Thanksgiving was first celebrated in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims who, a year earlier, had carved the Plymouth Colony out of the New England wilderness. Ninety local Indians joined the settlers for the three-day feast and party. The Pilgrims had reason to invite and thank the native people. For without their generosity and their help, the Colony would not have survived the first winter.
There are many people to be thankful for on this day of national thanksgiving, but the place to begin is with the native Americans. The European cataclysms that brought the Pilgrims and the subsequent tide of immigrants across the ocean made conflict between the settlers and the natives inevitable. Given the collective consciousness on both sides -- a lack of understanding of what we now would call “cultural diversity” -- the European conquest of America turned into a brutal clash of civilizations. But Thanksgiving begins for me with an appreciation of the American Indians and an acknowledgement of the historic wrongs that were done to them.
Thanksgiving is a holiday not just to celebrate what we have, but a festival that gives focus to our history and roots. The holiday remained a local New England harvest festival until 1789 when George Washington, in his first year as President, proclaimed November 26 as the first national day of thanksgiving. And it’s thanks to George Washington that we, and the world, have the concept of a civilian leader, elected by and accountable to the will of the people. As the hero of the American Revolution, Washington could have assumed the power of a monarch or of a military dictator. By his modesty and demeanor, which is another way of saying by his political brilliance, he created the then unheard of role of an elected president. Thank you George.
Thanksgiving didn’t become a tradition until the Civil War. In 1863, the year of the emancipation of the slaves and the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln rededicated Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Go to any small-town Common in Vermont and you’ll find a memorial to Civil War veterans. Vermont bled for the cause of Union, which became, as expressed by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (spoken a week before that first Civil War holiday of thanksgiving), a war for human rights and dignity, against slavery, for a government “of,” “for” and “by the people.”
Servicemen and women can’t pick and choose the wars that our civilian government determines to fight. Some wars are just, others not. (A war of choice, like the one we are now fighting, is by definition unnecessary and wrong). I honor veterans for their sacrifice and for their courage in circumstances unimaginable to those who, like myself, haven’t fought.
At the same time, I honor those war resisters who refuse to fight and thus force us to consider the justness and necessity of each specific war. War resisters in America helped start the civil rights movement and were the first Americans to recognize and support the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. With their nonviolent efforts, they also served.
In this spirit, I thank Rosa Park, the African-American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, whose refusal to sit at the back of a bus, as required by law, helped further a world-wide movement for civil rights. Her great refusal, her assertion (at the risk of jail) that I am not going to take this insult anymore, has had an impact on every individual who has ever been discriminated against or otherwise made to feel lessened or ashamed.
Whenever an individual or a group of people gain their rights, everyone gains. The ripples of justice flow outward, affecting eventually the entire world. My hero this year is Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, who learned her politics in the South African campaign against racial apartheid, and so is connected to both the war resisters who championed her struggle and people like Rosa Parks. In ruling in favor of the right of gay people to marry, Justice Marshall asserted that the Massachusetts Constitution “affirms the dignity and the equality of all individuals” and “forbids the creation of second-class citizens” which is essentially what the post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments assert in the federal Constitution. John Adams, who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution would, I think, be proud. (Even if he had some doubts, his wife Abigail would have set him straight).
Another hero, at least for this week, is David Brooks, the young, conservative columnist in the N.Y. Times. In Saturday’s paper (11/22/03), Brooks wrote that everyone, most especially conservatives, should celebrate a couple’s intention of marital commitment and support the Massachusetts ruling which, as he points out, strengthens rather than undermines the institution of marriage.
To properly celebrate Thanksgiving, then, is to think hard about history and thank our far-from-perfect forebears and current heroes. “Democracy,” the late political activist Abbie Hoffman used to say, is something that you actively do, not something you passively celebrate. With this in mind, I thank John Peter Zenger and journalists of all time who have insisted upon the freedom of the press and resisted the intolerant and phony patriotism of government censors, corporate opinion-shapers, and their instrument of repression, mob rule.
Who are your heroes? Who do you want to toast at today’s thanksgiving dinner?
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960 and Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org