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.
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.
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?