Despite the Right’s Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims rebelled against their corporate landlord

Summary: Many posts here have documented the myths the Right has created to reshape our views of ourselves, of America. Today we debunk an especially ugly one, twisting the history of Thanksgiving. Read to the end for the big twist ending. {Second of two posts today}

Breaking the Myths

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Myths (AKA lies) are among the tools the Right uses to reshape America. Nicely crafted, interlocking stories about a fictional past of America. Such as a Thanksgiving as a celebration as an escape from socialism…

(a) The Great Thanksgiving Hoax“, Richard J. Maybury, Mises Institute, 20 November 1999 — Opening:

Each year at this time school children all over America are taught the official Thanksgiving story, and newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines devote vast amounts of time and space to it. It is all very colorful and fascinating. It is also very deceiving. This official story is nothing like what really happened. It is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.

(b) The Real Story of Thanksgiving“, Rush Limbaugh, 21 November 2007 — Opening:

That Thanksgiving story is right out of my second book, See, I Told You So, and we do that in the last half hour of every show on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving. It is so at odds with what all of us were taught in school. I’ll just give you a little heads-up. If you were like me, what we were taught in school was that the Pilgrims came over, and they were just overwhelmed; they were swamped; they had no clue where they were; they had no clue how to feed themselves; they had to clue how to protect themselves; they had no idea how to stay warm; they had no idea how to do anything. They were just typical, dumb white people fleeing some other place they couldn’t manage to live in.

(c) The Lost Lesson of Thanksgiving“, John Stossel, Fox News, 24 November 2010 — “Had today’s political class been in power in 1623, tomorrow’s holiday would have been called “Starvation Day” instead of Thanksgiving.”

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(d) Occupy Plymouth Colony: How A Failed Commune Led To Thanksgiving“, Jerry Boywer, Forbes, 23 November 2011 — “It’s wrong to say that American was founded by capitalists. In fact, America was founded by socialists who had the humility to learn from their initial mistakes and embrace freedom.”

(e) The Pilgrims Were Thankful They Abandoned Communism; And We Too Can Be Thankful“, Liberty Counsel, 21 November 2012 — Excerpt:

“We have so much to be thankful for in America” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The Pilgrims learned a brutal lesson regarding communal living. In America, equal opportunity has always been a foundational value. Attempting to create equal outcomes for everyone will create disincentives and make society poor. Let’s be grateful and learn from the Pilgrims. Let’s not repeat their mistake.” Staver said.

(f) Occupy Plymouth Colony: How A Failed Commune Led To Thanksgiving“, Jerry Boywer, Forbes, 23 November 2011 — “It’s wrong to say that American was founded by capitalists. In fact, America was founded by socialists who had the humility to learn from their initial mistakes and embrace freedom.”

Right-wing myths

It’s been widely debunked, but the Left has never learned to play this game well. They address the facts, but can’t get the message out as well as the Right (with its well-funded array of institutional advocates). They’ve addressed the details, such as this thorough debunking: “Right Wing Continues to Push ‘Socialist Pilgrims’ Myth”, Brian Tashman, Right Wing Watch, 24 November 2011

But that hasn’t stopped the Right from propagating the myth that the failures of “socialism” forced them to embrace capitalism. In order to make the myth seem true, Fox News commentator John Stossel simply moves the date of the first Thanksgiving from 1621 to 1623 …

They’ve done it with humor: “Sorry, Mr. Limbaugh, Thanksgiving Has Never Been A Celebration Of The Pilgrims’ Triumph Over Socialism“, Doktor Zoom, 28 November 2013 — Opening:

It’s Thanksgiving Day, so as we gather together with (or hide from) our families, however functional or dysfunctional they may be, let us remember the true meaning of any American holiday: It’s an opportunity to pound home a political lesson about why We Are Good and They Are Bad. It’s a revered grim tradition: You serve Susan Stamberg’s socialist NPR cranberry relish, and your Teabagger brother-in-law recites how the settlers of Plymouth Plantation nearly starved because they had socialism forced upon them, but finally prospered after they became capitalists.

They’ve done it with scholarly thoroughness: “The Pilgrims Were … Socialists?“, Kate Zernike, New York Times, 20 November 2010 — Excerpt:

Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

… Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.” “Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women don’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors,” he said.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

As for Jamestown, there was famine. But historians dispute the characterization of the colony as a collectivist society. “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate,” said Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a historian at New York University and the author of “The Jamestown Project.” “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?” The widespread deaths resulted mostly from malaria.

… The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war. Samuel Eliot Morison, the admiral and historian who edited Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” titled the chapter about Bradford ending the common course “Indian Conspiracy; Communism; Gorges.” But it is important to note that he was writing in 1952, amid great American suspicion of the Soviets. “The challenges of the cold war and dealing with Russia are reflected in the text,” Mr. Pickering said.

Likewise, Cleon Skousen, the author of the “Making of America” textbook, was an anticommunist crusader in the 1960s. (His term for Jamestown was not socialism but “secular communism.”)

A few give powerful rebuttals with the same power as the Right serves their myths. This is the best rebuttal I’ve seen: “The People’s Republic of Plymouth“, Joshua Keating, Slate, 25 December 2014 — “The strange and persistent right-wing myth that Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims’ triumph over socialism.” Excerpt:

This all sounds very Randian, but the story is not quite the free-market folktale that its boosters would have you believe. … But the Rush Limbaugh crowd should note that the settlers at Plymouth were rebelling against the rules set by a corporation, not against the strictures of some Stalinist collective farm or a hippie commune.

As Nick Bunker writes in 2010’s Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World “Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole. … Under the terms of the contract … for the first seven years no individual settler could own a plot of land.

Thanksgiving Day

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Other Thanksgiving Day Notes

  1. A Thanksgiving Day note, 25 November 2010
  2. Let’s give thanks for America’s luck, and try to deserve it!, 22 November 2012
  3. For Thanksgiving, Walmart shows us the New America, 19 November 2013
  4. Make this a special Thanksgiving: take a first and easy step to reforming America, 28 November 2013
  5. Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful, 24 November 2011

For More Inspiring Words

  1. Posts with good news about America
  2. Posts about first steps to reforming America

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6 thoughts on “Despite the Right’s Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims rebelled against their corporate landlord

  1. Happy Turkey Day FM! FM is essential reading. I’m going to refer to FM this year in the national security course I teach to high school seniors in DC Metro. Maybe they will use it in college.

  2. “All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before.

    And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

    The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince 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. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.

    And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

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    The entire Journals of Mr. Bradford are well worth reading.

    1. Joseph,

      Thank you for that except! Note that this is an entry from the year 1623. The first Thanksgiving festival was 1621.

      It’s a good reminder that society’s based on political extremes tend to fail over time, whether forced collectivization or forced inequality — as in the US during the slave years and later the Gilded Age, in equality enforced by the State militia, police, and private agents (e.g., Pinkertons, KKK). The prosperity of America results from navigating a middle ground between them.

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