The distinguished historian of early New England David D. Hall has an op-ed in the New York Times today, “Peace, Love, and Puritanism,” that is another rehabilitationist view of the English puritans who founded Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies in the seventeenth century. I don’t argue with anything he says, as he’s mostly arguing against the joyless, censorious stereotype of puritans most Americans carry around in their heads, thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne and H. L. Mencken–but I find his discussion of the “first thanksgiving” a little incomplete.
Hall asks, “Are our present-day values and practices aligned with the historical record, or have they been remade by our consumer culture? Is anything authentic in our own celebrations of Thanksgiving?” There’s a lot of American history he skips over in the nearly 400 years between 1621 and 2010. English New Englanders observed both “solemn day[s] of fasting and humiliation” as well as feast days irregularly, not just upon the harvest. Fasts were usually called for by local clergy to atone for the community’s sins that (according to their communitarian logic) may have resulted in a military loss, and feasts were called to celebrate a military victory over the Indians, or later, the French. Both fasts and feasts were opportunities to reaffirm tribalism, of a world view of us versus them. The history of fasting and feasting in the English communities of New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should be written in blood–both blood in the sense of kinship ties, and in the sense of the shedding of outsiders’ blood in war.
Many readers probably know that the Thanksgiving we observe was only instituted in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. This is entirely in keeping with the old New England tradition of holding a feast of thanksgiving to celebrate a bloody victory over an enemy–in Lincoln’s case, 1863 saw the war turning decisively towards the Union with victories at Gettysburg in the east and Vicksburg in the west. (I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there were a lot of feasts of thanksgiving observed in the South that year.) But of course, the nineteenth century was fully of bloody victories for the United States, victories in imperial wars against Mexico and Native Americans from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. It’s these victories–begun among English-speaking people in the seventeenth century in New England–over Native peoples and other European and North American rivals, and the attendant seizure and marshaling of natural resources, that made the United States the prosperous country it became in the twentieth century.
Americans should observe the feast of thankgiving this week if they can. But those of us fortunate enough to keep the feast should think for a moment about the origins of our vaunted and celebrated American wealth, and remember well our modern-day imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves: at what price our prosperity? At whose expense our comfort?
If only our modern holiday were just a caloric preamble to the consumerist Christmas Season! But the history of feasting is more complicated and much darker than most Americans would like to remember.
I think Hall ends his article on the right note, so I’ll quote him here as my own conclusion:
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.