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TAC Bookshelf: Doubting the Original Thanksgiving Story

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Grayson Quay, TAC contributor: When I first surveyed the syllabus for one of the high school classes I’m teaching this year, I was disappointed to see that we would finish our reading of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation well before Halloween. Surely this document, which chronicles the Plymouth Pilgrims’ first decades in the New World, would be to Thanksgiving what Luke’s Gospel is to Christmas.

My disappointment, it turns out, was misplaced. Bradford says so little about the first Thanksgiving feast that I’d have missed it if a footnote hadn’t pointed it out.

The book holds plenty of surprises for those who know the story solely from vague memories of elementary school social studies and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Squanto is less altruistic cigar-store noble savage and more wheeling-dealing con man whose self-serving schemes tragicomically backfire. The Pilgrims suffer just as much from corrupt, incompetent, and (in one memorable case) piratical English investors as they do from the unforgiving New England landscape. Plymouth Rock (our most disappointing national landmark) isn’t even mentioned.

Although their colony was small and was absorbed by Massachusetts Bay within 75 years of its founding, the Pilgrims have become part of our national myth, and it’s good to scrutinize these narratives from time to time. It is a good story. Everything a flag-waving, church-going, sends-his-kids-to-Liberty-University patriot (such as Kirk Cameron, who produced and starred in an insufferably rah-rah documentary about Plymouth called Monumental) could want is right there. Bradford’s affirmation of capitalism as superior to collectivization, his emphasis on personal piety and morality as necessary for ordered liberty, the desire for a fresh start in a new Eden, and (first and foremost) his total self-assurance that the Pilgrims’ enterprise enjoys divine favor are all themes that have pervaded American history.

Bradford routinely compares the Pilgrims to the nation of Israel, claiming a special covenant relationship with God and providing the germ of American exceptionalism. In what might be the book’s most jarring example of this self-righteous self-assurance, he describes the settlers’ slaughter of 400 Indians—mostly women, children, and the elderly—as a blessing granted by God and a “sweet sacrifice” pleasing to Him.

There are more positive examples of Pilgrim-Indian relations (such as Plymouth’s willingness to hang three colonists who murdered a Narragansett brave), but the same revisionists currently pushing the “1619 Project” are not entirely off base when they claim that our national myths contain, in embryo, our national sins.

Ironically, by the end of his life, Bradford himself had a far less triumphalist view of the colony. The breakdown of community solidarity and the persistence of sinful behavior among the colonists, culminating in a shocking case of serial bestiality, led Bradford “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

It’s comforting to know that our exceptionalism has always been leavened with a healthy dollop of doubt.

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