Americans are confused about Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims whose Plymouth feast generates the story are remembered as pioneers of freedom of conscience, brave souls who crossed an ocean for the sake of religious liberty. Not quite.
The November feast, with turkeys and cranberries, is a creation myth, starring Miles Standish, William Bradford, and the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. But the figure who most powerfully created American consciousness, coming a little later, was one who risked everything to rebel against what was begun in Plymouth. What we celebrate on Thanksgiving isn’t the theocracy of Massachusetts, but the ideas of Roger Williams, a Puritan who defended the right, one could say, to be religiously impure.