Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving and America's early Puritans

We’re all political beings. It doesn’t matter if we’re an elected official or making our way through life far away from any legislative body. We’re more likely to make certain statements and take certain actions that will extend our influence, keep doors open, and give us future opportunities, than we are to acerbate anyone. Of course, there are always those exceptions but, more often than not, we want to get along with as many people as possible, even those we don’t know.

The Pilgrims, on that first Thanksgiving, were doing the same thing. Not only were they thanking God for seeing them through a brutal first year – about 50 of the original 100 settlers died during the first year – in the New World but they were also playing politics with the area’s indigenous people.

To survive, writes Nathaniel Philbrick in his new book, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” required a lot of help from the Pokanokets, one of New England’s native tribes. Their leader, Massasoit, decided his people should assist the Pilgrims and, while attending that first Thanksgiving, “could only hope that the Pilgrims would continue to honor their debt” to his people “long after the English settlement had grown into maturity.”

Of course, that first Thanksgiving wasn’t called Thanksgiving. To the Puritans, a true thanksgiving was very much a religious affair, “a time of spiritual devotion,” writes Philbrick.

This first Thanksgiving was more akin to an English custom that celebrated the fall harvest, writes Philbrick, “a secular celebration that dated back to the Middle Ages which villagers ate, drank, and played games.” William Bradford, the colony’s leader, ordered his men to kill ducks and geese; earlier, they had harvested their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley and peas. Massasoit and 100 of his people arrived with five deer they’d just killed.

The Pilgrims, while in some ways a stubborn people, were better diplomats than others who had previously surveyed and landed on the Massachusetts shore. They’d accepted the help from the natives and made it point to get along with them. There were a number of native tribes in the area but they got along best with the Pokanokets.

Nothing happens in a vacuum and the Pilgrims just didn’t show up on the Massachusetts shore. They were extreme Puritans who felt persecuted by the English establishment; wanted the Church of England cleansed, as they saw it, from all of its impurities; feared that England would revert back to Catholicism; and weren’t all that sure that the monarchy and the parliament were serving England well.

As life went in the 1600s, they were extremists. They separated themselves from civilization to create Heaven on earth. In fact, prior to their arrival in Massachusetts they’d spent 11 years in Holland because it was much more welcoming to the Protestant cause. And in spite of all of their concerns about England, the Pilgrims never stopped being English. They never saw themselves as immigrants to Holland and, for that matter, they weren’t about to take up arms against England.

By today’s standards, the Pilgrims don’t look at all like radicals. They were cultural conservatives: They were devout, disciplined, believed in marriage, condemned adultery, disdained public drunkenness, and educated their young (boys).

The Puritans didn’t have any issues with sex. This is a modern day misunderstanding. While the Puritans certainly wouldn’t approve of pornography, they believed that sex was a gift from God and was a means of showing love to their spouse.

King James and the government were prepared to let the Puritans immigrate because it was an easy way, nearly cost free, of letting people they didn’t particularly like leave the country. If they survived, wonderful. Then England would lay claim to the lands they were occupying in the New World. If they died, their problems were gone.

In many ways, the Puritans are responsible for what Americans have become. The notion of the “Protestant work ethic” comes from them because they didn’t believe in idleness. This made them that much more productive. Their worries about the Church of England and the government of England gave rise to the notion, now a Constitutional amendment, of the separation of Church and State; it also caused them to question whether governments had too much power.

Given their background of having lived in Holland, these early settlers were much more successful in their first year, in spite of all of their problems, than their fellow colonists in Jamestown, because they had experience living in a land that wasn’t familiar to them. Finally, they got along with the natives because they knew they needed them.

One of the biggest differences between the two colonies was that Plymouth Rock was settled by families. Jamestown was settled only by men. This likely made the Pilgrim men work that much harder to ensure the colony’s survival. One of the issues the leaders of Jamestown had was constantly reminding the colonists what needed to be done. It was akin to managing a group of free agents.

The reason we celebrate Thanksgiving these days has nothing to do with the Puritans who came ashore back in 1620. While we reference them through popular literature and crass commercialization, Thanksgiving has more to do with the Civil War than anything else. Abraham Lincoln was looking for a way celebrate the country and established, through a proclomation, that the United States should celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday.

So if you’re prone to giving a toast or saying a prayer before eating Thanksgiving, make it a point to honor the Puritans this year. Their worries and concerns about government and religion would eventually be transferred to the people who would lead the American Revolution and then write the Constitution. They were a brave people prepared to give up everything so they could live as they felt was right. Would you make the same sacrifice?

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