshiped at the Anglican Church, whether you liked it or not. But that didn’t set too well with certain folks who had found, through the light of the Reformation, that freedom of conscience was a personal thing. A few of these folks rebelled against that particular form of tyranny and followed their hearts and their God to America. We know them today as Pilgrims, Quakers, and Separatists. Their stories have all the elements of the best tales—dangerous escapes by night, treachery, betrayal, imprisonment, deprivation, a long and often terrifying journey by sea, sometimes loss and death, but eventually freedom.

For the youngest historian, Pilgrim Stories by Margaret Pumphrey is a classic based upon the true stories of the Pilgrim children themselves. Suffering religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims immigrate to Holland, where they build comfortable lives amidst the friendly Dutch people. But the English mothers and fathers sense that their faith is calling for something more from them. They make the difficult decision to leave comfort behind and brave the unknown terrors of the sea and the wilderness shores of America in order to build new lives. Their story is the stuff of legends, but this legend is true.

The Landing of the Pilgrims by James Daugherty tells the Pilgrim tale for the intermediate historian and recounts in marvelous detail the childhood of young William Bradford, whose faith at age 15 inspired him to remarkable deeds. When William announced his decision to leave the church of his fathers and become a Separatist (an offense for which citizens were being hung), his relatives threatened, pleaded, and warned him of the folly of his actions. Bradford calmly replied, “To keep a good conscience and to walk in such Way as God had prescribed in his Word is a thing which I must prefer before you all, and above life itself.”3 This brave young man went on to become a Pilgrim father, judiciously and benevolently leading the colony at Plimoth for more than thirty-five years.

The World of William Penn by Genevieve Foster explores the wide sphere of the humble Quaker, William Penn. From the courtyards of the Sun King to the royal chambers of Charles II, Penn was a “Friend” of kings and princes, scientists and Native Americans. A member of the Royal Society, Penn knew Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton. He met Peter the Great while the Czar was visiting London and introduced him to Quaker ideas. As the founder of Pennsylvania, Penn treated the Native American tribes with dignity and respect and by his integrity established the longest standing peace treaty between European settlers and Native Americans. His commitment to religious freedom became a cornerstone of American democracy.

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