Thanksgiving—A Uniquely American Tradition

Thanksgiving—A Uniquely American Tradition

Kenneth R. Pike
Kenneth R. Pike
13 min read

After decades of faithful repetition, the annual intellectual flagellation of Thanksgiving has become a tradition all its own, as seemingly indispensable as turkey or pumpkin pie. But despite the many things for which we need or ought not be grateful, gratitude is yet a virtue. In the story of the First Thanksgiving we find an example of something for which all Americans can and should be grateful—all the more, perhaps, for its contested role in American civic enterprise. I am speaking, of course, of American liberalism.

Most any American grade-schooler can tell the basics of the tale: one year shy of four centuries past, in November of 1620, a ship of Saints and Strangers arrived at what we now call Cape Cod. Difficulties faced during their trans-Atlantic voyage dissuaded them from pressing on to their intended destination in Virginia; instead, most of the passengers remained aboard the Mayflower while some scouted the territory.

The land was inhabited, albeit sparsely, by natives who made no show of hostility but also evaded any attempts at contact. What the passengers we call “Pilgrims” could not have known was that the area had recently been depopulated by a combination of rampant disease and European slave-taking. The Mayflower’s first scouts found an abandoned Patuxet village and carried back to their ship such provisions as could be scrounged. After a little further exploration, including one encounter with openly hostile natives to the south, the Mayflower arrived at its final destination—Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts—in December of 1620. Of the original 30 crew and 102 passengers, fewer than half would be alive at winter’s end.

A native called Samoset visited Plymouth Colony in March of 1621. He spoke a little English, thanks to fishermen working the coast of what is now Maine, and later introduced Tisquantum (“Squanto”) to the struggling colonists. Tisquantum was of the Patuxet tribe; the abandoned village near Plymouth had been his home, in the years before slavers carried him off to Europe and his family succumbed to disease. His mastery of the English language and knowledge of local agriculture was a boon to the settlers, as was his willingness to connect them with other natives. Among these was the Wampanoag chief Ousamequin, often called Massasoit (likely a title rather than a name). With the support of Tisquantum, Ousamequin, and others, the colonists enjoyed a successful harvest in 1621. They shared the bounty with their new friends in a feast that has come to be known as the First Thanksgiving.

What happened next is less often the province of grade-schoolers and national holidays. Ousamequin wisely parlayed his alliance with the settlers into relief for the Wampanoag from the Narragansett, a neighboring tribe demanding tribute. When the Narragansett threatened Plymouth by delivering arrows wrapped in snakeskin, the colony responded by filling the snakeskin with bullets and sending it back. Ousamequin’s particular friendship with the colonist Edward Winslow is legendary for another episode in which Ousamequin became so sick that his tribe gave him up for dead. Determined to save his friend, Winslow nursed Ousamequin back to health, on some accounts by feeding him chicken soup. Ousamequin remained a close ally of the Plymouth settlers until his death in 1661.

So close were the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims that they eventually intermarried, and often American descendants of Mayflower Pilgrims are also descendants of the Wampanoag. Only a few participate in the preservation of their American ancestors’ language and culture today. But all, including many doubtless unaware that their ancestry is fractionally “American Indian,” are living, breathing proof that it is possible for people from radically different backgrounds not only to co-exist, but to love one another sufficiently to blend both their cultures and their DNA.

The predominantly peaceful coexistence negotiated by Ousamequin was not to last. Several dozen bedraggled European refugees was one thing; the invasion that followed was quite another, as hundreds and then thousands of European settlers arrived on American shores. After Ousamequin’s death, tensions between settlers and natives erupted into King Philip’s War. It was not the first bloody conflict over the influx of European immigrants, and it would be far from the last. Many an American college student can tell the basics of that tale, and each Thanksgiving season, essayists and academics from sea to shining sea can be relied upon to remind us of the darkest and most shameful abuses heaped upon Native Americans over the centuries.

Liberalism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “is more than one thing.” In my youth, I understood “liberal” to mean “Democrat.” But I also read the work of John Locke, the philosopher on whose work the Founding Fathers of the United States often drew for inspiration and rhetoric—a man hailed as the “Father of Liberalism,” though the word would not come into currency until well after his death. The liberalism of John Locke was a liberalism of inalienable rights, a view that government encroachment on personal liberty is justified only, if at all, for the common good and by consent of the governed. His Two Treatises of Government, first published in 1689, might not exist but for an earlier work of political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan. I am assured by some whose views I trust that Hobbism is not liberalism, and yet I remain stubbornly unpersuaded. Hobbes was not a preacher of inalienable rights or limited government, but he was deeply concerned with the possibility of, and conditions for, human coexistence.

The works of these political philosophers explain the liberal accommodation of pluralism: the orderly coexistence (“tolerance”) of a diversity of individual values. Hobbes recognized that coexistence would not be possible without some individual willingness to sacrifice personal liberty, and Locke identified important limits on the extent of such sacrifices. But it should be a point of national pride that a liberal society persisted on American shores decades prior to liberalism’s articulation in the great works of English and French political philosophers. Aboard the Mayflower were Saints and Strangers—Pilgrims seeking to separate themselves from the Church of England, and other passengers with their own, more broadly mercantile goals. The Strangers had signed contracts with the Virginia Company giving its stockholders the right to profit from their labors, but since the voyage ended hundreds of miles north of their intended destination, they no longer found the terms agreeable. The Pilgrims drew up a new document, one that, while reaffirming their loyalty to Christianity and King James, focused primarily on establishing the laws of the colony and binding the Mayflower’s passengers, Saints and Strangers alike, as a unified political entity. Of the “Mayflower Compact” historian Rebecca Fraser has written:

Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch. The colony was a mutual enterprise, not an imperial expedition organized by the Spanish or English governments. In order to survive, it depended on the consent of the colonists themselves. Necessary in order to bind the community together, it was revolutionary by chance.

For Hobbes, the “state of nature” was hypothetical; for the passengers of the Mayflower, it was comparatively literal, and the lives of many proved very short indeed. For Locke, the “consent of the governed” was not necessarily explicit, but several passengers of the Mayflower provided it in the form of a personal signature on a written pact. The Mayflower Compact, like the settlers’ eventual alliance with the Wampanoag, was admittedly taken up in extremis, where experimental arrangements and unlikely alliances often form. But by almost any measure, the experiment was a success: the alliance survived for decades.

In the spirit of learning from history and, ideally, not repeating it, we do well to remember such conflict and oppression as both preceded and followed the Wampanoag-Pilgrims’ proto-liberalism. We are not always as good at peaceful coexistence as we should be. But there is much to be said for answering failure by celebrating success, and Thanksgiving celebrates precisely that: a religiously, racially, linguistically diverse group of individuals finding ways to live together peacefully, in spite of their differences. The Wampanoag and the Plymouth Colonists didn’t just practice liberalism before it was popular, they practiced liberalism before it was invented, at least by the standards of anglophone political philosophy. It seems an achievement worth celebrating, and an example for which we can all be grateful.

Filmmaker (and Daily Wire COO) Jeremy Boreing recently opined that “what American conservatives want to conserve is American liberalism.” This created something of a stir; while liberal-conservatives and conservative-liberals appear in various parliamentary guises across the pond, we Americans have for some time viewed liberalism and conservatism as oil and water. It would be difficult to furnish a comprehensive account as to why, but Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” gets us most of the way there. If we gloss liberalism as the Robespierrean pursuit of coexistence through liberty, fraternity, and equality, twentieth century American “conservatives” simply emphasized fraternity while their “Liberal” counterparts focused on equality. The two were comparatively—if, inevitably, imperfectly—united against the encroachment of illiberal ideologies, most often in the shape of revolutionary attempts to reform bedrock social institutions ranging from nuclear families to capitalist economies. High-profile collapses of illiberal governments around the globe made the twentieth century a steady stream of reassurance that, regardless of one’s particular political leanings, Western liberalism was unassailable. Francis Fukuyama declared it the “end of history,” and he wasn’t the only one to notice. In what reads as something of a break-up letter to the Republican Party, ten years ago Richard Posner wrote:

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement. . . . as conservatism grew strident and populist.

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of “originalism,” the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded.

Posner is the father of “Law and Economics,” a market-oriented jurisprudence that competes for conservative attention with the textualism and originalism typically associated with jurists like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Espousing in 2009 “no desire for other than incremental changes” is surely a liberal conservatism (or vice versa), which may be why Posner is sometimes classed as a “neoliberal”—a label you might see slapped onto a Clinton Democrat as readily as a Reagan Republican. The narcissism of small differences demands conflict, so a synthesized position like Posner’s is anathema to the polarized political struggle that has increasingly been a hallmark of American civic discourse. As centrists hew to the project of pluralism and coexistence, liberalism itself, rather than its progressive or conservative flavors, becomes the focus of dispute. Illiberalism returns for a rematch.

Insofar as liberalism is “more than one thing,” it can be challenging to say what liberalism is not. But to the same extent that American liberalism has been the mutual enterprise of free individuals, its opposition has generally manifested as collectivism. This is not to suggest that liberalism cannot be collective. We could, for example, live out our lives in linguistically and ethnically homogeneous enclaves, “coexisting” in economically allied clusters without blending our cultures and identities—separate, we might say, but equal. Indeed, the liberalism of the European Union roughly meets this description, despite some recent trends in migration and demographics. But the treatment of identity groups, rather than individuals, as the wellspring of political authority and the smallest unit of legitimate state concern is something Americans have historically rejected, for example by abandoning the Articles of Confederation, or later by fighting the Civil War. Identity liberalism cannot be American liberalism; the preamble to the U.S. Constitution does not begin, “We, the Religions” or “We, the Races.” Crucially, it does not even begin, “We, the States.” Following the example set by the Mayflower Compact, American jurisprudence has long recognized that political authority is not negotiated between classes or communities, but between individuals. The United States of America is not a coalition of otherwise discrete communities. It is “We, the People.”

Naturally, we, the people, belong as individuals to many communities. Politically, we are citizens of the states as well as the nation where we reside, to say nothing of our partisan commitments. Most of us belong to a religious community, but even the irreligious often band together over disbelief. We are students and alumni; we play and cheer for athletic teams; in many cases we identify with an employer. We are sometimes united by our experiences of race, sex, or ethnicity. The Information Age has made it possible to connect with communities of even more esoteric interest, carrying on transnational conversations in dizzying array. But rapid iteration in the marketplace of ideas has given rise to memetic superweapons; ideas spread like viruses, while practices of intellectual inoculation and mental hygienics develop only too slowly in response. Of these, perhaps the single most dangerous, deviant, and degenerate is this: That we are better off alone.

The “alone” is relative. For some, the “we” is royal and the “alone,” literal: the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, wherein adults withdraw so far from society that they never leave their rooms, is not unique to Japan. For others, increasingly, the “we” is collective: ethnonationalism and cancel culture make great grist for horseshoe theorists, but “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is the same mistake in any guise. It is true that some people are so harmful to society that they must be removed from it, but even that process was sufficiently worrisome to early American liberals that much of the Constitution is concerned with limiting the ostracism of individuals through criminal process. Today, it is routine for some of our most important representatives in public discourse—politicians and journalists—to dismiss vast swathes of the populace as fundamentally deplorable, and not just for clinging to their guns or bibles.

Consider a recent New York Times editorial in which Ernest Owens accused Barack Obama of being “more upset by online criticism than . . . by injustice,” because his criticism of cancel culture was “very boomer.” The idea that the former President is more upset by online criticism than by injustice is absurd. Given his penchant for identity politics, some might well find Obama’s liberalism wanting, but to dismiss the input of an accomplished statesman with an extended indulgence in the “OK, Boomer” meme is more than an attack on Obama; it is an endorsement of the idea that young people are better off without old people. I do not begrudge the New York Times its efforts to remain relevant by appealing to young adults, but I would be happier if they did so without subtly endorsing the illiberal exclusion of whole demographics from the process of public reason.

For one thing that ties Boreing, Posner, and Obama together is the experience of publicly espousing liberalism in a way that drew criticism from erstwhile political allies. In growing circles to the left as well as the right, liberalism has fallen into disrepute. Partisan victories take priority over principled governance while blame-casting recriminations serve only to perpetuate the problem. We could point fingers at outrage merchants in the media, but they’re mostly following the incentives laid out for them. We could say there are too many commentators and not enough statesmen—Anthony Kronman’s The Lost Lawyer articulated this problem in 1993—but where are we going to find statesmen at this hour? No, we, the people, have largely got ourselves into this mess, and though it may require some uncomfortable sacrifices, some unconventional alliances, and even, perhaps, some eating of crow along with our Thanksgiving turkey, we, the people, are going to have to find a way out of it.

If you get the impression that I want conservatives to “take back” the message and moniker of liberalism, then you have misunderstood only slightly. Idiomatically, I do not think we can “take back” what is being actively thrust into our hands. We can be slow to recognize what’s happening, however: that the “far Left” and the “far Right” are built on the same philosophy, namely, that the polis should be more concerned with the status of identity groups than with the rights and responsibilities of individuals. The only substantive disagreement at the extremes of the American political spectrum is which groups to empower, and which individuals to ostracize. History teaches us that this is the sure road to tyranny, but our youngest voters never lived in the twentieth century, and history’s harshest lessons are easily forgotten in times of peace and plenty. The evolving polarity of American politics is away from a tale of two liberalisms, toward something rather more banal: the race to accumulate sufficient power for oneself and one’s allies that one’s ideological opponents can be safely exiled, exterminated, or otherwise excluded from consideration. To that end, any argument is treated as justified. In such struggles, consistency and fairness are for friends; the only acceptable act from an enemy is capitulation, or conversion. Such is the illiberalism on offer today.

If you are instead anxious to remind me that the United States of America has already and often endured periods of shameful illiberalism, whether in connection with American natives, African slaves, women, immigrants Irish, German, Mormon, Muslim, Chinese, Japanese, or otherwise, the descendants of African slaves, the list goes on—I can only protest my awareness. But surely the appropriate response is to do better, not to give up on the liberal ideals of pluralism and coexistence by retreating into racial or ideological enclaves and sinking into the warm, welcoming embrace of monoculture. Finding ways to coexist is challenging, in part because the better we are at coexisting, the more diversity we attract, and the more diversity we attract, the more difficult it becomes to persuasively accommodate all competing values. Without diminishing the importance of their accomplishment, it must be admitted that finding ways for the Wampanoag to coexist with a few dozen Pilgrims was, logistically, many orders of magnitude simpler than accomplishing the same with 350 million Americans in the twenty-first century. Even so, I think we should try.

Nothing I’ve written here amounts to an argument for liberalism. Liberalism does seem preferable to any alternative I’ve encountered, but that’s not the case I’m making now. What I make here is a naked appeal to American tradition—but if anyone is equipped to grasp the value of appeals to tradition, it is surely the American conservative. It is my plea that we not abandon the experiment begun in Plymouth by the last scion of the Patuxet and the famed Massasoit of the Wampanoag. These men and their contemporaries decided to aid and befriend the struggling Pilgrims in spite of a history that arguably recommended otherwise, and in so doing became the first American liberals—though the word would not come into currency until well after their deaths. Often we’ve followed their example poorly, and sometimes not at all, but along the way we’ve also learned. It is easy to make the mistake of nursing grudges, exaggerating harms, and pursuing apparent political victory at any price; we should take the harder road. If we are to successfully conserve American liberalism in the face of rising factionalism, then we are each going to have to make common cause with a lot of people who do not look, think, speak, or believe quite as we do—but with whom we can reason in pursuit of the mutual project of peaceful coexistence. May the spirits of our ancestors, literal or figurative, guide us on that path, is my Thanksgiving prayer for the future of uniquely American liberalism.


Kenneth R. Pike

Kenneth R. Pike is an assistant professor of Philosophy and Law at the Florida Institute of Technology. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.