A cottage industry has grown up about Thanksgiving. One where historical revisionists create a fantasy affair with plenty of straw men in attendance.
Forget what you learned about the first Thanksgiving being a celebration of a bountiful harvest, or an expression of gratitude to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through those harsh first months in an unfamiliar land. In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They 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.
Historians quibble with this interpretation. But the story, related by libertarians and conservatives for years, has taken on new life over the last year among Tea Party audiences, who revere early American history, and hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States.
Those of us with a U.S. grade school education see the holiday through the prism of the Pilgrims and Plymouth. While they initially held their property in common, parcels of land were soon allotted to individuals. The revisionists want to see this as an anti-socialist epiphany, but it was simply a matter of practicality. Imagine you’re going to settle a new colony in a strange land. The early American version of Survivor. Wouldn’t you pool resources in the way of food and supplies just as a practical matter. Perspective colonists, having heard stories of both friendly and savage Indians, wouldn’t it also be best at first to stick together for the common defense. As a political theory, the colonist at Plymouth would have had to wait two hundred years for Marx to supply an actual political theory to upon which to base a socialistic society. Fewer Pilgrims died from starvation after the years passed simply because they became better at cultivating American crops like corn and at storing grain for the winter. Weather was colder at Plymouth than now and colder than colonists. Thus it took some physical and mental adjustment to find ways to provide adequate food and shelter their. In Jamestown there was the famous famine – partly due to an unseasonal drought. It was not began as a communal enterprise but rather as group of corporate contractors of the London Company. The Pilgrims were part of or a sect of Puritans who thought they were the true chosen people, Teaching About Thanksgiving
The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. They were victims of bigotry in England, but some of them were themselves religious bigots by our modern standards. The Puritans and the Pilgrims saw themselves as the “Chosen Elect” mentioned in the book of Revelation. They strove to “purify” first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end.(4) They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the “Pilgrim” image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by “Mather the Elder.” In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth”, i.e., the Pilgrims.(5) In as much as these Indians were the Pilgrim’s benefactors, and Squanto, in particular, was the instrument of their salvation that first year, how are we to interpret this apparent callousness towards their misfortune?
The Pilgrims were the prophets of the End-Times of their day. Europe was doomed and the land across the Atlantic was the promised land for the apple of their god’s eye. If the Pilgrims themselves, small pox or circumstances wiped out any non-Puritan residents of their promised land, than they saw that as their deity acting on their agenda. Just like some modern fundamentalists saw hurricane Katrina as punishment for the sins of the city of New Orleans.
One of the problems with revisionists such as Limbaugh, W. Cleon Skousen’s right-wing screed “The Making of America” and some crap published by libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises is how they define socialism ( using the adjective statism has become the new kool descriptor to use). Ever shared a sandwich with someone. You’re a socialist. You think the air should be privatized and sold. You’re an all-American capitalist. Looking back on the economic history of the U.S. and capitalist Europe you see the obvious – markets are neither rational or perfect. So you’re for at least some kind of thin social safety net such as the U.S. has in programs like Medicare and Social Security. You’re a raving commie. Anything resembling communal living in European or North American history has become code for communism. And an example of failed communism at that. The following quote among other Lincoln speeches and writing has made him a statist/socialist/communist according to some conservative and right-wing libertarian web sites,
” These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people, and now that they have got into a quarrel with themselves, we are called upon to appropriate the people’s money to settle the quarrel.”
Speech to Illinois legislature, (January 1837); This is “Lincoln’s First Reported Speech”, found in the Sangamo Journal (28 January 1837) according to McClure’s Magazine (March 1896); also in Lincoln’s Complete Works (1905) ed. by Nicolay and Hay, Vol. 1, p. 24.
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits.”
First State of the Union Address (3 December 1861)
It used to be liberals who complained about political correctness and now it is mostly the Right. Yet for the most part it is the Right who has more and more intense sensitivities. Any questioning of capitalism such as Lincoln’s and how it should be structured is not to be questioned. Rather than an economic theory with some loosely defined borders – it has become an inerrant god in its own right. It can be criticized, but only by sycophant brotherhood of conservatives and libertarians.
One last angle to look at in early colonial America. native American Indians were pretty advanced in their agricultural practices and their governing institutions ( some tribes even had voting and property rights for women). The Indians had parcels of land cleared up and down the Atlantic coast. Some estimates suggest 30 to 40 acres of cleared ground or grassland per Indian in 1600. To a European the American continent may have looked like an untamed wilderness, but native Americans had carefully planned on the amount of land required to support each tribe. There were also – this varied by tribes seasonal settlements. Early European settlers thus stole or bought land rather than clear it themselves. The coastal lands were particularly strategic since they still relied on many finished goods from Europe. initially deforestation and other abuses of the forest commons were not a problem. Wildlife as fruits of the commons were another matter. Colonists discovered wildlife not only supplied an abundance of food it also supplied fur pelts and skins which became valued exports back in Europe. Overtrapping became a problem as early as the 1640s. Beavers that were once everywhere had nearly disappeared from Maine, New York ( east of Albnay) and much of New England. The Iroquois, who had managed those resources for centuries without depleting them suddenly had to seek beaver as far west as Illinois. In conservo and libertarian world there is no need to regulate the commons because capitalist will always act in their own best interests. The colonists – left to their own devices – did not see what was in their best interests nor did they act on them. Short term thinking and profits ruled the day. Indians joined the game. Their traditional culture compromised they soon started acting in a similar way. They ignored traditional limits on wildlife pelts in order to maintain trade with colonists. The result was sharp declines in the populations of animals that were valued for their skins such as martens, otters, and foxes. As the colonialist population grew, it brought overhunting. Large game animals such as moose, elk, turkeys and bears numbers plummeted. Massachusetts enacted its first deer season restrictions as early as 1694 in response to thin deer herds. They even had to enact new civil positions – previously unheard of in North America – game wardens. Good old unregulated commerce had nearly disappeared beaver and other fur-bearing animals east of the Appalachian Mountains. Large game animals became extremely scare within 60 miles of the Atlantic Ocean down the coast of North America. Thanksgiving’s official bird the wild turkey, once abundant, was rare in the wild by 1763.