Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Origins and Historical Significance of American Thanksgiving and an Appeal to Community




With the annual Thanksgiving holiday only days away and the fall season rapidly coming to an end in the United States, the average American is likely looking forward to quality time spent with family, friends, and a hearty feast. While the spirit of gratefulness and the thankful nature of the holiday is frequently stated in advertisements and on products, it is a safe bet to state that the majority of Americans are unaware of the true origins, reasoning, and intentions of the uniquely American holiday. In years past, school children would often learn about the "first thanksgiving" while attending grammar school all over the country. Tales of the Pilgrims sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and eventually landing at Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower, "Squanto" the Native American, and other historic figures and themes usually comprised the story.


Recently, many activists on the left wing of the political spectrum in the media, public office and especially academia have attempted to diminish the significance of the thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621. Many Progressive academics have often portrayed them and the entirety of the population of colonial European settlers (predominantly from England) in the early period of the colonization of North America as "oppressive" individuals. Indeed, many public and private universities and institutions of higher education now offer "Native American Genocide" courses which teach a very twisted and negative narrative of colonial interactions with Native Americans. These early European settlers are often deemed as intentional harbingers of destruction for the natives. Arguments are sometimes made in these courses that the actions taken by these settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries when dealing with Indians were systematic and coordinated attempts at "genocide", and that they wished to intentionally eradicate Native American populations due to racist and evil motives. Painting with a very broad and selective brush, these activist "historians" have successfully indoctrinated many young Americans into believing that the origin story leading up to and including the founding of their nation is rotten to the core.


In reality, the exceptionalism of the founding of the United States and the major role that the themes of religious freedom, toleration, and a collective belief in an almighty sanction of self-government are clearly demonstrated in the story of the Pilgrims and the establishment of the Plymouth colony. Truthfully, the Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in self-governance in Western history; individual people attempted to live and govern themselves without the oversight of a monarch. The Pilgrims had founded a colony on their own accord- with their own funds, without the vested imperial interests of a king. Perhaps because of this, collectivist leftist academics have sought to denounce the Pilgrims and portray the story of their thanksgiving as fabricated. Therefore, the writer will recount in depth the inspiring plight of the Pilgrims and detail the transformation of the Thanksgiving holiday through the ages leading up to its official recognition as a national celebration by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War. 


Who Were the Pilgrims and what happened in 1621? 


The Pilgrims were English Separatists who believed that congregations should be independent, voluntary, democratic institutions rather than part of the Church of England. They organized a church around 1605 in Scrooby in the north of England, but since the Act of Uniformity of 1559 mandated that everyone had to worship in Anglican churches, they decided to leave England for the more religiously tolerant Dutch Republic between 1607 and 1608. 


Throughout this period, several religious wars were being waged in Europe. Following the protestant reformation in the 16th century, Catholics and many differing protestant denominations of Christianity that had emerged during the reformation violently fought each other over religious differences. While several of these early conflicts truly had their roots in religious differences, religion was often used by many affluent noblemen and rulers in Europe as an excuse to use war to further their own wealth and prestige. Therefore, during the era in which the Pilgrims lived, religious toleration was not common throughout Europe, and thousands of people were routinely imprisoned, tortured and even killed for practicing Christianity in a denomination differing from a ruling class or a majority population.


Life in the Netherlands proved difficult for the Pilgrims for a variety of economic and cultural reasons. Many ran out of money and had to return to England, and without further immigration from their mother country, the congregation was in danger of collapsing. Additionally, the Pilgrims were unhappy with the "libertine" nature (morally scandalous/devoid) that they perceived to exist in Dutch culture and were worried that their children were losing their heritage and becoming more Dutch than English.


Therefore, after significant deliberation, they decided to attempt to establish a colony in the "new world" where they could worship and raise their families in their own tradition and where they could spread the Gospel and their style of worship. In 1619 they received a patent to establish a colony in New England, north of the Virginia colony (which had been founded in 1607 following the establishment of the Jamestown settlement). They believed that it was their divine destiny to settle a new colony in the new world and compared themselves to Israelites in Jerusalem.


The Pilgrims and other colonists embarked on the Mayflower from Plymouth (England) in September 1620. They had initially intended to sail in mid-July with a second ship, named the Speedwell, but repeated leaks and structural damages caused them to delay their voyage and eventually force them to take only one ship.


At the start of their voyage, there were 102 passengers. Only 28 were members of the congregation. The Pilgrims debated whether it was safe to bring their wives. Most decided to do so, and so there were 13 adult women on board, three of them in their third trimester of pregnancy, along with some younger women and children. One baby was born on the voyage and was named Oceanus.


The first half of their voyage to America was calm, with fair seas and pleasant skies. But the second half was dreadful, and the Pilgrims experienced several strong storms, heavy waves, and powerful winds. One person died in these episodes, and passengers were forced to remain below decks, soaked by the water pouring through the ship. Midway through the voyage, the main beam of the ship was severely damaged, and even the crew of 30 experienced sailors thought they had no choice but to abandon their voyage and return to England. By a stroke of luck (or divine providence), one settler had a jackscrew that he had purchased for the construction of housing in the eventual colony; this saved the ship and the voyage.


After their harrowing journey, the Mayflower arrived in America on November 19th. Before laying anchor, the settlers signed the Mayflower Compact on the 20th. It was the first framework of government written and enacted in the territory that is now the United States of America. The Pilgrims formed themselves into a:


 “civil body politick for our better ordering and preservation … and by virtue hereof, do enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officers from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony into which we promise all due submission and obedience.”[1]


Thus, the Mayflower Compact was an agreement that bound the signers to obey the government and legal system established in Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower Compact remained in effect until Plymouth Colony became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.


A landing party was then sent to explore land (modern day Cape Cod). The pilgrims found artificial mounds which they excavated and discovered to be burial sites. In some, they found corn, which they took for planting before reburying the remains. They also found corn and beans in empty Native American homes, some of which they also took and paid for six months later when they met the owners.


In December, they found a harbor at a place labeled “Plymouth” on their charts and decided to winter there. The men went ashore to build houses, the first of which was used as a hospital. Landing in November meant that the Pilgrims would have to weather a cold winter in a completely foreign land. They were ill prepared. New England Winters were much colder than those they had experienced in Europe, and they had no proper clothing and limited supplies. They spent the winter onboard the Mayflower.


The Pilgrims had no way of knowing that the ground would be frozen by the middle of November, making it impossible to do any planting. Nor were they prepared for the snow storms that would make the countryside impassable without snowshoes. And in their haste to leave, they did not think to bring any fishing rods. When spring arrived in 1621, only 47 of the colonists were still alive, and only 5 of the married women.

The Wampanoags and the First Thanksgiving

The Plymouth colony only survived because of help from the Native Americans. On March 16th, a native named Samoset walked into the village representing Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket tribe, part of the Wampanoag group of natives. He then introduced them to Tisquantum, better known as Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved by Englishmen but eventually was freed, became a Christian, and returned to his homeland. Unfortunately, his tribe, the Patuxets, were wiped out by an epidemic between the years of 1616 and 1619 prior to the arrival of the pilgrims. Therefore, when the pilgrims arrived, they had found burial sites and cleared lands near where they settled from this tribe.


Squanto, in turn, acted as a translator and mediator between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, the chief of the Pokanoket. Massasoit established friendly relations with the Pilgrims, and together with Squanto taught them how to farm the “Three Sisters”—corn, beans, and squash. On March 22nd, Massasoit arrived himself, and signed an alliance with the Plymouth colony. The treaty was ratified by Massasoit and the elected Governor of Plymouth, John Carver. Although Carver would die in April and William Bradford would become the governor of the colony for a number of years in non-consecutive terms, the alliance was a success. With the help of the Wampanoags, the remaining Pilgrims survived and had a successful harvest that fall.


The Pilgrims decided to hold a harvest festival, probably around Michaelmas (September 29) 1621, the traditional date for such things in England. Massasoit and members of his tribe joined them. In all, there were about 50 English and 90 Wampanoags. The four surviving wives together with children and servants prepared and served the food over the three-day celebration.


The friendship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags continued over the next decades. In 1623, Massasoit became gravely ill but was nursed back to health by the colonists. And in 1632, the Narraganset tribe attacked the Wampanoags but were driven off with the help of the colonists.


Subsequent American Traditions Surrounding Thanksgiving

         Despite the significance of the plight of the pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving, the holiday was not a uniform and cohesive celebration at the end of November across the colonies of America. Individual colonies would often hold days of thanksgiving in accordance with religious observances; fasting was frequently involved, and prayer. At times, if a harvest was bountiful, or a threatening drought ended, a period of thanksgiving was held.  In other instance where there was an alleviation of danger to a community in some form, or a success, thanksgiving could also be observed. In summation, the tradition was not uniform, and celebrations were sporadic, held for particular reasons, and even differed from community to community.


During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress declared a few days each year as observances of Thanksgiving. During this struggle for independence, the cause of a free America was at many times in grave danger. As the Continental Army battled with the powerful military forces of the British empire, victory for the American cause was never certain. Therefore, as time wore on, and the citizen army of the United States continued to endure, the congress would periodically issue proclamations for the observance of thanksgiving for the preservation of the army and the country.


When George Washington became president of the United States, he issued the first National Proclamation for Thanksgiving by the Federal Government in 1789. This proclamation was given on October 3rd of that year in what was then the American capital city of New York. Washington called upon Americans to observe Thursday, November 26th of that year as a national day of Thanksgiving. Washington gave thanks to almighty God for the successful deliverance of the United States as a free nation in the war of independence, for the blessings of religious and civil liberties, and for the establishment of the federal constitution and the government. An excerpt of a portion of this proclamation follows below:


Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”


Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.[2]


Washington had wanted to make the celebration of Thanksgiving a national holiday and had actually attempted to generate support for this in congress. Despite this, a national designation of an official Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November did not occur under Washington’s presidency, although John Adams and James Madison (the 2nd and 4th presidents of the United States) did declare days of Thanksgiving.


In the decades that followed, Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated in various forms throughout the American states. Each state had its own unique way of celebrating, and again, the date was not uniform. Even local communities would hold celebrations of Thanksgiving for various reasons relevant to that community. In 1817, New York State became the first state to adopt a Thanksgiving holiday. While several states followed suit, the days of observance differed. Additionally, these celebrations were much more common in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic; the Southern states did not regularly participate in these traditions. In New England, however, the story of the Pilgrims and the celebration of that first thanksgiving was widely remembered and revered, and many New Englanders looked upon these settlers as their direct ancestors. Therefore, Thanksgiving celebrations in the New England states were constant, and the tradition was largely related to honoring and having reverence for their ancestors.


In 1827, Sara Josepha Hale, a woman from New Hampshire and the editor of a ladies magazine called “Godey’s Ladies Book”, launched a campaign to have Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale was also responsible for creating the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb”.


Some 36 years later, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation marking the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday in observance of Thanksgiving, keeping with Washington’s original proclamation in 1789. Like Washington, Lincoln issued the proclamation on October 3rd. Lincoln asked for Gods mercy in the time of terrible Civil War and mourned the unprecedented loss of life which had occurred thus far in the conflict. He also asked for prayers and Gods mercy on the families of those mourning the deaths of loved ones. Part of this proclamation is featured below:


It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.[3]


Americans celebrated Thanksgiving in this manner each year until 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the third Thursday of November. He did this to promote consumerism and increased retail sales; this decision was met with virulent opposition. Reluctantly, FDR returned the holiday to its original place (the fourth Thursday in November) in 1941.


Ultimately, while the modern celebration of Thanksgiving in America has lost much of its religious and ancestral significance, the holiday is still a community and family oriented celebration. Traditional American foods like Turkey, Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce and more remain staples of the day. And most importantly, a sense of community, the value of family and thankfulness for good health remain. Food drives are held annually, and private charity, volunteerism, and other selfless acts of kindness are commonly committed.


In conclusion, as we the people of the United States finds ourselves in a tumultuous period of civil division, political unrest, and the core principles of our nation are questioned and assaulted, we would do well to reflect this Thanksgiving upon the meaning of the holiday and the sacrifices of our ancestors. By learning and understanding our history, we may find that the exceptionalism and righteousness of our founding principles may become evident on a mass scale once again, and with the help of providence, unity, peace, and patriotism may sweep across our land and heal our nation. May god bless each and every reader and their families. Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] The mayflower compact. Mass.gov. (n.d.). https://www.mass.gov/news/the-mayflower-compact#:~:text=Thus%2C%20the%20Mayflower%20Compact%20was,Massachusetts%20Bay%20Colony%20in%201691.


[2] “Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0091. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 131–132.]


[3] Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving. American Battlefield Trust. (n.d.). https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/abraham-lincolns-proclamation-thanksgiving?ms=googlepaid&gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAiAx_GqBhBQEiwAlDNAZgWo3zkrZ15emoowli9LP5bo7JiGBpxrxBgt3zE0_oqHfZ0bGUocIxoCh-QQAvD_BwE



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