Debunking a right-wing myth about Thanksgiving

Summary: Today we debunk an especially ugly myth of the Right, in which they twist the history of Thanksgiving to serve their political aims. Learn the truth. Read to the end for the big twist ending.

The First Thanksgiving
“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (circa 1913).

Giving us a faux history as the foundation for a New America

“It’s all about power and the unassailable might of money.”
— E. P. Arnold Royalton, the great 21st century industrialist in Speed Racer (2008).

Manufactured myths are among the most powerful tools the Right uses to reshape America. They produce well crafted, interlocking stories about a fictional past of America — a faux history. Such as the story describing Thanksgiving as a celebration of America’s escape from socialism, told in these excerpts.

(a) The Great Thanksgiving Hoax” by Richard J. Maybury at the Mises Institute, November 1999.

“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” by Rush Limbaugh, November 2009.

Making Haste from Babylon
Available at Amazon.

“Time now, ladies and gentlemen, for The Real Story of Thanksgiving, as written by I — by me — in my second book, See, I Told You So. …The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store,’ when they got here, ‘and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well.

“They were going to distribute it equally. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belonged to the community as well. …[William] Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this form of collectivism was as costly and destructive to the Pilgrims as that first harsh winter, which had taken so many lives. He decided to take bold action. Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage, thus turning loose the power of the marketplace.”

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

(d) Occupy Plymouth Colony: How A Failed Commune Led To Thanksgiving” by Jerry Boywer in Forbes, 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” by Liberty Counsel, November 2012.

“‘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” by Jerry Boywer in 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

Busting the myth. Revealing the truth.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
— John 8:32.

The Right’s myth of Thanksgiving is quite bogus. It has been widely debunked, but insufficiently so to overcome the Right’s well-funded array of institutional advocates. Here are a few of the more notable attempts.

(1)  Some have used humor for rebuttal: “Sorry, Mr. Limbaugh, Thanksgiving Has Never Been A Celebration Of The Pilgrims’ Triumph Over Socialism” by Doktor Zoom, November 2013.

“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.

“According to one revisionist version of Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims’ basic error was in trying to live like the original Apostles: …Other versions leave out any mention of Biblical sharing (which might raise uncomfortable questions about that Gallilean redistributionist anyway) and present the Pilgrims as victims of “a short-lived form of agricultural communism” imposed upon them by their sponsors back in England (BOOO!) …”

(2)  Some have debunked this myth with scholarly thoroughness: “The Pilgrims Were …Socialists?” by Kate Zernike in the New York Times, November 2010.

Of Plymouth Plantation
Available at Amazon.

“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 The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution textbook, was an anticommunist crusader in the 1960s. (His term for Jamestown was not ‘socialism’ but ‘secular communism.’)”

(3)  Some 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” by Joshua Keating in Slate, December 2014 — “The strange and persistent right-wing myth that Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims’ triumph over socialism.”

“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: A New History — “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.”

Breaking the Myths

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about faux history, about truth, and especially these about Thanksgiving…

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

12 thoughts on “Debunking a right-wing myth about Thanksgiving

  1. Re: Kate Zernike, New York Times, November 2010 is quoted as follows:
    ” … historians say the pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.”

    Now, I don’t know what to think of “shareholders” and “corporations” in 1621, except that they are terrible anachronisms.
    But I am sure that the thoughtless and faux “subjects of socialism” ranks right up there with the right’s mythology! Any dictionary will tell you what the two nouns mean —and that they can not go together —because “subjects” is historical for the 1600s, but socialism only came about some 250 years later.

    Quotes like that undermine my trust in Fabius the Great! Don’t do it. Do research, edit what you publish and stop to think about what you are saying!

    VHJM

    1. You are quoting a historian (or journalist; unclear if this is a quote) writing in the 21st century making an analogy regarding the Pilgrims’ situation, not the terms that the Pilgrims themselves would have used.

      Did words not exist before we had dictionaries?

    2. I quoted whom I said I quoted, from where I said I quoted from; and you did not check, that much is clear. A bad beginning, SF! And whatever else you thought you had to say implies that I am stupid. No thanks for the compliment. And really, the shoe is on the other foot, OK?

    3. Yhum,

      (1) “Now, I don’t know what to think of “shareholders” and “corporations” in 1621, except that they are terrible anachronisms.”

      No, they are not anachronisms. Zernike uses he term we use today (“corporation”) — newspaper readers don’t want lessons about entomology — but she is correct about the nature of “early corporations.”

      Many of the economic activities which we consider modern have ancient roots, because people in the past faced similar problems and devised similar solutions. The modern corporation evolved from joint stock companies, which share many characteristics of their later descendants. From Wikipedia entry for “joint stock companies“:

      Finding the earliest joint-stock company is a matter of definition. The earliest records of joint stock company can be found in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Around 1250 in France at Toulouse, 96 shares of the Société des Moulins du Bazacle, or Bazacle Milling Company were traded at a value that depended on the profitability of the mills the society owned, making it probably the first company of its kind in history.[8][9] The Swedish company Stora has documented a stock transfer for an eighth of the company (or more specifically, the mountain in which the copper resource was available) as early as 1288.

      In more recent history, the earliest joint-stock company recognized in England was the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, chartered in 1553 with 250 shareholders. Muscovy Company, which had a monopoly on trade between Moscow and London, was chartered soon after in 1555. The much more famous, wealthy and powerful English (later British) East India Company was granted an English Royal Charter by Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, with the intention of favouring trade privileges in India. The Royal Charter effectively gave the newly created Honourable East India Company a 15-year monopoly on all trade in the East Indies.[10] The Company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one that ruled India and exploited its resources, as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, until its dissolution.

      Soon afterwards, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company issued shares that were made tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. That invention enhanced the ability of joint-stock companies to attract capital from investors, as they could now easily dispose their shares. In 1612, it became the first ‘corporation’ in intercontinental trade with ‘locked in’ capital and limited liability.

      Companies in ancient Rome had transferable shares. The Dutch East India Company was in most respects the first modern corporation, formed on 20 March 1602. It had board of directors who ran the company and paid dividends to its shareholders — whose shares were transferable. It was one of the major stories of the age, paying 16% annual dividends during the first half of the 17th century (an era with near-zero inflation).

      The Amsterdam Stock Exchange opened in 1602.

      The Pilgrims had large settlements in the Netherlands, and would be familiar with these these things.

      (2) “but socialism only came about some 250 years later.”

      This reminds me of how teenagers often believe that their generation invented sex. Socialism in the sense used by the Right to (falsely) describe the Pilgrims is ancient — long predating the 19th century enthusiasm for describing these things as systems. Early Christian communities were socialist in this communal sense, as described in Acts 2: “”Now all the believers were together and held all things in common.” Described in more detail in Acts 4:

      “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

      As with any socialist system, there must be enforcement to maintain the sharing of community wealth. As in Acts 5:

      Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

      Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

      When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

      About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

      “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

      Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

    4. Dear Mr Kunner,

      Thank you so much for your long answer and extensive backup behind the thinking. To me, you are mostly right in applying the modern terms I took issue with tp (much) older practices, in business and in society. Like you, I think the way to go is, back in history. It gives us opportunity to re-think modern terms and institutions. But it has to be done with a good grasp of historical consciousness and -context.
      In the latter respect, I found Zernike lacking, as quoted, and I still think an editor should have done something about it. She bluntly glued modern terms on much older practices, thus creating a false picture for readers and, worst: the same picture proffered by the likes of Rush Limbaugh to people no so well at home in history and linguistics.
      I find corroboration for reading her this way iwhen we read further down: “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?”
      Clearly, Kupperman takes issue with Zernike’s loose use of words, or, to be more precise, using them without context.

      You do give that context and you do it well. Writing this in the Netherlands, I’m of course most pleased by your short exposé on the VOC. And your Bible quote is equally clear and likable. My sincere compliments. You’re almost totally convincing.

      But not quite! First off, I must disagree with your teenagers-and-sex comparison. I find this worn-out metaphor at the start a bit of a cheap shot, jarring with the careful analysis and examples you lay out further down —a minor matter. Of more importance is, that teenagers did indeed invent “sex” —roughly in the eighties and nineties, when the word ‘teenager’ had already fallen out of grace. Millennials invented “hooking up.” And teenagers of my generation, the sixties an seventies, had neither “sex” nor did they “hook up” —we “went to bed/slept with each other,” “made love” —and most certainly did not do “it,'”, as we hear so often from people trying to be “polite.” “It” was not personal enough for us and we were very personal and social.

      My unease with transposing terms from one era to another to end up using it as a universal is, that we change connotations. The denotation may, or may not, stay the same. That’s a matter for science and exegesis. You set both to work, roughly in line with Wkp’s lemma on ‘socialism’ .
      Suffice it to say that it goes into the many meanings (extension) of the word at length, deriving the core meaning from all historical instances (intension). Wkp goes almost enough into said historical instances. Interestingly, it jumps from the short-lived Paris Commune to the First International. Already, one preferred meaning for socialism is at work here.

      Wkp’s lapses leave ou important histories that shed another light on socialism than the ones we’ve had so far. An important group that could well be added in Wkp and to your early examples is the Utopists (Fourier, Owen, De Saint-Simon, Proudhon). Another lapsus in socialism-sensu-lato are the utopian and religiously communities from so much later than the Apostles and so much closer to us. I suppose Oneida would be the best known in the USA. In the Netherlands we had, among others, Frederik van Eeden’s “Walden”, influenced of course by Thoreau, but also by anarchism, the Peter Kropotkin variety.
      There were many more experiments in may parts of the world during the early rise of financial capitalism, such as the back-to-nature-and-self-sufficiency hippie communes of days past.

      So yes, in the wider sense, both socialism and corporations have a time-honored and venerable history full of tales that should be told as the nights grow longer, on Thanksgiving eve and on until the sun rises again.

      But who knows so? In modern, especially rightist parlance, socialism, pinkos, communism, reds, soviets (oh poor abused word!), authoritarians and dictators (and thus even fascism!) have become one amalgam. “Socialism” has become a curse, a term to ostracize people from “normal” society —and we let it happen.
      And this is what’s so visible in the right’s tellling of the pilgrims’ adventures, the subject of this FabMax piece.

      My problem is that when the left uses the same words as the right, but sensu strictiore in opposing meanings, we have already lost. I would have paid more attention to another term and I was disappointed that it was glossed over. I refer to “common” and its derivatives, “commoner” and “the commons.” At what university do students and staff still know what “the students’ commons” is, what it means and thus, what rules it brings with it? This whole set of concepts, rules, laws and practices and the life that —stilll now !— go with take us back to the Magna Charta and the Charter of the Forest, recently discussed on Counterpunch

      Its conclusion is worth quoting now:
      ‘The Charter of the Forest is a document of European history.  Moreover, it is a document of European class struggle, for it was this same Guala Bicchieri who a few years earlier had helped to organize the repression of French heretics which included the woeful massacre of the Cathars of Provence and the Languedoc.  These so-called heretics were commoners, vegetarians, feminists [to be discussed], anti-materialists, and —what angered the Christian Crusaders the most— refusers of war [but also of procreation and sex —grave omission here!]. 
      The common people of the time were, as Robin Hood described them, precariously split between the sedentary ploughmen or peasant and the nomadic forester or refugee. They, like the just commons of England, had the bottle to do battle upon the powers that be.  Would that we might hear the twang of Robin’s bow and do the same in order to achieve, to quote the Charter once more, “the salvation of our soul, and the souls of our ancestors and our successors.’

      And that is something the left has to do. If the right uses Thanksgiving and faux history to damn our souls, we we have to save the souls of our ancestors, our successors and the ancestors and successors of the many millions living in the land before the pilgrims’ arrival, by getting together (on the commons if possibel!) and do “the tell” as often as we can —and not just around Thanksgiving. The tale of the commoners of the early American colonies, forced to take money from the haves to even make the Atlantic crossing, and of the First American Peoples are as important as the oath to the flag and the founding documents of the USA. They should become as common knowledge as 2=2=4 —to correctly underpin our actions and our sense of right and wrong.

      Yours truly,
      VHJM

    5. “She …thus creating a false picture for readers and, worst: the same picture proffered by the likes of Rush Limbaugh to people no so well at home in history and linguistics.”

      She gave a rebuttal to Rush Limbaugh. That was the point of her article and my quote.

  2. Rand Paul just this morning: https://twitter.com/RandPaul/status/933899298374373381

    Even though I consider socialism/communism fundamentally opposed to human nature, I don’t understand why a free market proponent would feel the need to oppose small-scale socialism or communism. I don’t have first-hand experience, but I do believe communes and kibbutz (kibbutzes?) work in various instances. At community scale, someone who acts against the interests of the community (i.e. selfishly) can be reprimanded, punished, or expelled and eventually replaced by someone who will act in the best interests of the community. Also, the community directs its own interests and does not suffer the inefficiencies of a far-away command structure.

    I find no inconsistency in believing that socialism can work on community scale and believing it cannot work at state scale.

    1. Dell,

      You are overthinking this. It’s propaganda. Faux history is a powerful way to shape a people’s destiny. The path of the US has been largely defined by fake history. Look at the South, passionate believers in their fictional past.

  3. Dell, the plural of kibbutz is kibbutzim.

    First, much of this debate revolves around symantics. People like to rename things. I imagine it makes us feel superior to our ancestors. Soldiers don’t become shell shocked or have battle fatigue anymore. They have PTSD. We don’t have panics or crashes anymore. We have recessions or down turns. This makes our experiences unique in history. Unprecedented. Boys don’t bed girls anymore. They sleep with them. No more roll in the hay. It’s a hookup. A rose, as they say.

    Second, that is not to imply that our experiences are identical to some in the past. History rhymes, after all. But still we have much more in common with our history than we are willing to admit. We just don’t want to learn from it, so we keep changing the defining terms.

    1. Both versions are mostly in agreement on what transpired. I see it as a failure of supervision and the inability to fire or discipline anyone for not doing their fair share of the work that resulted in much discontent. The colony was indentured for seven years, which was to become a common way of coming to the new world and paying back the debt. It works best in a one on one relationship, not a colony. If they could have been paid for their work monthly, as hired hands, that might have worked out better. Sharecropping would have been a better system than communal farming. There are more incentives to work hard. Owning your own farm has even more incentives.

    2. Tom,

      “Both versions are mostly in agreement on what transpired.”

      That’s not remotely correct. To give just one example — to make the Right-wing case work, they have to lie about the dates.

    3. Tom,

      “The colony was indentured for seven years”

      That is not correct. An “indenture” is a contract. To be “indentured” is to be under contract as a laborer — such as an apprentice or servant.

      The Plymouth colony was a joint stock company, to which people had loaned money. The company owned the Colony’s land, livestock, and funds. The plan called for the company to be liquidated after seven years — with the debt paid off and all remaining assets distributed. This was not like an servant or apprentice indenture — which lasted for a fixed period.

      The plan didn’t work. The debt was renegotiated in 1626. We don’t know the details, but best estimates are that the investors eventually received roughly 1800 pounds back on their investment of 8000 pounds.

      See some details here: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/ap_financing_building_colony.htm

Leave a Reply