Tea Party’s Original Thanksgiving Lesson: Socialism Failed



I don’t know why. For whatever reason, tonight I found myself revisiting the same old rubbish from the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh about “The Great Thanksgiving Day Hoax” (via Mises) about how the original Pilgrim Thanksgiving is all about how socialism failed. I’m not going to dredge up a bunch of links and clips–they’re all over the place this week and are easy to find, and all point to the same story refabricating the meaning of the Pilgrims early days. You all can argue about the meaning of Thanksgiving in the comments if you choose. I’m not going there. Instead, I went searching for some counter-point and to try and learn something.

So, I’m just going to offer up this great political cartoon (which sums up my feelings nicely) from Thomas Nast (a “radical republican”) published in 1869 in Harper’s Weekly. The uber-right can go off on their ideologizing of the meaning of Thanksgiving. But Nash ties into the sentiment about how Thanksgiving is all about us being a melting pot of peoples, ideas, and customs. His was a progressive vision that has become lost in the right’s quest for white nationalism and purist economic ideology. Don’t forget to click on the comic to see the enlarged version, and some commentary from the NY Times and HarpWeek.

  1. Pancho

    The Pilgrims Were … Socialists?
    NYT – Nov. 20, 2010

    Ah, Thanksgiving. A celebration regardless of creed; a time for all Americans to come together after a divisive election year.

    But why take a holiday from argument? In these fractious times, even the meaning of Thanksgiving is subject to political debate.

    Forget what you learned about the first Thanksgiving being a celebration of a bountiful harvest, or an expression of gratitude to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through those harsh first months in an unfamiliar land. In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

    Historians quibble with this interpretation. But the story, related by libertarians and conservatives for years, has taken on new life over the last year among Tea Party audiences, who revere early American history, and hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States.

    It has made Thanksgiving another proxy in the debate over health care and entitlement spending, and placed it alongside the New Deal and the Constitution on the platter of historical items picked apart by competing narratives.

    There are other debates about Thanksgiving — whether the first was in Jamestown, Va., or Plymouth, Mass.; whether it was intended as a religious holiday or not. But broadly, the version passed on to generations of American schoolchildren holds that the settlers who had arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 were celebrating the next year’s good harvest, sharing in the bounty with Squanto and their other Indian friends, who had taught them how to hunt and farm on new terrain.

    All very kumbaya, say Tea Party historians, but missing the economics lesson within.

    In one common telling, the pilgrims who came to Plymouth established a communal system, where all had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands. Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued.

    Finally, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, abolished this system and gave each household a parcel of land. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims were suddenly very industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. So they invited the Indians over to celebrate. (In some other versions, the first Thanksgiving is not a feast but a brief respite from famine. But the moral is always the same: socialism doesn’t work.) The same commune-to-capitalism, famine-to-feast story is told of Jamestown, the first English settlement, in 1607. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and Texas congressman who has become a Tea Party promoter, related it as a cautionary tale in a speech to the National Press Club earlier this year.

    Rush Limbaugh repeats the Thanksgiving story of Plymouth every year, reading it from a chapter in one of his books titled “Dead White Guys, or What Your History Books Never Told You.” (Some details change; one year, he had the Pilgrims growing organic vegetables.)

    The version is also taught in a one-day course called “The Making of America,” which became popular with Tea Party groups across the country after Glenn Beck recommended the work of its author, W. Cleon Skousen, who died in 2006. Tea Party blogs have reposted “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax” from a Web site celebrating the work of the libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, a favorite of Ron Paul devotees. The post concludes: “Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

    Leave aside the question of whether this country is on the march to socialism (conservatives say yes, and blame the Democrats). What does the record say?

    Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

    “It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

    The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

    The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

    “One man’s laziness is another man’s industry, based on the agricultural methods they’ve learned as young people,” he said.

    Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

    “Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women don’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors,” he said.

    The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

    As for Jamestown, there was famine. But historians dispute the characterization of the colony as a collectivist society. “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate,” said Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a historian at New York University and the author of “The Jamestown Project.” “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

    The widespread deaths resulted mostly from malaria. Tree ring studies suggest that the settlement was also plagued by drought.

    But the biggest problem, Professor Kupperman said, was the lack of planning. The Virginia settlers came to the New World thinking that they could find gold or a route to the Pacific Ocean via the Chesapeake Bay, and make a quick buck by setting up a trading station like others were establishing in the East Indies.

    “It was just wishful thinking,” she said, “a failure to recognize that these things are really, really difficult.”

    The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war.

    Samuel Eliot Morison, the admiral and historian who edited Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” titled the chapter about Bradford ending the common course “Indian Conspiracy; Communism; Gorges.”

    But it is important to note that he was writing in 1952, amid great American suspicion of the Soviets. “The challenges of the cold war and dealing with Russia are reflected in the text,” Mr. Pickering said.

    Likewise, Cleon Skousen, the author of the “Making of America” textbook, was an anticommunist crusader in the 1960s. (His term for Jamestown was not socialism but “secular communism.”)

    “What’s going on today is a tradition of conservative thought about that early community structure,” Mr. Pickering said.

    William Hogeland, the author of “Inventing American History,” agreed. “Across the political spectrum, there’s a tendency to grab a hold of some historical incident and yoke it to a current agenda,” he said. “It doesn’t always mean there’s no connection, but often things are presented as historical first, rather than as part of the agenda first.”

    And indeed, many can play this game.

    Professor Kupperman, for instance, said the Jamestown story reminded her mostly of the Iraq war.

    “It was kind of like the idea that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers,” she said

  2. lizard19

    meanwhile corporate America had their best quarter ever, netting 1.659 TRILLION dollars. who are they giving thanks to this year?

    • Pogo Possum

      And you would have preferred a bad quarter?

      • lizard19

        damn, good point pogo. i guess being critical of record breaking corporate profit amidst continued widespread economic pain is hoping for failure. how crazy of me.

        but you should know all about preferring that bad things happen, like hoping Obama fails to pave the way for his dethroning in 2012. right?

        i don’t know why this news bothers me so much, because corporate America’s success means they’ll start hiring again. and since they’re doing so well, that means increased tax revenue.

        yeah, this is great news. go corporate profit!

  3. Chuck

    I keep getting fat dividend checks so they are thanking me.

    • lizard19

      you’re confused, chuck. that’s not gratitude, it’s the corporate imperative to enrich shareholders.

      instead you should be thanking them; for outsourcing to maximize shareholder profit; for undermining regulatory oversight; for buying public officials to ensure tax breaks stay in place.

      and don’t forget to thank the American public for remaining passive in the face of the biggest transfer of wealth in our country’s short history.

      hopefully the fed’s reckless quantitative easing won’t create some nightmarish hyperinflation scenario so you can enjoy those fat dividend checks, chuck.

      happy fucking holidays.

    • lizard19

      chuck, let me just add your faith those dividend checks are going to keep coming at the value they’re at is not unusual, but it’s indicative of a broad ignorance regarding the stability of our economy.

      if you haven’t noticed, there is a growing global consensus regarding our monetary policy, and at the last G20 meeting that consensus is finally getting explicit in voicing opposition to the Fed’s reckless “liquidity injections.”

      so enjoy those fat dividend checks while they last, because your austerity diet isn’t far down the road.

  4. Not that I disagree with it or anything, but reprinting an entire NYT article without link is … let’s just say, pretty dicey.

  5. Chuck

    Actually I am kind of a social justice investment guy where creating American jobs is important. I was a member of the UAW and Teamsters many years ago and they helped me greatly so that’s important to me. I think Americans should invest in America so I do. It’s pretty straightforward to find investments in local, regional and even global companies where creating good paying jobs for Americans is important to those that run the companies.
    2 years ago people gave up on our industry and I didn’t. There were many small companies on the brink yet are going to survive.
    You listen to too much leftest shouting (and maybe right wing crap). Not every corporation is evil.

    • lizard19

      chuck, don’t put words in my mouth. i am not saying every corporation is evil.

      what i find disturbing about the record breaking quarter of corporate profit is that it shows us that corporate financial health is no longer tied to middle class financial health.

      so if corporate America is doing just fine, where is the incentive to bring back a vibrant American middle class?

      i also think you have to understand these numbers are directly derived from squeezing labor. downsizing, pay cuts, outsourcing, these are the factors that have produced record breaking corporate profit.

      • Ingemar Johansson


        How about repealing Obamacare or letting us know what our tax rates will be come Jan 1st.?

        Corporations have to know what their employment costs will be in order to start hiring and forecasting sales. Why hire more personnel when bad economic policies and rising taxes will prolong this recession?

        That pile of money their sitting on will be used to keep the middle class workers they currently employ.

        Same goes for small businesses, the majority of which pay taxes based on the individual owner(s) rates.

        So tell me geniuses, you make over $250K and own a business are you going to hire more people or less people after they raise your taxes?

        • lizard19

          yes, next to your tired-ass republican talking points regurgitated again and again, we do start looking like geniuses. too bad all we’re using is common sense.

          you really don’t have a clue.

          • Ingemar Johansson

            Ok Sherlock.

            Back up your statement.

            “what i find disturbing about the record breaking quarter of corporate profit is that it shows us that corporate financial health is no longer tied to middle class financial health.”

            And while you’re at please tell me why corporations or even small privately owned businesses can’t be allowed allowed to save profits when all future economic indicators point to slow or nonexistent recovery.

      • one could easily make the argument that corporate profit is inverse to american middle class welfare these days. but in india, china, south korea quite the opposite is the case.

        removal of global trade economic locks in the nineties now enables these countries to enjoy much of the prosperity which america once claimed along with western europe.

        we are witnessing the result of the removal of the dams which once protected our labor forces. and the ascendant power of non country entities without borders to capture profits without any loyalty to any country or creed other than greed.

        politics is useless against the power which is unleashed once the waters of prosperity flood into the lowlands. a level water table will bring what it will bring for america, regardless of your political persuasion. and what it will bring will doubtless be less prosperity for all of us, save the biggest players in the global markets.

        • The Polish Wolf

          “removal of global trade economic locks in the nineties now enables these countries to enjoy much of the prosperity which america once claimed along with western europe.”

          Such is the beauty of it. The wealth is spreading around, but how long did you think that we could manipulate global trade to keep the majority of the world nonindustrial and impoverished? Global trade is here to stay.

          Bush got one thing right. We need to move to an ownership society. Unfortunately, he meant ‘a society ruled by the current owners’, not ‘a new society where labor gets to own a part of the means of production.’ Our corporations don’t need us, is the problem. But if corporations were owned by the middle class, and those shareholders stopped signing off on outrageous executive salaries, we could all benefit from the transfer of industry to more profitable locations.

          Sadly, I don’t have a good idea for how to make this a reality in a politically feasible way.

  6. lizard19

    i’ve been asked to play the role of “Sherlock” for Johansson to back up this statement:

    what i find disturbing about the record breaking quarter of corporate profit is that it shows us that corporate financial health is no longer tied to middle class financial health.

    well, there’s nothing in this statement that can be contested. corporate profits are breaking records, that’s a fact, and the middle class (what is left of ’em) continues to struggle. the official unemployment numbers should be enough for anyone with half a brain. and if you want to really understand how bad it is, try looking at unemployment AND underemployment, like they did before Reagan.

    but i don’t have to say anything, because Johansson says it for me:

    And while you’re at please tell me why corporations or even small privately owned businesses can’t be allowed allowed to save profits when all future economic indicators point to slow or nonexistent recovery.

    wow. so this parrot of rightwing talking points clearly acknowledges that “all future economic indicators point to slow or nonexistent recovery” but fails to specify who isn’t recovering.

    well, it’s not corporate America, because as i clearly indicated, they’re hearing cha-ching!

    and this is how they’re doing it. (from Lenin’s Tomb)

    Since domestic demand remains relatively weak in the US, despite some boost from the stimulus and despite some weak wages recovery, corporate investors are also using the cheap money made available by quantitative easing to invest in their overseas operations. And as the NYT acknowledges, much of the increase in profits is coming from abroad. Thus, US capital has used two key advantages to revive profitability. First, it has used its overwhelming strength – political, economic, institutional – over workers to extract more labour from a smaller workforce. The flip-side of high profits are more gruelling work, tighter work discipline, more people unemployed, lower wages, longer lines at the soup kitchens, and so on. Second, it has used its overwhelming international dominance, which we might call imperialism, to extract more value from emerging markets, which remain dependent on and subordinate to the US. The obverse of this increased yield is, of course, violent territorial struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as violent subversion in Honduras and Haiti.

    as i said, i’m sick of tired-ass republican talking points.

    you idiots helped fuck up health care with corporate propaganda. you idiots want to blow the deficit wide open with perpetuating tax cuts for the wealthy. and it’s you idiots, time and time again, who fail to see there is a war going on, and it’s a class war, and if you’re not flush with liquidity, you will soon be just as fucked as the rest of us.

    i’ll leave the idiots with a juicy junk from the–GASP!–World Socialist Website. feel free to contest any of the numbers presented, idiots.

    The enormous profit realized by US corporations in the third quarter are only the latest indication that the Bush-Obama bailout of the financial and corporate elite has achieved its desired aim of protecting the personal fortunes of the rich:

    *Annual bonuses rose by 11 percent for executives at the 450 largest US corporations last fiscal year, according to a recent survey published by the Wall Street Journal. Overall, median compensation—including salaries, bonuses, stocks, options and other incentives—rose by three percent to $7.3 million in 2009. Shareholder returns increased by 29 percent.

    *An October survey by the Wall Street Journal found that employees at 35 of the biggest banks, investment banks, hedge funds, money management firms, and securities exchanges will be paid a record $144 billion in 2010.

    *According to Forbes magazine, the net worth of the 400 richest Americans increased by 8 percent in 2010, to $1.37 trillion, more than the GDP of India, population 1.2 billion.
    These vast fortunes have been made possible through the impoverishment of the working class, the vast majority of the population that must work in order to maintain itself.

    *In 2009, 15 percent of all US households, about 50 million people, went part or all of the year without enough food to eat, according to a recent report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). More than a third of these households, home to one million children, went without meals on a regular basis.

    *A record 49.9 million US adults went without health insurance for at least part of the past year, up from 46 million in 2008, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The uninsured now constitute 26.2 percent of the total adult population, more than one in four, up from 24.5 percent two years ago.

    *Average annual wages for US workers fell by $457 in 2009, and the median annual wage fell by $247 to $26,261, according to recently updated data from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

    *The US Census Bureau found that about 44 million Americans were living in poverty in 2009, the highest number on record and an increase of 3.8 million in one year. Nearly 19 million Americans were living in extreme poverty in 2009, defined as half of the official poverty level, an increase of 11 percent in one year.

    • Ingemar Johansson

      First of all the middle class is not struggling as much as you wish it was. If you’re well educated chances are you’re well paid and employed.


      Its the young and diploma/experienced challenged that are most effected an evaporating job market.


      Lumping these two groups with the “middle class” is dishonest at best.

      • Ingemar Johansson

        Money mag. Oct 15th.

        “The rhetoric may be overheated, but the latest data confirms that the middle class is in a rut, to say the least. The total number of middle-income families has stayed relatively steady over the last several years, but with population growth, there are proportionately fewer middle earners today than there were 10 years ago. Compared to the year 2000, the middle-income bracket is about 4 percent smaller than it might otherwise be, after adjusting for population growth and inflation. And the low-income bracket is about 7 percent bigger. Still, incomes typically fall during a recession, and it’s oversimplistic to say that everybody leaving the middle class is permanently consigned to something worse. Plus, many longer-term gains in living standards are still in place. So while the middle class is clearly under stress, millions of Americans are still much better off than they were 20 or 30 years ago.”

  7. Banned in Beantown

    As Ralph Nader’s dad told him, capitalism will never fail because socialism will always be there to bail it out. Ask any banker.

  8. The Polish Wolf

    I must say, the cartoon in the original post is rather inspiring. I realize America isn’t fair to all of its citizens equally, but I must say I’m proud of America whenever I meet an immigrant who is fulfilling their dreams here in ways they never could in their home countries. And the best part is that even as they benefit from America, they contribute to it.

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