The real meaning of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is rich in traditions. The turkey. The dressing. The pumpkin pie. The family assembled in prayerful reverence in remembrance of the plight of the early settlers of this country — much of which is complete fiction.

The Plymouth colonists set out to live in an idealistic communal fashion. Everyone would share equally in the products of the colony. But after nearly starving to death in 1621 and 1622, Gov. William Bradford abandoned the social experiment and gave each family its own plot of land, and whatever was produced on it was the rightful property of the owner to consume or trade.

Gov. William Bradford

The result was a prosperous harvest in 1623 followed by a feast of Thanksgiving.

Capitalism saved the colony.

The American Institute of Economic Research has posted online its own retelling of the Thanksgiving story, along with passages from Bradford’s recollections from “Of Plymouth Plantation,” translated into more modern spelling.

The AIER notes that the colony was attempting to live in the manner described in Plato’s Republic in which all would work and share goods in common, ridding themselves of selfishness and achieving higher social state. The problem was that hard work was not rewarded and laggardness and sloth went unpunished.

Bradford wrote:

“For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could man husbands brook it.”

Before the colony could die off from starvation, Bradford divvied up the land and introduced private property.

The governor wrote:

“And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end. … This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would a ledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

And the result was, again in Bradford’s words:

“By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

This is the real lesson of the first Thanksgiving: Capitalism always triumphs over communist utopian fantasies. Humans will work for their own self interest and, instead of it being greedy and rapacious, all benefit and prosper.

A version of this blog has been posted on Thanksgiving for several years.

3 comments on “The real meaning of Thanksgiving

  1. Rincon says:

    Conservative myths die hard. For a slightly different account,

    Among other information here: “As Kate Zernike of the New York Times pointed out in 2010, the timeline doesn’t quite work. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621. The system of collective ownership known as the “common course” was abandoned in 1623. And it was abandoned not because of famine but because the settlers wanted to make more money. As for Jamestown, their biggest problems were drought and malaria, not socialism.”

    Don’t get me wrong. They found capitalism to be superior, but the excess embellishment is typical of Conservative alternative facts – unless of course, my link has the alternative facts. No one can know because propaganda is everywhere in our deteriorating nation and our morality has deteriorated to the extent that, as long as the lies are told by the “correct” team, we’re quite willing to forgive and especially, to forget. Kind of like crotch grabbing. We’re fine with it it as long as it’s a Republican. Once upon a time, Gary Hart was dropped like a hot potato because of an extramarital affair with Donna Rice. Those were the days

  2. deleted says:

    Thanks Rincon. Nothing is quite as simple as the stories that get told after fact is it?

    It’s too bad that people have the need to shove the square of history into the neat little round holes of their ideologies.

    Just furthers the whole “those that forget their history are bound to repeat it” tales because if history is just “re-created” instead of remembered, how to learn anything from what’s happened?

  3. Steve says:

    I am on record: successful economic grand strategy entails a balance between cooperation and self-interest. Extremes in one direction or the other are unsustainable. According to Governor Bradford, extreme communalism wasn’t doing the job in Plymouth, Massachusetts ca. 1623.

    PBS never tells a lie! (It’s true, a liberal told me so!)

    Thanksgiving wasn’t a holiday until 1863.
    Though there are some that outweigh others, such as the Plymouth example; the fall of the Berlin Wall and a cooling of the “Cold War”, there are many reasons to give thanks and they continue adding up to this day.

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