The Thanksgiving holiday, which commemorates one part of the Pilgrim story, remains the favorite holiday for many Americans. And for good reasons beyond just enjoying a feast.
Our nation is passing throough troubled times; it's absolutely worth revisiting the Pilgrim’s five significant achievements, which created the seminal story of America, revealing remarkable insight into who we are and the qualities of character we need to overcome our contemporary challenges.
First, of the many groups of settlers who came to America, only the Pilgrims were singularly motivated by a spiritual quest for religious freedom — one that had its origins in the Protestant Reformation a century before.
The Pilgrims viewed their voyage to the New World as a flight from tyranny to freedom, comparing themselves to God’s chosen people — the Israelites — who overcame slavery and abuse in Egypt to get to the Promised Land.
Similar to the Israelite’s exodus, the Pilgrims had left what they saw as oppressive and morally corrupt authorities in Great Britain and Europe, to create a new life in America.
Thanksgiving could be thought of as the holiday making other American holidays possible.
Without the Pilgrims' courage; absolute faith in their cause and calling; and a willingness to sacrifice — risking everything — they never would have embarked on the 94-foot Mayflower — a ship of questionable seaworthiness.
Were it not for their faith and determination to find freedom of conscience and live according to their Biblical beliefs there may never have been a Fourth of July, or other subsequent American holidays.
The Mayflower would be blown-off course from its intended destination of the established Virginia Colony territory, to the wilds of Cape Cod.
Thus, the Pilgrims knew not where they were nor how to proceed. They desperately needed a suitable place with fresh water and fertile soil to establish a new and independent settlement.
The secular Mayflower passengers ultimately became not only restless, they were insolent also. It's at this point in time, the Pilgrims made their second major achievement shaping the future of what would be America.
Pilgrim leaders John Carver, William Bradford, and William Brewster recognized that Mayflower passengers, diverse as they were, needed to maintain unity to survive in a potentially inhospitable environment.
So, they drafted a governing document acceptable to both their Christian brethren and the secular crewman, and merchant adventurers.
The resultant "Mayflower Compact," provided for peace, security, and equality for everyone in their anticipated settlement.
With every man aboard signing the Mayflower Compact the Pilgrims established the foundation for democratic self-government based on the will of people for the first time.
The Compact laid the cornerstone for our U.S. Constitution.
While all the Pilgrims survived the squalid and cramped ship quarters during the dangerous crossing, once the Mayflower’s passengers settled in "New Plymouth," Massachusetts in December of 1620, they encountered a devastating winter, with illness afflicting most and over half the Pilgrims dying, including four families.
The fate of the Pilgrim colonists could have been more difficult had they not settled where they did, adjacent to friendly natives of the Pokanoket Indian village that were part of the Wampanoag tribe.
And had they not befriended two who providentially could speak broken English — Squanto and Samoset — perhaps none would have survived.
Squanto and his fellow native tribesmen would teach the Pilgrims survival skills: hunting, fishing, crop planting — of various vegetables — varieties unknown to the Englishmen.
The Pilgrims’ third major achievement was the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty signed on April 1, 1621, by Massasoit and Plymouth colony leaders.
It was a remarkable accomplishment, lasting more than 50 years — longer than subsequent peace treaties made by other colonizing groups with native Indian tribes.
The fact that there were bloody conflicts between other colonists and tribes, such as in the Pequot War fought in Connecticut in 1636-1637, makes the Pilgrims stand out.
They succeeded in maintaining the longest-lasting and most equitable peace between natives and immigrants in our country's history.
In spite of learning from the native Indians how to plant, cultivate and harvest new crops in their first year, the Pilgrims complied with their sponsoring Virginia Company charter that called for settlement farmland to be owned and worked communally and for harvests to be equally shared.
But, this socialist common property approach created disincentives to work. William Bradford recalled, "slackers showed up late for work. . . everybody was happy to claim their equal share . . . and production only shrank."
Although no one is certain of the exact date of the first Thanksgiving, we know it was a Pilgrim initiative, celebrated in November 1621 to give thanks to God for their survival, and for the first meager harvest.
When Massasoit was invited to join the Pilgrims, it was assumed that he wouldn’t bring more guests than the 50-odd Pilgrim survivor hosts.
Massasoit arrived with twice that number, well-stocked with food, fowl, and game of all kinds — inclusive of five deer.
The first Thanksgiving celebration would last three days, punctuated by Indian song, games and dance, Pilgrim prayers and even a military parade by Myles Standish.
The Pilgrims fourth major achievement was the rejection socialism and the adoption of private enterprise. After the meager Thanksgiving harvest, the second season of collective farming and distribution proved equally disappointing.
Gov. Bradford had seen enough, recording that the system "was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort."
So, before the 1623 season he scrapped socialist farming and replaced it with private ownership of land for each family.
As a result of becoming responsible for their own welfare and gaining freedom to choose what to grow for consumption or trade, Pilgrim productivity surged.
The fifth factor that distinguished the Pilgrims was their model relational behavior.
While tolerance enabled them to keep relative harmony within their diverse community, they also looked outwardly to serve and help others.
In March of 1623, Massasoit was on the brink of death from an unknown illness.
Senior Pilgrim elder Edward Winslow immediately set out on a 40-mile journey to administer medicinal broth, natural herbs, and prayers to Massasoit.
Astonishingly, he made a full recovery, expressing his gratitude for the help he recevied.
The Pilgrims’ achievements and the qualities of character that made them exemplary are as relevant today as ever.
A contemporary Thanksgiving makeover might include: rekindling a quest for adventure; developing the faith to hold on to a vision of a promised land no matter what; mustering the courage to go against the crowd and defend the truth; gaining the resolve to endure hardship; revitalizing respect for and tolerance of people of different beliefs; rejuvenating a joyful willingness to sacrifice for others; and renewing the predisposition to extend love, assistance and gratitude at every appropriate opportunity.
Happy Thankgiving to all!
Scott S. Powell, senior fellow at Discovery Institute, is the author of "Rediscovering America," a new release in the history genre. You may reach him at [email protected] Read Scott S. Powell's Reports — More Here.
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