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