Perspectives: Forget the tall tales, this is why the pilgrims were thankful

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OPINION — It’s interesting how some of our most popular holidays are more often defined by the symbols of our celebration and less by the substance of why we celebrate them.

Independence Day is joyfully represented by flags, parades, fireworks, cookouts and picnics, yet few people bother to observe the underlying reason for which that day exists. Likewise, Thanksgiving is synonymous with food, football and family, followed closely by combat shopping for Christmas.

How differently might we approach these holidays if we individually understood their historical significance and why they were observed in the first place?

Few people realize that much of what we’re told about the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 is largely a tall tale. Most of us were raised to understand that a year after landing at Plymouth Rock, the hard-working Pilgrims, along with certain Indian tribes they’d befriended, celebrated their good fortune with a bounteous feast.

But this is a patently false account.

In the essay “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax”, Richard J. Marbury documents that the Pilgrims’ first few years were marked by starvation, laziness and corruption. The Pilgrims were practicing an early form of socialism that required all of their profits and benefits be placed into the common stock and all of their meat, drink, apparel and provisions be taken out of the common stock.

Able-bodied men balked at the prospect of spending their strength laboring for others who were not contributing to colony’s efforts. Rather than work in the fields, many colonists instead preferred to steal the growing crops before they could be harvested.

The famines ended in 1623 when Gov. William Bradford replaced their collectivist economic approach with a free market that allowed each household to own land and to keep or trade whatever they produced.

Marbury explains:

Suddenly, ‘instead of famine now God gave them plenty,’ Bradford wrote, ‘and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.’ Thereafter, he wrote, ‘any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.’

Now that sounds a lot more like the Thanksgiving celebration in which we grew up believing.

Thanksgiving was not a set holiday throughout much of the early years of American history. The colonies held a variety of days of fasting and thanksgiving at various times throughout the year.

The first national thanksgiving day wasn’t held until 1777 when the Continental Congress suggested a national day be set aside to recognize the hand of Divine Providence in their quest for independence. Over the next few years, other thanksgiving proclamations were issued for various reasons.

It wasn’t until 1789 that President George Washington issued the proclamation designating a national day of thanks in November. It’s worth noting that, as president, he did not simply impose this proclamation with the stroke of his pen but instead requested the governors of the several states announce and observe the day within their states.

That respect for the authority of state governments is how federalism is supposed to work.

Though subsequent presidents would also issue thanksgiving proclamations, the holiday would not become a permanent annual celebration until Abraham Lincoln made it one in the 1860s.

Note the wording that George Washington used in his first proclamation:

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.

Washington went on to urge the citizens of our nation to render “sincere and humble thanks” to God for His care and protection and “signal and manifold mercies.” He asked that the American people “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”

Note the focus on humble gratitude. Can you imagine the tsunami of outrage and triggered meltdowns that would wash across America if a president – or any political leader, for that matter – were to use such language today?

Our take on Thanksgiving is very different from the kind of introspection, modesty and authentic gratitude shown by those who first instituted the custom. Of course, unlike many of them, few of us have ever really known a time of want or have seen our very existence hang in the balance.

Perhaps this is why an attitude of entitlement permeates nearly every part of our society today.

We may imagine that we are too enlightened or sophisticated to render gratitude to a higher authority than ourselves. But no one in our time has come close to replicating the kind of beneficial result for future generations that wiser and infinitely more grateful founding generations did.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • mmsandie November 20, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Wow what a great article and I did read further about the hoax. I,m from New England, visited Plymouth, went to the village, ate and saw the re enactment of the first they didin,t eat turkey..thanks for the article.

  • desertgirl November 20, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for the informative article. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  • comments November 20, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    so the pilgrims were thankful to no longer be communists? hmm


    i dont even think karl marx was around in them days


  • bikeandfish November 21, 2017 at 9:14 am

    The Mises Institute has been publishing the garbage for 18 years and is a site dedicated to “Austrian Economics”. Not exactly the best source for in-depth American history.

    A real historian has analyzed this pervasive myth and found it doesn’t fit the narrative pushed by the likes of Hyde, a radio/blog personality not a historian.

    ““Open field farming was not some kind of communism. All the villagers were tenants of the landlord.”

    “Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.”

    ““Under the terms of the contract … for the first seven years no individual settler could own a plot of land. To ensure that each farmer received his fair share of good or bad land, the slices were rotated each year, but this was counterproductive. Nobody had any reason to put in extra hours and effort to improve a plot if next season another family received the benefit.”

    Summary from Slate “The pilgrims’ transition—which, again, happened after the first Thanksgiving—can indeed be used to illustrate the benefits of individualism or the tragedy of the commons. But the Rush Limbaugh crowd should note that the settlers at Plymouth were rebelling against the rules set by a corporation, not against the strictures of some Stalinist collective farm or a hippie”

    “It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

    “The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

    “As for Jamestown, there was famine. But historians dispute the characterization of the colony as a collectivist society. “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate,” said Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a historian at New York University and the author of “The Jamestown Project.” “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

    Hyde can and should do better than this internet meme. History is complex and shows no loyalty to one political or economic ideology.

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