Tag Archives: Lyndon Johnson

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?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT?

(I’m teaching a course this semester on the American Civil War, and so I’m doing my best to immerse myself in that subject, reading works on the conflict as much as time allows. In the review below I share my opinion of a book that I purchased at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I didn’t like it. I might even detest it. Read on to find out why.)

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A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

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I’ll start with a compliment. Overall, academic historians long ago abandoned any sense of social responsibility to the larger society. There are admirable exceptions, but for the most part, academic history is an inward-focused conversation that academic historians have with each other about the academic questions they find of academic interest. And if the public beyond the walls of the Academy equates academic with “arcane,” “elitist,” or “irrelevant”—a pretty logical inference—well, that’s the public’s problem, not ours. Our job is to advance the boundaries of knowledge after all, not to communicate with the masses.

Just and Generous NationTo their credit, Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle have written A Just and Generous Nation with a broad audience in mind (as its publication by a trade press, Basic Books, underscores). The book tries to make the past relevant to the present, and I applaud that. It deals with big questions, and I applaud that also. It’s written in an engaging manner—always a plus—and the authors unabashedly point out lessons they think we should learn, a trait I admire.

In sum, I really like the conception of the historian’s task that underlies A Just and Generous Nation. It’s the authors’ execution of the task that drives me crazy.

The book’s thesis is clear, in part because the authors’ repeat it monotonously. Until his final breath, Abraham Lincoln was animated by the conviction that the United States had been uniquely founded on the “vision of a just and generous economic society.” The Founders, Lincoln believed, “brought forth a new nation” in which all would have an equal chance to rise into the middle class. This is why he sought to save the Union. This is why he acted to emancipate slaves. Neither were ends in themselves. The Civil War, Holzer and Garfinkle contend, was always primarily a struggle over “what kind of economy the nation should have.” More precisely, it was a war for “the American Dream,” for the triumph of a society that gives “all a chance” and allows “the weaker to grow stronger.”

OK. This is a provocative thesis, but not beyond the realm of possibilities. Historians have debated Lincoln’s motives for a century and a half. Some have suggested that Lincoln was propelled by an almost mystical veneration of the Union bequeathed by the generation of 1776. Some have pointed to his conviction that slavery was “a moral, social, and political wrong,” a stain on the national fabric. Others have stressed Lincoln’s conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of the viability of democracy, a bloody trial to determine whether common people could govern themselves. And some have portrayed the war as a monumental clash of economic systems, a conflict between agricultural and industrial societies for national dominance. The Columbia University historian Charles Beard made that argument nearly a century ago, and there are faint echoes of that claim in A Just and Generous Nation.

But the heart of the authors’ argument isn’t really about Lincoln’s conception of the “American Dream.” It’s about his purported vision for the role of the federal government in promoting it. And Lincoln’s vision, Holzer and Garfinkle insist with undisguised admiration, was breathtakingly expansive and modern. “Lincoln was the first president to use the federal government as an agent to support Americans in their effort to achieve and sustain a middle class life,” they gush. He “never changed his view that government should engage proactively to build, expand, and provide opportunities for working people to improve their economic status.”

This is what the Civil War was about. This is why nearly eight hundred thousand men died and more than a million more were maimed: to secure for future generations an activist role for the federal government as the guarantor of middle-class prosperity.

Almost all historians acknowledge that Lincoln advocated an active role for government in promoting economic development and economic opportunity. Probably the first political speech he ever gave called for state aid to dredge the Sangamon River in order to help local farmers get their crops to market. He quickly embraced the new Whig Party’s commitment to what Whig leader Henry Clay called “the American System.” This included a national bank to facilitate economic exchange, a high protective tariff to promote industrialization, and government aid to “internal improvements”—subsidies for the construction of railroads, canals, and the improvement of waterways—in order to accelerate the development of a market economy. Evaluated in the context of the mid-1800s—when the federal government was minuscule and the only federal employee that most Americans ever met was the mailman—Lincoln was undeniably a champion of active government.

But he wasn’t a modern-day big-government Democrat, although Holzer and Garfinkle do their best to convince us otherwise. They may be right when they claim that “Lincoln’s domestic policies provided the first clear example of the positive role that could be played by the federal government to encourage the economic growth of the nation.” The Republican-controlled Congress passed a series of landmark economic measures during the war. Through the Morrill Act, the Transcontinental Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act, the Congress used the nation’s vast untapped resources of western lands to promote higher education, railroad construction, and increasing farm ownership.

But it’s at least debatable whether these measures all benefited, or at least primarily benefited, the middle class. The Morrill Act helped to create land-grant colleges across the West, but generations would pass before as much as five percent of the white male population would attend. The building of the first transcontinental railroad undoubtedly expanded the national economy and indirectly aided many, but it set a precedent of gargantuan subsidies to private corporations in the process. (Between 1862 and 1871, the federal government granted land subsidies to private railroad companies of nearly two hundred million acres—roughly the size of England, France, and Scotland combined.)

You can even question whether the Homestead Act was all that helpful in aiding upward mobility into the middle class. Although the act provided “free” farms to settlers who would improve the land for five years, economic historians have found that few working-class households had the resources to move west, erect buildings and fences on a homestead, and feed and clothe themselves for months while waiting for the first crops to come in.

If it’s debatable to characterize these measures as unalloyed victories for the middle class, it’s preposterous to describe the enormous military expenditures that the war demanded as “the federal government’s stimulus programs.” Yet Holzer and Garfinkle do so, in keeping with their determination to portray Lincoln as the founding father of twenty-first-century liberalism. To drive home their point, in the second half of the book they trace the decline and rebirth of Lincoln’s progressive vision in the century and a half since his death. As they tell the story, in the late-nineteenth century the GOP turned its back on Lincoln’s dream for America and become the party of the one percent. Theodore Roosevelt tried to restore the GOP’s moral center, but it was the Democratic Party that eventually became, in vision if not in name, the true party of Lincoln.

The central agent in this transformation was Franklin Roosevelt. The authors pair FDR with Lincoln as the two most important promoters of the American Dream in U. S. history. Lyndon Johnson was also a worthy heir of Lincoln when he sought to use the federal government to build the “Great Society.”  So was Barack Obama, who during his second term finally began “girding his loins to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps and take new steps to use the power of the presidency to improve the status of middle-class and working-class members of the American community.”

In sum, Lincoln would have been an enthusiastic advocate of social security, welfare, affirmative action, and the Affordable Health Care Act. Apparently, he also would have looked for economic guidance to Sweden and Denmark, where public spending and tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is double what it is in the U. S. The authors conclude A Just and Generous Nation with an extended tribute to both nations, leaving us to conclude that, while Lincoln’s vision may be withering in the United States, it’s alive and well in Scandinavia.

You can draw your own conclusions about the authors’ policy proposals. There are arguments for and against them, with intelligent and decent people on both sides of the debate. As a historian, however, I have to say that A Just and Generous Nation is bad history, and I don’t say that lightly, given that Holzer is widely recognized as a leading Lincoln scholar. And yet the book is riddled with inaccuracies. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that the authors misstate or misrepresent the facts concerning the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the meaning of Lincoln’s “house divided” metaphor, his vision for slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” the significance of Congressional compromise proposals in 1860-1861, Lincoln’s stance on the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, the implications of the Wade-Davis bill of 1864, the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the relationship between postwar peonage and convict labor. The book can be sloppy at times.

It is also relentlessly one-sided. The authors regularly ignore evidence that would weaken their argument. (In a masterpiece of understatement, a New York Times review notes that the book “flattens out a story that has some uncomfortable complexities.”) While praising Lincoln’s commitment to the working class, for example, the authors fail to mention that by the 1850s Lincoln was essentially a corporate lawyer who earned the lion’s share of his living representing wealthy commercial concerns: insurance companies, banks, and railroads. His single largest client was the Illinois Central Railroad, the longest railroad in the world at the time and one of the world’s largest corporations. (Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, would later joke, “Much as we deprecated the avarice of great corporations, we both thanked the Lord for letting the Illinois Central Railroad fall into our hands.”)

Nor do the authors find occasion to mention Lincoln’s well-documented response when his brother-in-law, a subsistence farmer named John D. Johnston, wrote Lincoln in 1848 and asked to borrow $80 to pay off some pressing bills. “What I propose is,” Lincoln wrote Johnston, “that you shall go to work ‘tooth and nails’ for some body who will give you money [for] it.” “Follow my advice,” Lincoln lectured his brother-in-law, “and you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.”

Most problematic of all is the authors’ reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which can most charitably be described as imaginative. After paying tribute to those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live,” Lincoln had challenged the assembled throng “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Although his audience didn’t know it (nor did the Union soldiers Lincoln was praising), the “cause” was not the preservation of the Union. It was not the eradication of slavery and a “new birth of freedom.” It was the promotion of the American Dream grounded in activist government. “Looking to the aftermath of the Civil War,” the authors explain, Lincoln “was defining the nation’s ‘unfinished work’ as the new task of providing all citizens a government committed to helping all citizens build a middle-class life.”

A Just and Generous Nation is a textbook example of what I call “history as ammunition,” an approach to the past as a storehouse of illustrations for proving predetermined points. When politically conservative amateur historians appeal to America’s Founders to promote a conservative contemporary agenda, academic historians are quick to protest. Only anti-intellectual populist yahoos—“historical fundamentalists,” to use Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s condescending phrase—would naively do such a thing. But it’s apparently fine for two prominent scholars to ask WWLD?—“What Would Lincoln Do?”—as long as the answer points in the direction that most academics are already headed.

Let me be clear: I’m not frustrated by this book because I disagree with the authors’ liberal politics. Their politics are irrelevant. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have regularly called to account conservative Christians when they have done something similar. As a historian of the United States, my frustration is with those who distort our past while claiming to honor it. And as a historian of the American Civil War more specifically, I can only say that Holzer and Garfinkle have so contorted that crucial conflict that few of the men who fought in it would recognize it.

WHEN STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESSES WEREN’T MEDIA SPECTACLES

One of the reasons to study the past is to see the present more clearly.  By figuratively visiting other times and places, we become more aware of aspects of our place and time that we would otherwise take for granted.  Last night’s State of the Union address is a case in point.

Obama-State-of-Union

When the framers of the Constitution crafted our blueprint of government in 1787, they stipulated that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Art. II, sect. 3).  From this requirement the custom evolved that the executive would formally address the Congress at least once annually (perhaps in keeping with the Constitutional requirement in Art. I that the Congress “assemble at least once” annually).  For decades this address was typically called the president’s “annual message,” and now it is more commonly known as the “State of the Union Address.”

The president’s State of the Union Address (or SOTU by POTUS for those who think acronyms are cool) is now an enormously significant media event with huge political ramifications for both parties. As the nation watches (to the degree that we watch), the president and his party enjoy millions of dollars’ worth of national publicity.  The party’s leader pitches his policy proposals, while the camera pans to congressmen looking variously engaged or bored, gleeful or glum, enthusiastic or resentful.

From first to last, this is a media-driven event.  In advance of the spectacle you could tune in to any number of pre-game shows, not the least of which was sponsored by the president himself.  Virtual visitors to the White House website were first reminded that “Together, we can make change happen.”  You could then watch the SOTU “pre-show,” view video of everyday Americans as they received phone calls inviting them to sit with the First Lady in her box during the speech, and even read synopses of what the president planned to share regarding the economy, climate, health care, foreign policy and social progress.  After the hour-plus speech, a smorgasbord of talking heads told us what the president said, why he said it, and what they thought of it, while pollsters scurried to ask us (or at least a few hundred of us) if we thought what the talking heads thought we should think.

It has not always been this way.  The Constitution doesn’t require the president to give a speech to the Congress, only to give it information and make recommendations.  And for most of American history, U. S. presidents have opted to send a formal written report via messenger and skip the personal oration.  Overall, since 1789 that’s been the case for nearly two thirds of these messages–only 82 out of 226 (about 36%) have come as speeches.

Our first two presidents, Federalists George Washington and John Adams, appeared personally before Congress to satisfy their Constitutional duty.  But between 1801 and 1913, not a single U. S. president followed their example.  In 1801, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson decided to send his message in writing to Congress on the grounds that the practice of lecturing Congress in person was undemocratic.  In England it was customary for the king to speak periodically “from on high” to the Parliament, and Jefferson–who hated public speaking anyway–insisted that a truly republican government should not be perpetuating the trappings of monarchy.

The precedent held for a long time.  Each of the next twenty presidents followed Jefferson’s lead.  Even Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent 1862 message in the midst of the Civil War–calling the North to preserve the United States as the “last best hope of earth”– was sent by a courier and read by a congressional clerk.  It was not until 1913 that Woodrow Wilson would defy what was by then a hallowed tradition and appear before Congress in person.  And when he did so, headlines in the New York Times declared “SENATORS FROWN ON WILSON’S VISIT: Reading is Compared to Speech from Throne.”

From this point, the pattern began to shift slowly but surely toward personal appearances.  In the process, what had once been a rather perfunctory summary of the work of the various executive departments gradually became a major political statement on behalf of the president and his party.  More important, the originally intended audience of the address–the U. S. Congress–was replaced by the American public.

The growing importance of radio and television was central to the latter transformation.  The first president to deliver his address to a national radio audience was, ironically, “Silent” Cal Coolidge, who belied his nickname with a 22-page long speech in 1923.  In 1947 television got into the act, broadcasting Harry Truman’s address to the fraction of American households who had invested in that dubious technology.  The TV audience grew steadily thereafter, so that by the mid-1960s Lyndon Johnson decided to shift his speech from the traditional afternoon setting to the early evening in order to garner a much larger “prime-time” audience.

Which brings us, more or less, to the highly choreographed, vacuous public spectacle that the State of the Union address has long since become.  True to form, last night’s was a relentless rhythm of presidential statement and partisan response: Democratic ovations, Republican groans, Joe Biden repeatedly rising to his feet, Paul Ryan glued to his chair.  If the Washington Post transcript of the event is accurate, President Obama was interrupted by applause seventy-one times during his fifty-nine-minute speech.

In sum, the event is now much like our quadrennial party conventions.  Photo-ops, posturing, and platitudes abound, but almost no real work gets accomplished–at least not the kind of work that the framers of the Constitution envisioned.  The only real suspense in the event came when, for a moment, it looked as if a drowsy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was going to fall from her chair.  I could sympathize.

Does anyone else find this tedious?

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–CONCLUSION

Last weekend I posted two essays in a four-part series on how   American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over the past four centuries. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.  As I explained last weekend, for most of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Americans mostly either were ignorant of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration or unimpressed by it.  This weekend my goal is to explain why Americans finally embraced the story of the First Thanksgiving in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

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It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

In my last post on the First Thanksgiving in American Memory, I called attention to a number of trends in the latter half of the nineteenth century that opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims as ancestors critical to the American founding. There was one other, absolutely crucial trend at the close of the century that made the adoption of the Pilgrims as honorary Founders not only possible but desirable. That trend was 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.

School history textbooks, which had rarely referred to the Pilgrims prior to 1900, soon devoted whole chapters to the voyage of the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving. “Boys and girls are especially interested in the Plymouth colony,” noted the author of A History of Our Country, for Higher Grades. “It is the only one of all the American colonies that has given to the United States a holiday,” an observance which “makes Americans a more thankful race.”

By emphasizing the Pilgrims’ perseverance in adversity, the new curriculum both challenged and gave hope to new immigrants. A young Russian immigrant at the turn of the century, for example, learned from her history text that

America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims [who had] left their native country as I had left mine. . . I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims, who came in the Mayflower.

Like this young immigrant, for most of the last century Americans learned in grade school that “America started” with the Pilgrims. Although they rarely studied the First Thanksgiving after grade school, this early exposure was enough to make the Pilgrim story a central chapter in Americans’ collective historical memory.

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 FOUR

In my last post on the First Thanksgiving in American Memory, I called attention to a number of trends in the latter half of the nineteenth century that opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims as ancestors critical to the American founding. There was one other, absolutely crucial trend at the close of the century that made the adoption of the Pilgrims as honorary Founders not only possible but desirable. That trend was immigration.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Branscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Branscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

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 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.

School history textbooks, which had rarely referred to the Pilgrims prior to 1900, soon devoted whole chapters to the voyage of the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving. “Boys and girls are especially interested in the Plymouth colony,” noted the author of A History of Our Country, for Higher Grades. “It is the only one of all the American colonies that has given to the United States a holiday,” an observance which “makes Americans a more thankful race.”

By emphasizing the Pilgrims’ perseverance in adversity, the new curriculum both challenged and gave hope to new immigrants. A young Russian immigrant at the turn of the century, for example, learned from her history text that

America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims [who had] left their native country as I had left mine. . . I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims, who came in the Mayflower.

Like this young immigrant, for most of the last century Americans learned in grade school that “America started” with the Pilgrims. Although they rarely studied the First Thanksgiving after grade school, this early exposure was enough to make the Pilgrim story a central chapter in Americans’ collective historical memory.

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?

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