Tag Archives: Rush Limbaugh

NOT OUR CLONES IN FUNNY CLOTHES: RUSH LIMBAUGH’S REVISIONIST HISTORY OF THE PILGRIMS

SIXTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last post, I began an extended review of Rush Limbaugh’s fabulously popular work of historical fiction, Rush Limbaugh and the Brave Pilgrims. That post focused on Limbaugh’s gross distortion of the Pilgrim’s economic values. Today I tackle Limbaugh’s misrepresentation of the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty.

I don’t share these thoughts as some sort of partisan screed. Politically, I’m a conservative, but I don’t think that any good cause can ever genuinely be served by untruths. More importantly, as a Christian, I am distressed that Limbaugh systematically purges the Pilgrims of values that would rightly challenge our contemporary secular culture in fruitful ways. With no apparent sense of irony, on the cover of each book in the “Rush Revere” series Limbaugh superimposes his own face on a historical figure. This is (unintentionally) a marvelous metaphor for his approach to history, for he repeatedly refashions historical figures in his own image.

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One of the most common temptations we face when studying history is the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination–more determined to prove points than gain understanding. We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our findings can reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed. This approach to the past makes history just one more battleground in the culture wars, with both sides ransacking the past in search of evidence to support their own predetermined positions. When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its power to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.

A second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes—that is, to think of them as just like us. If the temptation to search for ammunition reflects a propensity of our hearts, the tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of the past reflects a characteristic of our brains. We are wired to learn by analogy. Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new we reflexively search for an analogue, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it. When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else. The construction of this analogy is totally natural, but it’s also dangerous, because once we have recognized something familiar in the past, we will be tempted to label it and move on rather than wrestle with it and learn. When we do that, we almost always exaggerate the degree to which the past was similar to the present.

This danger is particularly great when studying groups like the Pilgrims who do share some of our ways of looking at the world. We read about men and women who were religiously motivated, family oriented, and committed to liberty—all of which is true—and without even realizing it we’re soon thinking of them as one of “us.” The problem with this is that, once it occurs, what really happens is that we stop thinking about them at all. They become our clones in funny clothes, and any chance of seeing ourselves more clearly or of learning from people who were the product of a different time and place goes right out of the window.

Rush RevereRush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans. Oh, certainly there are differences: the Pilgrims as Limbaugh describes them are more grateful than we are; they’re tougher, more courageous, more committed to liberty. But these are differences of degree, not of kind. The Pilgrims’ values are our values, they just lived them out more effectively. At bottom, they are who we want to be (or should want to be). They are us when we’re having a good day.

A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book. We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.” And indeed they were. But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.

Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom. Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions. For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side. “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.

But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom. Liberty tells Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England. “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader. “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.” Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”

In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time. When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”

So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed? It boils down to freedom from external control. If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to, and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will. This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc. But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.

The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion. Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility—between God and man and between man and man. Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression. Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do, but to do what was right. What was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor. Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you. In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, human society was not a conglomeration of individuals but of groups. They believed that God had ordained three basic building blocks for society: the family, the church, and the civil community. Each of these constituent units was organic (like a living being), interdependent, and hierarchical. Each was characterized by shared responsibilities and mutual obligations within clearly defined chains of authority. So, for example, all of the colonists were to submit to the civil magistrate, whose authority (whether he was Christian or “heathen”), came from God. When the Separatists had decided to defy both the Church of England and the English king by creating their own congregations, they had not done so as an assertion of individual right, but as an expression of their obligation to obey God rather than man.

Indeed, as the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights. Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue. In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”

The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us. But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.  In its pages you’ll find Rush Limbaugh’s values, not the Pilgrims’.

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A FIRST THANKSGIVING HOAX

History is not the past itself, but only that tiny portion of the past that human beings remember.  I’ve shared in a previous post the memorable word picture that C. S. Lewis has given us to illustrate that distinction.  In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend.  He then went on to define the past in this way:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us.  Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”  If the past is a domain that God has created, then Lewis’s metaphor drives home a discomfiting truth: The Lord has chosen to keep most of the past hidden from us.

This is not a limitation we are disposed to accept.  We chafe against it, and when it suits our purposes, we fill in the gaps in God’s revelation with a “past” of our own imagining.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about imagining what the past might have been like, of course.  The problem comes when we mistake this imagined past for reality.  To say that this happens all the time would be an understatement.  Typically, only a portion of popular memory of the past is firmly grounded in historical evidence.  The other part—often the more entertaining part—consists of stuff somebody made up.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Americans have long struggled with the temptation to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  That is because we have loaded with great significance an event about which almost no firsthand evidence survives.  The only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in Plymouth in 1621 comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, an assistant to the Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford.  Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture.  In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with.  To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.  They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us.  And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted.  And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving.  They’re evocative, but they’re also vague, and if we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description.  Why are we so sure that turkey was on the menu?  Why do we assume that the feast took place in November?  Why do we take for granted that the Indians were invited (instead of just crashing the party)?  Can we positively conclude that there was a religious dimension to the celebration?  Can we positively conclude that there was not?

There are a lot of gaps here that we’d like to have filled in.  In the words of the late radio and television commentator Paul Harvey, we want to know “the rest of the story.”

In my next post, I want to introduce you to a novelist that so successfully filled in the gaps that her fictional recreation of the First Thanksgiving soon became historical reality for a whole generation of Americans.  Before doing so, I want to point you briefly to a hoax that continues to mislead many of us who long for the rest of the story.

I first encountered William Bradford’s supposed First Thanksgiving Proclamation when my family and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some dear friends from our church.  Knowing that I was a historian, the host pulled me aside before the meal to tell me that he had found the text of Governor Bradford’s proclamation calling for the First Thanksgiving, and that he planned to read it before asking the blessing.  Here is what he had found:

Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.

 William Bradford

Ye Governor of Ye Colony

Although I was uncomfortable contradicting my host, I felt compelled to tell him that this was a hoax.  Can you figure out why?  Its two short paragraphs are chock full of factual errors and anachronisms.  The proclamation gives the wrong year for the celebration, to begin with.  It refers to the colony’s “pastor,” although they didn’t have one for many years after settling in New England.  It uses language and concepts unknown to the Pilgrims, most notably the reference to the dictates of conscience, an 18th-century Enlightenment concept that the Pilgrims would have roundly rejected.  Comically, it alludes to “ye Pilgrim Rock,” a landmark unknown to the Pilgrims themselves and not mentioned for 120 years after they landed.

This obvious fabrication has been circulating in the United States for at least three decades, if not longer, and despite its glaring flaws it continues to be cited authoritatively.  The earliest allusion to it that I have come across is from 1985, when a White House speechwriter quoted from it in one of Ronald Reagan’s presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.  Since that time it has appeared (in whole or in part) in at least three books published by reputable presses, and it literally thrives on the internet, where it is reproduced ad infinitum.

The origin of this clumsy hoax will probably always be a mystery.  Why it has gained so much credence is easier to fathom: a lot of us want to believe it.  I don’t mean that we consciously embrace something we know to be false.  That’s probably pretty rare.  The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

So, for example, Americans distressed by increasing government intrusion in the free market are happy to read that the Pilgrims’ first autumn celebration supposedly came in 1623, rather than 1621.  Although seemingly a small point, the incorrect date mistakenly places the festival in the same year that the Pilgrims disregarded their agreement with their London financial backers and allocated individual plots of land to each household.

Thus, in best-selling books like Larry Schweikart’s 48 Liberal Lies About American History (ironically dedicated to “to those honest and ethical scholars everywhere who allow the evidence to determine their worldview, not the opposite”) we read that the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel winter.  By 1623 that was old news.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.

This is also the message of Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.   As Limbaugh put it in an earlier book, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”  It is no exaggeration to say that Limbaugh’s entire argument about the First Thanksgiving stands or falls with this fraudulent document.

Similarly, Christians longing for firm evidence of America’s religious roots have also welcomed the “proclamation.”  Whereas the William Bradford who authored Of Plymouth Plantation did not even mention the First Thanksgiving, the Bradford who penned this imaginary decree reassures us with comforting detail.  Leaving no doubt about the Christian underpinnings of the holiday, he expresses special gratitude for religious freedom and enjoins the Pilgrims to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that most of the internet sites posting the proclamation are sponsored by Christian organizations, or that it lives on in books with titles like America’s God and Country or Putting God Back into the Holidays.  Not all of these organizations or authors are seeking ammunition for the culture wars—several simply want to encourage other Christians—but all share a (likely unconscious) willingness to suspend their critical faculties when they find historical evidence that serves their purposes.  Make no mistake: this is a tendency we’re all prone to.

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RUSH LIMBAUGH’S REVISIONIST THANKSGIVING

In my previous post I noted that Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere” series has just come out as #1 in the “Children’s Series” category of the New York Times Best Sellers’ list. My fear is that some Christian readers will assume that the series offers a reliable window into the American past solely because they agree with the author’s political reading of the American present. If you happen to fall into that category, may I appeal to you to reconsider?

I began this blog more two years ago out of a sense of calling to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think wisely–historically and Christianly–about the American past. If that is your desire as well, then I hope you will agree with me that loving God with our minds is worlds away from the mindless name-calling that so often masquerades as thoughtful reflection in today’s public square. Nor do we satisfy the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive into obedience to Christ” by simply determining the politics of the messenger and then reflexively embracing (or rejecting) the message. Ours is a higher, harder, and ultimately more rewarding calling.

Rush RevereAs I noted in my last post, Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims grossly misrepresents the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty. The Pilgrims did not think in terms of individual rights or unfettered freedom from external control. As they viewed things, self-denial was at the heart of every Christian virtue. As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland instructed them, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

In place of this deeply biblical and profoundly Christian understanding of liberty, Limbaugh substitutes a thoroughly modern, western, and secular facsimile—the Enlightenment understanding of the autonomous individual free from all external restraint. His portrayal of the Pilgrims is so far removed from historical reality that I think we might properly label Limbaugh’s rewriting of the Pilgrim story as “revisionist.”

But when it comes to the Pilgrims, there is another, even more egregious way in which Limbaugh earns the revisionist label. I have in mind his preposterous claims concerning the significance of the Pilgrims 1621 feast that we remember as the “First Thanksgiving.” Limbaugh builds his entire argument on a shift in economic organization in Plymouth Colony that occurred a few years after the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England. As explained by Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, when the Pilgrims set sail from Holland in 1620, they were required by their financial backers in London to hold all of their property in common until they had repaid the investors with interest. In 1624 they unilaterally abrogated that agreement (even though the debts were far from paid) and began to make permanent allocations of land to each Pilgrim family.

Here I’ll quote at length from an older post that exposes how Limbaugh fantastically distorts this fact and produces an interpretation of the First Thanksgiving that should be offensive to any American Christians who takes our heritage seriously:

 

How the Pilgrims Repented of Socialism and Gave Thanks (excerpt):

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This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades.  I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So.  In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked!  “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks.  “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.”  And what was the result?  “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.”  They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.”  In sum, the free market had triumphed.

See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claims that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment.  As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621.  (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.)  In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common.  “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them.  “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.

They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering.  William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.”  At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative.  In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!”  “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds.  The rest, as they say, is history.

When the time travelers return that autumn–having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”–everything is changed.  “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.”  Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for. ”  The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.”  Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land.  He made people free.”  Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.”  Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for.  But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”

The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.  As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”

There is just one problem: IT’S NOT TRUE.  Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621.  To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper.  To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!

But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe.  When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe. . . . In economics, as in all of life, the Pilgrims viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by.  The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.

Examples abound.  The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors.  Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government.  Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”

Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth.  The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer.  Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate.  A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.”  He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price.  In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear. . . .

So where does this leave us?  Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative.  What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views.  We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us.  They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.

But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation.  As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally.  And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

To read the entire essay (“How the Pilgrims Reprented of Socialism and Gave Thanks”) click here.

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RUSH LIMBAUGH: REVISIONIST HISTORIAN

So what makes a history book popular? There are surely many factors, but here are four that I think are especially key. The first is the perceived importance of the topic. Books on WWII, for example, will sell more copies than studies of, say, the economic effects of agricultural tenancy in Tennessee during Reconstruction. (I know this from experience, having written a book on the latter topic in an earlier life. Bless my mother’s heart for reading it.)

The second factor is the book’s literary quality: the drama of the story and the skill of the storyteller. Thinking of this factor always brings to mind the late Bruce Catton. I first fell in love with history in high school when I read a half-dozen of Catton’s works on the American Civil War. A journalist by training, Catton made history “come alive” if that can truly be said of any mortal writer. Open the pages of a book like A Stillness at Appomattox and I swear you can hear the crackle of muskets and the smell of smoke wafting across the battlefield.

The third factor is the book’s message. After spending several years talking with common Americans about their understanding of American history, journalist Tony Horwitz concluded that “Americans didn’t so much study history as shop for it.” We know what we want in advance, and then we go out and find it. And what we want from history—if we want anything more than sheer entertainment—is a reaffirmation of what we already believe.

A final, related factor involves not the message per se but our degree of faith in the messenger, that is, the author. Common sense tells us what systematic social-scientific research has confirmed: we all share a very human tendency to believe messages delivered by messengers we have confidence in. It’s sort of like buying a car. All other things equal, we prefer to learn our history from someone we trust, whatever their credentials as a historian.

What is missing from this list is any reference to evidence. Did you notice? Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house. I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home. In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it. I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it. (“You want me to crawl where??”)

I think we tend to evaluate history in much the same way. If a particular history book entertains us, that’s often enough to win us over. If we’re looking for more than entertainment—if we think that history should edify us somehow—we’re still not likely to give much weight to historical evidence. The book’s message will be far more important than the evidence it rests on. So when a book reinforces convictions that we already hold, we find it persuasive. If it promotes values that we already cherish, we conclude that it’s accurate. If a book confirms what we already believe or want to believe, why worry about the underlying evidence? Why check out the foundation when the rest of the house is so appealing?

I was reminded of this when the New York Times released its most recent Best Sellers’ list yesterday. The Rush Revere series, authored by that eminent historian, Rush Limbaugh, is now #1 in the “Children’s Series” category. Don’t let the label of the category fool you into thinking that this is small potatoes. A check of the “Amazon Top 100” list shows that all three titles in the series are among the best-selling books of any kind in America right now. Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, which debuted just over a year ago, is currently #27 on that list. Rush Revere and the First Patriots, which followed a few months later, currently sits at #22. And Rush Revere and the American Revolution, which will be released next week on Veteran’s Day, is the #3 most popular book Amazon sells, entirely on the strength of advance orders.

Rush Revere

The first two books in the series have been reviewed by over six thousand Amazon readers thus, and nearly 96% of the reviews are raves (4 or 5 stars out of a possible 5).  What strikes me about the reviews is how commonly they praise the books for their historical accuracy.  The books tell “the real facts,” are “truthful and honest,” and reveal “the REAL history of this amazing country.”

The question that keeps running through my head is “How do they know?”  The books offer no evidence of any kind–that’s not surprising for works aimed at young readers–but how do the parents and grandparents who are praising the books know that they are historically accurate?  My guess is that the third and fourth factors listed above are at play.  Readers like the message and they trust the messenger.  And this means that Limbaugh’s interpretation of American history must be “true.”

I totally get this, but it is utterly, wholly, and in every other way, illogical.  I have shared numerous times on this blog that my political values are generally conservative, but just because a talk show host agrees with my politics doesn’t make him automatically a reliable historian.

With no apparent sense of irony, on the cover of each book in the series Limbaugh superimposes his own face on a historical figure.  This is actually a marvelous metaphor for his approach to history, for he is repeatedly interjecting his own brand of twenty-first-century secular conservatism into the “exceptional Americans” he identifies in the past.  Put differently, Limbaugh is constantly “revising” the past to make it more politically useful.  His approach robs history of its power to challenge and teach us and transforms the past into one vast, blank screen on which to project his own way of thinking and seeing.

A prime example is the way that Limbaugh grossly distorts the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty.  I’ll conclude with an excerpt from a previous review of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims that drives the point home:

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans.  . . . A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book.  We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.”  And indeed they were.  But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.

Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom.  Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions.  For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side.  “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.  But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom, and Liberty responds by telling Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England.  “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader.  “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.”  Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”

In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time.  When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”

So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed?  It  boils down to freedom from external control.  If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to, and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will.  This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc.  But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.

The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion.  Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility—between God and man and between man and man.  Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression.  Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor.  Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you.  In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

. . . As the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights.  Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue.  In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”

The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us.  But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.

FTcover

 

A GREAT HOLIDAY GIFT FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND CASUAL ACQUAINTANCES

Thanksgiving is six weeks away, and it occurred to me that many of you may be looking for some good Thanksgiving-related reading in advance of the holiday.  There are many books that you can choose from, but two in particular come immediately to my mind.  The first–if you’ll forgive me for saying so–is my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First ThanksgivingThe 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 two years ago, and that is why, about seven years ago, I began my 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.

Go over to Amazon.com, however, and you’ll find a lot more buzz about a different Thanksgiving title.  In what I can only attribute to God’s determination to keep me humble, the month after The First Thanksgiving was released, Rush Limbaugh came out with a book on the same topic: Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  The book follows a middle-school history teacher named Rush Revere and his time-traveling, talking horse named Liberty.  The pair go back to visit the Pilgrims in 1620 and 1621 and discover that they all would have voted Republican and opposed Obamacare.

Rush RevereRush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims has been reviewed more than 4,200 times on Amazon.com, and 95% of reviewers give the work four or five stars.  They praise it as a “factually correct,” “unbiased,” “true history” that will help to combat the “liberal propaganda that the children are being fed today.”  Last Autumn such giddy enthusiasm propelled the book temporarily to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of books, and even a year after its release it still sits comfortably in Amazon’s top 100, coming in at #38 as I write this.  (My book is not far behind, standing at #57,589.  I don’t know precisely how many titles Amazon claims to rank, but the total is well above 12 million–probably much higher.)

I have previously posted two extended essays on Limbaugh’s take on the Pilgrims (see here and here), so I am not going to cover that ground again.  Suffice it to say that the book is pretty much a train wreck.  I consider myself a political conservative, and so I take no pleasure in saying that, but the book has little redeeming value as a work of history, even for children.  For Christian readers, the book should be positively offensive.  In Rush’s revisionist re-telling, the First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrim’s gratitude to God for bringing them through a deadly winter and blessing them with a bountiful harvest.  In fact, it had little religious dimension at all.  The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were instead celebrating how God had delivered them from the futility of socialism and alerted them to the benefits of free enterprise.

As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally.  And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

If you listen to Limbaugh’s radio program (I’ll confess that I do occasionally), you know that he encourages his readers to buy his books in order to counteract the lies and half-truths that supposedly mar American history as it is taught in the public schools.  With regard to the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving, I have no doubt that the real story is rarely told.  But if you’re hoping to find a more accurate re-telling from a time-traveling talking horse, prepare to be disappointed.

NOT OUR CLONES IN FUNNY CLOTHES, or WHY NOT TO TRUST RUSH REVERE

Thanksgiving is now only five days away, so I thought I would return again for some reflections on the most popular Thanksgiving book of the season, Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  The book is holding at #3 in the Amazon best-sellers ranking, and even though it was only released at the end of October, it has already elicited nearly 600 reader reviews.  You can read them here.

Rush RevereThe readers’ reviews are discouraging on multiple levels.  Critics–and there aren’t many–have almost nothing substantive to say.  Their comments consist almost entirely of ad hominem attacks on either the author or his supporters.  Rather than seriously critiquing the book, they call attention to Limbaugh’s multiple divorces, his much-publicized addiction to prescription medications, or (most commonly) his king-sized ego and inflated sense of self-importance.  In explaining the book’s popularity, they simply lash out at the  “ditto-heads” stupid enough to waste their money on such drivel.  What any of this has to do with Limbaugh’s understanding of the Pilgrims is far from clear.

But the comments from fans of the book are almost as empty.  The two most common observations are that 1) the book is entertaining, and 2) that it is historically accurate.  I get the first judgment.  Who among us prefers dense, dull, dry-as-dust prose?  Making the past seem to “come alive” is always an asset, especially when you’re trying to reach younger readers.  Furthermore, entertainment value is pretty much in the eye of the beholder, and if the reviewers on Amazon.com were entertained in reading the book, then they were.  I might wish that they were training their children and grandchildren to appreciate better literature, but that’s a different matter.

What I don’t get is the constant refrain of praise for the book’s historical accuracy.  As I noticed in my last post, the book has no footnotes or bibliography, no reference to evidence of any kind.  And yet the vast majority of readers have absolute confidence that Limbaugh is “setting the record straight.”  It’s “about time someone tells our kids the truth about our history,” writes one reviewer.  The book gives “an accurate account of American history!”  exults another.  It tells “the real facts,” is “truthful and honest,” and reveals “the REAL history of this amazing country,” echo others.  And again I find myself asking, “how do they know?”  Have they read the relevant early seventeenth century sources–e.g., Of Plymouth Plantation, Mourt’s Relation, Good Newes from New England, and The Works of John Robinson–and concluded that Limbaugh is true to the historical record?  Or are they predisposed to accept on faith the “scholarship” of a radio personality whose politics they agree with?

In truth, neither the book’s critics nor its defenders pay much attention at all to evidence.  Critics seem to know in advance that they will hate the book and read it only to mock it.  Advocates seem to know in advance that they will love the book and go on to adore it uncritically.  There’s a lot of sound and fury here, but precious little substance.

I began this blog more than a year ago out of a sense of calling to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think wisely–historically and Christianly–about the American past.  If that is your desire as well, then I hope you will agree with me that loving God with our minds is worlds away from the mindless name-calling that so often masquerades as thoughtful reflection in today’s public square.  Nor do we satisfy the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive into obedience to Christ” by simply determining the politics of the messenger and then reflexively embracing (or rejecting)  the message.  Ours is a higher, harder, and ultimately more rewarding calling.

First ThanksgivingI didn’t write my recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, primarily to “set the record straight” about the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration, although I did hope to provide a faithful retelling of that fascinating story.  Rather, my primary goal was to warn readers about the snares that await us when we study history, and to introduce them to a variety of principles and concepts that are essential to keep in mind whenever we  study any episode or people from the past.  You know the old saw about the difference between giving someone a fish versus teaching them how to fish.  I didn’t want to spoon-feed the “real story” of the past as much as show how the real story lays bare key principles for thinking historically and Christianly about the past.  I wanted to help readers think historically more than tell them what to think about a particular historical moment.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims illustrates pretty much every pitfall that I warn about in The First Thanksgiving, but in the interest of time I’ll just mention two.  One of the most common temptations we face when studying history is the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination–more determined to prove points than gain understanding.  We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our findings can reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed.  This approach to the past makes history just one more battleground in the culture wars, with both sides ransacking the past in search of evidence to support their own predetermined positions.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process.  History loses its power to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.

The second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes–that is, thinking of them as just like us.  If the temptation to search for ammunition reflects a propensity of our hearts, the tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of the past reflects a characteristic of our brains.  We are wired to learn by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new we reflexively search for an analogue, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.  The construction of this analogy is totally natural, but it’s also dangerous, because once we have recognized something familiar in the past, we will be tempted to label it and move on rather than wrestle with it and learn.  When we do that, we almost always exaggerate the degree to which the past was similar to the present.

This danger is particularly great when studying groups like the Pilgrims who do share some of our ways of looking at the world.  We read about men and women who were religiously motivated, family oriented, and committed to liberty–all of which is true–and without even realizing it we’re soon thinking of them as one of “us.”  The problem with this is that, once it occurs, what really happens is that we stop thinking about them at all.  They become our clones in funny clothes, and any chance of seeing ourselves more clearly or of learning from people who were the product of a different time and place goes right out of the window.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans.  Oh, there are undoubtedly differences: the Pilgrims as Limbaugh describes them are more grateful than we are; they’re tougher, more courageous, more committed to liberty.  But these are differences of degree, not of kind.  The Pilgrims’ values are our values, they just lived them out more effectively.  At bottom, they are who we want to be (or should want to be).  They are us when we’re having a good day.

A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book.  We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.”  And indeed they were.  But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.

Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom.  Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions.  For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side.  “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.  But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom, and Liberty responds by telling Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England.  “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader.  “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.”  Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”

In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time.  When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”

So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed?  It  boils down to freedom from external control.  If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to,  and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will.  This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc.  But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.

The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion.  Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility–between God and man and between man and man.  Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression.  Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor.  Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you.  In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, human society was not a conglomeration of individuals but of groups.  They believed that God had ordained three basic building blocks for society: the family, the church, and the civil community.  Each of these constituent units was organic (like a living being), interdependent, and hierarchical.  Each was characterized by shared responsibilities and mutual obligations within clearly defined chains of authority.  So, for example, all of the colonists were to submit to the civil magistrate, whose authority (whether he was Christian or “heathen”), came from God.  When the Separatists had decided to defy both the Church of England and the English king by creating their own congregations, they had not done so as an assertion of individual right, but as an expression of their obligation to obey God rather than man.

Indeed, as the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights.  Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue.  In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”

The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us.  But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.

HOW THE PILGRIMS REPENTED OF SOCIALISM AND GAVE THANKS

As I promised in my last post, I want to share some thoughts about Rush Limbaugh’s recent book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.  Released just three weeks ago, the book by the popular conservative radio host is now the second best-selling work on Amazon and has already elicited 470 reader reviews, nearly 90% of which are five-star raves.  They praise it as a “factually correct,” “unbiased,” “true history” that will help to combat the “liberal propaganda that the children are being fed today.”  (These are all comments that appear within the last twenty-four hours.)

What strikes me about these responses is how utterly confident the reviewers are in the historical accuracy of a work of children’s literature that centers on the adventures of a time-traveling talking horse.  There are no footnotes.  No bibliography.  No list of suggested readings.  No evidence of any kind.

Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house.  I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home.  In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it.  I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it.  (“You want me to crawl where?”)  I think we tend to shop for history in much the same way.  If a particular history book reinforces convictions that we already hold, it rarely enters our mind to investigate the underlying evidence.  No need to go down in the crawl space when the rest of the house is so appealing.

Rush RevereWhen it comes to the use of evidence, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is simply a train wreck.  I don’t say this gleefully, or with a sneer of condescension.  Indeed, I say this as a political conservative who shares the author’s appreciation for the wisdom of our founders.  I just wish he hadn’t botched the job so badly.  The book may be entertaining–it may even inspire some young readers to want to learn more about their national heritage–but it fundamentally misrepresents the “Brave Pilgrims” it purports to honor.

As Christian historian Beth Schweiger puts it so eloquently, “in history, the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.”  The figures we study from the past were image bearers like us.  They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and when we ignore the complexity of their world to further neat-and-tidy answers in our own, we treat them as cardboard props rather than dealing with them seriously as human beings.  Put simply, we are not loving them but using them.  Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims does this in spades.  I could offer numerous examples of what I have in mind, but for now I’ll just concentrate on one: Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrim’s economic values.

First, some background.  Four centuries ago, the proposal to relocate a hundred people across an ocean to an uncharted continent was almost recklessly audacious.  It was also prohibitively expensive, and most of the Leiden Separatists who were committed to the venture were also as poor as church mice.  To succeed, it was imperative that they find financial backers who would bankroll the undertaking, and the company of London merchants who agreed to do so were no philanthropists.  They were hard-headed businessmen who drove a hard bargain.  And so, in exchange for the considerable cost of transporting the Pilgrims to North America and supplying them until they could provide for themselves, the Pilgrims agreed to work for the London financiers for seven years.  During that time, under the terms of their agreement, everything they produced and everything they constructed (even including the houses they slept in) would belong to the company, not to them individually.  At the end of the seven years, any revenue that had been generated in excess of their debts was to be divided among the London investors and the Pilgrim settlers.

Next comes a crucial plot twist: According to governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation, in the spring of 1623 the surviving Pilgrim colonists began to debate among themselves whether there was anything they could do to improve the next year’s crop.  The answer, after considerable debate, was to allocate to every household a small quantity of land (initially, one acre per person) to cultivate as their own during the coming season.  Because the land varied considerably in quality, the plots were assigned by lot, with the understanding that there would be a drawing the next year and the next after that, etc., so that the land each family was assigned would change annually.

While under the old scheme individual workers had minimal incentive to put forth extra effort (since the fruit of that effort would be divided among all, including the slackers), the new plan, according to Bradford, “made all hands very industrious.”  The only flaw was the decision to reallocate household plots annually, for this discouraged families from making long-term improvements to their assigned tracts.  To rectify that, Bradford explains, in the spring of 1624 it was decided to make the allocations permanent.  The success of the new plan, the governor ruminated, demonstrated “the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”

This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades.  I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So.  In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked!  “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks.  “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.”  And what was the result?  “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.”  They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.”  In sum, the free market had triumphed.

See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claims that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment.  As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621.  (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.)  In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common.  “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them.  “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.

They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering.  William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.”  At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative.  In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!”  “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds.  The rest, as they say, is history.

When the time travelers return that autumn–having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”–everything is changed.  “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.”  Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for. ”  The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.”  Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land.  He made people free.”  Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.”  Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for.  But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”

The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.  As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”

There is just one problem: it’s not true.  Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621.  To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper.  To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!

But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe.  When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe.  Nearly two centuries ago, the brilliant conservative Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”  Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrims’ economic shift is clear, precise . . . and false.  The reality is complex.

On a visit to Plymouth at the very end of 1621, deacon Robert Cushman (a church official in the Leiden congregation) was invited to preach to the Pilgrims and chose for his text I Corinthians 10:24: “Let no man seek his own: but every man another’s wealth.”  The decision to allow each household to work its own individual plot represented a movement away from this ideal–but only partially.  Both Bradford and his assistant Edward Winslow described the shift not as a good thing, in and of itself, but as a concession to human weakness.  It was an acknowledgment, in Winslow’s words, of “that self-love wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbor’s.”  Because “all men have this corruption in them,” as Bradford put it, it was prudent to take this aspect of human nature into account.

This was still a century and a half, however, before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations would celebrate the enlightened pursuit of self-interest as the surest way to promote the general welfare.  In countless ways, the Pilgrims showed that they still belonged to an earlier age.  In economics, as in all of life, they viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by.  The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.

Examples abound.  The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors.  Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government.  Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”

Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth.  The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer.  Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate.  A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.”  He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price.  In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear.

And what of Limbaugh’s claim that the Pilgrims’ shift toward free enterprise would enable them “soon” to repay the company that had sponsored them?  This assertion, at least, is correct, if by “soon” Limbaugh meant twenty-eight years, which, according to William Bradford is how long it took the Pilgrims to erase their debts.  In truth, the assertion is misleading in the extreme.

So where does this leave us?  Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative.  What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views.  We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us.  They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.

But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation.  As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally.  And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and  heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

First Thanksgiving