Tag Archives: historical memory

REMEMBERING THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park.  I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery.  I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future.  For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938.  It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time.  By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present.  We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.

At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes.  The whole town was crawling with them.  Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th.  They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms.  As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private.  He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets.  (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants.  One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger.  The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)

"Abraham Lincoln" working the crowd before the program began.

“Abraham Lincoln” working the crowd before the program began.

I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did.  As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences.  If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem.  But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction.  I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether.  When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.

Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering.  One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg.  “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei.  Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent.  This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.  The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.

Then came the keynote speaker.  It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise.  The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day.  The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow.  In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program.  Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.”  “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented.  “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.”  The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America.  “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.

Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address.  (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.)  Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony.  After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”

As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think.  The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.”  Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.

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I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon.  My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them.  For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free.  The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.

TALKING ABOUT THANKSGIVING

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with my friend Wayne Shepherd to discuss how we remember the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.”  If you don’t know him, Wayne is the host of a wonderful radio/podcast interview program.  “First Person” is carried by nearly three hundred stations across the country, and I heartily recommend it.

If you’d care to listen in, our conversation will be airing this weekend on radio, and is available online even now, here.

 

SETTING THE STAGE: THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT

The distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” A case in point would be the popular belief that the Pilgrims brought with them a commitment to republican self-government, or even democracy. That we might think so is almost entirely due to the so-called “Mayflower Compact,” a document that we have loaded with far more significance than it should be made to shoulder.

On the same day that the Mayflower first dropped anchor near Cape Cod in November of 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the ship’s great cabin and affixed their signatures to a 153-word statement. The text was set forth in an obscure 1622 pamphlet known as Mourt’s Relation, and although it was little thought of or referred to for the next century and a half, the day would come when many Americans would remember it as one of the nation’s founding documents, almost in the same category as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It read as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland Kind, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

We have tended to read this pledge selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” Having recognized what looks to be a familiar feature in the Compact, we then often extrapolate with abandon, imputing to the Pilgrims values that belong in our world, not theirs. In reality, there appear to have been at least three motives behind the creation of the Compact, none of which involved a philosophical commitment to the right of self-government.

To begin with, there is reason to believe that the Pilgrims always expected that they would need to choose their own leaders in the initial stage of their colonial venture. At the same time, it also appears that they understood that this practice might be temporary—an aberration more than a right. In a letter that he wrote to his congregants just before their departure from England, the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, seemed to take for granted that the passengers of the Mayflower would soon “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” He exhorted his departing friends to show their civil governors “all due honor and obedience,” given that the magistrate bears “the image of the Lord’s power and authority.” They should be able to do this all the more willingly, he concluded, “because you are at least for the present to have only them [as your civil officers] which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.” The time might come, in other words, when the king would exercise his lawful prerogative to appoint governors over them.

A second factor stemmed from the simple fact that the Pilgrims would be settling outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. King James had granted to that company the authority to coordinate colonial ventures along a portion of the Atlantic seaboard, and the Virginia Company, in turn, had granted to the Pilgrims a patent to settle in a particular portion of their recognized domain. By choosing a location beyond the boundaries of the company’s authority, it was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. Hence it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” They were covering themselves, in other words, by assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they identify James as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

Finally, both Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation make clear that a third factor prompting the creation of the Compact was a potential revolt brewing among a subset of the passengers. Bradford frankly admitted that the Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” These dissidents were saying that they would do whatever they pleased when they arrived, as the Pilgrims’ patent applied only to Virginia, not to New England.

Picking up on Bradford’s candid admission, some historians have reduced the Mayflower Compact to little more than a power grab by the Leiden saints, a calculated effort to keep the non-Separatist “strangers” in line. This goes too far, in my opinion, but so does the insistence of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum that the Mayflower Compact is “an early example of democracy in America” that has “remained an inspiration since 1620.” If so, it curiously left little mark on Plymouth itself. An early voting list from 1643 shows that less than half of the colony’s adult males were eligible to vote. (All women were excluded, of course, “as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.”)

In truth, the widespread acceptance of democracy—the unchallenged right of the people to rule—was still a good two centuries away, and to credit the Pilgrims with a democratic ethos is anachronistic in the extreme. The men and women who celebrated a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 had many virtues: they were devout, courageous, and determined. They just weren’t democratic.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART TWO

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, few visual representations of Thanksgiving linked the holiday with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, few visual representations of Thanksgiving linked the holiday with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

Popular historical memory of the past changes dramatically over time, and the way Americans have remembered the “First Thanksgiving” is a classic example. As I noted last time, for the first two centuries after the  Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, 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 didn’t rush to embrace the First Thanksgiving as a key moment in the American founding. The story of the First Thanksgiving 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 wasn’t 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.”)

By the early 1920s the link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims was widely assumed, as this 1924 cover of the Saturday Evening Post attests.

By the early 1920s the link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims was widely assumed, as this 1924 cover of the Saturday Evening Post attests.

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. The most important of these was a dramatic upsurge of immigration.  By the 1890s, the most pressing political challenge facing the country was no longer the preservation of sectional harmony or conflict with Native Americans, but rather how to assimilate an unprecedented influx of new immigrants to the United States. From the 1880s into the early 1920s, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—Poles, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Czechs, Armenians, Croats, and Ruthenians, among others—would flood into the United States by the millions, creating anxiety among the native born that their country was being overrun by inassimilable aliens.

As human beings we always remember the past from the vantage point of the present, and in the late-nineteenth century native-born Americans increasingly surveyed the country’s history in the light of contemporary concerns about immigration. The effect on popular memory of the Pilgrims was dramatic. In 1841 Americans had recalled the Pilgrims primarily as New Englanders, or as Puritans, or as generic whites striving to coexist with Indians. By the dawn of the twentieth century they remembered them first and foremost as immigrants. More precisely, by 1900 they had transformed the Pilgrims into America’s model immigrants, the standard against which all newcomers should be measured.

Critics of the new immigrants compared them to the Pilgrims and found them wanting. Noting that Thanksgiving was “the nation’s tribute” to the “sublime strength of character which ennobled the Pilgrims,” a Christian magazine based in Chicago editorialized that the influx from southern and eastern Europe was bringing with it “the germs of a moral malaria.”

The department store Marshall Field and Company echoed this concern in a full-page Thanksgiving ad in 1920. The advertisement featured in the foreground a large, stereotypical Pilgrim male standing on Plymouth Rock, and in the background a sea of immigrants entering the country through Ellis Island. “What metal do they bring to this melting pot?” the ad inquired. “Do they bear the precious ore of the early Pilgrims, or the dross of the disturber? . . . We want only those who—like the Pilgrims of old—landed here with gratitude on their lips and thanksgiving in their hearts.”  The image from Life magazine below presented much the same visual message–absent the leading rhetorical question–as early as 1887.

Life Magazine, 1887

Life Magazine, 1887

The more optimistic believed that the example of the Pilgrims could be used to “Americanize” immigrants. The Citizenship Committee of the American Bar Association found in the history of Thanksgiving an ideal context for inculcating “the principles and ideals of our government in the minds and hearts of the people.” Progressive educators agreed. Soon Thanksgiving materials proliferated in teachers’ magazines and published curricula, and by the 1920s a survey of elementary school principals revealed that Thanksgiving was the single most celebrated holiday.

Once the Pilgrims had became honorary Founding Fathers, Americans rushed to enlist them as allies in the political struggle du jour. In the midst of the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt placed the Pilgrims on the side of the regulation of Big Business, observing that “the spirit of the Puritan was a spirit which never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal.” During the height of the McCarthy Era, the International Nickel Company took out an ad in the Saturday Evening Post portraying the Pilgrims as both libertarian and anti-Communist; in 1623 the Pilgrims had “turned away from governmental dictation” because they realized that “there was plenty for ALL, only when men were Free to work for themselves.” At the close of the turbulent 1960s, Look magazine recalled the Pilgrims as “dissidents” and “commune-builders.”

During World War Two the Pilgrims became ideal soldiers. In its 1942 Thanksgiving issue, Life reminded readers that the Pilgrims had been a “hardy lot,” a “strong-minded people” who “waged hard, offensive wars” and never forgot that “victory comes from God.” When President Roosevelt declared after Pearl Harbor that the nation’s cause was “liberty under God,” the magazine concluded that he might as well “have been speaking for the Puritan Fathers.” At the height of the Cold War, the Chicago Tribune remembered the First Thanksgiving as “our first détente,” but the paper also enlisted the Pilgrims on the side of military preparedness; their security had been rooted in “the clear demonstration that they had the equipment and the will to fight for their survival.”

But not only for their survival, for the Pilgrims had believed in “the restless search for a better world for all,” as President Lyndon Johnson observed in 1965 as he appealed to “the principles that the early Pilgrims forged” to explain why U. S. sons were fighting in Viet Nam. Yet the Pilgrims had also cherished peace, for as Bill Clinton told the nation a generation later, the same spirit that prompted them to sit down with the Wampanoag had also infused efforts for a “comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”

Our adopted Founders have been remarkably malleable, wouldn’t you say?

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time 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. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.

THINKING ABOUT THANKSGIVING

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

If you were born in this country, chances are good that you have known about the Pilgrims from an early age. The story feels so familiar to us that we can easily lose sight of its drama. A tiny band of just over one hundred plain English men and women, seeking a better life, cross the storm-tossed Atlantic in the tiny Mayflower and arrive at the coast of present-day Massachusetts in late 1620. They bind themselves to one another as a self-governing political community, then go ashore to build a home in a strange and frightening new world. Having arrived on the eve of an unexpectedly cruel winter, they endure unimaginable hardships over the next few months, death claiming one half of their number by spring. Yet through the mercy of God and the assistance of their new Indian neighbors, the remainder survive to reap a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, at which time they pause to celebrate the goodness of God with a special feast—the First Thanksgiving.

This “story that we already know” is, above all, a story about beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. For generations, Americans have remembered that autumn feast not just as the origin of a treasured holiday but as integral to the very origins of the United States itself—the “land of the Pilgrims’ pride,” in the words of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” From this perspective, the Pilgrims’ story is “the first chapter in the American story.” The U. S. may have been born in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, but it was conceived a century and a half earlier at “Plimoth Plantation,” where the values that would define the future nation were already embodied in the hardy band of English men and women who gave thanks for God’s provision with their Indian neighbors.

Beginnings are usually complicated, however, which is why our very use of the term “First Thanksgiving” should set off an alarm. I resisted putting the phrase in quotation marks earlier, but even a moment’s reflection will convince us that we can’t take it literally. Giving thanks is surely an ancient human practice, and no one seriously believes that the Pilgrims at Plymouth were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest.

We might say that the Pilgrims celebrated the “First American Thanksgiving,” but there is abundant evidence that Native American peoples had thanksgiving celebrations as well. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle. A more accurate expression, then, would be the “First American Christian Thanksgiving,” but this wordier title is still off the mark. Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated shortly after conquistadores landed at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565—at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. Similarly, Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts.

So I guess we could call the Pilgrims’ celebration the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving,” but even this mouthful would be imprecise. It overlooks evidence of a thanksgiving service in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida held by French Huguenots (who would soon be slaughtered by Spaniards from St. Augustine); one in 1607 at a short-lived English colony on the coast of Maine; and two others among English colonists in Virginia, in 1610 and 1619. This leads us, finally, to the more or less historically accurate label “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine.” I don’t expect it to catch on.

So what’s the point?  The point is that a lot of us like remembering the Pilgrims’ celebration as the first of its kind.  When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong.  Without doubt, we have chosen the Pilgrims as our honorary ancestors, and we have done so, at least in part, because over time enough of us came to agree that the Pilgrims exemplified values we wished to affirm—even if we couldn’t agree on what those values actually were.   We can learn much by revisiting their seemingly familiar story, not only about the past but about ourselves as well.  How we remember the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving” reveals a great deal about how we understand both our religious and our national heritage.

In my next two posts, I’ll provide an overview of how Americans have remembered the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration over the past four centuries, then we’ll dig into the nitty gritty of what we know about the actual event and the people involved, and why a better understanding of the real story is important.

Keep reading.

First Thanksgiving

A GREAT HOLIDAY GIFT FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND RANDOM STRANGERS

Even though it feels like it, the presidential campaign isn’t going to last forever.  Thanksgiving is four weeks from tomorrow, believe it or not, and it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in a book about Thanksgiving in advance of the holiday.  There are many good possibilities, but with utter shamelessness I’d like to suggest my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First Thanksgiving

The book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog a few years back, and that is why I spent several years conducting research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.