Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday and one that does not mark the beginning or ending of a war. Rather, it’s a celebration of peace and of giving thanks for our blessings.
We all may associate Thanksgiving with turkey dinner and football, with getting together with family, and with the official launch to the holiday season. To be sure, it’s all of those and more. But it is perhaps one of America’s greatest opportunities to showcase what it does best on its best days – a peaceful celebration of freedom and the accomplishments of free men and women.
A Little Background
The Mayflower began its journey to New England on August 1, 1620. The context was pretty basic. England’s King James I oppressively pursued anyone who did not bow to his authority. This included his final say on matters of religion. Those who disagreed with the king suffered from religious persecution, which meant prison or death.
A group of people left England’s oppressive rule and sought a better life in Holland at first, where they established their own community. A few years later, a group of approximately 40 members of this community decided to explore life in America with the hope that in the new land, they could worship God in their own way.
The leader of the group was William Bradford, who established a contract with each member of the group, respecting everyone’s own religious beliefs.
Arriving in New England in November, the Pilgrims encountered an untamed land in the harshest season of the year. Half of the Pilgrims died of starvation or illness that first winter.
The Pilgrims encountered the native Americans who lived in that region, who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, fish and skin small game for coats. While it is likely that the Pilgrims were thankful for all of this, historians are also quick to point out that the celebration of Thanksgiving goes a little deeper than that.
The original plan for the Pilgrims was that everything was community property and that no individual owned anything more than a single share in the larger community. This was deemed fair in their contract. So for example, when they built houses in their community, all property was owned by the collective, not the individual or family. All food and material goods were to be distributed equally.
William Bradford, the leader of the group, made a decision, however that would change this. He gave a plot of land to each family within the group. In return, the families could work the land as they saw fit. But still, they would have to turn over the fruits of their labor to be distributed equally among the group. That didn’t work because some families did not see the point in working any harder to produce for the community. No matter how hard you worked or how lazy you were, you all received the same equal share of the bounty, which ended up not amounting to much.
So they ditched that plan. Bradford realized that if they were to eat and avoid starvation, and eventually grow in America, what he needed was a way to incentivize the people. What made the difference is that when Bradford decided that every family was permitted to work their own land AND sell their own crops. Bradford’s words:
“'This had very good success for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”
After that, the Pilgrims established stores and began to exchange goods with the native Americans. As a result, they were able to pay off their debts to their London sponsors and live free in America. Word of this led to an influx of Europeans making the journey to the New World. And the rise of free trade continued.
So, the story of the original Thanksgiving is one of friendship and partnership with the native Americans, who taught the Pilgrims how to survive and thrive in their new environment. At the same time, it’s also about a celebration of freedom from religious persecution, and of the chance to practice free trade and to make the life you want in a land of opportunity.