Thanksgiving is almost upon us. How do you talk about it with your children?
Many of us learned a story about Pilgrims and Indians sharing a happy meal of New World foods — turkey and cranberries and pumpkins. If we got into the details, we learned the difference between the Puritans and the Pilgrims and knew that the indigenous people involved were the Wampanoag. We probably didn’t learn that their leader, Massasoit, was the father of Metacom, who would mount a war against the English colonists that included attacks on more than half of their towns. When he was killed by the colonists, his head was stuck on a pike in Plymouth and remained there for 20 years, a warning sign to other indigenous people who would rise against white colonists.
Yeah, that part doesn’t get taught very much.
Thanksgiving isn’t really about colonists and native Americans, at least not in that way. In our family, Thanksgiving hasn’t focused on that singular New England feast but a different historical event: the Civil War.
Lincoln was the president who gave us Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and he declared the holiday — the last Thursday of November* — in October 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. His Thanksgiving Proclamation begins this way:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
That’s nice, isn’t it? Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday, celebrating agricultural abundance, just like harvest holidays around the globe remind people to look to the supernatural forces that control their health and prosperity.
Even in the midst of the Civil War, he writes, things aren’t so bad:
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
No other nation has taken advantage of our distraction in war to attack us, there was limited civil unrest (Sure, Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus, but still . . . ), and the Union was winning. Also on the plus side of things:
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
In other words, agriculture, mining, and commerce were strong. Colonization — which both North and South had pushed as a way to either expand slavery or bring more non-slave states into the Union — was continuing, and the population of Americans ready to settle the West was increasing. In Lincoln’s mind, one of the things Americans had to be grateful for was westward expansion and the colonization of indigenous lands. In 1862, Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act into law, incentivizing the movement west of eastern farmers and the migration of European farmers, including many Mennonites. The Homestead Act had been opposed by Southerners, who feared agricultural competition and thus a threat to their system of slavery. But the agricultural system that the Homestead Act supported was also racist: along with the Dawes Act, it transferred the majority of First Nation lands to white owners. This was, for Lincoln, an “increase of freedom.”
Lincoln credited these advances not to cheap land that could be opened for colonization now that Southern lawmakers were out of the way but to God, who was using war to punish Americans for our sin of slavery but also loved us enough to allow our population to expand:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
For this reason, a holiday thanking God for our fortune was appropriate:
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
But, also, our feast should be accompanied by repentance for our obvious sins, with the hope that we could move on to the end of the war and the restoration of peace:
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In other words, Thanksgiving was a holiday Lincoln invented to celebrate the westward expansion that would create the economic pressure to end slavery and an effort to invoke religion to justify the violence of the war (God’s punishment for our sins) and frame a restoration of the Union as God’s goal.
This makes sense coming from Lincoln, who has been described as holding a “Calvinized Deism” perspective. Despite being a bit of a religious skeptic, Lincoln spoke in ways that galvanized Northern Protestants — key actors in the war effort. His Thanksgiving Proclamation wasn’t a theological statement so much as a political one, as much about slavery as it was about Indian removal.
So, do Indians matter in Thanksgiving? Absolutely, and if you haven’t told your children the story of Metacom’s War — the bloodiest war in American history — Thanksgiving is a good opportunity to do it. But the Chippewa, Sioux, Blackfeet, Oto, Pawnee, Omaha, Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho and the descendants of African slaves also matter to our Thanksgiving history.
*FDR moved it up, amid much criticism, to the third Thursday of the month. Why? Because we were in a recession, and retailers hoped that expanding the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas would increase the amount of money shoppers spent for the holidays. So, in other words, this has always been kind of a baloney holiday.
Rebecca Barrett-Fox is assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University and blogs with Joel Mathis at sixoh6.com, where this post originally appeared.
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