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Atlantic Man: The epic of Thanksgiving

By IRA STRAUS

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- On Dec. 4, 1619, settlers in the colony of Jamestown, Va., officially celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day in English North America. They instructed that the day "shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving."

The colony was fragile, the hardships many. Yet it had been a good year for the settlers. The Spaniards and the American Indians had not driven them out. The colony had survived and grown. And it had made a start on democracy in America: It established the first colonial Assembly that year.

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The Jamestown Assembly built on the experience of the Parliament in London. When later colonies were planted, they, too, formed assemblies. Out of these multiple assemblies grew the Continental Congress and the federal democracy that we have today.

This alone would be ample cause for giving thanks for the work of Jamestown in that fateful year, 1619.

The next year, a second colony was founded: A group of Puritans landed in Plymouth, Mass. In 1621 they held their own Thanksgiving feast. For some reason this second feast was made the foundation of the Thanksgiving that we celebrate today.

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Why did the Puritan celebration beat out the original Jamestown one? Why do we teach our children of the "Pilgrim Fathers," as if to make them think that the Pilgrims were the first ones here? Why do we say American democracy began with the Pilgrims when in fact it began in Jamestown? Why do we say the Pilgrims came to America for freedom, when in fact they set up an oppressive theocracy? Why do we practically forget Jamestown, the true cornerstone of our country?

The reason was that this sometimes seemed convenient politically. An emphasis on the Puritan heritage lent a sense of depth to American independence.

The mainstream idea of the American settlers was that of the Virginians. They viewed themselves as the cutting edge of English expansion. For them, England was the most advanced and free power in Europe, and Europe was the most advanced and free civilization in the world. They were proud to be expanding England's realm and carrying the cause of freedom one step farther. They had no desire to break away in the 1600s, or as late as the 1750s, when a young George Washington was fighting alongside the British to drive the French out of North America. Then a quarrel broke out over how to collect the taxes that America owed to Britain for doing the main fighting in that war -- it was essentially a burden-sharing dispute, much like the ones we have nowadays in reverse with Europe -- but at first, most Americans hoped for it to be resolved peacefully.

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The quarrel escalated. A Continental Congress voted for independence in 1776. It was a reluctant decision for many Americans.

The Pilgrim story fitted the era of the struggle for independence while the Jamestown story was positively inconvenient. Jamestown was a story of building freedom farther by extending Europe into the wilderness. But Plymouth could be told as a romantic tale of finding pristine Freedom by running away from Europe into the Wilderness.

The Plymouth Thanksgiving later proved useful to the Union at the time of the Civil War. Virginia after all was the secessionist state at the head of the great conflict between North and South.

However, later, the Pilgrim story became a burden on American policy, but it was too deeply entrenched to be discarded. At the end of the 19th century, Anglophobia had to be overcome, in order to make a rapprochement with England as America's primary ally in world affairs. But the spirit of the Pilgrim story remained intact, threatening the rapprochement from the rear no matter how well the diplomats did their work out front.

In the 20th century, isolationism was overcome only with great difficulty. In World War II, we were slow to join those Europeans who was fighting for freedom -- and we nearly lost our own freedom for it.

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In 1939, human freedom was at greater risk than at any time since the Renaissance, yet millions of Americans sincerely believed that they were protecting freedom by staying out of the war. Their logic was simple: Freedom was discovered by the Pilgrims getting free from European corruption; now there was a war between selfish corrupt European imperialisms; if the American people joined the war, they would get corrupted and would lose our freedom. The corruption according to this interpretation had already began in 1917, when the United States joined Britain in World War I, betraying the faith of our fathers.

This isolationism was based on the Puritan fear of the normal corruptions of human existence, picturing them as extreme, insidious evils from which we must somehow separate ourselves completely. It nearly cost us our freedom.

In the real world, freedom is growing, while normal corruptions are managed. Freedom is maintained by good judgment and by moderate, effective government. By common sense recognition of who is fighting for freedom and who against. It is maintained by a readiness to ally with people who are on our own side, not a passion for slandering them.

The Puritans, like the Jamestown settlers, believed the enemy of freedom was Catholicism and Spain. But they kept looking for the enemy at home and trying to eliminate any possible remnants of Catholic influence. They shot mostly at their own side. it was a climate that proved conducive to witch trials in Salem, Mass.

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But this was not genuine moral purity. It reflected, rather, a sin of pride in its claim to purity and it led repeatedly to schism and generations of bitterness. The cause of freedom needs wisdom, not schism.

This Thanksgiving Day, let us remember the trials and triumphs of all the fathers of America, including the Jamestown settlers. They were the ones who celebrated our first Thanksgiving in 1619. Let us recall their pioneering spirit, a spirit of expanding the realm of freedom. Let us give thanks for their tenacity under terrible conditions. And let us praise their spirit, from which we continue to draw inspiration even today.


Ira Straus (irastraus@aol.com) is senior associate at the Program on Transitions to Democracy and is a former Fulbright professor of politics in Moscow.

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