The first celebration of the landing of the forefathers was on Friday, December 22, 1769, by the Old Colony Club, an organization founded chiefly upon social considerations, -- at which the entertainments, after the procession of the club to their hall, were a dinner, consisting of various Old Colony edibles, cooked in "the plainest manner," -- a song by the pupils of the grammar school, and various toasts and addresses at the table.
In the following year (1770) the first stated oration upon the Pilgrim Fathers was delivered by Edward Winslow, Jr. Esq. These celebrations were continued regularly until, and including, the year 1780, when they were suspended until the year 1794, upon which occasion the address was delivered by Rev. Chandler Robbins, D.D.
The present Pilgrim Society was organized in 1820, two hundred years after the landing, by citizens of Plymouth, and other places in New England, to commemorate the landing of the forefathers, and to perpetuate by enduring monuments their memory and sufferings. The first president was Hon. Joshua Thomas. Although the erecting of an enduring monument was one of the chief objects of the society at its formation, no steps were taken to that end for a number of years. Bunker Hill Monument was just about to be commenced, and such was the state of the country, then far from its present advancement, that the works of collecting funds and construction proceeded but slowly, and the apparent indifference with which it was regarded by the people of the country, cast a shade of doubt upon all enterprises of a similar nature. The society however wisely kept in mind its original purpose, and a knowledge of the pilgrims and regard for their memory were diffused and stimulated by the annual addresses made at its celebrations by the most distinguished scholars, orators, and statesmen of the country. The first oration, delivered in December of this year (1820) by the Hon. Daniel Webster, has taken its place among the fixed stars of classical oratory, and would in itself have made the Pilgrims immortal.
Up to the year 1850 the celebration of Forefathers' Day had taken place on the 22d of December, that having been incorrectly accounted the date of their landing according to the reckoning of the New Style. On the 27th of May in this year, a committee, consisting of James Savage, Charles H. Warren, Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Abraham Jackson, and Timothy Gordon, presented a report recommending that the celebration be held on the 21st, which was unanimously adopted by the society, and it has since been observed upon that day when practicable.
At a meeting of the society, held March 10th, 1853, expressly called for the purpose, the trustees were authorized and requested to make suitable arrangements for the first celebration on the 1st of August of that year, of the anniversary of the departure from Delfthaven, it being the two hundred and thirty-third year since the occurrence. No surer indication of the veneration with which the memory of the Pilgrims has come to be cherished throughout the land of their adoption could possibly be obtained, than the universal interest felt throughout the country in this celebration, -- and it was considered, therefore,, as the | proper occasion for testing the public opinion upon the "long-cherished purpose of the society to crect^m appropriate monument to their memory, and in honor of those great principles of civil and religious liberty which they first successfully established," -- and the response which was given to the proposition at that time, induced the board of trustees, at the suggestion of the president, Richard Warren, Esq., of New York, to take measures immediately afterwards to procure a suitable design for the proposed structure.
It was not until May, 1855, that, after many designs had been presented and rejected, the present one was accepted upon the most careful consideration. It was first presented to a committee appointed by the trustees expressly for the purpose of examining the design, and the proposals for carrying it into execution, and with directions to report whether it was advisable for the society to accept it, it being imderstood that its expense was much greater than the society originally deemed sufficient to erect the proposed monument. The whole matter having been considered by the committee, -- the colossal size of the monument, its unavoidable expense, -- the necessary removal of the site from the immediate vicinity of the Rock to a location giving more height of position and greater space around it, -- the time which would be consumed in collecting the funds and in erecting the monument, having been all presented, -- it was unanimously reported that the committee deem it advisable that the board of trustees should accept the design, and recommend them to do so. Upon this report the design was formally accepted by the board of trustees, and their action was subsequently approved by the society.
A few remarks upon the nature, extent, and cost of the work, will complete all that is necessary to be said in the present place. The Pilgrim Society, in determining to erect a monument to the Forefathers, intended to make a structure which should bear upon its face the avowed intention of its founders, and transmit to future generations not merely the facts that the Pilgrims landed upon the Rock of Plymouth, and there commenced the founding of this nation, which might well be left to the records of history, -- but the regard in which their memory and sufferings were held by their descendants and heirs of the nineteenth century, who look back to them from an eminence of national prosperity, which shows a vast empire extending across a continent from ocean to ocean, filled with great cities, and decked from border to border -- and from shore to shore -- with splendid dwellings, magnificent churches, colleges, schools, and asylums for the unfortunate ; noisy with ceaseless industry, rich with the sources of inexhaustible wealth, and presenting to the imagination, -- even to the inevitable conclusion of thought, -- a Future, to which the wealth and prosperity and power and resources of the Present are as trivial as the possessions of that strong-souled band of adventurous emigrants compared with our own.
It was naturally concluded that the memorial of such a nation to its founders should bear some proportion to its means, and to the grandeur of the event which was to be commemorated. It was thought that the expenditure of a sum representing one cent for each inhabitant might not be regarded as an extent of National Self Sacrifice, -- if that be the term, -- too enormous to be borne, nor the amount itself altogether too magnificent to be expended ; and, in view of the fact that the monument is to stand for centuries, ten years (the term of one-fourth of the existence of one generation,) was not accounted too long a period to be occupied with the work. It should be borne in mind that, travel with what success we may the career of national glory and progress, the landing upon these shores of that hundred of self-exiled lovers of freedom will still be the starting point of our history, -- and that, grand as may be the events- with which it is crowded, nothing will overshadow in pure, grand solemnity of thought and action, their determination to leave forever the scenes of civilized life, to battle, perhaps, with famine, and disease,-- certainly with unused-to labor, to settle in a savage wilderness, and all to plant the seeds of a pure faith and of universal religious, social, and civil freedom. History will look in vain for a greater event to chronicle,---art will never again for us have the opportunity, or the occasion, to embody themes so simply grand, so peculiarly significant. It is worthy then of all that art can offer as a testimony.
Nor, will the generations, which succeed us think greatly of our veneration for our forefathers, if, sounding it as we do from the extreme boundaries of the Republic,, in our speeches and addresses, we stint with paltry pecuniary saving the stones which we raise to their memory, -- and deny to their virtues, their sufferings, -- their labors, their wise forethought, -- the sum which we cheerfully give (and should cheerfully give) to rescue the dwelling and tomb of Washington from destruction, -- or to build (as we should build) on spots made famous by the shock of battle, shafts which, meeting " the sun in his coming," proclaim that we owe our national glory in other directions to the sacrifices of those who have passed away ; for never had a people more cause to be grateful to the memory of their founders, or more imperative occasion to obey with cheerful alacrity, love, and thankfulness, the command -- "Honor thy father and thy mother!"
1. "The Pilgrim Society, and The National Monument to the Forefathers," The Illustrated Pilgrim Memorial, 1863, page 38.