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Thanksgiving, The True Story

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Thanksgiving Story Resonates in Year of Crisis: Caroline Baum

Commentary by Caroline Baum


Nov. 26 (Bloomberg) -- It is the tradition of this column every year at this time to recount the story of Thanksgiving.

   This year, with the government encroaching on the private sector, taxpayers being asked (told, really) to bear the losses from banks' risk-taking, and tomorrow's generation shouldering the tax liability for today's profligacy, it seems more appropriate than ever.

    The U.S. bailout of sacred cows (Fannie Mae and Freddie

Mac) and unholy alliances (Citigroup Inc.) has been ''unprecedented'' in both size and audacity, with the government picking winners and losers as events, not principles, dictate.

    American-style capitalism may never be the same, or maybe it never was what it was cracked up to be. That's why it's important to heed the lessons of the past.

    For source material, I rely on the accounts of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony for 30 years between 1621 and 1656. Bradford's history ''Of Plimoth Plantation'' was first published in 1856.

    Most Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day off from school or work, a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate with a huge feast. If children know anything about the origins of this national holiday, declared each year by presidential proclamation, it's that the Pilgrims, grateful for a good harvest in their new land, set aside this day to give thanks.

                     New World, Old Baggage

    Adults aren't any better informed. They may know something of the hardships encountered by the Pilgrims, a group of English separatists who came to the New World to escape religious persecution. What they probably don't know, since it's not part of the politically correct high school curriculum, is how these immigrants overcame the obstacles to prosper in the New World.

    The Pilgrims' first winters, after they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and established the Plymouth Bay Colony, were harsh. The weather and crop yields were poor.

    Half the Pilgrims died or returned to England in the first year. Those who remained went hungry. In spite of their deep religious convictions, the Pilgrims took to stealing from one another.

   Finally, in the spring of 1623, Governor Bradford and the others ''begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,'' according to Bradford's history.

                       Communist Manifesto

    One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with them from England was a practice known as ''farming in common.''

Everything they produced was put into a common pool; the harvest was rationed according to need.

    They had thought ''that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing,'' Bradford recounts.

    They were wrong. ''For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte,'' Bradford writes.

    Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation. They thought it an ''injuestice'' to receive the same allotment of food and clothing as those who didn't pull their weight. What they lacked were appropriate incentives.

    After the Pilgrims had endured near-starvation for three winters, Bradford decided to experiment when it came time for spring planting in 1623. He set aside a plot of land for each family, that ''they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves.''

                       Pilgrims' Progress

    The results were nothing short of miraculous.

    Bradford writes: ''This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave far better content.''

    The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property and enjoyed the fruits of their labor, eventually producing enough to trade their excess corn for furs and other desired commodities.

    With proper incentives in place, the Pilgrims produced and enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623 and set aside ''a day of thanksgiving'' to thank God for their good fortune.

    ''Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,'' Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his history.

    We now know the Pilgrims' good fortune had nothing to do with luck. In 1623, they were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, are recognized as necessary for a free, productive and prosperous society.

    Just how necessary, we're about to find out.


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Nice post RW. I wish more people could understand that socialism/communism just doesn't work because there's no incentive to work hard or produce. It's as simple as that. If I remember, I want to post a quote from Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, regarding capitalism. It sent chills down my spine.

A common misconception about Thanksgiving is that it originated as a day set aside to thank the natives for teaching them to grow and harvest corn, etc. However, it actually originated as a day set aside to thank God, not the natives. I specifically remember learning in grade school that Thanksgiving was a day to thank the natives. What a crock of PCness.

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Good post RW.

"Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it"

George Santayana

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It is a good post, RW.  (I agree with you more than you think  ;)).

Speaking of presidential proclamations, Lincoln's Proclamation that set the day as the last Thursday in November is my favorite.  Lincoln had an uncanny ability to say what needed to be said, just the way it needed to be said, without saying too much or too little.

Proclamation of Thanksgiving



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. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled 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 theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, 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 battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. 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. 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. 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, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed,

Done at the city of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth

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