Pilgrims & Originalism

Four-hundred years ago the Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts. They had intended to land at Jamestown in what is now Virginia.

As they recounted,

“We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December” (Mourt’s Relation, 1622, commonly attributed to colonists William Bradford and Edward Winslow).

Reading this in the 21st century we might be amused by the mention of ‘beer’ and not give a moment’s thought to the ‘19th of December’. However, both take on new meaning for us when we consider the original meaning of the words.

For the Pilgrims in 1620, Dec 19th was on the Julian calendar not the Gregorian calendar we use today. So the 400th anniversary of their landing is not Dec 19, 2020.

Likewise for the Pilgrims in 1620 beer meant something much different than it does today. At that time water was usually contaminated. Water often carried disease. It was much healthier to drink beer. (Just as Jesus’s miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, did not just transform water into wine, but in fact transformed non-potable unhealthy water into clean drinkable wine.)

Original meaning is important as that is what survived the arduous process to become law. Redefining words is a cheat.

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