Lord Macaulay, the great English historian of the 19th century, used to confound even his most learned readers by beginning discussions of obscure historical events with the phrase “as every schoolboy knows.” Schoolboys in Macaulay’s day probably knew a good deal more than they do now, but if there is one thing every American schoolchild still learns about his country’s history, it is that the Pilgrim Fathers started the custom of giving thanks to God every year after the autumn harvest.
As with much else that American schoolchildren are taught nowadays, this homely bit of scholarship is false. The Pilgrims did not arrive in New England what was then Plymouth Plantation until 1620, and earlier settlers in Virginia were already celebrating their own thanksgiving by that time.
In September 1619, a group of English investors dispatched a company of colonists to found the new settlement of Berkeley Hundred on the James River in Virginia. The investors directed the settlers “that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Accordingly, in December 1619, the settlers disembarked in their new home and immediately fulfilled this obligation to God and man alike by observing the first Thanksgiving celebrated on American soil one year before the New Englanders even arrived and two years before they thought about being thankful for it.
The Virginia General Assembly has recognized the true origins of Thanksgiving by an official resolution, and no lesser authorities than historians Henry Steele Commager and Arthur Schlesinger have attested to the fact that Virginia’s Thanksgiving came first. Patriotic Virginians to this day insist on it, and every year a Thanksgiving festival is held at Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation to commemorate the event.
Lest anyone suggest that Virginians are bitter about the long-standing national delusion that New England invented something nice, it should also be noted that the first national holiday of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington, himself a Virginian, for Nov. 26, 1789. President Abraham Lincoln revived the custom in 1863, and the present holiday was fixed by act of Congress in 1941 for the fourth Thursday of November. As with most distinctive American institutions, Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it was a truly collective effort created by Americans of different backgrounds and persuasions.
Regardless of the historical facts, however, nations live by myths, and the myth of the “first Thanksgiving” has survived only in part because New Englanders have generally enjoyed a better press than Southerners. The New England myth, in fact, incorporates a number of ideals treasured by Americans of all regions, as the document of Gov. William Bradford (reprinted below) shows.
One such ideal is succor for the unfortunate, practiced by the few able-bodied settlers who were left after a hard voyage and winter. Secularists may not like to think about it, but the relevance of Jewish and Christian ethics to the beginnings of our nation becomes very clear. Without a sense of charity and mutual support, the men and women who planted the seeds of the nation would not have survived.
Gov. Bradford’s account also symbolizes the value of hard work and cooperation that distinguishes free communities, and the careful reader will notice the remarkable absence from the governor’s diary of any help the Pilgrims received from local bureaucrats, Indian or European, in making it through tough times. The wonderful world of bureaucracy had not yet been invented, though the settlers left behind them in England not a few professional courtiers, tame aristocrats and assorted hired parasites who eventually evolved into the public servants we all know and love.
The settlers, relying on their own wits and the advice of friendly natives, “found true by trial and experience” that some things worked and others didn’t. Like sensible people throughout history, they ignored and abandoned the unworkable ideas, and adopted the bizarre notion of burying dead fish with their crops. Of course, they had no notion that decaying fish would provide nutrients for the overworked soil, but since it worked, they used it anyway. Communities that exist on the margin, such as those at Plymouth and Berkeley Hundred, can’t afford the luxury of new age economics.
In an age when a commercialized Christmas season begins immediately after Halloween, Thanksgiving remains as one of the few national holidays that has little economic value, except to poultry farmers. Whether one thinks of Gov. Bradford’s miserable colleagues in the New England wilderness or the colonists who founded the civilization of Virginia or still other Americans who came and found ample reason to give thanks for being here, there are lots of things to think about and be grateful for on this uniquely American holiday.