Wednesday on his nationally syndicated radio show, conservative talker Rush Limbaugh told what he has labeled the “true story of Thanksgiving” to his listeners, an annual tradition of his that was originally detailed in a passage of his 1992 book “See, I Told You So.”
According to Limbaugh, the story had been mischaracterized over the years, and the real success story of the Pilgrims stems from their rejection of socialism.
Now, normally, ladies and gentlemen, I save the annual reading of the true story of Thanksgiving from my second book, See, I Told You So, to close the end of the third hour of the program today. I have found that I become so expansive and I begin to ad-lib and add various observations to the reading that I find myself in a hurried state trying to finish it. So I think I’m going to open this hour with the reading of the Real Story of Thanksgiving. It’s important to do it each and every year.
When I discovered what it was when writing the book, I learned that even I as a young boy had not been told the entire truth of the first Thanksgiving, and the story I was told was somewhat mild. Over the years, it got worse and worse and worse. I could probably sum it up by saying that the story of Thanksgiving as generally taught in the American public school system was that a bunch of haggard people from Britain arrived at a desolate spot at a very cold time of the year and didn’t know what the hell they were doing and didn’t know where they were and had no idea how to live.
And then they met some Indians, some Native Americans, and the Indians saved them. The Indians showed them how to farm. The Indians showed them how to make warm coats. The Indians showed them how to make pumpkins and carve them. The Indians showed them how to go out and kill turkey — and, if it weren’t for the Indians, the Pilgrims would have starved, and there never would have been an America, and then the Indians would have never been overrun, and then there wouldn’t be any Indian casinos.
Well, there might have still have been an Indian casino, but there would not have been an America. Therefore, we owe Indians everything. That’s essentially the story of Thanksgiving that people were taught. I’m exaggerating a bit. But that’s how it was taught. Even I, as I say, was taught a mild version of that, and it is nowhere near the truth. For the truth, I found the journals of William Bradford, who was the original governor of the original Plymouth plantation, and one of the primary movers and shakers of putting together the journey on the Mayflower that brought these Pilgrims to the New World.
So I wrote about it in my second book called See, I Told You So in Chapter 6: “Dead White Guys or What the History Books Never Told You, The True Story of Thanksgiving.” If I have time, I’m also gonna share with you excerpts of George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation. If you’re unfamiliar with that, it will startle you. “The story of the Pilgrims begins in the early part of the seventeenth century,” the late 1600s.
“The Church of England under King James I was persecuting anyone and everyone who did not recognize its absolute civil and spiritual authority. Those who challenged ecclesiastical authority [of the Church of England] and those who believed strongly in freedom of worship were … imprisoned, and sometimes executed for their [heresy]. A group of separatists” people who wanted no part of that in England “first fled to Holland and established a community.
“After eleven years,” in Holland, “about forty of them agreed to make a perilous journey to” what was then called “the New World, where they would certainly face hardships,” and experiences that none of them could foresee. But to them it was worth the try because for them the objective was to “live and worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences,” their beliefs and their desires. “On August 1, 1620, the Mayflower set sail.
“It carried a total of 102 passengers,” not all of them Pilgrims, “including forty Pilgrims led by William Bradford. On the journey, Bradford set up an agreement, a contract,” for all the Pilgrims to agree to and sign, “that established just and equal laws for all [forty Pilgrims] of the new community…” It didn’t matter what their religious beliefs were. None of that mattered. They just set up a contractual agreement that dictated behavior and a number of other things. Now, where did the ideas…? This is the Mayflower Compact, by the way, is what it was called.
“Where did the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Mayflower Compact come from? From the Bible. The Pilgrims were a people completely steeped in the lessons of the” Bible, both “Old and New Testaments.” It was the reason they lived: To read it, to study it, to practice it. “They looked to the ancient Israelites for their example. And, because of the biblical precedents set forth in Scripture,” this is all according to Bradford’s journal, “they never doubted that their experiment would work.” They were supremely confident that their objective would occur.
But everybody knows “this was no pleasure cruise.” It was long. It was arduous. There were the usual bad relationships and problems on board this tiny ship with 102 people. But they made it. They made it in ways that people would not travel today. They had no other choice. Think of the primitive forms of navigation, lack of knowledge of any upcoming weather or condition of the seas. Yet they did it, “[a]nd when the Pilgrims landed in New England in November, they found, according to Bradford’s detailed journal,” nothing “a cold, barren, desolate,” unsettled, “wilderness.
“There were no friends to greet them, he wrote.” There was nobody to greet them. “There were no houses…” There was no shelter whatsoever, other than the trees. There was nothing that could be considered creature comforts whatsoever. There were no friends. There were no hotels. There were no bathrooms. There was no place “they could refresh themselves. And the sacrifice they had made for freedom was just beginning.” They arrived at the onset of winter. Half of them, half of the first 40, “including Bradford’s own wife — died of either starvation, sickness or exposure.”
No houses, no hotels, no Safeway, no American Express. Nothing. They endured the winter as best they could. “When spring finally came, Indians,” the Native American, did welcome them, and “taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod and skin beavers for coats. Life improved for the Pilgrims, but they” were nowhere near prosperity. “This is important to understand because this is where modern American history lessons often end.”
This is what the traditional Thanksgiving story is. The Pilgrims arrived, barely made it through the winter. Indians befriended them and saved them — and today, to this day, we give thanks to the Indians for having saved the Pilgrims. This could not be further from the truth. This is not to diminish the assistance, but this is not what Thanksgiving is about. “Thanksgiving is actually explained in some textbooks as a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives,” but that’s not what it was.
“Thanksgiving, in truth, my friends, is “a devout expression of gratitude” to God for their survival, which depending on a whole lot of things after they arrived — a whole lot of things besides assistance by the Indians. “Here is the part that has been omitted: The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into,” the Mayflower Compact, “with their merchant-sponsors in London…” They had no money. They had to have people help them here.
“The original contract … called for everything they produced to go into a common store,” a common account, “and each member of the community was entitled to one common share.” In other words, everybody got the same as everyone else. That’s the way it was set up. It was fairness, and it was equality. “All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community,” not to the people personally. “They were going to distribute it equally. All of the land they cleared… Nobody owned anything.
“They just had a share in it. It was a commune,” pure and simple. “It was the forerunner to the communes we saw in the ’60s and ’70s out in California — and it was complete with organic vegetables, by the way. Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this” wasn’t working. This was collectivism. Nobody had any more than anybody else, nobody had any less, but that did not lead to prosperity. It never does.
So after a while, realizing that there was nothing but stagnation going on, “Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage,” and whatever they produced was theirs — and, in an early fashion, this unleashed “the power of the marketplace. Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn’t work!” You know why it didn’t work?
When everybody was entitled to the same, you have slackers. Slackers didn’t do their share, they didn’t contribute their share, but they got the same amount as everybody else. It led to recriminations and jealousies and anger. Bradford had to change it, and he did. “What Bradford…” It’s all in his journal. “What Bradford and his community found was that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation,” i.e., keep a majority of what they produced or earned.
“But while most of the rest of the world has been experimenting with socialism for well over a hundred years — trying to refine it, perfect it, and re-invent it — the Pilgrims” learned in less than a year that it was a failure. “What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild’s history lesson. If it were, we might prevent much needless suffering in the future.” He wrote, “‘The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years…that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing — as if they were wiser than God. …
“‘For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service” didn’t. They waited. They didn’t want to produce for other men’s wives and children what other men should have been providing, and eventually this “was thought injustice.” Why should you work for other people when you can’t work for yourself?
What’s the point? “The Pilgrims found that people could not be expected to do their best work without incentive. So what did [they] try next? They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the … principle of private property. Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market” whatever they produced, able to sell — for whatever price they could get — their crops and their products. What do you think the result was?
“‘This had very good success,’ wrote Bradford, ‘for it made all hands industrious,” which means everybody got off their duffs and started working. “‘[M]uch more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.’” This is when they first began to experience prosperity, and it is for this discovery… By the way, it was at this point that they welcomed the Indians in, because there was so much production after that first barren winter of arrival — not knowing anything, not having anything.
Trying everybody getting fair treatment didn’t work. When they unleashed the incentives (stated simply as you get to keep what you produce), it turned everybody into — compared to the past — mass producers. They had so much more than they needed that they actually had a gratitude winter with the Indians where all of this bounty was shared, and the original Thanksgiving was to give thanks to God for the enlightenment and the courage and the fortitude to withstand all of the hardship and to endure all of the hassles and the problems to finally see through it and prosper.
“So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London” and Holland who had sponsored their trip. “[T]he success and prosperity of the Plymouth settlement attracted more Europeans and began what came to be known as the ‘Great Puritan Migration.’” It was the word of success and prosperity among the original Pilgrim arrivals that spread to the New World and spawned to massive additional trips to the New World.
You could reduce it to say it was capitalism versus socialism, which it was. But that would be to undersell — underemphasize what really has happened. A people who had undying faith in God survived circumstances that they never knew they were going to face and ultimately prospered — and, at the end of it all, were still able to practice their religion as they chose who was the original reason for their trip in the first place. And for all of that, they were eternally thankful. That is the story of Thanksgiving.