In many ways, Thanksgiving is New England’s holiday—one that, to a remarkable degree, inflicts our region’s peculiar ways on the entire country. This year’s crop of cranberries will be eaten from Florida to Guam, and even further afield, in Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops will surely gather around tables groaning with turkey and Yankee-style side dishes.
As they do they’ll be invoking a particular version of America’s past, and a particular set of people, the Pilgrims of Plymouth. They did not actually eat a turkey at the primal feast of 1623, but we still recall them dutifully, conjuring a bit of history that adds to the aura of the day, much like the annual sag of the Detroit Lions or the more buoyant animals in the Macy’s parade.
Today, we think about the Pilgrims almost exclusively because of their epic meal—an ironic way to remember a people who were in some danger of starvation. But there was once another reason Americans remembered the Pilgrims. Politicians came to Plymouth on a pilgrimage of their own, to speak on a now-forgotten winter holiday, Forefathers’ Day.
In an era long before the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty were built, this humble spot on the Atlantic coast symbolized something lofty to Americans. Aspiring leaders turned out in droves to deliver speeches about the Pilgrims. They used the occasion in a familiar way—to look back on the experience of people grateful for what foodstuffs they could gather—but they also did something else. They seized the moment to look ahead, to talk about where America was going.
These speeches were far more than history lectures about the Mayflower settlers; they were a chance to reframe the narrative that the Pilgrims began. An enterprising orator could turn the great progenitors into almost anything—champions of strict religion, or of freedom of conscience; preservers of a reassuring status quo, or radical reformers. Today, it would surely be possible to find bits of both Democratic and Republican DNA in the Pilgrim story—indeed, they bordered on the Tea Party in their flight from all known forms of authority.
Perhaps, this year, we might again consider the Pilgrims in all their shape-shifting capacity. They don’t need to live inside a frozen Thanksgiving dinner package; we can place them up for grabs again, recalling their own impatience with inherited tradition. To bring back these more interesting Pilgrims might give us a chance to look ahead on Thanksgiving, not just back—and add some much-needed seasoning to a familiar feast.
As recounted by the historian John Seelye in “Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock,” many of the venerable traditions we associate with the Pilgrims were invented on the fly. Plymouth Rock was identified as the landing place long after the fact, by an elderly resident who was not alive in 1620. But neither the lack of hard evidence nor the prior existence of settlers at Jamestown impeded a national obsession with the little band of Englishmen and women who came to settle here in 1620. A veritable cult sprang up around them, with help from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose long poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish” investigated their mating rituals, and from New England societies around the country, dedicated to remembering everything local that ever happened.
These feats of memory culminated on one day of the year, but it was not Thanksgiving, which became a federal holiday only during the Civil War. Even before the creation of the United States, the locals in Plymouth were promoting a Forefathers’ Day to remember the Pilgrims, on Dec. 22, the day they landed. In 1769 the holiday organizers ate a meal that was undeniably New England, but not much like today’s Thanksgiving feast—they consumed, according to contemporary records, “a large baked Indian wortleberry pudding, a dish of sauquetach (succotash), a dish of clams, a dish of sea fowl, a dish of cod fish and eels, an apple pie, a course of cranberry tarts and cheese.”
At first, Forefathers’ Day attracted religious leaders. But in 1802 it became a political event, when John Quincy Adams delivered a stirring address that celebrated the Pilgrims as proto-democrats whose Mayflower Compact had laid the basis for the great experiment in republican government to come. His national reputation rose, and soon local politicians began to clamor to deliver the annual speech.
The chance to speak in 1820, on the bicentennial of the landing, was a plum that went to an up-and-coming New Hampshire politician who, reversing Scott Brown’s trajectory, had moved to Massachusetts to advance his career. Daniel Webster gave an address for the ages. Webster came to “The Rock,” as he called it, as if it were the Holy Sepulchre. He saw 1620 as the beginning of an entire civilization to come, and venerated all of it, from the large principles the Pilgrims stood for to the human feet they stood upon. He warmed to the subject as he remembered how miserable they must have been (“we feel the cold which benumbed, and listen to the winds which pierced them”). He admired their respect for property and law, but he also went to some lengths to praise something that sounds radical today—their “comparative equality in regard to wealth.”
One man who heard the speech, George Ticknor, wrote, “I was never so excited by public speaking in my life. Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood.” Webster’s star rose after that speech, and others followed in his wake, eager to launch fireworks of their own over Plymouth Harbor. Non-New Englanders came too, seeing a chance to advance their presidential prospects when New England still represented a sizeable chunk of the electorate.
In 1855, New York’s Senator William Seward arrived on Forefathers’ Day as a leader of the new Republican Party, eager to curry favor among the local grandees. In an age that had grown exhausted by elaborate compromises over slavery—including those of Daniel Webster—he remembered the Pilgrims as implacable reformers who scorned compromise and instead stood up for what they believed in: political equality, liberty of conscience, and “the spirit of freedom, which is the soul of the republic itself.”
New Englanders were impressed. Theodore Parker wrote that Seward had erected “a tower of strength for humanity.” Seward became an important leader of the antislavery cause in the years that followed, and in 1860, when Republicans felt they might win it all, he began the year as the presumptive Republican nominee. But he ran into a wily western politician named Abraham Lincoln, who outmaneuvered him to win the nomination, in part because Lincoln had not gone quite as far into New England-tinged abolitionism as Seward had. In retrospect, Lincoln might have been lucky to have been too obscure to merit an invitation to Forefathers’ Day in the 1850s.
In 1863, when Lincoln decided to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, he turned to Seward—by then his secretary of state—to write up the proclamation with some stirring language. Seward did not disappoint. He expressed gratitude for all the right things, including good harvests and recent victories. But then he went deeper. Strikingly, he recommended that Americans offer not only thanks, but penitence for a long catalog of sins, including “national perverseness and disobedience.” With that note of humility, Seward infused the proclamation with more seriousness than most federal productions achieve. Here was a voice a Pilgrim might have recognized.
Over the years since then, Thanksgiving has morphed into something quite distant from 17th-century Plymouth, or the preoccupations of Civil War America. This year, more than 40 million Americans will clog the highways and skyways on their way to devour 51 million turkeys. An estimated 400,000 cubic feet of helium, from the earth’s limited supply, will be trucked from Kansas to New Jersey and converted to gas, so that it can float the giant inflatable animals of the Macy’s parade in New York. Total US spending on the meal will exceed $2.3 billion, and that is before the $60 billion our countrymen will spend in the orgy of indulgence known as Black Friday. The Pilgrims might appreciate that ominous name—but otherwise, they would find would most of our Thanksgiving traditions utterly bewildering.
No one wants a return to the grim conditions that preceded the first Thanksgiving and made its celebration so urgent. But perhaps, on a day that now defines excess in every category, we might recall some of the humility that any honest history ought to include. The beginning could not have been simpler; a small group of settlers, recently decimated by starvation and disease, possessing few material goods, gathered to eat a meal with indigenous people, in a crude setting close to nature. To restore some of that humility would be very much in line with the way 19th-century speakers asked us to rethink the Pilgrims: We could rightly see it as a time to reflect on our own constantly changing situation, and what lessons we might take from their fixed one. Seward spoke movingly in his proclamation of the need for Thanksgiving celebrants to remember the “sufferers.” One wonders if he was thinking of us.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.