No, The Pilgrims Didn’t Desecrate Native American Graves, And Other Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

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Four hundred years after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in November 1620, this Thanksgiving promises to be the most isolated celebration in living memory. Thanks to the internet, however, virtual gatherings will be possible.

Thanksgiving in the age of the internet also means, for many amateur historians, debunking the many myths surrounding the story of the original Thanksgiving. This project of correcting the Thanksgiving legend has picked up steam in recent years. It is part of a more general trend of eagerness to set the historical record straight regarding anything related to the founding of the American colonies and of the later republic.

Such revisionist histories are nearly always written (or posted to the internet) with an agenda in mind. It is no different for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, in particular, have been especially susceptible to this sort of use. We see in them a mirror image of ourselves, or at least of our fellow countrymen.

Often regarded as the original settlers of what would become the United States (although they were neither the first explorers nor first settlers), the Pilgrims have been interpreted by later generations as the prototypes or forerunners of what the British colonies and American republic would become.

Once upon a time, the Pilgrims presented a positive, admirable role model, and people have often projected their own desired virtues onto the Pilgrims. More often today, the Pilgrims’ actions seem to portend the greatest evils of U.S. history. In such accounts, the side characters were really the chief agents or paragons of virtue, and the heroes you learned about in grade school were really the villains.

Complete objectivity may be an illusion, but the problem with overt agendas is that they rarely let the history speak for itself. To keep history from becoming nothing more than a political tool and reflection of our own desires — that is, if we will remain open to learning from history — the historian should at least aim for accurate description and unbiased analysis.

The writer who is perhaps most poised to write the objective history of Thanksgiving is Jeremy D. Bangs, the foremost authority on the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony. Bangs is director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum (Leiden, The Netherlands, is where the Pilgrims spent a decade before leaving for the New World).

Bangs is also the former visiting curator of manuscripts for Pilgrim Hall Museum; chief curator of Plimoth Plantation; and curator of Leiden Pilgrim Documents Center. Having researched and published on the Pilgrims for more than four decades now, Bangs is a specialist in the English, Dutch, and North American contexts of the Pilgrims.

Bangs’s latest book, “New Light on the Old Colony,” collects some of his scholarly — although, at times, technical — essays on the Pilgrims and their colony. One of the recurring themes in this book is the examination and overturning of the many stereotypical assumptions about the Pilgrims.

The public might be surprised to find out, however, that many of those false stereotypes circulate on the internet under the guise of “correcting” false stereotypes. After surveying more than 200 websites that ostensibly “correct” the Pilgrim and Thanksgiving myths, Bangs finds that many of the attempted “corrections” are banal (for example, one site reveals that even the American Indians had thanksgiving celebrations before 1621!), misleading, or simply wrong. In short, they create new myths. So, especially in the book’s final chapter, Bangs does some myth-busting of his own, an exercise he has elsewhere called “Re-bunking the Pilgrims.”

In my own quick survey of only a few websites, I can confirm that many of these sites are simply not trustworthy. Some of the widespread inaccuracies on the internet (and in print) are not of great historical significance but are nevertheless key ingredients of the story.

For instance, it is usual to claim that, at the first Thanksgiving of 1621 (which took place over three days in September or early October), the Pilgrims did not eat turkey. The History Channel site says the menu “likely did not include turkey.” But it almost certainly did. We may add that the festivities were indeed religious in nature, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, wore colored clothing but no buckled hats, and did self-designate as “Pilgrims,” among other terms.

Of more historical significance is the common claim that the Pilgrims were involved in the mistreatment or even slaughter of the Native Americans. One site calls it a myth that “the Pilgrims were friendly with neighboring tribes.” Again, the opposite is true.

Other sites allege that the Pilgrims robbed and desecrated American Indian graves. The fact is that, in their initial explorations, the Pilgrims uncovered sand mounds that unwittingly exposed the graves of both Native Americans and Europeans. Yet they then reburied them, and once they learned to recognize the graves, the Pilgrims avoided the sites. And no, they did not rob the graves of corn offerings but did later pay for the corn that they took from storage baskets during the first year.

Even more troubling are the frequent assertions or insinuations that the Pilgrims were directly involved in genocide, an accusation that has prompted a Thanksgiving Day protest, now in its 50th year, called the “National Day of Mourning.” Attention is turned primarily to the Pequot massacre of 1637, in which about 700 from the Pequot tribe were killed. It was part of the Pequot War of 1636–37, prosecuted by soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, and the Narragansett tribe. The truth is that it had absolutely nothing to do with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.

One may argue that it doesn’t matter that the Pilgrims were respectful of and allied with the American Indian tribes and that they did not come to commit genocide, for later Europeans did commit atrocities and massacres. But if history actually matters, then these later cruelties and injustices should not be used to taint a holiday that, for the descendants of the English colonists and for the millions of us who have joined them since, is a time set aside for family, peace, and gratitude for the blessings of a Providence greater than ourselves.

These examples should be a sufficient reminder to beware of the genre of Thanksgiving myth-busting. Like other revisionist accounts, they are agenda-driven attempts to make us feel guilty for our American heritage. There is more than enough blame and guilt to go around without having to invent more of it.

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How Reformed Theologians’ Commitment To Self-Rule And Resisting Tyranny Helped Form America

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The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.

Last year marked the culmination of The New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project. The project rightly brought attention to the importance of the African American story of enslavement and the 400-year struggle for freedom. Yet its original claim that the United States was founded in 1619 rather than 1776 went too far.

Indeed, if one were to select a year from the 17th century, a better year to mark America’s founding would be 1620, the year the Pilgrims consented to the Mayflower Compact and, shortly thereafter, began America’s experiment in self-government. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the signing of this important document.

In a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, the great orator Daniel Webster lauded these refugees as the authors of American “civil and religious liberty.” A few decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” He contended that understanding this “point of departure” is “the key to the whole book” of his magisterial “Democracy in America.”

Alas, on the 400th anniversary of the fateful landing, many Americans believe these settlers were dour Christians who, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wore “sad-colored garments” or, in the words of the 19th-century English professor Moses Coit Tyler, “cultivated the grim and the ugly.” More recently, H.L. Mencken described them as harboring a “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and the playwright Arthur Miller said they were “theocrats” who desired to prevent “any kind of disunity.”

In truth, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, were not 21st-century liberal democrats, but they created political institutions and practices that profoundly influenced the course of American politics and facilitated later experiments in republican self-government and liberty under law. They valued natural rights, rule by the consent of the governed, and limited government; and they were convinced that citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to resist tyrannical governments. Four hundred years since the signing of the Mayflower Compact, we should honor their contributions to the creation of the American republic.

The Reformation: A Very Brief History

To understand the Puritans, we must briefly consider the Protestant Reformation. This movement may be conveniently dated to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg castle church door. The Puritans came out of the Calvinist (or Reformed) wing of the Reformation. Like other Reformers, John Calvin emphasized doctrines such as sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers. But concerning politics, he and later Calvinists developed ideas and practices that were innovative, empowering, and conducive to human flourishing.

Reformers rejected the idea that the church and its priests were necessary intermediaries between ordinary people and God, and that the church as an institution possessed the authority to speak for Him. Individuals were told that they were responsible for their relationship with God and that His will for them is most clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. These last two beliefs led to an emphasis on literacy and a commitment to translating and printing the Bible in the vernacular.

The significance of the explosion of literacy in Protestant countries cannot be overestimated. In the mid-seventeenth century, literacy rates of Italy and France were 23 percent and 29 percent, respectively. In contrast, scholars estimate that up to 95 percent of males in New England at that time could read. Widespread literacy helped undermine existing hierarchies and paved the way for the growth of republican self-government.

The Reformation had several false starts in England — most notably those led by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, both famous for translating the Bible into English (a “crime” for which Tyndale was burned at the stake). King Henry VIII was not particularly interested in Protestantism, but he did want to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Because the Pope refused to annul his marriage, he cut ties with Rome in 1534 and created the Church of England. Henry made himself rather than the Pope the head of this new church, but otherwise was largely content to leave it alone.

When Henry’s daughter, Mary, became queen in 1553, she persecuted and killed Protestant leaders, actions that earned her the pejorative nickname “Bloody Mary.” Many Protestants fled England for Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland. After Mary died in 1558, these “Marian exiles” returned to their homeland with a renewed desire to “purify” the Church of England. In 1564, they were first called “Puritans” by their opponents.

Most English Puritans were content merely to purify the Church of England, but a subset of them saw no biblical precedent for a national church, believing each Christian congregation constituted a church and should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” To freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to Holland in 1608, and then to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

Puritan Political Thought

Before these English Separatists, more commonly known as Pilgrims, disembarked from the Mayflower, they made an agreement that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursue “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the 41 men — most of whom were Separatists — heading households on the ship.

Some scholars have attempted to downplay the importance of the Mayflower Compact by arguing that it was not well known until the 19th century and was not called the “Mayflower Compact” until 1793 — a fact that, while true, remains irrelevant. Verily, the Compact is significant because it represents the commitment many Reformed leaders had to the idea that people must consent to civic and ecclesiastical institutions if they are to be legitimate. The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, created civil governments that are among the most republican the world had ever seen.

Before the Protestant Reformation, most Christian thinkers contended that either a monarchy or a monarchy checked by a legislative body was the ideal form of government. The Protestant emphasis on literacy, the priesthood of all believers, and, in some cases, congregational ecclesiastical polities, helped to undercut hierarchical forms of government. In the 17th century, Reformed authors began to argue for the first time that the Bible sanctioned only republican governments. They adopted this idea from an unlikely source: commentaries on the Old Testament written by Jewish rabbis.

Reformers believed that ministers and scholars should read the Holy Scriptures in their original languages, which led many of them to learn Hebrew. Moreover, as Eric Nelson explains in his wonderful book “The Hebrew Republic”:

… to understand the Hebrew Bible, they insisted, one should consult the full array of rabbinic sources that were now available to the Christian West. One should turn to the Talmud and midrash, to the targums and medieval law codes.

In these texts, Protestant Reformers discovered a set of ideas that scholars now refer to as “political Hebraism.”

The most important political idea that Reformed thinkers drew from rabbinical commentaries was that republics were the only form of government approved by the Bible. From these works, they learned to interpret passages such as 1 Samuel 8 as condemning the Jewish people’s desire for a king, not their desire for a ruler other than God. By the mid-17th century, many Reformed leaders had come to embrace these views in theory, and civic leaders in New England could put these ideas into action as early as 1620.

Yet while the Mayflower Compact reflects aspects of Hebraic republicanism, it is far from unique. In the 1630s, waves of non-Separatist Puritans came to New England, where they created hundreds of ecclesiastical and civil covenants whereby people joined together for various purposes, all of which were ultimately aimed at glorifying God. Each of these covenants reinforced the idea that governments are legitimate and binding because they were established by the consent of the governed.

Not only did the people consent to the formation of governments, but most men could also participate in town meetings and be elected to public office.

Of particular significance for America’s later break from the British Empire, Calvinist political thinkers developed a strong commitment to the idea that tyrants must be actively resisted. Traditionally, many Christians understood Romans 13 and related texts to prohibit rebellion or active resistance to tyrannical rulers. Reformers initially embraced this approach, but almost immediately changed their minds.

Calvin, one of the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates may resist a tyrant. Nevertheless, other Calvinists including John Knox, George Buchanan, Theodore Beza, Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Samuel Rutherford, argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers, with some even permitted private citizens to do so.

Reformed Americans had experience resisting tyranny well before the War for American Independence. New England Puritans supported Parliament during the English Civil War, and John Cotton even preached a sermon defending the execution of Charles I.

After the Restoration, England attempted to “improve” the governance of the colonies by combining New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Plymouth into a single administrative unit known as the Dominion of New England (1686–89). The second governor of the new entity, Sir Edmund Andros, immediately made himself unpopular by demanding that a Congregational meeting house in Boston be made available for Anglican services and by restricting town meetings.

On April 18, 1689, shortly after news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston, Puritan civic leaders arrested Andros and returned him to England for trial. The new monarchs wisely abandoned the Dominion and issued a new charter for Massachusetts, one that incorporated Plymouth Colony into its borders.

Long before John Locke wrote his “Second Treatise on Government,” Reformed civil and ecclesiastical leaders were convinced that the Bible taught that governments should be based on the consent of the governed and that unjust or ungodly rulers must be resisted. They created political institutions that were profoundly republican, and their descendants had roughly 150 years of experience governing themselves before the King embarked on a “long train of abuses” aimed at “reducing them” to despotism.

England would have done well to heed Edmund Burke’s 1775 warning to Parliament that Americans “are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”

The Puritans as Theocrats?

Early Puritan colonies are often described as theocracies, but this cannot be the case if by “theocracy” we mean either rule directly by God or ruled by priests. Non-Separatists were permitted to consent to the Mayflower Compact and were included in Plymouth Colony’s civic life. Clergy in Massachusetts Bay were initially banned from holding civic offices, and early Puritan legal codes specifically prohibited European institutions such as ecclesiastical courts. Furthermore, these statutes stipulated that ecclesiastical sanctions such as excommunication had no effect on civic officeholders.

Puritans were committed to creating social and political institutions that they believed were mandated by the Bible. This aspiration is illustrated well by the 1672 declaration by the Connecticut General Court that: “We have endeavored not only to ground our capital laws upon the Word of God, but also all other laws upon the justice and equity held forth in that Word, which is a most perfect rule.” But the implications of this approach are far from theocratic, at least as the term is usually used.

The influence of scripture upon New England’s laws is most obvious in each colony’s capital laws. Crimes such as adultery and incest were not punished by death in England, but the Puritans, looking to the Old Testament for guidance, made them capital offenses. Lest there be any mistake about the biblical warrant for this punishment, each capital law cited scriptural authority. For instance:

If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall curse, or smite their natural father, or mother; he or they shall be put to death: unless it can be sufficiently testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children; or so provoked them by extreme, and cruel correction: that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. Exod. 21. 17. Lev. 20. 9. Exod. 21. 15.

Such laws are harsh — especially compared to our modern sensibilities — but in practice, the death penalty was rarely enforced. Only three people, for instance, were hanged for adultery in Puritan New England and no one was ever put to death for being disrespectful to his parents.

On balance, the Puritans’s use of scripture as a guide for criminal law had a liberalizing effect. In 17th-century England, a person could be put to death based on circumstantial evidence, but the Puritans, drawing from Deuteronomy 19:15 (“One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses…”), required two witnesses to the same act in capital cases.

Similarly, a third of all English criminals were sentenced to death; a person could be executed for stealing property worth little more than a shilling. But American Puritans interpreted biblical texts such as Exodus 22:4 (“If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double”) to require restitution as the penalty for theft rather than death.

The Puritan legal revisions were extensive. David D. Hall of Harvard Divinity School observes in his masterly “The Puritans” that they included “adding a cluster of rights and privileges for plaintiffs and defendants … Out went torture, high fees, and long delays … Overnight, the cruelties of the English law and the abuses of power and money it sanctioned gave way to the value of peace, ‘mutual love,’ and equity.” American law owes much to these biblically inspired Puritans.

Nursing Fathers

The Puritans considered civil magistrates to be “nursing fathers” (a phrase taken from Isaiah 49:23) to the church, and so like most countries and colonies, they established churches. The only European colony or country that declined to have an established church in this era, Rhode Island (also known as “Rogues Island”), was viewed by almost everyone as an experiment gone horribly wrong. It was commonplace to require church attendance, support favored churches with tax revenue, give special privileges to its ministers, and place restrictions on dissenters.

In the late 17th century, Pennsylvania and a few other colonies declined to create officially established churches, and unlike Rhode Island, they were viewed as being reasonably successful. Yet even these colonies had religious tests for civic offices and the government actively punished vice and promoted Christianity.

For instance, Article 37 of Pennsylvania’s first laws (1682) held that magistrates should punish such offenses against God as “swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy, rapes, whoredom, fornication, and other uncleanness (not to be repeated) … all prizes, stage-plays, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-battings, cock-fighting, bear-battings, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion.”

The point, of course, is not that religious tests and bans on “vices” such as stage-plays, cards, and dice are prudential, it is simply that Puritans were not unusual in enacting such restrictions.

Puritans were more tolerant than is often assumed. Most non-Congregationalists were tolerated if they remained quiet and did not disturb the public order. Massachusetts law recognized that civic authorities should not attempt to “constrain [citizens] to believe or profess against their consciences.”

In other words, Puritan rulers did not attempt to compel belief. But they also did not permit men and women to disturb the public order. So, for instance, Anabaptists were banned from the colony not because they held erroneous views, but because “they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths” and are “troublers of churches.”

Likewise, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were exiled from the colony for being too vocal about their dissenting and dangerous (at least to Puritan ears) theological views. Most famously, the Puritans executed four Quakers on Boston Commons and 19 citizens accused of witchcraft in 1692, all episodes worthy of further exploration for the intellectually curious.

Limited Government and Bills of Rights

The Puritan conviction that rulers should promote true religion and virtue suggests a powerful state, but this possibility was tempered by their view that civil power must be strictly limited. Puritans believed that all humans are sinful and that Christians struggle with sin (Romans 7: 13-25). Like Lord Acton, they understood that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Accordingly, they placed a variety of checks on rulers, including regular elections and legal restraints on civic officials. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) contains numerous protections later found in the American Bill of Rights, including prohibitions against double jeopardy, torture, and “in-humane, Barbarous or cruel” bodily punishments.

Seven years later, these laws were revised and published as “The Book of the General Lawes Liberties and Liberties Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts.” This was the first printed code of laws in the Western world, an innovation that made it possible to distribute the statutes more widely than if they were copied by hand. As Michael Winship observes in his excellent book “Hot Protestants”:

In New England, the colonists created legal systems that were simple, equitable, inexpensive, speedy, transparent, and grounded in law codes crafted to protect colonists’s rights against overbearing local rulers.

In the final analysis, while the Puritans were not 21st-century liberal democrats, neither were they intolerant theocrats. They created some of the most republican political institutions the world had ever seen and strictly limited civic leaders by law. They valued liberty and had, as David D. Hall puts it in “A Reforming People,” an “animus against ‘tyranny’ and ‘arbitrary’ power that pervaded virtually every sermon and political statement.”

We do not need to join Webster and Tocqueville in overstating their contributions, nor to replace 1776 with 1620 as the nation’s birthday to recognize that they played an important role in the formation of American religious and civic liberty. As John Adams observed late in life, without the “great exertions & severe sufferings” of the Reformers, the United States of America might never have existed.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Chronicles.

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400 Years Later, I Made New Discoveries About The First Thanksgiving

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How do we know about the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, and when did we know it? Americans learned for the first time about the Pilgrims from their own writings in 1841 in Alexander Young’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.” This book published part of the lost writings of William Bradford and a 1621 letter from Edward Winslow.

These writings had been published in a 1622 long-lost recruiting pamphlet in England but not in America. Because Winslow’s letter described the 1621 Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, Young declared that the Pilgrims had held the first Thanksgiving in America. This led to an explosion of interest in the Pilgrims and ultimately a widespread branding of the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving.

In the digitized historic newspaper database GenealogyBank.com, I recently found a newspaper article crediting the Pilgrims for Thanksgiving 25 years earlier than previously thought and another that paid homage to them. Richard Pickering, a Plimoth Patuxet historian, told me I’d found new information, “breadcrumbs to the explosion” of interest in the Pilgrims that came after 1841.

These new findings reveal the pride that New Englanders had in the 1620 Pilgrims and the importance they’d placed in passing down Thanksgiving to new generations. These articles also convey Thanksgiving’s universal meaning and support The Federalist’s 1620 Project.

“This day is our annual public Thanksgiving,” a writer for the Salem Gazette began in an article published Nov. 28, 1816. Then the author credited the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving. “If our pilgrim forefathers, who instituted this religious festival, could give thanks, in a mere temporary hut in the midst of baroness, that they were permitted to ‘suck nourishment from the treasures in the land,’ how much more should their descendants, who inherit from them a land now ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ enter with a voice of Thanksgiving and praise?”

The same could be said today. The losses we have experienced because of COVID-19 help us better understand the Pilgrims, who lost two to three people a day at one point. Only 52 of the 102 Mayflower Pilgrims survived the first year. Their courage and faith to give thanks despite their hardships can encourage us to give thanks in 2020.

The other newspaper also resonates today because it shows how the 1620 Pilgrims’ boldness, risk-taking, and faith shaped America, which is the purpose of the 1620 Project.

The Vermont Intelligencer reported in 1817 that New Englanders living in Philadelphia had gathered for a Thanksgiving feast in November 1816. This was a novel event for Pennsylvanians, and lawyer Nathaniel Chauncey gave a speech. Originally from Connecticut, he saw a need “to counteract certain prejudices against the first settlers of New England.” Below are some excerpts.

Thanksgiving

“The occasion which has called us together is particularly interesting to the natives of New England. Their annual Thanksgiving awakens in the aged, a train of the most tender recollections, and offers to mature reason, 1,000 arguments of praise,” Chauncey began. “The charities of life were thus strengthened and consecrated by their union with religion. Gratitude to God, and love to man, were woven into a texture, which time will never separate.”

Then as now, gratitude and praise required an object. Chauncey, the grandson of Rev. Charles Chauncey, the second president of Harvard College from 1654 to 1672, emphasized the importance of religion in the people’s giving of thanks.

Courage

Explaining that they were trying to start Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, Chauncey drew attention to those “who established our feast of love,” saying, “It has descended to us from our ancestors; it was instituted by the settlers of New England.”

“These men have been much traduced — their virtues have been forgotten, and the faults of the age in which they lived, have been imputed to them as their peculiar blemish,” he declared of their slander. “Sir, they were men of whom the world was not worthy. In their character were combined the hero, the sage, and the saint.”

In a lesson that bears repeating today, Chauncey explained that the settlers’ valor flowed out of morality. It wasn’t mere brutishness nor blissful ignorance. “Their courage was not that insensibility to pain, which has been given alike to the strong man and to the strong brute — nor that blindness to danger, which arises from stupidity or passion — but it was a grand moral quality,” he explained.

“They had that energy, which, though its subject may be alive to pain, and sagacious to discern danger, presses forward, in spite of both, to the accomplishment of its purposes. They possessed also a still higher courage.”

Faith

It is no surprise then that the settlers’ courage was inextricably tied to their faith. “But the men of whom I speak showed the courage of piety. They had drank largely of a spirit which God had created eternal, invincible, and immutable,” Chauncey said, detailing several European martyrs.

“Sir, our ancestors were living martyrs,” he said, noting they had endured exile, danger, disease, hunger, cold, and nakedness. “Under the dictates of conscience, they bore fines and imprisonment and plunder and the risk of life to their native country, anxiety and indigent in Holland, and in the New World the terrors of a desolate wilderness.”

“The adventurers who landed at Plymouth, half died in the first season from accumulated hardships. But the survivors would not return. They had taken their lives in their hands, and they were prepared for death and its most terrible form,” Chauncey continued. “These men were soldiers of the Cross, their courage was united with justice and clemency. It was not their plan to rob and exterminate the possessors of the soil. The tract on which they first settled had been depopulated by pestilence, and their other acquisitions were gained by purchase or in wars, which self-defense rendered unavoidable.”

Civil Society

Laying the groundwork with principles that would eventually compose our nation’s founding documents, the settlers “hoped to establish a state in which liberty and pure religion should be enjoyed by millions, through a succession of ages. And here they displayed wisdom and foresight, correspondent to their moral greatness,” according to Chauncey.

“They cherished and transmitted to posterity the grand principles of representative government,” he continued, noting that New Englanders had established it despite their meagerness.

“Let us cherish the remembrance of their virtues. Permit me, Sir, to propose, the memory of the settlers of New England.”

Hear! Hear! In Thanksgiving 2020, let us remember the 1620 Pilgrims.

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Grover Cleveland Knew How Thanksgiving Could Lift Up A Hurting Nation

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American presidents have declared Thanksgiving proclamations more than 165 times since President George Washington delivered the first in 1789. Although none were given between 1816 and 1862, presidential Thanksgiving proclamations became a tradition on October 3, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Since then, various presidents have used such executive statements as reminders to offer thanks to God and rest from toil, to offer solace, and to help reorient the focus of the nation to the good, the true, and the beautiful aspects of our lives to which we owe our gratitude.

After the year we’ve had in 2020 and with a persistent state of discord felt coast to coast, the nation is in dire need of words of comfort. Due largely to COVID-19 and the corollary effects of its economic downturn, the Centers for Disease Control estimates at least 300,000 excess deaths have occurred in America since February.

Adding to that, whether in government, the media, or the veracity of our electoral processes, faith in many of our oldest and once-venerable institutions has cratered. Indeed, just when resowing bonds of association, fraternal love, and fellowship are critically needed, increasingly incendiary and polarized political rhetoric has left more Americans seeing those across the aisle as not just ideological foes, but irredeemable and permanent enemies.

So, while there are several past presidential Thanksgiving proclamations worth revisiting as 2020 comes to a merciful close, President Grover Cleveland’s 1888 proclamation is especially fitting to our present moment. A man of notoriously unimpeachable character and son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland’s Thanksgiving proclamations grasp the proper tenor of the holiday and are notable for a couple of “firsts.”

Before Cleveland would do so in 1885, no previous U.S. president had used a Thanksgiving proclamation to implore Americans to specifically “set apart” the Thanksgiving holiday to reunite seldom-seen family members and old friends. Cleveland hoped Americans would enjoy each other’s company with “pleasant reminiscence,” and that the day would be “sanctified and chastened by tender memories and associations” so as to “renew the ties of affection and strengthen the bonds of kindly feeling.”

Then, in his 1886 proclamation, Cleveland became the first American president to use the occasion to remind Americans of the vital role of personal charity and the private duty of those with any means to attend to the poor with “cheerful gifts and alms.” Yet it is Cleveland’s 1888 Thanksgiving proclamation that may best provide Americans the encouragement they may need this holiday season.

To start, his statement poignantly acknowledges God’s hand in guiding the nation and reinforces the need for Americans to be faithful. Cleveland trusts that the American people will take the national day of Thanksgiving to refrain from work, and, instead, dedicate the holiday to offering sincere, heartfelt thanks for their many blessings.

Most notably, at the conclusion of his 1888 Thanksgiving proclamation, Cleveland mentions an “afflictive dispensation” that has stricken a portion of the nation, beseeching Americans to “acknowledge His mercy in setting bounds to the deadly march of pestilence,” and to “be chastened by sympathy with our fellow-countrymen who have suffered and who mourn.”

Americans living in the late 1880s weren’t battling the novel coronavirus, but they were suffering from continued outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, and yellow fever. So Cleveland took time in his 1888 Thanksgiving proclamation to reflect on both the tremendous gift that is life on this earth, as well as its fragile nature.

By calling on Americans to cherish life and to express sympathy and grieve with those who have lost loved ones to disease or illness, Cleveland was asking the men and women of the nation to follow through on two central precepts of Christian doctrine: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

With the time remaining in this year, an ever more deliberate effort to following these commandments would make this Thanksgiving far brighter for families and friends across America. So, before we raise our glasses as we gather together, reading the words of our 22nd and 24th president may provide just the inspiration to raise our spirits as well.

* * *

Proclamation 285 — Thanksgiving Day, 1888

Constant thanksgiving and gratitude are due from the American people to Almighty God for His goodness and mercy, which have followed them since the day He made them a nation and vouchsafed to them a free government. With loving kindness, He has constantly led us in the way of prosperity and greatness. He has not visited with swift punishment our shortcomings, but with gracious care, He has warned us of our dependence upon His forbearance and has taught us that obedience to His holy law is the price of a continuance of His precious gifts.

In acknowledgment of all that God has done for us as a nation, and to the end that on an appointed day the united prayers and praise of a grateful country may reach the throne of grace, I, Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, do hereby designate and set apart Thursday, the 29th day of November instant, as a day of thanksgiving and prayer, to be kept and observed throughout the land.

On that day let all our people suspend their ordinary work and occupations, and in their accustomed places of worship, with prayer and songs of praise, render thanks to God for all His mercies, for the abundant harvests which have rewarded the toil of the husbandman during the year that has passed, and for the rich rewards that have followed the labors of our people in their shops and their marts of trade and traffic. Let us give thanks for peace and for social order and contentment within our borders, and for our advancement in all that adds to national greatness.

And mindful of the afflictive dispensation with which a portion of our land has been visited, let us, while we humble ourselves before the power of God, acknowledge His mercy in setting bounds to the deadly march of pestilence, and let our hearts be chastened by sympathy with our fellow-countrymen who have suffered and who mourn.

And as we return thanks for all the blessings which we have received from the hands of our Heavenly Father, let us not forget that He has enjoined upon us charity; and on this day of thanksgiving let us generously remember the poor and needy, so that our tribute of praise and gratitude may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord.

— Grover Cleveland

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