This blog was originally posted to my personal site in November 2009. Pardon for the length, but I hope that at least some of you find it an interesting read–stewartm.
And what Thanksgiving Really Has to Do With Freedom
The year is 1621. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony have survived the terrible winter of 1620-21, in which 50 of the original 102 colonists had perished. It is a story familiar to all of us: how the Pilgrims were contacted by Samoset and Squanto (Tisquantum), how they learned from them how to grow corn and catch fish, how they made treaties with Massasoit and the local Wampanoag. Finally, how they set three days in autumn after harvest for feasting and celebration and giving thanks to God, in which they invited some 90 Wampanoag in a show of goodwill. That is the story we all learned in school and in church, where we are told that the Pilgrims, by escaping religious persecution in the Old World, were among of the progenitors of the freedoms we enjoy today.
As frequently is the case with our culture’s myths, this tale is incomplete and/or misleading. Actually, factually, this wasn’t even the first thanksgiving given by the English in North America: the English in Berkely Hundred near Jamestown, Virgina, had celebrated one just two years before. Moreover, autumn harvest celebrations are a part of many cultures. Anthropologist Marvin Harris notes that the change in the mode of production from hunter-gathering to agriculture also changed human food consumption patterns. Agriculturalists, having greatly simplified their ecosystems by clearing land, are much more likely to alternate between periods of famine and feasting. (Famines usually occurred during the summer before the crops are ready, while feasting occurred in the autumn). Religion celebrations and offerings are usually coupled with the feasting; the “spirit” of the food is consumed by the deity or deities while the physical presence is consumed by the participants. What we are brought up believing to be a special event, unique to our history, is in reality broadly characteristic of cultures who rely on agriculture as their mode of production.
Even with our familiar story, explanations are left unoffered. We are told that on March 16, 1621 Samoset strolled into the midst of the Plymouth colonists and spoke English to them, without being told (usually) how he learned English or what he said (he asked for beer, actually). We are likewise not told the full story of how Tisquantum learned English, either. This is a loss, because the inclusion of their stories makes the tale of the first Thanksgiving all the more compelling.
In the history taught to most of us, we are left with a gap between Columbus and Virginia Dare—a gap of almost 100 years. What is left out, or at most only mentioned in passing, are expeditions like De Soto’s, Verrazzano’s, Gilbert’s and Frobisher’s; colonies like St. Augustine and the French Huguenots in Florida. What is also left out are the yearly visits by fishing and slaving fleets. Unlike the impression that one gets from one’s high school history, there was frequent contact between Europeans and Native Americans in North America throughout much of the 16th century.
This contact had its repercussions, which leads us to the personal lives of Samoset and Tisquantum. Samoset, a subordinate chief from the Abenaki people in present-day southeastern Maine learned English from contact with English fishermen. Tisquantum’s experience is even more amazing; he was a member of the Wampanoag who had been kidnapped in 1608, and had lived in Spain, in London, in Ireland, and in Newfoundland. Our traditional story does not tell us that “Squanto” was actually a world-traveler.
Tisquantum finally negotiated a return voyage back to his native village in 1619 from a Captain Thomas Dermer, a former associate of Jamestown’s Captain John Smith.1 But he had a bleak homecoming: upon his return, he found that his people had all been wiped out by European diseases, and that he was the lone surviving member of his people. After rescuing Captain Dermer from hostile Wampanoag and negotiating his release, Tisquantum (now having no place of his own to call home) settled to live with Massaoit, the leader of the Wamapanog Confederation. Tisquantum’s skills as negotiator would prove to be key in getting the Massaoit and the Wamapanogs into accepting the newcomers despite their previously hostile experience with European fishermen and slavers, and thus key to the Plymouth colony’s survival.
The migration of Europeans across the Atlantic into the New World was one of the great migrations of world history, due to causes that are complex. But all great social movements have their propagandists, and let me now introduce two to you, both named Richard Hakluyt (the elder a lawyer, his younger cousin a clergyman). In their book The Priniciple Navigations of the English Nation (1589) they set forth the ideological justification for England creating an empire in the New World. In it the Hakluyts painted, to put it mildly, a highly simplistic version of the situation in the New World and why English rule would be best for all. They divided up all Native Americans into two groups—the friendly ones, like the Arawaks who Columbus had first met, and the hostile bad ones, who were given the name “Cannibals”. Supposedly the “good Indians” would be eager to accept English rule and assistance in order to save themselves from the “Cannibals” and the cruel Spanish. Moreover, in spreading English rule throughout the New World, the English would be granting the “good Indians” the blessings of English liberty and Parliamentary rule as opposed to the cruel tyranny of Spain and whatever the “Cannibals” might impose.
Of course, the Hakluyt’s description of the situation in the New World was so far removed from reality to be almost laughable. The reality was that in exploring the Americas, Europeans stumbled into a political landscape at least as complex as any in Europe. Age-old rivalries existed amongst the peoples there, even when their homelands were separated by hundreds of miles. The Iroquois warred with the Cherokee and Algonquin, the Catawba with the Creek and Tuscarora, the Powhatans with the Delaware. Often the internal politics of a people would be hideously complex (Cherokee politics, past or present, for one example). European contact with Native Americans in the New World must be understood in terms of the preexisting political dynamics.
In the case of the Plymouth colony, it’s probable that Massaoit and the Wamapanog Confederation saw a chance to befriend the newcomers (armed with powerful technology) as a possible ally against one of their traditional enemies, the Narragansett. A sequence of events followed in the history of the Massachussetts colony, repeated time and again there and elsewhere: Europeans (and later Americans) befriended Native American groups, who used them and their technology in their battles against their age-old enemies, often wiping them out in the process. Then, after further European encroachment and wrongs turn former allies hostile, the Europeans turned against their former friends and vanquished them. This game of divide-and-conquer was repeated from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, despite several attempts (King Phillip’s War of 1675, the Yamasee war of 1715, Pontiac’s rebellion of 1763, Tecumseh’s War of 1812) of a Native American leader to try to forge an alliance among formerly antagonistic peoples against European (later: American) intrusion. Even here, the aloofness or withdrawal or even the alliance of a powerful Native American people in the vicinity with the Europeans often doomed these alliances to failure. In the the Yamasee War of 1715, the combined forces of Southeastern native tribes quite literally drove South Carolinians off the land onto their ships until the powerful Cherokee were persuaded, through a tragic series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and intrigue, to enter the war on the English side. That doomed the Yamasees and their allies. Later, the Cherokees’ own experiences with the English, and later the Americans, would cause them to regret this decision.
But the Hakluyts’s description of the situation in the New World contained a greater misunderstanding than just the simplistic division of “good Indians” vs “Cannibals”. At its heart lay the Hakluyts’ stunted vision of the notion of liberty itself. The English liberty that the Hakluyts wanted to spread throughout the New World was not liberal nor particularly free, particularly for the English lower classes. Indeed, Parliament had passed laws which dictated when the “free” English worker was supposed to rise out of bed, how long he was to take at meals, and what clothes he could and could not wear. Although not enforceable, dawn to dusk work hours were legally mandatory for English laborers. Moreover, no one, worker or noble alike, had freedom of conscience, religious orthodoxy being rigidly enforced; likewise no one had the freedom to do in the bedroom as they wished, sexual orthodoxy likewise being vociferously enforced (the crime of sodomy being punishable by death). Women and children, for their part, were almost legal nonpersons.
Contrast this with the lifestyle of most Native American peoples: one got up out of bed when one pleased, and the amount of work that was required under their lower-intensity style of agriculture or horticulture, combined with hunting and fishing, was half or less of what the poor English laborer had to endure, leaving everyone a correspondingly greater amount of time for leisure and the arts. Native American leaders were very limited in what they could coerce someone into doing, and freedom of conscience and of sexual expression existed. Incest taboos were far-ranging and strictly enforced, but aside from that and postpartum sex taboos, both men and women enjoyed a wide degree of sexual freedom, unknown to their European counterparts. Included in this was the right to form homosexual relationships. Many Native American peoples had some form of “gay marriage”; moreover “gays” (“two-spirit”) people in some cultures were accorded special status and respect, often in the role of medicine person and healer. Indeed, for some peoples, certain ceremonies and rites could only be performed by a “two-spirit” person. A boy who grew up attracted other boys or men was matter-of-factly regarded as “just the way he’s supposed to be”, rather than suffering from a malady to be “cured” or committing a shameful sin requiring absolution or persecution.
As for the status of women and children, it was markedly higher in most matirlineal and matrilocal Native American cultures. Women enjoyed the right to own property (indeed, they were the usual owners of property) and divorce was easy to obtain. In some societies (the Cherokee) a woman could even openly have an affair with another man and her husband could do nothing about it. Because these cultures were matrilocal (i.e., the husband comes to live at the wife’s home) the couple would be surrounded by the wife’s friends and family that she had known since girlhood, and the presence these close at hand made spousal violence by husbands against wives rare. As for children, their wishes were respected to a degree unknown in European culture; even to the degree in some instances of being able to select the household in which they wished to live. One of the things that horrified Native Americans about Europeans was the way that Europeans beat their children; shaming rather than physical force was the way of discipline among most Native American peoples.
One should now be able to spot right away the flaw in argument that the Hakluyts advanced, that the natives would be grateful for the English bringing them their way of life and their “blessings of liberty”—because the English way of life for most of its participants (i.e., working people) was substantially poorer and its “blessings of liberty” decidedly less free than what the natives themselves already had. Indeed, the comparison would suggest that Native Americans probably enjoyed longer, healthier lives than their English counterparts. The English really had nothing to offer Native Americans but disease, toil, increased warfare, loss of freedom even in regards to the most personal of matters like conscience and sexuality, and subjugation. It’s little wonder that the reaction of the Natives to the offer of English rule was something very much like a “Uh, no thanks”.
Instead of Native Americans gratefully accepting English customs and rule, quite the opposite occurred. The English were trying to recreate their social system in the New World, and this meant importing laborers as indentured servants to be the new peasants under a new gentry. But in the New World, doing this turned out to be a problem. Indentured servants found their terms of service to be little better than slavery, with minor infractions resulting in their periods of service being extended longer and longer. Moreover, with all the “free land” being available in the New World (well, it wasn’t really free, it belonged to Native Americans), the temptation always existed that the servants might run away to start a life on their own. The new gentry eventually responded to this problem by moving to a system of African slavery; it was easier to maintain control over African laborers (who were visibly different than Englishmen) than was possible using white indentured servants. As Edmund Morgan explains in his book American Freedom, American Slavery: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, the substitution of African slavery for white indentured servitude on the plantations of the new gentry allowed for the elevation of the political and social status of poor whites relative to their European counterparts. In this way, paradoxically, slavery helped contribute to nascent ideas of (white-only) social and political equality.
But sometimes poor whites in the New World would choose even a more radical course to escape their masters: they would run away to live with nearby Native American peoples. One can imagine the response of those who did: instead of a life in a society where every detail of their lives was micromanaged 24/7 by some Lord Asshole, they found themselves in a life where no one told them what to do, the work requirements were minimal, and the personal freedom unparalleled. One could almost imagine their reaction in today’s vernacular: “Wow. Awesome.” The English authorities were alarmed by this threat, realizing that their entire labor force might disappear off into the woods, if aware of the opportunity and given the chance. So they took pains to try and catch and kill any Englishman they caught “going Indian” during the earliest colonial period. Likewise, they also took pains to create as much of the way of antagonisms between Indians and African slaves, by paying Native Americans to be slave catchers while using African slaves against the Indians in wars. Rather than bringing liberty to the New World, the English were actually doing their darndest to eliminate it.
The replacement of Native Americans by Europeans in the New World should give one food for thought, especially those who think of the story of humankind is one bumpy but inevitably improving story of “progress”. It turns out that the lifestyles of Native Americans were longer-lived and freer, affording more more leisure time and greater political equality than those of Europeans. The Europeans triumphed because they had the advantage in political organization, in technology, and that their agricultural way of life provided greater population density (i.e., allowing for larger armies). They triumphed even though the bulk of their population led lives that were poor, miserable, unequal, and unfree, affording little in the way of leisure or comforts. By 1669 in Virginia, as one example, there were only an estimated 700-800 warriors of all native peoples left in the entire colony; whereas by that time the colonial governor could call on a militia which in theory could number up to 13,000 men. Unlike what you see in the old Westerns, it was the natives who succumbed to raw numbers. Superior quality of life wasn’t a factor; while whites could and did “go Indian” even at risk to themselves and their hosts, Indians no more “went white” to enjoy the supposed benefits of English culture any more than West Berliners crawled over the Berlin Wall to get into the “utopia” of East Germany.
The switch in humanity’s mode of production from hunting and gathering to agriculture some 12,000 years ago led to profound changes in human society. Agriculture has been called humanity’s worst mistake, exacerbating warfare, creating greater gender inequality, creating great inequality in wealth and political power, making possible epidemic disease, and forcing people to work harder and have less leisure time.2 Agriculture, instead of being the great step forward that most of us learned in TV history, actually led to a decrease of life expectancy of some 15-20 years, according to archaeological and demographic studies. Once the shift was made, however, human population densities greatly expanded (i.e., more people but at a lower quality of life) so that a return to hunter-gathering was no longer an option. The triumph of agriculture was not because it afforded its practitioners a higher quality of life, but because its denser populations could field larger armies which conquered or drove away neighboring hunter-gathering groups in their need for more arable land. Moreover, in areas where agriculture was enhanced by irrigation and circumscribed by forbidding terrain (mountains, deserts, etc) states and the “great civilizations” were born; control over the water supply translated into control over life and death itself. Control over the water supply allowed the local chiefs to become powerful pharaohs and emperors and kings, who demanded the power to be worshiped as gods on earth, while bordering deserts, mountains, or other inhospitable terrain meant that the poverty-stricken peasantry could not run away. What we called “the great civilizations” is better described by a phrase coined in anthropology—the “Hydraulic Trap”. For everyone not a king, noble, or priest, such “great civilizations” were traps, where life was as Thomas Hobbes described it: nasty, brutish, and short.
Come some 150 years or so after the Plymouth Thanksgiving feast, another great shift in humanity’s mode of production was in motion: the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. The Industrial Revolution was beginning, in Western Europe at least, and with it would come yet more great transformations in humanity’s way of life, mores, and politics. In particular for this story, a middle class based on the profits gained from manufacturing and mercantile activity arose which chafed under the restrictions of the ancient regimes based on kings, priests, and nobility. Once again, propagandists for the change were at work; here searching for precedents for arguments for liberty and personal freedom to set against the absolutism of Continental European monarchs. These propagandists we know far better than the Hakluyts—among them philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and politicians like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine.
In making arguments for social change, it always helps to be able to argue from history, to cite examples of societies where a form (at least) of what one is proposing was actually put into practice, to avoid the counter-criticism that one is merely advocating a theoretical pipe dream. However, the historical examples available to these propagandists from the Old World of “liberty”–from Greece, Rome, and from the Anglo-Saxons—were all examples where the practice of “liberty” was rather constrained. Athens, the supposed “birthplace of democracy”, was a slave society where only about 10 % of the population were citizens empowered to participate in the process. While ancient Rome contributed much in the way to constitutional ideas and the division of powers, it likewise was a slave society and also highly unequal. The Anglo-Saxon and English tradition helped contribute the idea of citizen-soldiers, trials by jury, and (eventually) Parliamentary governance, but many of its rights and liberties were actually “nobles-only” privileges not available for commoners. The Magna Carta, the supposed cornerstone of English liberty, was in reality a document to protect the privileges of the nobility and clergy and not of commoners. None of the examples of human liberty for these new revolutionaries from their own cultural pedigree were universal in scope.
This being the case, scholars such as Bruce E. Johansen (University of Nebraska) have argued that the new revolutionaries supplemented their own cultural examples of liberty with the examples from Native American societies, particularly, the Iroquois. In books such as Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy, and Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, Johansen argues that Native American societies represented to European and American philosophers and reformers examples of humans living in a “natural” state of liberty, inspiring philosophers from Locke to Rousseau as well as the more practical-minded such as Franklin and Paine. True, all of these labored under misconceptions about the reality of Native American societies (misunderstandings and idealizations about “noble savages” which generally increased with distance). Some of the misunderstandings are laughable today: Benjamin Franklin, for instance, as an ambassador to the French court was called a “child of nature from the backwoods” for once merely showing up in his own hair (sans the usual powdered wig, which he had lost). Europeans, and even Americans, neglected to see the cultural constraints ruling behavior in Native American societies, as well as to lump all Native peoples together in their theorizing into one ill-defined “them”.
But the liberty advocated by the new revolutionaries was severely compromised by a fatal flaw–it had to accommodate a host of preexisting social conditions in the American colonies which restricted personal liberty and autonomy and which contradicted their stated ideals. These ranged from to legal restrictions on sexual behavior, to the restrictions required by early mercantile capitalism, to the legal second-class status of women, to the biggest contradiction–African-American slavery. These revolutionaries, while singing the Rights of Man and insisting that “All men are created equal” and that the natural state of mankind was one of freedom, also had to tip-toe around the institution of human slavery in their midst. The brightest of these, men like Franklin and Paine and Jefferson, correctly recognized this as a contradiction, and hoped to set the new country on a course that would put slavery on a course of ultimate, peaceful, extinction. But they failed. It would require a great civil war, a million casualties, and widespread economic destruction, to bring slavery to an end. It would take a full century after that before the descendants of the former slaves won the power to begin to exercise their legal rights. That struggle still continues to this very day.
In a previous blog, I quoted Lincoln’s memorable phrase: “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand”. Our democracy and our freedom today remains compromised by cultural antecedents which are unfree, unequal, and undemocratic. We are still divided against ourselves, to the cost of all of us as a whole. We say we hold dear the virtues of freedom and democracy, but we contradict that by the routines of our daily lives: our family structures are dictatorships, our workplaces are dictatorships, even the religious conception held by most Americans is that of a dictatorship (Judaism-Christianity-Islam). We are divided against ourselves in another way too by our history: by racism and sexism and homophobia, and by our embrace of the ideology of capitalism as a system of quasi-legalized theft which divides the haves from the have-nots.3 The reason why other countries can have humane, efficient, health care delivery systems and we have this crappy, costly, disaster of one is that the opponents of any social welfare program in the US have been able to hurl the epitaph of “socialist” at any attempt to humanize America’s economy and been able to appeal to racism by painting a black face on its beneficiaries (even though most recipients of welfare programs are white).
This brings me to the central point of this essay: how the development of what traditions of personal freedom and political democracy in the US that we do enjoy is indeed a radical, revolutionary, development in the history of mankind, the result of men and women looking forward, and not backward. It is in many ways foreign to our European cultural pedigree, a break with the traditions we inherited. It is not, repeat *not*, any natural outgrowth of our preexisting culture or economic system. Indeed, if scholars like Johansen are correct, before European contact with Native Americans, the notion of a free society where its all members enjoyed a wide latitude of personal freedom was foreign to Europeans. Until they contacted Native Americans, Europeans lacked any clear idea what such a society might look like and how it might operate.
This has implications for today’s political debate. Despite their repeated abuse of the word, this explains why political conservatives and self-styled defenders of “Western Civilization” cannot truly be for “freedom”. They cannot both be for freedom and also be true to what they call “Western Civilization” because Western Civilization has almost nothing in the way of longstanding traditions promoting freedom. If one looks at, say, Christianity for example, one reads lots of Bible verses praising obedience, subservience, and submission–and *nothing* about standing up for one’s rights and the right to do as one pleases. What tradition of freedom we have originated with the 18th century European Enlightenment, it is relatively recent development in our culture, and to some extent we have contact with Native American groups to thank for that.
Unfortunately, most of us grow up being indoctrinated with many of those antecedents from our anti-equalitarian, anti-freedom, anti-democratic past. These become ingrained into us, and become much of our emotional hardwiring, our Pavlovian emotional response to life. If we unthinkingly allow homilies, warm fuzzies, feel-good cultural imagery, bias, and prejudice to dictate political discourse, instead of the Enlightenment ideal of the application of human reason and logic, the result will be that this emotional conditioning will inevitably drag us backwards towards a condition of unfreedom and inequality and servitude. 4 Given enough leash, that dog always returns back to his own vomit.5
In US political discourse, conservatives usually win arguments based on emotion precisely because they have nearly all the emotionally-charged labels to use and buttons to push at their disposal. The reason they can do this and succeed is precisely because of our anti-democratic, anti-equalitarian, anti-freedom cultural pedigree. To choose otherwise, to choose freedom and to choose equality and democracy, we have to consciously choose to think rather than feel about social and political topics. We pay homage to the spirit of the Enlightenment, and to men such as Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin, by doing this.
I end this blog back where I started it, with the imagery of the family Thanksgiving dinner, and us paying homage to our Pilgrim ancestors, who supposedly are counted among those who began our traditions of freedom. But the story and the homilies are wrong. For starters, anyone familiar with the real story of the Pilgrims knows that they weren’t escaping religious persecution in Europe–they already enjoyed the freedom to worship as they chose, in the tolerant Netherlands. What they lacked in the Netherlands was the ability to be religious dictators, to decree what the whole community should practice and think. That is the reason they left to found Plymouth Plantation in the New World: not reasons of liberty, but a chance to be the tyrants themselves. Our feel-good story has the facts wholly backward. Now, as I have made clear, if anyone around at the time contributed to our traditions of freedom, it was the Wampanoag guests, not the Pilgrim hosts.
And as for the lavish family dinner, and loving family experience, how many families, and how many children, living here today in the US will experience a holiday season far removed from our ideal?
Facts matter. Reality matters. Keeping and enhancing our freedom requires trusting clearheaded thinking, and not false imagery and feel-good myths and stories. After all, the price of liberty is eternal vigilence.
1 The same John Smith of Pocahontas fame. Small world isn’t it?
European contact resulted in catastrophic epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases (for which the Natives had precious little immunity) throughout Native American populations. These resulted in up to 90 % of Indian populations in some locales dying off during the 16th century; indeed, as the diseases spread through the Native American populations. It’s quite possible that many Native Americans died of European diseases even without ever having set eyes upon a white man.
2 Hunter-gather population densities are so low (< 1 person per square mile) that epidemic diseases have a hard time propagating. The reason why they propagated through Native American populations so quickly was that strictly speaking, by the time of European contact most Native Americans were not hunter-gatherers, but horticulturists or (in the Southeast even pre-state agriculturalists) having higher population densities than simple hunter-gatherers.
3 A complete history of capitalism and why it is organized theft would require another essay. Suffice it to say that the history of capitalism reveals that one of its biggest drivers has been instances where new industries were financed by the profits generated by one group being able to out-and-out steal something from another. Examples of this include: the enclosure movement in England in the 16th century, the sugar trade of the West Indies during the 18th century (driven by slavery), the rise of American capitalism on the backs of slave labor, the theft of land from Native Americans, and the abuse of immigrant labor, and the colonization of Africa and Asia during the 19th century, among others.
4 Recall, if you will, the old Saturday Night Live skits of a political debate between Jane Curtain (playing the liberal) and Dan Akroyd (playing the conservative). In most of these debates, parodies of US political discourse, Jane more-or-less stayed on-topic and would give a factually-based argument for her position. Then Dan would follow, dismissing her arguments with an intro of “Jane, you ignorant slut” and make a long string of ad hominem attacks, each appealing to long-standing social prejudices, to the cheers of the audience. That’s how all-too-often the Right “wins” the political discourse, and it’s precisely because our collective emotional hardwiring.
5 If anyone’s noticing, I used Norman Rockwell’s homily of a Thanksgiving Dinner image as a self-contradictory homily in composing this essay. I also thought it a nice touch to conclude a Thanksgiving blog with the imagery of vomit. No? :-)