Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Myths & Truths About Thanksgiving

As with any holiday, there are a great many stories about Thanksgiving and its origins, not all of which are correct. I like a lot of what John Stossel does, but this story--which I have seen repeated over the years in substantially similar form--is just wrong:

Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest. "Isn't sharing wonderful?" say the teachers.
They miss the point.
Because of sharing, the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen.
The failure of Soviet communism is only the latest demonstration that freedom and property rights, not sharing, are essential to prosperity. The earliest European settlers in America had a dramatic demonstration of that lesson, but few people today know it.
When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.
They nearly all starved.
Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.
There are so many problems with this. What is generally considered the first Thanksgiving took place in the fall of 1621--not 1623, when the division of lands took place. There are two accounts of that first harvest feast (the Pilgrims would not have called it a Thanksgiving), one in Bradford's book Of Plimouth Plantation, and in Mourt's Relation. This gives the text of both.

The claim about common versus individual property is incorrect. The lands were divided in 1623, but the common cattle were not divided until 1627.

The implication in Stossel's article that all the settlers at Plymouth were Puritans of some sort is also wrong. Most were, but there were a number of what Bradford called "strangers," who were there for non-religious reasons. (The company that bankrolled Plymouth Colony did so for strictly commercial reasons.)

Part of why the 1621 feast took place was that much of their population died over the 1620-1 winter, and they enjoyed the bounty that came from being taught appropriate agricultural techniques in the New World by friendly Indians.

There are strong arguments for individual property ownership, but this isn't one of them.

There is a desire in some circles to secularize Thanksgiving. Now, I agree that the harvest feast that the Pilgrims enjoyed in 1621 was part of a tradition of English agricultural celebrations, but this hardly renders it secular. The notion of thankfulness to God was deeply ingrained in the culture.

Have a nice Thanksgiving. I don't expect to be posting much for the next day or two; I'm hoping that you are together with family and friends, enjoying the holiday, and not reading my blog!

UPDATE: Taxprof has a collection of Thanksgiving proclamations over the centuries.

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