Socialist Pilgrims? (The War on Thanksgiving)

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Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the MSM no longer even remembers it, I will comment — I actually feel forced to comment! — on the flap about the Pilgrims as socialists that I was drawn into over the past week. The trip began when I was quoted in an interesting Sunday Times “Week in Review” piece, which lays out the controversy.

(Briefly here: For years, Rush Limbaugh and some publications of the Austrian School of economics beloved by American libertarians, and more recently Glenn Beck, have been saying that the story of the Pilgrims is a story of socialism failed — that the Pilgrims began by holding property in common in a socialist-utopian way and starved because of it, then switched to private property and thrived enough to thank God for the bounty of the harvest: the first Thanksgiving. Thus America began in a lesson about the evils of socialism and glory of property. This year, thanks to the Tea Party, the story has received new mainstream attention.)

The Times quoted me near the end of the piece, not on that subject but on the problem that I think arises when people across the political spectrum seize on some historical event and force it to serve an overdetermined purpose for a current position. Bad history, bad politics. As I told the reporter, history is always slanted. How and why it’s slanted, in particular cases, is something we should be keenly aware of. … blah blah blah.

But thanks to that one, general quote, which came with a reference to my MIT Press book Inventing American History (where I write about distortions in public history), and thanks also to my seemingly endless eagerness to promote myself, I went on both Michael Smerconish’s syndicated radio show and ABC News “Good Morning, America” (do they observe that comma?), to weigh in not on my subject, which is the way everybody across the spectrum, each of us, distorts history, but on the current controversy: whether the Pilgrims began as socialists and then learned the error of their ways.

In the interviews I tried both to wrangle with the immediate question about the Pilgrims and to discuss what is, to me, the great, non-seasonal theme, political tension in public history. I also suggested that now and then we might want to lighten up a bit on the whole “lessons of history” thing. It was fun. Smerconish gave me ten minutes, and we had what I thought was an interesting conversation (and I like his unique effort to bring talk-radio intensity to centrism). “Good Morning America,” with its very specific needs, managed to shoehorn three seconds (literally!) of a twenty-minute interview into a piece on the controversy. Not surprising, but startling to watch: my name flashed on the screen so briefly that all I can do is hope that subliminal advertising actually works.

So now that I’m a media-certified expert: Were the Pilgrims socialists?


Joseph Smith translates the Book of Mormon

   No. They were not. And the ironies in how that story developed may challenge some preconceptions of both liberals and conservatives. Beck’s source is W. Cleon Skousen, whose book about the meaning and purpose of America is based on the Mormon interpretation of history. That interpretation began in the 1830’s, when Joseph Smith said he’d dug up gold tablets that had been buried in upstate New York by descendents of the lost tribe of Israel. So if Beck and Skousen went back in a time machine and wandered into the Plymouth colony, where they seem to think they’d find spiritual and nationalist ancestors, their views of both religion and history would land them in some very deep trouble very quickly. The Pilgrims were after religious self-determination, not freedom for religious views they would have considered contrary to scripture, like this Mormon one.

And Rush — if he showed up in Plymouth and started opining, he would have been put on the dunking stool and submerged repeatedly. (As would I.) The Pilgrims didn’t play, and they wouldn’t have liked any of us, wherever we stand politically or spiritually.

And of course, “the first Thanksgiving” wasn’t one, really: Thanksgivings were not feast days but solemn days of worship. Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 had nothing to do with the Pilgrims (Rush to the contrary) but with a one-off day of thanks to God (yes, secularist liberals — that Guy) for the founding of the federal government that Rush derides. Lincoln’s call for the annual national holiday also fails to mention the Pilgrims, naturally, since they would have been the last thing on Lincoln’s mind. Our Thanksgiving is a folk tradition, and a great one too. Why mess it up with all this fake history and fake politics?

On the socialism thing. There were utopian socialists in 17th C. England, and some of their ideas got over here. Some were key to the founding, in ways Rush and Beck, as well as many consensus liberals, know not of (see Declaration!). But the Pilgrims were not among those early communalists, like Diggers, Familists, etc. Pilgrims were hard-line Calvinist separatists, and the idea of forming a perfect human society on earth would have made them sick, human nature being to them, via original sin, capable only of salvation by grace, not perfection by man. Their holding things and work in common appears to have been a practical scheme (which did not in fact work out all that well) to maximize profits for the joint stock company — so not an early form of socialism but an early tactic in capitalism.

William Bradford, governor of the colony, whose history of the colony everybody relies on, does bitch mightily about the inefficiency of commonality, blasting Plato, among others, for ever suggesting that community property could work. But Bradford had his own axes to grind, deeming his constituency a bunch of lazy bums. And it was really when the corporate element — the focus on the company — was edged out, and the government element took over — with a focus on the colony — that the switch from holding things in common to greater individual responsibility and reward was accomplished in Plymouth.

In other words, history is complex and dependent on conflicting points of view — on the parts of people at the time, not just us — and context is everything.

Or: Leave Thanksgiving alone, you jive turkeys.

[UPDATE: Here’s something on the Pilgrims and the War on Christmas.]

3 thoughts on “Socialist Pilgrims? (The War on Thanksgiving)

  1. Your points are well made, as usual. But perhaps this story as a cautionary tale for socialism is not completely off the mark…

    Ignorant of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s views on the matter, I’d simply like to point out that, while you are undoubtedly correct that the Pilgrims would not have had the creation of a humanist earthly utopia as their motive for collectivism, it still remains that they believed a centrally planned economy might be more efficient for their venture in the New World. When that failed, they switched to a more free market system and ultimately succeeded.

    So don’t get hung up on the fact that Calvanists and socialists have obviously incompatible philosophies! True, the Pilgrims were not socialists in our modern sense! None the less, the Pilgrim’s early historical discovery that centrally planned economies are woefully inefficient may be one of the lessons to take away from this story. No?

  2. “the Pilgrim’s early historical discovery that centrally planned economies are woefully inefficient may be one of the lessons to take away from this story.”

    What has central planing to do with socialism?

  3. Maybe someone could point to where Karl Marx said something on central planning, because I haven’t found it yet?

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