In my previous post I noted that Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere” series has just come out as #1 in the “Children’s Series” category of the New York Times Best Sellers’ list. My fear is that some Christian readers will assume that the series offers a reliable window into the American past solely because they agree with the author’s political reading of the American present. If you happen to fall into that category, may I appeal to you to reconsider?
I began this blog more two years ago out of a sense of calling to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think wisely–historically and Christianly–about the American past. If that is your desire as well, then I hope you will agree with me that loving God with our minds is worlds away from the mindless name-calling that so often masquerades as thoughtful reflection in today’s public square. Nor do we satisfy the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive into obedience to Christ” by simply determining the politics of the messenger and then reflexively embracing (or rejecting) the message. Ours is a higher, harder, and ultimately more rewarding calling.
As I noted in my last post, Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims grossly misrepresents the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty. The Pilgrims did not think in terms of individual rights or unfettered freedom from external control. As they viewed things, self-denial was at the heart of every Christian virtue. As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland instructed them, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”
In place of this deeply biblical and profoundly Christian understanding of liberty, Limbaugh substitutes a thoroughly modern, western, and secular facsimile—the Enlightenment understanding of the autonomous individual free from all external restraint. His portrayal of the Pilgrims is so far removed from historical reality that I think we might properly label Limbaugh’s rewriting of the Pilgrim story as “revisionist.”
But when it comes to the Pilgrims, there is another, even more egregious way in which Limbaugh earns the revisionist label. I have in mind his preposterous claims concerning the significance of the Pilgrims 1621 feast that we remember as the “First Thanksgiving.” Limbaugh builds his entire argument on a shift in economic organization in Plymouth Colony that occurred a few years after the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England. As explained by Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, when the Pilgrims set sail from Holland in 1620, they were required by their financial backers in London to hold all of their property in common until they had repaid the investors with interest. In 1624 they unilaterally abrogated that agreement (even though the debts were far from paid) and began to make permanent allocations of land to each Pilgrim family.
Here I’ll quote at length from an older post that exposes how Limbaugh fantastically distorts this fact and produces an interpretation of the First Thanksgiving that should be offensive to any American Christians who takes our heritage seriously:
How the Pilgrims Repented of Socialism and Gave Thanks (excerpt):
This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades. I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So. In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked! “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks. “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.” And what was the result? “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.” They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.” In sum, the free market had triumphed.
See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claims that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment. As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621. (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.) In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common. “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them. “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.
They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering. William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.” At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative. In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!” “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds. The rest, as they say, is history.
When the time travelers return that autumn–having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”–everything is changed. “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.” Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for. ” The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.” Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land. He made people free.” Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.” Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for. But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”
The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter. Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism. As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”
There is just one problem: IT’S NOT TRUE. Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621. To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper. To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!
But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe. When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe. . . . In economics, as in all of life, the Pilgrims viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by. The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.
Examples abound. The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors. Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government. Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”
Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth. The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer. Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate. A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.” He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price. In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear. . . .
So where does this leave us? Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative. What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views. We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.
But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation. As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally. And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.
To read the entire essay (“How the Pilgrims Reprented of Socialism and Gave Thanks”) click here.