In October 1620, after the Mayflower’s arduous two month journey, the Pilgrims arrived at the “desolate wilderness” of Cape Cod that eventual Governor William Bradford described in his journal. That historical record tells of half their population perishing from disease and starvation in the first winter. Those healthy enough to work complained about slackers who pretended to be sick and got an equal share of the Plymouth Plantation product. By spring, the settlers were inspired to divide their land equally and let each family farm and trade as they wished. Having made friends with the English speaking native named Squanto and his adopted tribe of Pokanokets, the settlers learned how to farm the unfamiliar land. The original American economy was thus born as a multicultural entrepreneurial enterprise.
Harvesting the fruits of a brutal year, the Plymouth settlers celebrated a feast of Thanksgiving to the Great Spirit for their new friendship and formal alliance with the Pokanokets. Most famously captured in the attached 1925 painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, the celebration by 90 natives and 53 settlers lasted for three days. Most of us will be done with our relatives by Friday, if we are even lucky enough to see them this year.
Early in his presidency in 1789, George Washington declared “Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next” as a humble day of thanksgiving to “that great and glorious Being” who brought victory in the Revolutionary War and a revolutionary new form of representative government. Kind of cool that it falls on the same day this year but it hasn’t been so consistent.
The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed We Gather Together, a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale by bestselling author Denise Kiernan. Besides writing Mary Had a Little Lamb, we learn that the widowed mother of five was a feminist pioneer as one of America’s first media moguls with a keen sense of the young nation’s unique culture. She is best known for publishing some of the great authors of the pre-Civil War era and for fighting to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. In the dark days of the Civil War, having petitioned governors and presidents for 40 years, she finally convinced President Lincoln to declare a national holiday throughout all the states. 74 years to the day after Washington’s declaration, the first annual national observance was November 26th, 1863. 76 years later, in 1939, FDR moved the holiday to earlier in the month to lengthen the Christmas shopping season but that interfered with football and school schedules so in 1941 Congress decided to codify in law the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
All presidents and patriots since Washington have agreed that America has much to be thankful for. In this Thanksgiving like no other, I am especially thankful that our exceptional country has been able to confront this pandemic with ingenuity to develop therapies to combat the virus and a vaccine that will soon deliver us all from desolate wilderness of 2020.
Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading.