On Thanksgiving, Americans traditionally have family dinners, typically with turkey and lavish side dishes and desserts. We watch parades and football games. We remember times gone by. We talk, or argue, about politics, culture, and values. We say that we do all this as a means of somehow giving thanks. But how do lavish feasts and parties in the wealthiest, most overfed nation on Earth give thanks to anyone? Whom are we thanking, and for what?
Thanksgivings are a normal part of Christian societies, and while not legislated into permanent existence in the United States until 1863, America had seen countless Thanksgivings before that, whereby Americans gave thanks to their God for the bounties of the earth and of their work. The traditional “First Thanksgiving” was held by English Dissenters of the Plymouth Colony in 1621. Those colonists who had lived through the first winter celebrated their survival and the success of their first harvest. Their survival and their harvest success were both due in part to help from the local Wampanoags under under Massasoit, who provided food and helped teach corn cultivation. The English Dissenters were refugees from the violent religious warfare that ripped through Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; and these refugees with a completely alien religion, language, ethnicity, and political values were nonetheless welcomed and given welfare by the Americans already here. For that, and for their survival of the first year’s trial in their newly adopted home, the colonists gave thanks to their God.
A decade later, John Winthrop (later the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) delivered his “Modell of Christian Charitie.” Winthrop articulated a vision of a new America to come. He expresses essentially the sentiment of “there but for the grace of God,” arguing that we are all born into circumstances at God’s pleasure. The rich and poor alike, Winthrop asserts, have God to credit with their status (not their own labors or failures); and those born into – and escaping from – areas of terror and violence are likewise responsible only for their own agency in escaping their condition, not for the violence from which they strive to escape. This argument played successfully with the various schools of English Christian immigrants in America, who sought refuge from the horrific religious and political turbulence tearing Europe apart. However, those surviving the journey (itself a dangerous ordeal), and those fewer who survived their first hungry winters, gave thanks for making it through the trials of their odyssey. Winthrop’s City on a Hill was built by the refugees who were wise enough to save themselves, strong enough to survive cold and hunger, and humble enough to accept a helping hand from an alien people.
Since the founding of our City on a Hill, the United States has been a nation of refugees and immigrants, and of people brought here in chains. All of these people were taken into an alien land, society, and culture. Refugees, immigrants, slaves, and servants are who we are, and are who built this country. Refugees seeking to escape violence, and immigrants seeking a better life created the new America; and the new America was built into a giant through slavery and forced labor. While slaves built a massive cotton economy in the south, northern free workers (many of them recently arrived immigrants and refugees from famines and revolutions and turbulence in Europe and elsewhere) built mills, factories, roads, bridges, and railroads. Slave-masters and company bosses both fought to keep their labor forces in chains, with blood spilt south and north alike by their efforts. Banks and corporations were built by a government providing public resources and revenues to men of wealth, many of them going bankrupt despite these gifts and despite underpaying their workers, through sheer mismanagement. Slave labor, and immigrants and refugees, built our cities and our farms; our infrastructure and institutions; our massive economy, our social system, and our political values. Slaves, immigrants, and refugees are what we Americans are.
It is for the labor of those who came before us that we owe our wealth, our education, our security, and all else that we have. It is for their labors we must give thanks, and it is for the gifts enabled by their labors that we owe a great debt. We cannot repay that debt to slaves whipped to death, or to workers cut down by strikebreakers. We cannot repay the debt to Native Americans killed by diseases brought to them by Europeans, or pushed off their lands later by Europeans or white Americans. We cannot repay the debt to those no longer with us. But the debt remains, and must be repaid, as a cost of maintaining our City on a Hill. Our thanks is a beginning, but is not enough. The debt can only be paid, and our thanks can only be truly given, by continuing to build the City our predecessors created. The debt is paid, our thanks given, by welcoming new refugees into our land as new Americans, just as our Native American forebearers did – taking in a people looking, sounding, and thinking differently, because they need our help. The debt is paid, our thanks given, by opening our borders to immigrants. The debt is paid, our thanks given, by helping the sick and poor and hungry. The debt is paid, our thanks given, by honoring descendants of slaves and free workers alike, making sure these people whose ancestors died building our nation have every opportunity to reap from the seeds sown by their fathers and mothers. It is for the sacrifice and labor and strength; for the blood, sweat and tears; for both the liberties and personal agency as well as for the sacrifice and suffering of those who built this nation that we give thanks. But just cutting a turkey, or watching the Lions lose, does not give thanks. Building the City on a Hill, welcoming strangers and foreigners, using our wealth to fulfill the City’s mission by caring for our needy, and eradicating poverty and social inequality, are the only means our nation has, to give thanks and repay the debts incurred for our fortunes.
On Thanksgiving, enjoy your bounties, and enjoy your friends and family. These have been given to us by those gone before us. But remember that our bounties came at a cost which must be repaid. And the repayment of that debt is simple to understand – we must fight to maintain and to build our City on a Hill, and welcome those coming to our nation as newfound builders and new celebrants of our freedoms and our wealth. This is a positive feature of our nation; that we can move forward and achieve even more, but only if we repay those debts from the past. Repay them, give thanks, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
[image used, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914), found on Wikipedia.]