Paul Jacob

Not everything we are taught in school is accurate. In school, as in the papers, when truth and legend vie with each other, too often the legend wins out.

Take Thanksgiving. I was taught that it was all about the Pilgrims, and their bounty coming from helpful Squanto and other Indians. Nice story. Great legend. Racial harmony and a big fat turkey, all in one gulp.

But the truth is that George Washington declared Thanksgiving as a holiday for reasons arising from the birth pangs of the nation. Less Pilgrim, more Constitution. His Thanksgiving dedication was the first presidential proclamation — and one that contains a curious “downer” element often missing in today’s stabs at presidential piety. Washington asked that the people “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions. . . .”

That’s the first Thanksgiving.

The tale of a racially harmonious Pilgrim Thanksgiving was invented, later, by a well-meaning educator. The truth about the Pilgrims’ travails was something I was never taught in school. I was told that the governor of the Plymouth colony was William Bradford, however, and his historical account of the colony was available to me. But I never read it until Project Gutenberg put it just a few clicks away.

William Bradford’s History of “Plimoth Plantation recounts how his fellow Pilgrim settlers established, endured, barely survived, recovered, and eventually thrived in Massachusetts. And it does indeed contain a message of thanksgiving and hope. But it’s not the one I was taught.

By the spring of 1623 — a little over three years after first settlement in Plymouth — things were going badly. Bradford writes (and I update his spelling) of the tragic situation:

[M]any sold away their clothes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to the Indians, and would cut them wood and fetch them water, for a cap full of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both night and day, from the Indians, of which they grievously complained. In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved and died with cold and hunger.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.