As these things so often seem to do, this begins with the fact that everything we were taught about the origins and backstory of the Thanksgiving holiday was just so much gauzy mythology, with only the most tenuous of connections to historic reality.
All that lovely “Squanto give corn” stuff, and the thing about how the Pilgrims were so grateful for their first bountiful harvest that they invited their indigenous neighbors over for a four day extravaganza of of celebration, feasting, and fellowship? Yeah, no. Not the way it came down at all.
If you’re interested (and IMNSHO you should be), there’s a straightforward and accessible interview with Ramona Peters, of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that the folks at Indian Country Today put up last year. I strongly recommend it.
So, how did we get from the somewhat gritty reality of two radically dissimilar cultures carefully finding their way toward what, at least for a time, appeared to be a mutually useful alliance to the national day of food, football, and family we observe today? The answer (and this’ll surprise you, I know) apparently lies in politics.
A number of Commentators and Deep Thinkers of late—and I’ll wear it, I am often among them—tend to View With Alarm the lack of civility and respect in the public square as we debate issues of the day, and the coarseness of our discourse, often going so far as to wonder if the Republic can survive and regain her role of leadership in global affairs.
But it’s worth recalling that our Great Experiment has survived severe tests before. 1863: The nation was literally torn asunder by a shooting war, the stakes of which were the direction, and very survival of the Republic as a sovereign country. In the midst of that chaos, President Lincoln faced the dual challenges of identifying and empowering military officers of sufficient skill and abilities to turn around a war that was, frankly, going badly, while attempting to provide the sort of intangible leadership and inspiration needed to keep his citizens committed to staying the course and supporting the Union.
And, of course, he dealt with the influential media powerhouses of the day, each with their own agendas to pursue and circulation numbers to boost. Among them was a woman called Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a popular women’s magazine of the day, who had campaigned for year for the establishment of a national observance of thanksgiving.
Realizing the potential as a unifying theme, Lincoln issued a Presidential Proclamation establishing the day:
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
And over the intervening decades, as we are wont to do, we collectively built up and embellished an origin story more reflective of a sanitized, Disneyesque fantasy world than the gritty, brutal, often morally ambiguous (at best) actual facts that undergird the creation of this “exceptional land” we enjoy today.
I’m not at all sure we do well to avert our eyes from “how the sausage was made.” I would suggest we, and the country, are better served when we honestly confront the hard truths, acknowledge the many ways we’ve failed to apply the ideals we espouse across the board, and commit to doing better.
I don’t believe such a position in any way precludes our pausing to contemplate and celebrate the many things we have to be grateful for. That’s my plan for the day. I wish you well with yours.