How did we come to think that the Pilgrims
- were rugged individualists when they were strongly bound to community?
- were patriots first and committed Christians second?
- would support Thanksgiving Day football even though “the 1650s the Plymouth General Court prescribed fines for individuals who engaged in sports on days of thanksgiving” (p. 145)?
In The First Thanksgiving, Robert Tracy McKenzie tells the fascinating story of how the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving feast has been (mis)interpreted and (mis)used throughout American history. Thanksgiving celebrations were popular in New England in the eighteenth century, but not as a remembrance of the Pilgrim event. As a matter of fact, not until John Winslow’s original record was republished in 1841, over two hundred years after the feast of 1620, did people pay attention to the Plymouth Rock story. Over time the Pilgrims were claimed as allies to support:
The anti-slavery movement. “New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the ‘Pilgrim spirit’ to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia,” in 1859 in an ill-planned plot to foment slave rebellion.
Native American assimilation. Not until the late 1800s did the country note that Native Americans had been present at that meal. It wasn’t “culturally useful,” to use McKenzie’s phrase, before that time to rhapsodize over friendly Indians when the country had had many conflict-filled years with the native population.
Immigration ideals. By 1900 the Pilgrims had been transformed from New Englanders or Puritans in particular to generic model immigrants, as the country sought to make sense of the massive influx of European immigrants.
The fight against Big Business. Teddy Roosevelt employed the Pilgrims in his crusade against Big Business, observing that “the spirit of the Puritan was a spirit which never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal” (p. 149).
Anti-Communism. In the 1940s the Saturday Evening Post portrayed the Pilgrims as libertarian and anti-Communist.
Détente. “At the height of the Cold War, the Chicago Tribune remembered the First Thanksgiving as ‘our first détente,’ but the paper also enlisted the Pilgrims on the side of military preparedness; their security had been rooted in ‘the clear demonstration that they had the equipment and the will to fight for their survival’ ” (p. 149).
We have all too easily read our own times back into the time of the Pilgrims. One of the strengths of McKenzie’s book is that he allows the Pilgrims to speak for themselves rather than having our own ideas and interests imposed on them. And that is something to be very thankful for.