Why we should still celebrate the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving

By Jarrett Stepman | The Daily Signal

For most American families, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones, eat delicious food and perhaps watch some football.

But not everyone is pleased with the celebration of this holiday, and some have taken to maligning its “originators,” the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims in America

An editorial in Al Jazeera labeled Thanksgiving a “thoroughly nauseating affair,” one that is “saturated with disgrace.” Other articles have called the Pilgrims genocidal toward Native Americans, or argued that the original idea of a Thanksgiving feast is a “myth.”

“Debunking” the nature and origin of Thanksgiving seems to be turning into its own cottage industry.

But the Pilgrim Thanksgiving story is based on real events. The small band of religious dissenters who crossed an ocean to a dangerous new world have, rightly, been given special prominence in the origin story of the United States.

A year after the Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts, Gov. William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving. As historian Rod Gragg noted:

The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to hold a thanksgiving event in the New World — although they appear to have been the first to do so in New England … It was the Pilgrims of Plymouth, however, who would be credited with establishing America’s distinctive Thanksgiving holiday — thanks to a joyful observance sometime in the autumn of 1621.

The Pilgrims gathered for a three-day feast with about 90 local Wampanoag Indians to celebrate a bountiful harvest following a year of toil (over half of the Pilgrims had died since they set out for America in 1620).

Though the food on the menu excluded modern items like pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, those who gathered for that Thanksgiving likely ate wild turkey, among other foods common in the area like venison and shellfish.

While later conflicts would ensue between the Pilgrims’ descendants and the descendants of the Indians who feasted with them, the initial contact between the cultures was positive and beneficial.

Political misunderstandings unfortunately led to future conflicts — in particular King Phillip’s War—in which atrocities were committed by both sides.

The Pilgrims would certainly be foreign to the conventions of modern America. They were, after all, a different people who lived in a harsher world than ours. But they don’t deserve to be maligned as genocidal monsters, nor should we dismiss the fact that they set incredibly beneficial norms for a future American culture.

Though America’s Thanksgiving conventions have morphed and evolved over the years, Thanksgiving has retained a permanent connection to the Pilgrims of New England. Many of the traditions they passed on have become integral to what is now the cultural heritage of the United States.

The Pilgrims came to America as part of a quest to be distinct. They set out to the New World to establish a new religious, social, and political order — to be free from the constraints of the Church of England, and free from what they saw as the corrupting influences of Holland, where they were staying temporarily.

It wasn’t necessarily religious liberty or pluralism that the Pilgrims sought, but space to create a society based on strict Protestant Christian teachings. As Massachusetts Bay leader John Winthrop once exclaimed in a sermon, the new colonies would be as a “city upon a hill.”

The Puritans wanted to be a beacon of light in a fallen world. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop said.

Nearly 400 years later, the idea of America as a kind of promised land continues to resonate.

The other great legacy the Pilgrims left us was a tradition of political consent and the seeds of republican government.

The Mayflower Compact, a relatively simple document, established a kind of covenant between the citizens of the new colony. It was the first such document in the New World creating a “civic body politic” through clear, written guidelines. It was an indirect antecedent to the Constitution of the United States and our tradition of placing laws above men.

Undoubtedly, the modern holiday of Thanksgiving has evolved from being a regional and haphazard holiday to a nationally celebrated one. Notable New England orators, such as Daniel Webster, kept the Pilgrim flame alive in the early 19th century by singing songs of remembrance of their way of life on “Forefathers’ Day,” a Thanksgiving precursor that is still celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

But Thanksgiving as we know it never became a formal holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln nationally recognized it. Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale had advocated a national Thanksgiving holiday for decades.

Thanksgiving has since grown to become a significant part of our nation’s shared cultural inheritance. Though our customs have evolved over the years, Thanksgiving has retained a permanent connection to its origins with the Pilgrims of New England — and for that, we can be thankful.

Image courtesy of Public domain

27 thoughts on “Why we should still celebrate the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving

    • The “Left” in all instances resides under the banner of The Democrat Party and as such is one and the same. If not – it’s up to each leftwing segment to stand up…be counted and call out those who are not recognized…or kindly shut up.

  1. We should all be thinking of how much is fair in reparations to the descendants of slaves,which built the wealth of many American families.

    $10 Trillion? $20 Trillion? I don’t know,but a lot is owed.

    • Slavery has existed for almost all of recorded history. In fact, we’re all descendants of slaves. Slavery was especially ubiquitous in the ancient world. In Mesopotamia as far back as 3500 BC. Ancient Egyptians were able to sell themselves and children into slavery. Slavery was a common practice in ancient Greece. Jews and Romans owned Christian slaves during the height of the Roman Empire. Early Muslims owned Christian slaves. Slavery was common in Europe during the Dark Ages. Ancient Native Americans owned slaves too. And, more recently, some Native Americans actually sold their slaves to Europeans.

      Forms of slavery existed in Africa before Europeans arrived. The Atlantic Slave Trade, on which many educators now focus, was a relatively recent occurrence in the history of slavery. It was the Danes who started the African slave trade. Other Europeans quickly indulged, and slavery first raised its ugly head in the European colonies at Jamestown in 1608 or so. On the other hand, there was no slavery in the other European colony to the north, the 1620 Plymouth Plantation.

      Isn’t it reasonable to argue that the beginning of the end of slavery actually began with the U.S. Founders who first coined the phrase ‘that all men are created equal’? The end certainly didn’t happen overnight. But given the ubiquitous history of slavery throughout the world over many thousands of years, that slavery was ultimately ended 90 years after the founding of the United States is a relatively remarkable feat.

      Today, globally, there are an estimated 45.8 million slaves, a greater number than at any other time in history, according to The Global Slavery Index. Rather than play this blame-game for the sake of political expediency, wouldn’t we be better advised to continue the quest to end slavery everywhere?

    • Slavery existed in Africa before Europeans arrived. The Atlantic Slave Trade, on which you focus, was a relatively recent occurrence in the history of slavery. The Danes started the African slave trade. Other Europeans quickly indulged, and slavery first raised its ugly head in the colonies at Jamestown in 1608 or so. Notably however, there was no slavery in the 1620 Plymouth Plantation.

      The beginning of the end of slavery began with the U.S. Founders who first coined the phrase – ‘all men are created equal’. The end certainly didn’t happen overnight. But given the ubiquitous history of slavery over thousands of years, that it ended only 90 years after the founding of the United States is a relatively remarkable feat.

      Today, there are an estimated 45.8 million slaves, a greater number than at any other time in history, according to the Global Slavery Index. So, instead of blaming today’s Americans for the sake of political expediency, wouldn’t we be better advised to continue the quest to end slavery everywhere?

      • Just as the Africans that brought slaves for sale to the shores of western Africa to sell to traders in anchored ships,the descendants of those brought want actual money,and are not interested in the current slave trade.To them then and now it’s never been about morals or law,it’s ’bout dem dollar dollar bills y’all( or Nike,North Face,Gucci,Mercedes,Ralph Lauren as substitute goods).

        BLM. just not as much as loot

        • Reparations are a cheap way of buying off the black community while virtue signaling to these Democrat Party plantation dwellers…they would be far better off leaving the plantation and chains behind by supporting conservatives who are enacting policies that will better us all…blacks and all racial minorities…and women have never seen the numbers of employment and resultant prosperity…35% of black voters support Donald Trump..so keep your handfulls of chicken feed…Democrat Party will need it far more than those prospering in the Trump economy…Republican Party coffers and Trump election hold hundreds of millions while Democrat Party is in debt…

          In actuality you, your party and myriad nonprofits should be targeting African nations first?

  2. There is a truth not universally acknowledged today. But it should be. The Mayflower Compact was, as originally penned, a primer in socialism, defining the Pilgrim’s governance as a ‘commonwealth’. But it quickly proved to be counter productive, demanding a radical change to the first instance of a universal free market economy in the new world. In fact, its the first instance of a universal free market capitalism anywhere.

    Despite Plymouth Colony’s three newly learned skills from Native Americans – how to grow corn, catch fish, gather nuts and berries – in 1623 the colony was barely producing enough food to survive.

    “The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, 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; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
    William Bradford, Governor, Plymouth Plantation

    While at first it was an experiment, an innovation necessitated by a ‘starving time’ – little did these colonists realize at the outset of their decision to establish ‘private property’ (the innovative convention that saved their individual and collective souls) that it would, 150 years later, fertilize seeds of Independence in a New World with the recognition that…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Thanksgiving indeed.

    • You do realize that this new found “owned” property was already
      “owned” by aboriginal peoples,right?

      At this point we see that very same group of aboriginal people,that have been given the tiniest of fractions of this great land fighting for their very freedom from incarceration and sovereignty.
      Pipelines crossing lands given through treaty is NOT the sort of “Free Market Capitalism”
      that I wish to practice or be represented through government rule.

      • Not true. The so called ‘aborigines’ had similar free market governance between themselves before the Pilgrims ever colonized in 1620. They had ‘courts’ when their contracts were breached. And they went to war with each other when territorial negotiations failed.

        In reality, the Pilgrim’s free market governance was agreed upon with the so called ‘aborigines’ at the time, some of whom were speaking fluent English at the time, having engaged in negotiated trade with Europeans a century before the Pilgrims ever landed. And yes, there were disagreements (breaches of contracts) from time to time. Such is human nature.

        For example, it was during consultations with the Iroquois Nation chiefs, at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744, where Benj. Franklin began to learn the basic Iroquois Nation concepts of state’s rights governance that Franklin later cited to ultimately unite the colonies.

        In fact, the ‘treaties’ of which you speak are an example of free market capitalism. They are contracts. And they worked very well for the most part until the French and Indian War in 1754, at which time the so called ‘aborigines’, already engaged in corporate trade, were forced to choose sides in what we would today classify as a hostile corporate take-over. Not only is the history intriguing, its complex.

        The over-simplified revisionist history, of which you speak, is the result of the political propaganda now taught in our schools and one of the significant reasons most people have such a mistaken perspective of the history of free markets today.

        • The Dakota pipeline,which is moving Canadian oil over Indian territory is dead wrong,and should be stopped.

          Do you agree?

          • Actually, it’s moving oil ‘under’ the contested territory. And it’s not ‘territory’, per se, that’s in question. It’s the safety of Standing Rock drinking water. Ultimately, even if Energy Transfer is allowed to proceed, if they damage Standing Rock’s drinking water, they’ll be held financially accountable for actual and punitve damages.

            See below.

      • It may be stopped. After all, what you think or what I think, at this time, are matters of hypothetical speculation.

        The contracts, permits and previous court rulings, are being litigated in court as we speak. The beauty of our free market system is that there are uniform commercial codes (the law) governing the contract process. Standing Rock has access to the judicial system as does Energy Transfer, the company behind the pipeline. Frankly, I agree with the judicial system, no matter what the outcome may be. You, on the other, are predisposed to a specific outcome without knowing the facts of the matter. That’s your right, as it is for you to offer it here. But your right to speak out, doesn’t mean your opinion is correct.

        • It just seems that if the Indians agreed to this”Free Market” of which you speak,why are they destitute without vast land holdings in prime lands?

          We’re all equal.It’s just that some are more equal than others.

          • Good question.

            First of all, Native Americans aren’t all destitute, anymore than are all African Americans in Chicago’s South Side, LA’s Watts district, or Baltimore’s Fairfield and Dundalk Cityside neighborhoods, or are White applachians in West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee, etc.

            Meanwhile, you are again mis-representing a popular allegory – Orwell’s Animal Farm. Specifically, conflating the difference between ‘equal access’ and ‘equal outcome’.

            We are all individuals – and because we have ‘equal access’ to constitutional free markets and the constitutional protections under the law, doesn’t mean we have, or even want, ‘equal outcomes’.

            There is no way Muriel, the goat, for example, could ever equal the physical productivity of Boxer, the hard-working horse. But she, ostensibly, had ‘equal access’ to education, until she didn’t.

            Orwell was addressing equal access, not equal outcome.

          • After just witnessing rich people buying admission to college for their inferior minded children should give you lesson that access is education.In the wealthy buying their way in through direct bribery or mom and dad went to Yale meaning easy admission for their kids(more equal)than children of lesser means that have DONE THE WORK.
            Not just colleges either,poor elementary and middle schools offer less educational opportunity than well off schools.Fact,and I have witnessed it firsthand.

          • And those people went to jail for their actions. In the meantime, illegal aliens breaking into our country illegally are getting free tuition. How ironic.

          • People do bad things, including ‘rich people’ bribing school officials to give their children unfair advantage. The question is, what system best holds them accountable. A government bureaucracy in which no one is accountable or a free market in which individuals can hold one another accountable based upon the rule of law.

            In the case of the $25 million college bribery case, it was two courageous private individuals who filed the class action case with the Justice Department. And it isn’t just the ‘rich people’ being held accountable. The colleges and their staff are also named in the lawsuit.

            And I can cite so-called poor elementary and middle schools that provide excellent educations, as demonstrated by their cost to taxpayers and student performance…as well as schools in wealthy districts with marginal student performance. So what’s your point?

  3. Why we should still celebrate the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving, it’s part of our history,
    they made us what we are today!

    If you don’t like it TS.


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