Pin It

Thanksgiving is the day we all reflect on what we are grateful for, the toil others before us went through so that we can eat at table full of bounty, and evaluate our priorities to ensure we are giving thanks for the right things. As part of this reflection, we turn to the original story of Thanksgiving.

From Benjamin Franklin to Michael Medved, Americans have not only sought out this story as one that captures part of the essence of what makes America exceptional, but we have also tried to find the historical truth of the story. It is important to get the story right–and rest assured, it’s a good truth–just as it is important to understand the beginnings of the American Revolution.

A recounting by Benjamin Franklin from his autobiography on the First Thanksgiving (and one that my family reads out loud each Thanksgiving):

Instead of a Fast They Proclaimed a Thanksgiving

“There is a tradition that in the planting of New England, the first settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is generally the case when a civiliz’d people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness country. Being so piously dispos’d, they sought relief from heaven by laying their wants and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation and discourse on these subjects kept their minds gloomy and discontented, and like the children of Israel there were many dispos’d to return to the Egypt which persecution had induc’d them to abandon.

“At length, when it was proposed in the Assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer of plain sense rose and remark’d that the inconveniences they suffer’d, and concerning which they had so often weary’d heaven with their complaints, were not so great as they might have expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthen’d; that the earth began to reward their labour and furnish liberally for their subsistence; that their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious.

“He therefore thought that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable and lead more to make them contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being, if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving. His advice was taken, and from that day to this, they have in every year observ’d circumstances of public felicity sufficient to furnish employment for a Thanksgiving Day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed.”

The most striking part of Franklin’s account is that these settlers were celebrating “the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious”–not just getting through a brutal journey and winter. Michael Medved has done some heavy lifting on this subject–he has penned several articles and dedicated many hours of his show to discussing the religious element of the Pilgrims’ new colony.

“Most children learn that the Mayflower settlers came to the New World to escape persecution and to establish religious freedom. But the early colonists actually pursued purity, not tolerance and sought to build fervent, faith-based utopias, not secular regimes that consigned religion to a secondary role. The distinctive circumstances that allowed these fiery believers of varied denominations to cooperate in the founding of a new nation help to explain America’s contradictory religious traditions – as simultaneously the most devoutly Christian society in the western world, and the country most accommodating to every shade of exotic belief and practice.”

Forbes Magazine‘s Jerry Bowyer places the colony’s socialist beginnings and their subsequent complete disavowal of this approach in the context of today’s Occupy protests:

“But the Pilgrims learned and prospered. And what they learned, we have forgotten and we fade.  Now, new waves of ignorant masses flood into parks and public squares. New Platonists demand control of other people’s property. New True Levelers legally occupy the prestige pulpits of our nation, secular and sacred.

“And now, as then, the productive class of our now gigantic, colony-turned-superpower, learn and teach again the painful lessons of history. Collectivism violates the iron laws of human nature. It has always failed. It is always failing, and it will always fail. I thank God that it is failing now. Providence is teaching us once again.”

In some ways I think another story we ought to examine is that of Jamestown, a colony that preceded Plymouth and where a true meritocracy took hold almost immediately in the face of famine (and a foreign-policy nightmare that Ron Paul most certainly could not have glad-handed his way out of).

In any case, we have a story of a people seeking not to compromise in their beliefs but to found a society based on a constant truth and where they could prosper in a climate of liberty–and experiment with the best political system to achieve these ends. 150 years later, the Founding Fathers took the lessons from Plymouth–and from Jamestown, from England, and from Rome–and created the best system the world has ever known.

For that, I’m thankful, and I’m willing to fight so that future generations of Americans can continue to give thanks.

*Additional reading–>The difference between the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and the Separatists. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.