Thanksgiving and the Tea Party

The new populist right is filtering America’s most inclusive tradition through a political lens. In doing so it feeds an alarmingly reductive view of national history, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
25 November 2010

Today, 25 November, is Thanksgiving, the warmest and most cherished of public holidays in the United States. It is a private, domestic festival. Independence Day is more likely to be associated with bunting, brass-bands and bombast, Thanksgiving is intimate, quiet and non-commercial: an occasion when tens of millions of Americans gather at home to celebrate with a family meal (turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie) their gratitude for the blessings America has brought them.

At least, that was the prevailing idea. Now, Kate Bernike reports in the New York Times, the devotees of the Tea Party maintain that what Thanksgiving really celebrates is Americans’ liberation from socialism. The early settlers may have arrived more than two centuries before socialism came into existence; but the Tea Party - drawing on a stew of notions long in circulation on the political right - view them as having “realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”

An educational course that is highly popular with the Tea Party folks and their cheerleaders at Fox News and elsewhere maintains that “the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them” (see Kate Zernike, "The Pilgrims Were...Socialists?", New York Times, 20 November 2010).

The fable shows every sign of having been twisted into shape to suit the contemporary mash of populist, individualist, libertarian politics that the Tea Party champions. But here’s the odd thing: there is a certain historical basis for it.

The traces of history

There are just two near-contemporary accounts of the pioneering settlement of Plymouth in New England (established slightly later than the Virginia colony to the south). The first is contained in a pamphlet by Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England, first published in 1624; the second is William Bradford’s classic Of Plimothe Plantation, written almost a quarter of a century later (though Bradford may well have derived his own account of the first Thanksgiving from Winslow’s).

In these texts can be found two versions of the origins of Thanksgiving, though one is almost certainly the result of cultural confusion. This is Bradford’s account of a feast in 1621 - a sort of frontier diplomatic dinner - between the people Bradford later called “Pilgrims” and the local “Indian” tribe and their “king”, Massasoit. Bradford describes how the colonists sent four men out to hunt, who returned with a large quantity of “fowl” (not necessarily turkeys); and how the Indians contributed the carcasses of five deer. That event is widely remembered as the First Thanksgiving (see A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving [PublicAffairs, 2007]).

The other version attributes the festival to an event in summer 1623, as described by Winslow (and later by Bradford). A drought causes the crop planted by the settlers - corn and beans - to fail. They respond by humbling themselves before the Lord in prayer and fasting. “Oh, the mercy of our God”, Winslow writes, “the clouds gathered together on all sides, and the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain” that the corn and the beans revived. The settlers thank their God for His mercy.

That is how Edward Winslow tells the story. It is worth pointing out that there is nothing specifically American about the core of the story. All over the world, long before the 17th century, people thanked what deities they believed in for a successful harvest. As Englishmen, the (future) Pilgrims would have been used to harvest celebrations in their birthplace.

Winslow adds an additional observation, which Bradford expands upon. When the settlers had first arrived at Plymouth, all their slender property was held in common, and food distributed to each according to his need. In spring 1623, they decided to allow each family to grow its own food on its own plot. Winslow describes the motive thus: “considering that self-love, wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbour’s, and also the base disposition of some drones”.

William Bradford elaborates the point by saying that the Pilgrims’ experience “may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing”. Bradford’s editor Samuel Eliot Morison notes that Bradford was here following the 16th-century French philosopher, Jean Bodin, who criticised Plato on this issue in his book De Republica (1586).

The Pilgrims were led by men who had determined to try a new life in a new country, and who chose a long ocean voyage to the new world because they feared persecution either in England (ruled by Charles I and his intolerant Archbishop Laud) or their refuge of Holland (where the Spanish-Hapbsburg overlords were about to end a twelve-year truce with the rebellious Dutch).

But the country that had formed them was one where the market economy already operated, with its associated sentiments. Many of them - as one of the Pilgrim leaders, Robert Cushman, pointed out in a trenchant sermon - were motivated not by godly wishes but by the “belly god” of greed and the desire to own land and become gentlemen.

Moreover all of them, godly or profane, were engaged in a capitalist enterprise. They had borrowed money for the expedition from financiers who would have to be repaid. Their agreement over sharing land and property was the internal arrangement of a company of adventurers, of whom there were many such in 16th and 17th century England; this one just happened to include men and women with religious convictions.

The reinvented tradition

The combination of documentary record and the tantalising fragments in Edward Winslow and William Bradford’s accounts is evidence enough that the Tea Party rereading of Thanksgiving is wilfully anachronistic. True, the custom has taken a winding road to becoming the festival of inclusive and unifying national pride that it is today. It was well established in New England in colonial times, and royal governors announced days of thanksgiving long before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as an official holiday in 1863.

In the later 19th century, the great German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast pictured people from many nations of the world - African, Chinese, Irish and a Spanish lady in a mantilla - gathered around “Uncle Sam’s thanksgiving dinner”, with the slogan “Come one, come all, free and equal”. This was part of the process that made Thanksgiving a festival specially appreciated by new immigrants. Today, newcomers from the former Soviet Union’s “near abroad”, from southeast Asia and central America celebrate just as the Irish and the Germans did in Nast’s time.

So there are elements of “invented tradition” about Thanksgiving. But these have over time coalesced into a particularly benign, rich, wholesome - and non-political - event that expresses the “better angels” of the American spirit. Here, the Tea Party’s attempted reinvention of the custom for programmatic reasons would corrode all that is best about it.

The effort is a little alarming for another reason, namely that it is an example of a wider current tendency in American life to ideologise history. American universities are renowned for scrupulous, disciplined and fair-minded historical scholarship. But in parallel, influential bestsellers and websites bend the events and personalities of the Founding-Fathers era into an insidious narrative of national exceptionalism and self-aggrandisement. Even many high-school and college texts reflect this exceptionalist viewpoint.

The exposure of young Americans to an understanding of their own history in which freedom, democracy, and even capitalism are depicted as exclusively American inventions might in more confident and optimistic times be but one step on the route to a larger view. Today it, and the Tea Party’s latest intervention, feel rather part of a great narrowing.

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