Tribalism, violence, and fasting and feasting in early New England

Detail with woodcut from "The Rebels Reward," (Boston, 1724)

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.

10 thoughts on “Tribalism, violence, and fasting and feasting in early New England

  1. Word up. You don’t need to go to revise-and-resubmit on this one. The only tiny quibble I’d have is that, even if we start/end with the most general of Hall’s premises, about civil society and its dependencies, and fill in all of the many more specific lacunae as you very nicely do, it still tends to reinscribe to a degree the approach that puts a cultural thumb on the end of the early American scale that was New England, one of the thinner strands of even what it meant to be English–as opposed to the other European, and non-European– surprise houseguests who popped out of what John Murrin shrewdly called an “Atlantic prism” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Getting all of that right remains as important as getting the Puritans right.


  2. On the question of Southerners and Thanksgiving in the nineteenth century, I found this:

    While Thanksgiving has become an important tradition for families throughout the entire United States, it wasn’t always so. Thanksgiving began as a religious holiday, an observance for giving thanks to God for his many blessings to mankind. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a national proclamation for Americans to give thanks on the last Thursday in November. Yet prior to the Civil War, Thanksgiving was considered more of a “Yankee” holiday that northerners celebrated. Others believed a religious holiday should not be set by civil authorities. In 1883, Texas Governor Oran Milo Roberts refused to proclaim Thanksgiving Day during his term of office because he did not want to “blend church and State.”

    In 1939, Thanksgiving was observed on different dates, depending upon the state, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. According The Capital on November 28, 1985, “A national uproar ensued as 23 governors went along with Roosevelt, 23 stuck by the traditional date, and the governors of Texas and Colorado proclaimed two Thanksgiving Days.” Thanksgiving was finally made a national holiday in 1941.


    Hey, could I get some extra credit? I promise I wouldn’t eat it all, in fact, I’d probably give most of it to my students, who have been asking the same question a lot lately!


  3. C’mon, everybody knows that Thanksgiving marks the commencement of the holiday drinking/break up with highschool sweetheart season, right ?


  4. I don’t hear enough people complaining about the straightjacket of food that Thanksgiving seems to command. I am neither or British nor Native nor New England descent. We will be eating meatballs and tomato sauce with home-grown vegetables tomorrow, because I refuse to participate in any of the Anglo-American cultural hegemony that I don’t see historians complain about enough. I *hate* when people talk about turkey, cranberry sauce and Apple Pie as “all-American.” To me, this is just as bad as a hokey tale about Indians and Puritans getting along.


  5. Funny I was just thinking about how Americans don’t realize how much of our prosperity is derived from war and imperialism. I mean, I think we as a nation accept the imperialist label, but we consider ourselves advanced and non-dependent on military conquests. In fact I think we’re pretty much akin to the ancient Romans whose whole empire was dependent upon constantly chopping up other cultures and groups they deemed “barbarians.” It’s difficult for me to see the direct benefit of the current war system (other than the obvious, people support war, their taxes redistribute wealth to defense contracts who buy goods and employ people, and those goods are made by other people who are employed). But so much of our being an advanced, powerful, and comfortable nation is because we won WWII and had a serious set of weapons and technology and came out really well in not having damaged infrastructure we’d have to rebuild. We “won” even more than our allies did and all of that did something to set us far ahead in the global marketplace. So much so that we’re still benefitting from that win now having advanced technology we can sell to other countries for a profit.

    Some of my coworkers were discussing the issues in North/South Korea this week. They sounded almost excited at the prospect of a proper war. It’s kind of interesting this human yearning for war, for wanting to use our “toys” to pound other nations into the dust. I’m not saying any of this is “right” just that the idealist in me disappeared a long time ago, and much as I hate war I’m pretty sure we’re always going to be at war with somebody or another.


  6. Our contorted political system needs wars. We don’t need war; our poor don’t want to die. All we do is complain and celebrate Thanksgiving and all other holidays. Our wars since 1980 suck our blood and energy and bring us close to a third world country.

    On the personal and family level many of us have good reasons to be thankful. My three sons and my current wife love and respect me. They all are taller, smarter and better looking than me.

    As for the puritans, we lefties call them illegal settlers.


  7. It’s worth noting that vast natural resources (claimed via genocide) were also essential to the rise of the United States. That’s pretty well the point of the Department of Interior. Some agencies grew sciency in the 70’s but going by what I see and hear from colleagues, that gilding is rubbing thin these days.


  8. As a counterfactual, it would be interesting to imagine what kind of a federal department of the “interior” would have looked like in a United States bounded on the west by a trans-mississippian French speaking, French-descended nation state extending from about Breton Island, Louisiana to say Kalispell, Montana. It would have cost some of my students an average of about four extra-credit points last week for knowing about the states “carved” out of the Louisiana Purchase.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.


  9. Personally, I think the United States is fucked. Our political culture is irreparably broken, and the intentional dismantling of the public commons ensures that it will stay broken. The fact that our supposed best newspaper in the entire country could publish an editorial asserting that whether we do or don’t “get the Puritans right” is gonna make a single fucken iota of difference to any of this proves the point.

    (Which is not to say that it isn’t important to “get the Puritans right”. But it sure as fucke isn’t important for the reason that dumshitte claims it is.)


  10. Pingback: Holiday round-up: Happy Cranksgiving! | Historiann

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