Historian Wilfred McClay: Thanksgiving Established Fundamental American Values Centuries Before 1776

A depiction of early settlers of the Plymouth Colony sharing a harvest Thanksgiving meal with members of the local Wampanoag tribe at the Plymouth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1621. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty

Fundamental American values manifested in the story of Thanksgiving centuries before the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, explained Wilfred McClay, author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, in a Tuesday interview on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with hosts Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak.

Mansour invited McClay’s assessment of criticisms of the November holiday among left-wing teachers calling for students to “unlearn” a “feel-good” Thanksgiving “myth.”

McClay said of leftist contempt for Thanksgiving, “I think it’s a reflection of what — for some people — is the obsession with the politicization of all aspects of life, and everything has to be brought into conformity with some kind of ideological worldview.”

LISTEN:

McClay continued, “It’s almost like a kind of revolutionary religion, like in the French Revolution, the way they abolished the calendar, and tried to reinvent civilization from the bottom up. It’s the kind of mentality [against] something that really … is one of most admirable holidays imaginable. Of course, we aren’t the only ones that have Thanksgiving in the world, but it is integral to our essential practises, and it’s an expression of gratitude.”

“It has religious roots,” said McClay of the history of Thanksgiving. “In the 1620s — there’s some debate over when the first Thanksgiving was, whether it was in Virginia or whether it was in Plymouth, but it’s in the 17th century — it had religious overtones, particularly with the Pilgrims in 1621.”

McClay added, “It is an amazing story. Of course they had come in pursuit of freedom to practise their religion and raise their children as they saw fit. They had come from the Netherlands, where religious liberty was available to them, but it was a hard place to live for various reasons, and particularly for their children, to have them grow up not speaking English and all of that, so they got on the Mayflower and came on over.”

“It was a terrible, brutal first winter,” stated McClay. “They suffered from disease and exposure, and about half of them died. Many of them never came off the ship because they saw the landing as so dangerous, but they did have favorable contacts with some of the native tribes, the Patuxet Tribe [and] Squanto, and he taught them how to cultivate corn, what plants to eat and what plants not to eat.”

“[Squanto] was an intermediary,” explained McClay. “He helped [the Pilgrims] form relationships with the Wampanoag Tribe. … They had this celebratory feast in November 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest of corn that Squanto had helped show them [how] to cultivate. So that’s seen as the historical origin of it, and it was, by all accounts, by everything we know about it, and we don’t know a lot.”

McClay remarked, “Puritans were great about keeping journals and diaries. They saw success or failure as evidence of the degree to which they were being faithful to God. … That’s what their settlement was all about. They saw this as a mission, this errand into the wilderness.”

“Ten years later, John Winthrop, who led the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which became Boston — he gave this magnificent speech … where the phrase ‘city on a hill’ comes from — makes it very clear this was a religious enterprise, so they’re grateful to God [for] the success in finally getting through — or at least having the materials to get through — the coming winter,” added McClay.

Fundamental American values were being developed by the early colonists, explained McClay.

“What they did was enact social compact theory that had been sort of kicked around in Europe — especially in Britain — for awhile,” McClay noted. “They created a body politic out of the consent of those who were aboard the ship, and they had the foresight to realize they should [and] could do that … two centuries before the Declaration of Independence, the idea that government is based on the consent of the governed, which of course is one of the fundamental American ideas. So all of this is prefigured by the Mayflower Compact.”

McClay said, “There’s a kind of audacity about these [first colonists] that we miss, I think, in the historical accounts. Their journeys were dangerous. The habitats into which they were coming were brutal, and they lost many lives, and yet they had this sense that …. they were on a mission of God, ‘The eyes of all people are upon us.’ … They were so deeply committed to the vision of what they were doing, and that was the germ of what became, ultimately, a great nation.”

The Puritans sought religious restoration via their settlement enterprise, explained McClay.

“[The Puritans] wanted to just have a faithful remnant of a church that they thought had become corrupt in England, and in Europe, in general,” McClay shared. “What they really wanted to do was recreate what [William Bradford] called, ‘the primitive church,’ and that doesn’t mean people running around with spears and that sort of thing. It meant a church that resembled the church of the time of the apostles and Jesus and immediately after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, the early time of the church, when it was simpler, when you didn’t have a lot of pomp and ceremony and popes and bishops running around in fancy robes and the accumulation of wealth and worldly power.”

McClay added, “It’s proper, I think, that we really trace Thanksgiving more to the Puritans, to a kind of reverent Thanksgiving.”

“[Left-wing criticism of Thanksgiving] doesn’t touch the validity of the holiday for us, because we don’t necessarily ground what we value of Thanksgiving in that historical episode. It’s not like the founding is, where it really matters what the language of the [Declaration of Independence] and Constitution was, and we want to try to stay as close as we can to the original intent of those documents. We don’t have that same kind of relationship to the first Thanksgiving, so I think it’s kind of a phony charge, what it does reflect to me is this pervasive politicization of American life, particularly from a left, radical, critical perspective.”

McClay described Thanksgiving as an “aspirational” holiday.

“A myth, properly understood, is not a falsehood,” McClay said. “We say that we believe all men are created equal. In some literal way, of course that’s not true, so what do we mean? Do we mean all men are created equal in the eyes of God? Maybe, although secular people might object to that formulation, but we certainly mean we have a kind of aspiration towards recognition of — in some ultimate way that’s very hard to define — the equal worth of all individual people. That’s really, I think, fundamentally religious. It’ s hard to imagine that existing out of a Juedo-Christian understanding of human beings.”

McClay went on, “We have this day because we aspire to reconciliation to one another and a recognition of just how profoundly indebted we are to those who came before us, to our parents, to our surrounding society, to our neighbors and friends, that there’s so much that we take for granted every single day.”

“How are you going to go through life?” asked McClay. “How are you going to go through the world? Are you going to go through it thinking that everything is your due and everything you don’t get [means] you’re being cheated by the world? Or do you think, ‘Why do I have something rather than nothing? Isn’t that great?'”

McClay continued, “The Christian view — I’m sweeping widely, here — is that we don’t really deserve anything. Our sinful nature is that we don’t really have anything coming to us, that it’s God’s graciousness that is the source of all these good things that we really don’t deserve.”

“It is a time in which we recognize our own insufficiencies, that we are not islands unto ourselves and that we depend on others, and that there are so many people in our lives to whom we owe profound gratitude, and just the bounty of existence,” determined McClay. “These are all reasons for gratitude.”

McClay contrasted gratitude and ingratitude.

“Gratitude is the proper disposition of a healthy human soul, and it’s the proper disposition of a good citizen in a democratic society,” assessed McClay. “If we lose those things and we become, sort of, brats — and I’m not meaning to say all the radical critiques of American society are bratty, most of them are, but not all of them — brattiness is a kind of ingratitude and a feeling that, ‘I deserve it all and whatever I don’t get is a form of expropriation.’ It’s the seed of other good things, other forms of mutual appreciation and reconciliation that can occur, and to take that away atomizes people.it leaves people without a means to reach out to one another.”

Left-wing critiques of Thanksgiving are generally a part of a broader political campaign to undermine America’s founding, concluded McClay.

Breitbart News Tonight broadcasts live on SiriusXM Patriot channel 125 weeknights from 9:00 p.m. to midnight Eastern or 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Pacific.

Follow Robert Kraychik on Twitter @rkraychik.

.

Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.