The Great Thanksgiving Hoax

[Originally published November 20, 1999.]

Each year at this time, schoolchildren all over America are taught the official Thanksgiving story, and newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines devote vast amounts of time and space to it. It is all very colorful and fascinating.

It is also very deceiving. This official story is nothing like what really happened. It is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.

The official story has the Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower, coming to America, and establishing the Plymouth colony in the winter of 1620–21. This first winter is hard, and half the colonists die. But the survivors are hard working and tenacious, and they learn new farming techniques from the Indians. The harvest of 1621 is bountiful. The pilgrims hold a celebration, and give thanks to God. They are grateful for the wonderful new abundant land He has given them.

The official story then has the Pilgrims living more or less happily ever after, each year repeating the first Thanksgiving. Other early colonies also have hard times at first, but they soon prosper and adopt the annual tradition of giving thanks for this prosperous new land called America.

The problem with this official story is that the harvest of 1621 was not bountiful, nor were the colonists hard-working or tenacious. 1621 was a famine year and many of the colonists were lazy thieves.

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years because they refused to work in the field. They preferred instead to steal food. He says the colony was riddled with “corruption,” and with “confusion and discontent.” The crops were small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”

In the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622, “all had their hungry bellies filled,” but only briefly. The prevailing condition during those years was not the abundance the official story claims, it was famine and death. The first “Thanksgiving” was not so much a celebration as it was the last meal of condemned men.

But in subsequent years something changes. The harvest of 1623 was different. Suddenly, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford wrote, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.” Thereafter, he wrote, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” In fact, in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn.

What happened? After the poor harvest of 1622, writes Bradford, “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.” They began to question their form of economic organization.

This had required that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.” A person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take only what he needed.

This “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was an early form of socialism, and it is why the Pilgrims were starving. Bradford writes that “young men that were most able and fit for labor and service” complained about being forced to “spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children.” Also, “the strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak.” So the young and strong refused to work and the total amount of food produced was never adequate.

To rectify this situation, in 1623 Bradford abolished socialism. He gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit. In other words, he replaced socialism with a markets, and that was the end of the famines.

Many early groups of colonists set up socialist states, all with the same terrible results. At Jamestown, established in 1607, out of every shipload of settlers that arrived, less than half would survive their first twelve months in America. Most of the work was being done by only one-fifth of the men, the other four-fifths choosing to be parasites. In the winter of 1609–10, called “The Starving Time,” the population fell from five-hundred to sixty. Then the Jamestown colony was converted to a relatively free market, and the results were every bit as dramatic as those at Plymouth.


Thanksgiving and Marginal Utility

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever (Psalm 136:1-3)

This phrase appears in many of the psalms, but when you find the same phrase three times in a row, you can safely conclude that the writer was trying to make a point, and he thought the point was important. I know of no passage in the Bible where any other phrase appears three times in succession.

Thanksgiving Day is an old tradition in the United States. It really did have its origins in Plymouth Colony, in the fall of 1621, when the Pilgrims who had survived the first year invited Chief Massasoit to a feast, and he showed up with 90 braves and five deer. The feast lasted three days.

The first official Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on June 29, 1676, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. Over a century later, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on October 23, 1789, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln officially restored it as a wartime measure. The holiday then became an American tradition.

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Lincoln was a strange contradiction religiously. He was a religious skeptic, yet he invoked the rhetoric of the King James Bible — accurately — on many occasions. His political rhetoric, which had been deeply influenced by his reading of King James, was often masterful. For example, when he spoke of the cemetery of the Gettysburg battlefield as “this hallowed ground,” using the King James word for holy, as in “hallowed be thy name,” he was seeking to infuse the battle of Gettysburg with sacred meaning — a use of religious terminology that was as morally abhorrent as it was rhetorically successful. It is the sacraments that are sacred, not monuments to man’s bloody destructiveness. In that same year, 1863, he used biblical themes in his October 3 Thanksgiving Day proclamation.

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.

He went on, in the tradition of a Puritan Jeremiad sermon, to attribute the calamity of the Civil War to the nation’s sins, conveniently ignoring the biggest contributing sin of all in the coming of that war: his own steadfast determination to collect the national tariff in Southern ports.

In his proclamation, he made an important and accurate theological point.

We have been the recipients of the choisest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. This observation leads to the same question that Moses raised long before Lincoln’s proclamation: Why is it that men become less thankful as their blessings increase?

Less than a decade after Lincoln’s proclamation, three economists came up with the theoretical insight that provides an answer.

Marginal Utility Theory

In the early 1870s, Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras simultaneously and independently discovered the principle of marginal utility. Their discovery transformed economic analysis.

They observed that value, like beauty, is subjectively determined. Value is imputed — a familiar Calvinist theological concept — to scarce resources by the acting individual. Other things remaining equal, including tastes, the individual imputes less value to each additional unit of any good that he receives as income. This is the principle of marginal utility.

This can be put another way. We can say that each additional unit of any resource that a person receives as income satisfies a value that is lower on that individual’s subjective scale of value. He satisfied the next-higher value with the previous unit of income.

This provides a preliminary solution to the original question. I call this solution the declining marginal utility of thankfulness. People look at the value of what they have just received as income, and they are less impressed than they were with the previous unit of income. They focus on the immediate — “What have you done for me lately?” — rather than the aggregate level of their existing capital. They conclude, “What’s past is past; what matters most is whatever comes next.”

Modern economic theory discounts the past to zero. The past is gone; it is not a matter of human action. Whatever you spent to achieve your present condition in life is no longer a matter of human action. The economist calls this lost world “sunk costs.”

There is a major problem in thinking this way. It is the problem of saying “thank you.” The child is taught to say “thank you.” He is not told to do this because, by saying “thank you,” he is more likely to get another gift in the future. He is taught to say “thank you” as a matter of politeness.

I am sure that there is some University of Chicago-trained economist out there who is ready to explain etiquette as a matter of self-interest: “getting more in the future for a minimal expenditure of scarce economic resources.” And, I must admit, people who never say “thank you” do tend to receive fewer gifts. Or, as Moses put it, “And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). But Moses added an “or else” clause: “And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish” (verse 19). Gary Becker would no doubt put it differently, but the point regarding reduced future income is the same: lower. Maybe way, way lower.

The problem is, we look to the present, not to the past. We look at the marginal unit — the unit of economic decision-making — and not at the aggregate that we have accumulated. We assume that whatever we already possess is well-deserved — merited, we might say — and then we focus our attention on that next, hoped-for “util” of income.

As economic actors, we should recognize that the reason why we are allocating our latest unit of income to a satisfaction that is lower on our value scale is because we already possess so much. We are awash in wealth. We are the beneficiaries of a social order based on private ownership and free exchange, a social order that has made middle-class people rich beyond the wildest dreams of kings a century and a half ago. Or, as P. J. O’Rourke has observed, “When you think of the good old days, think one word: dentistry.”

About half of the Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth in 1620 were dead a year later. The Indians really did save the colony by showing the first winter’s survivors what to plant and how to plant it in the spring of 1621. The Pilgrims really did rejoice at that festival. They were lucky — graced, they would have said — to be alive.

So are we. Ludwig von Mises wrote somewhere (I wish I could remember where) that Charles Darwin was wrong. The principle of the survival of the fittest does not apply to the free market social order. The free market’s division of labor has enabled millions of people to survive — today, billions — who would otherwise have perished.

So, give thanks to God, even if your only god is the free market. You did not obtain all that you possess all by yourself. The might of your hands did not secure it for you. A little humility is in order on this one day of the year. Yes, even if you earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

Thanksgiving? No Thanks

The Anti-Independence Day

by Ryan McMaken

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Cecilia, the virgin and martyr who died at the hands of the Romans 1,800 years ago. For the crime of being a Christian, she was beheaded, and has been venerated as the patron saint of music by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches ever since.

Unfortunately in America, this feast in honor of an ancient martyr who gave her life as a witness to God was mostly ignored in favor of the quasi-religious holiday created by politicians known as “Thanksgiving.” During this holiday, people mostly watch football and stuff their faces with turkey while possibly taking a minute to pay lip service to the bland little American god that is more of a political prop than a deity.

This is the god of “God Bless America,” and of the Pledge of Allegiance, and of the legions of red-faced American nationalists who can’t tell the difference between a religion and a political party.

To drive home the semi-religious, but fully nationalistic nature of this holiday, we were recently granted right-wing columnist Joseph Farah’s latest paean to the American state which takes the rather silly position that there is a “War on Thanksgiving.” Farah is apparently taking his marching orders from Michelle Malkin who also recently declared war on the War on Thanksgiving. But while Malkin merely has a problem with some tacky multiculturalism attached to the holiday, Farah inadvertently reveals the political usefulness of Thanksgiving in its religious posturing.

An attack on Thanksgiving, Farah tells us, is an attack on God. Thanksgiving, that holiday made up by politicians as yet another day of national unity, is now a sacred day. Farah equates the Pilgrims (who declared a state-sponsored day of thanksgiving of their own) to the ancient Hebrews, and then equates all American thanksgiving days since to the religious feasts of thanksgiving practiced by the Hebrews.

Farah apparently suffers from the same confusion as the Pilgrims in his being unable to tell the difference between 17th Century North America and 10th century (B.C.) Israel. But at the core of Farah’s assertions is a deep, deep attachment to a nationalist myth that posits the United States as a sacred nation. Thanksgiving thus serves an immensely useful purpose as a day of national unity and national self-congratulation.

In many ways, in fact, Thanksgiving has eclipsed Independence Day as the national holiday. While Independence Day, at least in theory, commemorates an act of political disloyalty and disunion, Thanksgiving, with its modern roots in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, is about unity, national “pride” and complacency. Be thankful, or else. And don’t complain like those Revolutionaries did.

In little more than a century, Thanksgiving rose from being one of Lincoln’s political gimmicks to the point where it now surpasses numerous religious holidays and all national holidays as a major event in the lives of Americans.

It may be the proximity to Christmas, but whatever the reason, the commercial and cultural importance of Thanksgiving has surpassed Independence Day. The 4th of July now takes a back seat to the guaranteed four-day weekend of shopping, football, and travel that now kicks off the “holiday season.”

Thanksgiving’s status as a universal national holiday is significant because at its root, Thanksgiving is a day that commemorates an American creation myth.

For centuries, but especially since nationalism began to sweep the Western world in the 19th century, every national state has sought for itself a creation myth out of which comes a common history, ideology, or (sometimes) common ethnic bond. Most of them have always been made up, since real history is far too complicated to fit neatly into the little stories told to school children. And they are always commemorated by some secular national holiday.

A good nationalist myth always conveys a few central pieces of information. It tells us that at some point in time (the earlier the better), “our” ancestors arrived at the place we are now and staked a claim to this physical territory. It tells us that we all have a common history and experience that can be traced back to these original ancestors. It tells us that we, being united by that common history, should also be politically and perpetually united. And finally, it tells us that God Almighty was and is in favor of the whole enterprise.

These myths were essential to the rise of nationalism then and now, for they are designed to discourage dissent and to unite the population behind a central government. Before the acceptance of the myth, local populations might have been united behind local ethnicities and political agendas instead, and such local concerns might have led to suspicion of the central government and its ever-increasing power. But a population that accepts myths and legends about an alleged national “experience” or “bond” or “character” is much easier to control.

This is hardly just an American phenomenon. The Eastern Europeans of the 19th century became particularly adept at making up heroic histories for themselves when it came time to unite the locals into national states, and the Latin Americans have been skilled at this game as well.

The modern Thanksgiving, the product of non-believer Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, is explicitly a day of national unity. It was a chance for Lincoln to declare during the Civil War that God was on the North’s side and that all decent Americans should pray and thank God that the war (which the proclamation hints is all the South’s fault) had not destroyed the Northern economy.

In the decades since, Thanksgiving has done an excellent job of not only providing a highly anticipated and much-revered national festival, but has provided the much-needed veneer of religiosity that any good feast day of national mythology requires.

Thus the iconography of Thanksgiving has traditionally centered on the devout Pilgrims, emerging from the sea, and pressing their way into the wilderness while planting the common values of Christianity and America in a new land. The traditional Thanksgiving dinner is a re-enactment of that alleged first Thanksgiving of 1621 at the Plymouth Colony. Emphasis is often on how the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution in England and how they were therefore good proto-Americans who valued religious freedom, private property, truth, justice, and so on.

This version of history, which is now in decline, is problematic to say the least, and it’s almost purely the product of the Northern bias that so dominated American cultural and intellectual elite circles following the end of the Civil War. The Pilgrim Myth completely ignores the “day of thanksgiving” celebrated in December of 1619 in Virginia, and it also shifts the origins of Anglo-Saxon settlement from its true center in Virginia to the rather isolated and less prosperous (and less free) colony in the north.

If one is looking for a national origin myth, one would think that the Jamestown settlement, which pre-dates the Plymouth Colony by more than a dozen years, would be a more logical place to start. It was in Virginia, after all, where English liberties and religious freedom took root while Plymouth Colony was becoming less tolerant and therefore less prosperous as the 17th century wore on. Religious freedom certainly had no home in Plymouth until the original settlers were finally displaced by a new generation of immigrants.

And of course, everything else that happened in North America outside Plymouth is ignored in the traditional story. There were the Spanish settlers who brought Christianity to what is now Florida almost 40 years before any English settlers showed up. And then, as the Jamestown settlers were trying to avoid another repeat of the Roanoke colony in 1607, the Spaniards were busy founding Santa Fe and driving into the North American heartland, setting up trade routes like the Sante Fe Trail, and converting the natives to Christianity. Over two hundred years later, the Americans would finally show up and benefit from centuries of Spanish trade and law in the region.

Multiculturalist opposition to the Pilgrim Myth has somewhat damaged its relevance in recent years, but Thanksgiving itself remains unscathed. Indeed, Thanksgiving has become so successful as a national holiday, that it has relegated all the other nationalist, secular holidays to a second tier. Only the explicitly religious holiday of Christmas is a bigger deal, but that naturally excludes non-Christians, so Thanksgiving becomes a catch-all holiday to which every knee shall bend.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Thanksgiving isn’t about God or giving Him thanks. Indeed, it is really rather sad that some people practice a version of Christianity so stripped down and impoverished that they need to get worked up about national holidays invented by 19th century atheist politicians like Abraham Lincoln.

Real religious holy days involve the veneration of saints and martyrs and prophets, and of ancient universal truths. Nationalist holidays like Thanksgiving are by definition opposed to the universal and the eternal, and instead of focusing on the deeds of defenseless martyrs like Saint Cecilia, they instead focus on the deeds of politicians and governments and on historical myths. Built on bad history and on worse religion, the rise of Thanksgiving is a fascinating case study in American history. But in the end, Thanksgiving is now and always has been an exercise in nationalism and watered down religion that has precious little to do with liberty, God, or even an accurate re-telling of American history.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.


What Americans Celebrate On Thanksgiving Day

In American folklore, Thanksgiving is a holiday that originated in 1621 with the Pilgrims celebrating a good harvest. Some historians say that this event is poorly documented, and others believe that the Thanksgiving tradition travelled to the New World with the Pilgrims and Puritans who brought with them the English Days of Thanksgiving. Other historians think the Pilgrims associated their relief from hunger with their observance of the relief of the siege of Leiden.

The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, if it happened, might not have been the first in the New World. Historians say the Virginia colonial charter declared a Day of Thanksgiving in 1619, and other historians say the first Thanksgiving was observed by the Spanish in Florida in 1565.

Apparently, the different English colonies and later American states each had their own day of Thanksgiving, if they had one. Abraham Lincoln tried to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, but the country was divided by the War of Northern Aggression.

Thanksgiving became a national holiday with the completion of the Reconstruction of the South after the War of Northern Aggression and the extermination of the Plains Indians by the Union generals in the 1870s. This taints Thanksgiving as a celebration of the preservation and expansion of the American Empire and accurately reflects the goal of the political forces behind Lincoln.

Today, Thanksgiving is simply known as “Turkey Day” and a time of retail sales. But as you eat your Thanksgiving meal, contemplate that what you are really celebrating is an Empire rooted in war crimes. If Lincoln had lost, and if there had been at that time a Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan would have been hung as war

Sheridan was probably the worst of the lot. His war crimes against the South, especially those he committed in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, must have been forgotten by Southerns who vote Republican, the Party of Lincoln and Sheridan. But Sheridan’s crimes against the Indians were worse. He attacked the Indians in their winter quarters, destroying their food supplies, and sent professional hunters to exterminate the Buffalo, declaring: “Let them kill until the buffalo is exterminated,” thus depriving the Plains Indians of their main food source.

Considering the enormity of the Republican Party’s crimes against the South, it is a testament to the forgetfulness of people that Southerners vote Republican. Sheridan expressed well the Republican attitude toward the South, declaring on several occasions that “if I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”

In the 1870s when Democrats won elections in Louisiana, Sheridan, who had power over the state, declared the Democrats to be bandits who would be subjected to his military tribunals.

Sheridan graduated near the bottom of his West Point Class, but his immorality and viciousness propelled him to the rank of Commanding General of the US Army. Today he would delight in the endless US bombings of women and children in seven countries.

Note: The War of Northern Aggression is the South’s description for what those dedicated to preserving the Union called the Civil War. The South’s term seems more correct. The Union forces invaded the South. A Civil War occurs when contending parties engage in violence for control of the government. But the Southern states were not contending for control of the US government; they exercised their right of self-determination and withdrew from the union into which they had voluntarily entered. It was an act of secession based in divergent economic interests between an export agricultural economy in the South and a rising industrial economy in the North in need of protective tariffs. The Southern secession was not an act of war for control over the government in Washington.

Unionists saw secession as a threat to empire. Another country could be a contender for the lands to the West. In his books, The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked, Thomas DiLorenzo makes a case that the War of Northern Aggression was waged in behalf of empire. He quotes Lincoln to the effect that he would preserve slavery if it would preserve the Union, and, if memory serves, DiLorenzo quotes Lincoln’s generals advising him not to throw a bone to abolitionists by saying it was a war to end slavery or much of the Union army would desert.

Today Americans think of themselves as citizens of the United States. But in 1860 people thought of themselves as citizens of states. When Robert E. Lee was offered a top command in the Union army, he declined on the grounds that he could not draw his sword on his native state of Virginia. Lincoln used the war to establish the supremacy of the central government in Washington over the states to which the Constitution had given most functions of government.

The supremacy of the central government that Lincoln established advanced the forces of empire.

The “war to end slavery,” like the Iraq war to protect America from “Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction,” looks more like fictional cover for the employment of violence in pursuit of empire than a moral crusade.