Thanksgiving and American Mythology

by on November 25, 2019 · 2 comments

in History, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

As we head into the holiday season in the midst of one of the most divisive cultural and political moments in U.S. history, many people might be looking to the long American tradition of Thanksgiving as a moment of solace that evokes national unity.

Unfortunately, just like the wholesome fantasies of the Golden Era of bipartisanship that never existed being sold in some political quarters, the story of the first Thanksgiving is equally mythological.

It’s not just that tales of the first Thanksgiving that many of us learned in school or around our family dinner tables are largely inaccurate, it’s also that our entire conception of the noble Puritans fleeing persecution to found a sanctuary of religious freedom is flatly wrong.  As James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong put it in a New York Times piece in 2017 :

The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those who settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money, Mr. Loewen said.

“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”

Indeed, what the Separatists (which is what the Puritan “Pilgrims” actually called themselves) who came to occupy indigenous land wanted was not a free, diverse beloved community but a walled fortress.  As historian John Beckman puts it:

William Bradford was nobody’s Democrat.  He crossed the Atlantic to build a fortress in the wilderness where he could wall out natural and social evils and wall in his tidy hive of “Saints.” He was the first in a long line of American fortress builders—from slave owners and Klansmen to corporations and country clubs—elitists, oligarchs, and authoritarians for whom the wilderness was either weeds to be incinerated or woods to be hewn into exclusionary towns.  He was also the first great American curmudgeon.

Thus, the Separatists fought constant peril in terms of sickness, starvation, brutal winters, and indigenous people fighting to keep their homeland not for freedom, but for an authoritarian theocracy with little patience for things like tolerance or diversity.  One of the little-known conflicts in early Colonial American history had to do with the Separatists’ efforts to drive out a troublesome commercial and ideological competitor, Thomas Morton.

Morton irritated Bradford to no end by choosing to trade and consort with the indigenous peoples he encountered rather than slaughter them as the fortress builders preferred.  He encouraged indentured servants to abandon their oppressive conditions and join him as equals and mocked what he saw as the Separatists’ humorless religious piety and hostility to classical education.

In Beckman’s entertaining history, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, he notes of America’s first countercultural figure that he was a “threat to [the Separatists’] fastidious Utopia”:

Thomas Morton . . .  founded a camp of free-loving bondservants within striking distance.  A lover of wilderness, who consorted with Indians, a radical democrat and reckless hedonist, Morton represented an opposing side of the incipient American character, the gleefully unruly side.  Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless, he anticipated the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic.

His experiment in insanely energized democracy at his anything-goes Merry Mount colony, thirty miles north of Plymouth’s spiky fortress, made confetti of their Mayflower Compact.  Bradford’s coup to bring it down, in the spring of 1627 [just a few short years after the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621], counts as the first volley on the battlefield of American fun.

Hence, this Thursday, if I spare a moment to recognize the American history out of which our current tradition grew, I’ll be raising a glass of good liquor in memory of Thomas Morton rather than his Separatist enemies and the fortress builders who followed in their legacy.

The truth is that the Golden Era of American unity never existed, but the good fight to make the U.S. a more free, tolerant, and yes, fun, place has a rich tradition that is worthy of a joyful feast.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

sloanranger November 25, 2019 at 2:38 pm

A fine article, interesting & informative. Here’s a poem might give you a smile : )

Thanksgiving Dinner
by sloanranger

Turkey, stuffing and cornbread,
cranberry sauce and yams,
Grandpa’s studying the layout –
full stop for just a wee dram.

My wife glares at her Dad, then me,
“We’re not behaving like trash.”
then turns and yells at Sis,
Granp’s teeth are beginning to gnash.

My son is slurping his soup,
like he thinks it’s really delicious,
Uncle Pete’s regaling with off-color jokes,
that are really quite salacious.

I try to follow Grandpa’s lead,
and pour myself a wee drink,
the wife shakes her head, says:
“Stop it!” before I can think.

“You cut that out!” says she,
“Remember what happened last year.”
“But it’s a Holiday,” says Pete.
“Loosen up a bit, my dear.”

I nod energetic agreement
and I pour myself a glass,
“I’m telling you, Henry,” she says,
“you better show some class.”

“You know he sang, ‘Mammy’ last year,
on top the roof of the car?”
“Ouch,” said Pete, “brother-in-law,
maybe you went too far?”

“Tell me old son, what in the world –
ever got into you?”
I shrug, reply: “A man’s gotta do,
whatever a man’s gotta do.”

My son, meanwhile, is knocked flat –
clean right out of his chair;
his sister jumps, lands on top
and begins pulling his hair.

I’m reaching for another nip,
the first one’s wearing off;
quiet as a lamb I was,
until I began to cough.

“Put that down, right now!”
Her tone has turned quite arch,
she’s pointing her finger at me
and looking very harsh.

“But Luvy, just a wee one?
I promise you I’ll be good.”
“I’ll not be the laughing stock this year,
of the entire neighborhood.”

The kids, they’re still at fighting
and Grandpa’s doing his dance,
Pete, he’s sneaking drinks with me
whenever we have the chance.

By now, he’s given my wife a few
and pretty stiff ones, too,
still busy having a snit, of course,
and coming a bit unglued.

“Mum, whyn’t ya’ dance with Grandpa?”
my daughter’s yelling with joy.
Grandpa’s still doing his jig
and the girl’s still beating my boy.

Jumping around the table then,
the old dude loses a shoe;
feeling quite fit and able,
Pete is staggering round, too.

The wife takes my hand, leads me out,
I really have no choice –
besides, it sounds as though I am,
really in very good voice!

I make her put her slippers on
and take her by the hand,
then lift her up to the roof of the car,
though she can barely stand.

I follow her there, under the stars,
sing ‘Mammy,’ as loud as I can –
(I admit it would have been better
if only we’d had a band).

The wife wants to sing “Layla,” now,
but I say: “You’re in no condition.”
But wouldn’t ye know, she puts on a show –
ends up with a fine rendition.

After the coppers have left,
we’re all sitting around askance,
the kids have gone up to bed
but Grandpa’s still doing his dance.

Pete is passed out on the sofa,
I give my wife a slow leer:
she scowls, I shrug, then smile to myself – Thanksgiving will be back next year!

Author’s Note – And a good time was had by all. Everybody but Grandpa went to sleep early, and after he’d tucked everyone in, he finished his bottle in peace.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman November 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm

Lotta myths peddled in past American History by eminent historians and bought by many of us. I highly recommend the 2018 tome “These Truths : A History of the United States” by Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore.


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