Fear not, Pilgrims. I have a stake in this venerated holiday. By “carve” I don’t mean “hatchet job”. More like a dissection, a picking apart for the purposes of examination (and yes to decide what parts to keep, if any, and what parts to retain, devour or chuck in the bone heap). This is what a critic does, even a critic who (like me) is 50% Puritan stock, and descended from half of the Pilgrims who made it through the first winter at Plymouth. Perhaps especially us, for I come from a long line of theologians who fought and argued and quibbled about MINUTE differences of opinion over doctrine the rest of us can’t even perceive nowadays.
Thanksgiving, like all holidays, is a complex cultural folk practice, devised by many hands, and imbued with many meanings. Like all religious or quasi-religious human folk practices, it doesn’t serve just one function but many. Some of these functions overlap, some are quite distinct. Among them:
First, as suggested by the name, a ceremony of thanks to God for our own blessings, whatever they are and whoever we are. This is a good thing, especially in America where even the least of us has a great deal more than the poor around the world. Indeed, most of us on Thanksgiving are actually giving thanks for having TOO much. Theoretically, this ritual needn’t be tied to Pilgrims or Plymouth or 1620. This aspect can stand on its own (just as it did in the mythologized “First Thanksgiving”) as a prayerful moment of “whew!” (Note the timing of the institution of Thanksgiving as a national holiday — the middle of the Civil War). There is a very “here and now” aspect to it, or there ought to be.
Secondly, the holiday as a ritual re-creation of the mythical “First Thanksgiving”, with implied thanks for the safety of the original Pilgrims. As a national festival, this aspect made the most sense when America was more homogeneous. America has never been completely homogeneous (and has been increasingly less so since the mid 19th century) but in the century or two or two and a half when the nation was in large majority white Anglo Saxon protestant it made much more sense to talk about “Our Forefathers”. Today, nearly 90% of Americans aren’t genetically related to a single Pilgrim, and a majority of Americans aren’t even WASPs, and no one lives according to the Pilgrim’s political or religious laws (or no appreciable number at any rate, although I wouldn’t bat an eye to learn there is some very tiny number of people who try to. Even Anabaptist groups like the Amish and Mennonites are wild ‘n’ crazy party hounds compared to the Pilgrims.) Still, because I AM a literal descendant of the Pilgrims, I will always think of them on this day with a certain amount of qualified reverence. If my ancestors had died I wouldn’t be here and I like being here. As do you, I imagine, otherwise you would move away. But I can’t see how it makes any sense to celebrate this story if you don’t really want to, if they aren’t your literal ancestors. Like, if you’re Native American, I can see your maybe wanting to opt out
Which brings us to the third aspect of the holiday. Thanksgiving is also often presented as a ritual celebration of amity between English and Indians. This aspect has always been less than truthful to put it mildly. This is essentially how we present it to children. Think of the iconography. This coloring book picture is typical, right?
Okay, it’s not always that perverted. That Indian boy is a lech.
In school I recall learning the names Squanto, Samoset and Massasoit, alongside Jon Carver, Miles Standish, William Bradford, William Brewster, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. And at a young age — first grade, maybe? Basically what we learned is that “the Indians helped the Pilgrims”. The reality is more complex than white and red people sitting at a table breaking bread together. They may have done that on a particular occasion, but the day to day reality was one of mutual suspicion, a pattern of treachery, and eventually a series of decisive wars. Now that this is fairly common knowledge, this aspect of Thanksgiving looks like a lot of hypocritical self-congratulation for historical virtues we have not possessed. This is not to say we need to jettison this aspect, however, but that we should tweak it. It may be worthwhile to twist the knob 180 degrees and turn it into a COVENANT, a day of contemplation and commitment to the FUTURE day when the echoes and attitudes of colonialism are behind us. How about we work towards a lot of happy smiling Indians right now, rather than drawing smiles on the faces of the ones whose lives we’ve ruined?
“Mama? Why Is Plymouth Rock in this cage?”
The final and primary aspect of Thanksgiving I want to discuss is the idea of the “Pilgrims Landing at Plymouth Rock” as our National Origin Myth. Now, many nations have their myths of national origin and I think they are healthy things. Israel has Abraham. Rome had the story of Romulus and Remus. England has King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. One can see the appeal of our particular myth — the strong religious component makes it seem almost like a Biblical event. The land and the people are blessed and anointed in this scenario. Like the church of St. Peter, Plymouth (and therefore America) is founded upon a rock. And (the thing we should all be proudest of) there is the not inconsiderable element of the Mayflower Compact. It was not yet the Age of Locke, but it was the Age of Hobbes. There was a certain amount of belief in the Rule of Law. They drew up a founding document and made it the basis of their government. They elected their leaders democratically. And they essentially did things by committee. They talked things out. For the most part, it was not government by tyrant (though many of the laws of that government may not harmonize with modern ideas of human rights). Democracy and Rule of Law are American ideas, and are to be celebrated.
But the story of the Pilgrims is not America’s only founding myth nor is it our only possible one. There are others which bear examination and possibly even consideration for primacy.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH PLYMOUTH ROCK AS OUR NATIONAL FOUNDATION MYTH?
What’s wrong with Plymouth Rock as our National Foundation Myth? Among other things, the Pilgrims were Separatists. They weren’t looking to found anything. They were running FROM something, not running TO something. In contrast with the larger group of Puritans who came later (see below), I don’t know that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were even looking to grow in size beyond their single congregation. Picture a church congregation over in England that’s somewhat intense, almost a cult. England is inhospitable (in point of fact, intolerant) so they go to Holland, but after a decade or so they become dissatisfied with that and seek some other place where they can do their own thing without being interfered with. So they go to the wilderness. Just their congregation. That’s all. This is essentially why there is not a Plymouth colony any more. They had very strict rules for belonging to their elite society. So they remained small and weak. There ‘s a kind of Law of the Jungle that prevails in organizations, whether you’re talking about polities or tv networks or religions or businesses. You may not be looking to grow yourself, but almost everybody else is, and sooner or later they will grow at your expense. Plymouth carried the seeds of its own destruction almost from the get-go. So nearby Massachusetts (see below) swallowed them up. And then other people with other values swallowed up Massachusetts.
So the Plymouth model was not efficacious or sustainable. I’d argue that it’s also not desirable nor any longer representative of what America stands for, although others may disagree. “Freedom of Religion” for most of us means something very different from what it meant to the Pilgrims. It’s not just a Negative Value, i.e., “Leave me alone to worship in my own way.” It’s also a Positive One: “I will leave YOU alone to worship in YOUR own way.” The Pilgrims were anything but tolerant of others’ rights to believe differently. They were a cruel theocracy, inflicting torture, harsh punishment, banishment, even the death penalty on non-conformists in their midst. If you were a Quaker, an Anabaptist, or accused of witchcraft you were persecuted. Really, the Pilgrims had more in common with Al-Quaeda than with modern America. There, I said it. They’re my relatives but I don’t have to agree with how they ran things! Today there may be many people, as much as half the country it seems, who would like to see a return to this, a return to America as some sort of theocracy as it was prior to the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution which is the foundation of our government. I would not. And thus the Plymouth Rock model doesn’t seem consonant with the idea of America as truly religiously tolerant.
Thirdly, Plymouth Rock doesn’t work completely as a foundation story because (as we always forget) there were several other American colonies prior to the one at Plymouth!
But if Plymouth Rock isn’t our Foundation story, what is? As it happens there are several existing American Foundation myths to compete with Plymouth Rock, as well as several potential ones. I’ll save my favorite for last.
OTHER EXISTING MYTHS/ SYMBOLIC FOUNDINGS OF AMERICA
PETER MINUIT BUYS MANHATTAN FROM THE INDIANS (1626):
This one is parodied and perpetuated almost as much as Plymouth Rock, and plays with the facts just as much. According to the story, Dutch Governor Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians for a handful of trinkets. It’s always related with a bit of a wink — America being founded as the result of a swindle, a sharp trade. There are ways in which this seems a more fitting, more accurate description of the eventual national character than Plymouth Rock. Peter Minuit as the Patron Saint of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. It fits. But at the back (or even the front) of our minds there’s something shameful about the anecdote, real or exaggerated. Many might privately make this their template for American behavior, but few would openly do so.
POCAHONTAS SAVES CAPTAIN SMITH (1608):
The Jamestown Colony was founded in 1607. English America truly begins THERE, not New England. But the English in Virginia didn’t even get a grace period in their relations with the local Indians. The tension and constant warfare began right away. And thus the best known myth of the Virginia experience: the love story about Captain John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas, culminating in her risking her own life in pleading with Chief Powhatan to spare Captain Smith’s. In reality, there was no romance, and Pocahontas later married a Native American husband. But again, this story seems to symbolize potential amity between the races, one that did not actually come to pass. You seen any Powhatan Indians lately?
The grim reality of the early history of the Chesapeake colonies is almost too much to bear. It is a story of the ugly side of capitalism. The New Amsterdam story is a least “whimsical”. It’s about capitalism, but only at the level of the “deal” or the “sale”, which at least has one foot in charm and art. But Virginia and nearby colonies — that narrative is about mass production, exploitation, and the birth of slavery, and all in the service of a product no more necessary and no less deleterious than tobacco. There is a way in which America was literally founded by Big Tobacco. The cultivation and sale of a poisonous product which enriched a very few, and enslaved and killed millions. There really is no other lesson to be drawn from what grew out of Jamestown. None. there is nothing — nothing — good or inspiring about it. No one’s ever going to adapt this and celebrate it as their “story” except perhaps a handful of corporate scoundrels, and then only in secret. But it is true.
THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE (1595):
This one is enticing to examine because it is the first English colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh on an island off what is now North Carolina. It continues to intrigue because it is a mystery. The colonists all vanished, leaving behind many of their belongings and some strange messages scrawled onto trees. Today we treat it as sort of a ghost story. More than likely they were captured by Indians, but solid proof of what happened has never turned up. It’s not a good ORIGIN myth, as there’s no better example of a colony that failed and thus didn’t become America, but it is a very good campfire story.
OTHER POSSIBLE/ COMPETING ONES:
ST. AUGUSTINE (1565):
The oldest continuously inhabited North American city founded by Europeans is St. Augustine, Florida. But other than the citizens of St. Augustine, Americans aren’t likely to embrace the founding of this city as their national myth any time soon. Not so much because it was founded by Spaniards and America is ethnically “English”; that is increasingly no longer the case. But because it was not in one of the original 13 colonies, and thus gestated outside the American form of government. It became the 27th American state in 1845. Thus though it may have been founded in 1565, it didn’t join the rest of “America” until almost three centuries later.
This small island off Massachusetts was the site of a brief settlement lasting less than a month in 1602. This makes it the first English settlement after the abortion at Roanoake, although it too lived a very brief life. Read about it here.
This one shouldn’t be as obscure as it is — but it is. At the same time Jamestown was being founded, another colony was started in what is now Maine. Have you been to Maine? Well, it’s colder than Massachusetts, just one of several reasons, I imagine, that this colony lasted less than a year. (Although they grow excellent potatoes in Maine, and that’s not to be sneezed at). Another (probably decisive) reason the colony folded is that its leader, George Popham, died. But the colony made a mark of sorts. The first ship built in America was made at Popham. Read about the colony here.
ROGER CONANT’S COLONIES (1624-1628)
Roger Conant’s famous statue in Salem is ominous and imposing and gives the false impression that he was a severe character. Those who don’t walk away with the impression that he was some sort of wizard, naturally think he was a scary Puritan. But by all accounts he was very much neither. Conant was one of the early Plymouth settlers; he arrived on the ship Anne in 1623. But he quickly decided he didn’t like the oppressive way the place was run so by 1624 he went off on his own, leading the settlement of a succession of locations: Nantasket, Cape Ann, and finally Salem, which he founded. Because they were located north of the Boston area which became the base of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (which had an official charter), Conant’s settlements were swallowed up. In 1628, Salem was taken over by John Endicott, an early representative of what would become the leadership of Massachusetts. Conant didn’t fight it. Conant is an early exemplar of what might be call America’s independent, pioneer spirit. He really had no agenda other than wanting to be left alone, and making a place for others who similarly wished to be left alone. Unfortunately his legacy sort of got gobbled up by history. Whatever it is he may be said to have founded was almost immediately taken over by others.
I would say this one almost merits inclusion in the section of existing myths (it has that shape) but it isn’t well enough known by the general public. The best known account (by well read people anyway) is the short story about the incident which Nathaniel Hawthorne included in his Twice Told Tales (I adapted this story for the stage about ten years ago; it was produced by Metropolitan Playhouse). In a way, Merrymount was an early attempt to found an America which we weren’t truly to come to know until well into the 20th century — some still aren’t ready for it. Its founder Thomas Morton was what you might call an anti-Puritan: a free-wheeling businessman, a man of the world, fully invested in the cultural revival engendered by the Renaissance (with all of its paganism), and an exponent of mainstream English culture (i.e. a regular member of the Church of England, which — much like Catholicism — mixes Christianity with pre-Christian folk tradition. The sort of thing Puritans find very, very sinful). Morton was persecuted at the hands of the Puritan authorities, and Merrymount passed into history. He was a fascinating guy, a kind of hero of mine, but maybe a little too “out there” for most Americans to embrace.
WINTHROP’S FLEET AND THE GREAT MIGRATION (1630-1640)
When I was a kid I didn’t understand the difference between this story and that of the Pilgrims. I’m sure I’ve always lumped the names of Winthrop and Endicott in with the Pilgrims etc and I’m sure a lot of people still do. It’s taken awhile for me to sort it out and learn the differences. The Pilgrims, a few hundred in number, were the radical of the radical. But there were tens of thousands of other Puritans back in England who held many similar views, but weren’t radical enough to advocate breaking completely with the established Church of England. Unlike the Pilgrims, they could stick it out a while longer. But around 1626, King Charles started making life very difficult for these people. In 1629 he dissolved Parliament. This is when some wealthy Puritan leaders applied (and received) a charter to start the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630 John Winthrop came with a fleet of ships containing close to 1,000 people and they settled the area around Boston.
There is a strong case to be made that this is the actual founding of America — at least of New England. It’s much mushier than the Plymouth story so its harder to mythologize. But the truth is that a decade after 1620 there were still only a few hundred people in Plymouth, but by 1640 there were 20,000 people in Massachusetts Bay (and the colonies that branched off it (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and what would later be called Maine). You might say that if the Great Migration hadn’t occurred, what there was of Plymouth could scarcely be called a colony….just a little cult living in a compound not too different than numerous communes that have popped up across America in the ensuing centuries. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans DID come to found something. It was Winthrop who gave us that phrase “City on a Hill”. That’s what they were founding.
Still, the Puritans, like the Pilgrims before them, were intolerant of dissenters in their midst. And the dissenters are my idea of model Americans.
RHODE ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS (1636-1638):
Okay, I swear this is not because I am FROM Rhode Island. But I think it’s almost certainly the case that I am AWARE of this story because I am from Rhode Island. The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was the first American colony (and surely one of the first places in the world) to have true religious tolerance as part of its mission. This meant not just that its founders were fleeing Massachusetts and Plymouth so they could worship as they chose, but also that, once they founded their settlements, they allowed others to do the same. The oldest synagogue in the United States is in Rhode Island — because Rhode Island was tolerant of Jews. They were also tolerant of Quakers. And anyone else. It wasn’t until the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that this philosophy became official and embraced throughout the rest of the United States, and it only became truly universal after 1818, when Connecticut, the last state to have an official religion (Congregationalism) stopped doing so. (Utah, of course, was also founded as a theocracy, but that changed when it joined the United States).
What complicates the mythologizing of the Rhode Island story is that it is actually two inspiring foundings. Much like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, Rhode Island was created out of the merging of two different settlements. Most people don’t even know Rhode Island’s official name — at least they seem dumbfounded when I tell them, but the name tells the story. It is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”. “Rhode Island” refers to the island of Aquidneck, where Portsmouth and Newport are located. And “Providence Plantations” refers to the area around the state’s capital city, which was founded first.
The Providence story has the better shape for a myth. Roger Williams, a forceful and charismatic minister arrived in Boston shortly after its founding, in 1631. And he was invited to be the teacher at the church there, but he turned it down, because it was not “separated” [i.e. from the Church of England”]. You would think this would make him a shoe-in for Plymouth, but he didn’t get along with leaders there either. He was invited to be the minister at Salem, but the offer was rescinded. So in 1636, he and his followers went into what is now Rhode Island, where the Indians are said to have greeted him with the phrase, “What Cheer, Neetop?”, which roughly means “S’up, Homey?”
Williams not only allowed freedom of conscience, but the separation of church and state, decided things through majority democracy, was not just fair but exemplary in his dealings with the Indians (he learned their language, he BOUGHT land from them rather than taking it), and tried to outlaw slavery. In the years after his leadership, the colony backslid on some of these things, but the fact remains — THIS is the founding of the kind of America I believe in. I have ancestors among pretty much all of these bunches (Plymouth, Massachusetts etc), but this is the bunch I choose, the ones who reflect my values.
The second group, the “Rhode Island” group led by Anne Hutchinson (take note: a woman!) and others, were branded Antinomians by the Massachusetts leaders. They founded their settlement in 1638. Roger Williams had founded what became known as the Baptist church, that’s largely what Providence was about. But in Portsmouth and Newport, Quakers and other way out religions flourished.
One thing I love about the Rhode Island founding is that it includes Native Americans in a much more positive and truthful way. And, as we said, the Freedom of Religion there was actual Freedom of Religion. These events may have happened later, but they happened better. This is when MY America was founded. And when I want to honor my ancestors and our Founders, the ones who founded Rhode Island truly deserve pride of place. Just putting that out there. Happy Thanksgiving!