November 25, 2020 - 11:52 am
This is no ordinary Thanksgiving. But after the past eight months — the disruptions, the economic and human toll — the holiday is perhaps more important than ever in 2020. However you choose to celebrate during these trying times, take some measure of solace in the knowledge that the legacy of Thanksgiving is steeped in hardship and resilience, just like our current predicament.
Even during this pandemic, our modern gladiators will chase a pigskin down the field today in Detroit, Dallas and Pittsburgh. That will provide ample distraction for many. Still others will enjoy their yearly feast and settle into their living rooms, loosen their belts and enjoy time with close family while reaching out to hear the voices of those who couldn’t be there.
We all hope that the complications this year has brought will abate in the coming months, just as the Pilgrims envisioned a more hospitable future when they gathered in the autumn of 1621 for the first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims’ first winter in the New World had been a harsh one. The wheat they had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky New England soil. Nearly half the colonists died. In his “History of Plymouth Plantation,” the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry because they refused to work in the fields, preferring to steal.
Although in the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622 “all had their hungry bellies filled,” that relief was short-lived and deaths from illness because of malnutrition continued.
Then, Richard J. Marbury wrote in a November 1985 article in The Free Market, “something changed.” By harvest time, 1623, Gov. Bradford was reporting that, “Instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”
What on earth had transpired? In 1623 Gov. Bradford simply “gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.” Previously, the Mayflower Compact had required that “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony.
Yes, America is a bounteous land — even during our current trials. But the source of that bounty is the discovery made by the Pilgrims in 1623, that when individuals are allowed to hold their own land, to eat what they raise and keep the profits from any surplus they sell, hard work is rewarded and thus encouraged, and the entire community enjoys prosperity and plenty.
And so it is that on this strange Thanksgiving Day 2020. When we emerge from this pandemic, those principles will continue to ensure that America remains the envy of mankind, the land of the free.
A version of this editorial first appeared on this page in 1999.