History is not the past self, but rather the “remembered past,” in the words of Christian historian John Lukacs. With this as our starting point, I teach my students to think of history in terms of metaphors. Among other things, history is a story about the past that helps us to frame our lives. It functions as a mirror helping us to see our own age more clearly. Ideally, it is a rich conversation, a dialogue with the dead about enduring human questions. And as Lukacs’ observation suggests, history is also a form of memory.
We need to take this final metaphor seriously. Think about the attributes of human memory generally. Our memories are always woefully incomplete—not a 24/7/365 documentary of our pasts, but a jumble of fleeting images that we draw from to make sense of our lives. Our memories are influenced by perspective, and the significance that we attach to them changes over time. Historical memory shares all these traits.
In particular, it’s crucial for us to realize that popular historical memory of the past changes dramatically over time. Popular memory of the First Thanksgiving is a classic example. As I noted earlier in this series, for the first two centuries after the First Thanksgiving, Americans attached almost no weight at all to the event. The reason for this was simple: no one remembered it.
This changed in the 1840s and 1850s when a variety of Pilgrim documents shedding light on the 1621 celebration were rediscovered and published. Even then, however, Americans did not rush to embrace the First Thanksgiving as a key moment in the American founding. Thanksgiving was growing in popularity as a holiday, but almost no one was linking the tradition specifically to the Pilgrims and their harvest feast. Why was this?
I think the answer is that the story of the First Thanksgiving wasn’t very useful to mid-nineteenth century America. It didn’t fit well with how Americans wanted to remember the past, and it contradicted how they wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving in the present and the future. To begin with, the evidence that was coming to light suggested that Native Americans had been right in the middle of the Pilgrims’ celebration, but the nation in the 1840s was committed to a policy of Indian removal. Second, the evidence cemented the perception of Thanksgiving as originating in New England at a time when tensions between North and South were rising to a critical level. Finally, the historical evidence underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. By the mid-1800s, however, Americans had generally reversed these criteria and seemed satisfied with the new pattern.
It was not until the close of the nineteenth century that Americans widely began to link their cherished Thanksgiving holiday with the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration. From that point onward the correlation between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims grew steadily. Art work, fiction, political speeches, school plays, greeting cards, even advertisements for beer and cigarettes collaborated to convince Americans of the centrality of the Pilgrims to the contemporary holiday. (“How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser,” gushed a 1908 ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune, “how they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”)
Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations lagged behind but eventually mirrored the broader trend. When Andrew Johnson called for a national Thanksgiving in 1867, he defended the measure as conforming “with a recent custom.” For more than seventy years his successors followed suit. Aside from vague allusions to “practice,” “custom,” or “habit,” they avoided specific references to the holiday’s supposed origins.
It was 1939 before an American president connected Thanksgiving explicitly with the Pilgrims. In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Americans to remember the Pilgrims, who “humbly paused in their work and gave thanks to God for the preservation of their community and for the abundant yield of the soil.” By the 1950s such references were almost obligatory. They were a staple of Dwight Eisenhower’s proclamations, and in 1961 John F. Kennedy took the opportunity in his first Thanksgiving proclamation to “ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving.” Like the Jewish patriarch at Passover, American fathers were now to instruct future generations about the sacred origins of their celebration. The Pilgrims’ role as the founders of Thanksgiving was now unquestioned.
So why the difference? What had changed since the middle of the 1800s to make the Pilgrims so popular? I think there were two underlying trends in American life that made it possible. First, the obstacles that had discouraged Americans from embracing the story of the First Thanksgiving back in the mid-nineteenth century gradually faded. For starters, by the close of the nineteenth century America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. Although relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had always been tense, writers could begin to rhapsodize over the “friendly redskins” who had assisted the Pilgrims, and politicians could locate in the First Thanksgiving an inspiring “vision of brotherhood.”
As with the holiday’s link to Native Americans, Thanksgiving’s association with New England would also become less of a liability over time. Within a generation of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, both North and South would begin to romanticize the Civil War, promoting sectional reconciliation through a “willful amnesia” that minimized the depth of the issues that had earlier divided them. As part of this larger process, the commemoration of Thanksgiving itself became gradually less politicized, and the day would come when white Southerners could adopt the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors without renouncing their regional loyalties.
Finally, a number of well-meaning amateur historians re-wrote the history of the First Thanksgiving to transform it into a private, domestic event. Whereas the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast likely had the feel of a community barbeque—with at least 150 people taking part in an outdoor celebration in which they ate with their hands while sitting on the ground—Americans by the mid-1800s associated Thanksgiving with homecoming, a time for loved ones to gather around the family table. And so they simply re-imagined the event to resemble their own custom, insisting that the Pilgrims had walked to church for a Thanksgiving service before returning to their individual homes for their private Thanksgiving dinners.
While these changes opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims, other changes in the late-nineteenth century made the adoption of the Pilgrims not only possible but desirable. I’ll take these up in my next post.