Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Entitlement squeezing out thankfulness
On Your Right
As we prepare for Thanksgiving’s tryptophan coma two days hence, it is perhaps useful to look backward at the holiday.
It has become customary to name Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation as the place and November 1621 the date of the “first” Thanksgiving, a relic of Gov. William Bradford’s proclamation of a festival of thanksgiving following the colony’s first successful corn harvest. Ninety members of the local Wampanoag tribe attended and were fêted for three days, as they should have been. They were the reason the Puritans survived their first winter in New England, and relatively cordial relations between the two groups eased the English adaptation to their newfound home.
Thanksgiving has become something of a projective test; some currently regard it as a “catastrophe” and place it at the center of efforts to heavily edit our national history. One example is David Silverman’s new book entitled “This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” which uses the holiday as a hook on which to hang a long litany of wrongs committed by later settlers on Native Americans in New England and elsewhere. While no one denies the commission of wrongs, the backward projection of simplistic judgement onto complex situations of another time and place is a misuse of history all too common in our time.
Other locations are attempting to muscle in on the Thanksgiving bandwagon. Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia each declare itself the site of the “first Thanksgiving.” Historical documents support the claims of Jamestown and St. Augustine at a minimum. However, few people knew about these events until the 20th century. The holiday just wasn’t all that important.
New England’s second Thanksgiving celebration followed the abolition of Plimoth Plantation’s disastrous commune system, which nearly destroyed the colony. Imposed by the Plimoth Company’s investors, it created an economy so enervated that by early 1623, Bradford wrote that “many sold away their clothes and bed coverings (to the Indians); others (so base were they) became servants to the Indians and would cut them wood and fetch them water for a capful of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both night and day, from the Indians. …“Which did nothing to improve relations. After the system was abolished and property given in severalty, the colony’s economy prospered to such an extent that commemoration was seen as necessary.
George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some opposed it, both out of interstate jealousy and qualms about the semireligious nature of the event. Later, President Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of a day of thanksgiving, largely on the latter grounds.
President Abraham Lincoln called for national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of 1863. Given that the events of that year fairly well ensured that the Union would prevail in the Civil War, he saw the date as an appropriate moment to “… set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” His proclamation is a reminder as well that, once upon a time, presidents and citizens alike had no problem acknowledging the role divine providence played in their lives.
Thanksgiving remained there until FDR changed the date to the second-to-last Thursday in 1939 in order to boost sales during the Great Depression. No, one can’t make this stuff up. Derided as “Franksgiving,” it was quickly abandoned, and the date moved back in 1941. It remains today where Lincoln originally put it.
So how should we celebrate a modern Thanksgiving? It still seems appropriate to give thanks for our lives and situation as our forebears did. Americans live in a country that is relatively safe, well-appointed and modern; we have developed an economic system that provides an enviable standard of living and a variety of goods and services unparalleled elsewhere on the planet. Americans enjoy a wide range of personal freedoms, legal protections and a political system that, until recently, was a model of stability. We’ve a lot to be thankful for.
It’s an archaic practice, though and becoming more so as time passes. Entitlement is rapidly squeezing out thankfulness as more and more boons for which our parents and grandparents gave thanks — bountiful food, a nice house, good health — are presented as “rights” which we should demand. In such a world, there’s no need for thanks.
Have a good Nov. 28. Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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