Commie Pinko Pilgrims and Peaceful (?) Puritans

Paul Harvey

A little Thanksgiving history blogging for you. I hadn't quite realized how much of a cottage industry peddling the anachronistic "Socialist Pilgrims" thesis had become, but this piece from the New York Times explores the spread of this myth. I was shocked -- SHOCKED -- to learn how much of a role Glenn Beck and his historical henchman W. Cleon Skousen have played in marketing this story, My favorite part: the time when Rush Limbaugh added in the bit about how they grew organic vegetables, after they had learned that capitalism worked and produced an abundance which they could share with the Indians.

In "Peace, Love, and Puritanism," David Hall, of Harvard Divinity School, defends the Puritans against generations of Hawthornian and Menckenian scorn (and adds that, yes, wild turkeys probably appeared on the original menu). He writes:

Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.

Historiann has no problem with Hall's conclusion, but points out some of the darker underside to the history of feasting and fasting in America -- in particular, its long connection to war and tribalism:

Both fasts and feasts were opportunities to reaffirm tribalism, of a world view of us versus them. The history of fasting and feasting in the English communities of New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should be written in blood–both blood in the sense of kinship ties, and in the sense of the shedding of outsiders’ blood in war.

The history of fasting and feasting is "more complicated and much darker than Americans would like to remember," she reminds us. Reading the many pages on this subject in George C. Rable's God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, reinforces this point. About every five pages, it seems, someone from North or South is calling for a fast day, or preaching a fast day sermon. There was a lot of ostensible bowing, scraping, and humility, but ultimately it was all about killing. With all these fast days during the war, it's a wonder anyone ever ate.

John Fea reflects on what he would teach about the original Thanksgiving here, at his new column over at Patheos, and what it meant for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, who both had been through some brutal times, to share a brief celebration together. I hope your celebration goes well.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Yes, the Limbaugh narrative is flawed, but there's no reason to suspect him of bad faith.

Scholars with a political agenda, however, have no such excuse. They're more sophisticated about things---they simply elide the facts they don't like.

Limbaugh, to his credit, quotes the source text from Bradford extensively:

"What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild's history lesson," every kid gets. "If it were, we might prevent much needless suffering in the future." Here's what he wrote: "'The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years...that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing -- as if they were wiser than God,' Bradford wrote.

"'For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense...that was thought injustice.'" That was thought injustice. "Do you hear what he was saying, ladies and gentlemen? The Pilgrims found that people could not be expected to do their best work without incentive. So what did Bradford's community try next? They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property. Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products. And what was the result?" 'This had very good success,' wrote Bradford, "for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been."

Bold face mine, of course. Limbaugh's main point holds, even if his narrative is confused. Anyone who reads the NYT "scholarly" debunking will be unaware of the "success" Bradford speaks of, or that Bradford explicitly states that the scheme did "retard much employment."

The professional historians didn't play it straight, which is why Barton/Beck "revisionism" has such currency. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I can't find the Bradford text online, so if any of the above is inaccurate, my thanks in advance for any correction.
Irenicum said…
Heh, my facebook title for the same NYT's article was practically the same as yours. We live in very strange times indeed.
Anonymous said…
There's a great essay in a recent NYRB about Limbaugh and Beck. Two gentlemen that few sane people this side of fantasyland would ever say are fair, balanced, credible, reasonable, etc. More like red-faced windbags or highly skilled demagogues. The unfair and unbalanced set:
Unknown said…
Some of this is explained in my article "A Level Look at Land Allotments" which was published online some years ago at:

The website has changed a bit since then, and the first sentence or two of the article are missing. The main points are still there.

I can't tell exactly which scholars with a political agenda you are talking about, Tom.
Jeremy Bangs
Tom Van Dyke said…
Great to hear from you, Jeremy. Yes my ire was directed at the same NYT article "anonymous" linked

---at the author, and some of her scholarly experts, and frankly at those who passed the "refutation" along uncritically here & there on the internet.

My ire at its core was that rebutting Limbaugh and here, Stoessel

as benighted rightist brutes with only a bastardization of history on offer, while those who know better shake their heads, is mere culture war. I found no attempt anywhere to simply tell the story.

I did manage to get to Bradford's account via Google Books, to attempt to find out for myself in between the flak and fire of the culture wars.

I admit only a conscientious skim and not a deep study, but here's my best understanding:

There was indeed famine and indolence under the original scheme of "all for one, one for all." The young men said the hell with it, the older men thought such manual labor beneath their station, the women were already aggrieved at a near-slavery washing and mending for others, etc.

After the "free-enterprise" scheme was instituted, the women even took their children out into the field to plant more corn. Industriousness---productivity---rose sharply.

There were two other items I found in none of these culture war accounts. The first was that there was a terrible drought in may and June of 1623, and the crops were withering. By Bradford's account, a bountiful rain fell, and the crops rose from the dead, amazing even the Indians. Timely showers followed throughout the growing season, and Divine Providence was credited, and this near-miracle is why a day of thanksgiving was declared.

The other point is something I think you allude to here, that land distribution was to be severely limited and egalitarian, an acre apiece. Bradford quotes Seneca and Roman practice along the lines of enough land is enough, perhaps as much as a man can plant in a day.

This certainly would be the other side of the coin from the "rightist" parable of capitalism here: a ConAgra or a large landowner was in no way seen as desirable by the Pilgrims.

Pls do correct me if I have anything wrong here, as this is of course your bailiwick, not mine.

Cheers, Jeremy, and to all those here gathered.
Historiann said…
Thanks for the link, Paul. I hope you had a peaceful and bountiful Thanksgiving celebration!

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