Problematic Women: Little-Known Stories and History of Thanksgiving

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From the number of Pilgrims and Native Americans present at the first Thanksgiving to conflict in Congress over declaring it a national day of thanks, there are many historical facts about the holiday that are not widely known. 

“Problematic Women” is celebrating the history of Thanksgiving with Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of the book “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.” Kirkpatrick shares some of the little-known historical facts of Thanksgiving and how the holiday has evolved into what we know it to be today. 

Plus, we crown a group of 18 brave women as our “Problematic Women of the Week.” 

Enjoy the show, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

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Virginia Allen: We are so excited to welcome to the show Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of the book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.” Melanie, welcome to the show.

Melanie Kirkpatrick: It’s great to be with you, Virginia. Thank you for having me on.


Allen: Now, I got your book “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at The Heart of the American Experience” in the mail on Saturday, and I spent a large part of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon just sitting on my couch and reading your beautiful book and thinking two thoughts.

One, why have I not heard some of these really fascinating facts about Thanksgiving before? Two, why have I never heard anyone talk about Thanksgiving in this way? I want to begin by asking you how your interest in Thanksgiving first began.

Kirkpatrick: My interest in first Thanksgiving began on Sept. 11, 2001, when I was downtown. I was working for The Wall Street Journal and my office was right across the street from the first tower. I was downtown on that day and saw the towers fall and then walked home, which was at West 90th Street, so it took me several hours to get there.

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But after Sept. 11, like so many Americans, I began to consider what it meant to be an American. To explore that, I went to William Bradford’s monumental study of the journal about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.

He was the second governor of Plymouth, and he wrote a journal beginning in Holland, where, of course, the Pilgrims had gone into exile before they came to North America.

I was really blown away by some of the observations he made. As Thanksgiving approached, I jumped ahead and read his account of what we call the first Thanksgiving. It’s only about a hundred words, but I was struck by how much the spirit of togetherness and gratitude reflected the spirit of the holiday we still celebrate. That sparked my interest.

Then, I just began to research bits and pieces over the past 399 years now to learn more about the holiday, and was so involved in it, I decided to write a book about it.

Allen Yeah. Well, and I love the fact that you really highlight so well that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. I think we all know that, but I had never really thought of it in the terms that you put it until I read your book.

I had never fully thought through how reflective the Pilgrims’ experience and the first Thanksgiving really is, of the experience that so many immigrants who come to America face.

Can you just explain that a little bit further? How much we can draw that direct link?

Kirkpatrick: One of the most powerful interviews I had in connection with my book, and maybe one of the most powerful interviews I had in the course of my journalism career, was with students who were at Newcomers High School in Queens, New York, one of the boroughs of New York City.

Newcomers High School welcomes immigrant kids, and it teaches English as a second language along with the regular curriculum … I was invited to speak to three classes about the American Thanksgiving. This was a week or so before Thanksgiving. Most of the kids were about to celebrate the holiday for the very first time.

What really blew me away … with those kids was the discussion that we had about the meaning of Thanksgiving. Like the Pilgrims, there were two categories of kids at this school: kids whose family had come to America seeking better lives and those who had come to this country seeking the freedom to worship their own religion.

One girl spoke about she was from some place in the Caribbean. I can’t remember the island now, but she spoke about how back home, her father had been a house boy, and here in America, he had a great job working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York.

Then a boy spoke up, and he said he was from Tibet. Well, of course, Tibet is not a country that has existed since 1950, when China took it over. It’s now incorporated into China. He said his family came to America because they wanted to worship freely here. They were Buddhists following the Dalai Lama.

Then a girl spoke up and said, “Well, I’m from Egypt and I’m a Copt.” Copts are an ancient form of Christianity. Her family came because they were persecuted in Egypt.

I had the sense that these young immigrants, like many immigrants over the past couple of hundred years, who’ve come to this country, really have an appreciation for this oldest tradition that we have, perhaps better than a lot of American-born teenagers have.

Allen: I think that’s so beautiful to think of Thanksgiving in that context. That the Pilgrims were traveling to the New World in order to freely practice their religion, to raise their children in the way that they saw best. That’s the exact reason why today, so many individuals choose to immigrate to America. I just thought it was such a beautiful picture that you painted in your book.

I think when we think about the first Thanksgiving, often, the things that come to our mind are those beautiful paintings of Thanksgiving, which are wonderful, but don’t always necessarily paint the most full or accurate picture of what exactly that first Thanksgiving was. I mean, the Pilgrims had faced incredible challenges on their journey over in the first year that they arrived.

Out of the 102 Pilgrims who sailed to the New World, about half of them didn’t make it through that first winter, didn’t make it to that Thanksgiving Day celebration. A severe sickness had taken the lives of men, women, and children.

Considering the incredible hardship the Pilgrims had faced, and not knowing what the future held, what exactly were they celebrating? What were they thankful for?

Kirkpatrick: First of all, I’ll tell you that there are two eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving, one by Gov. William Bradford and the other by one of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow. Neither of them uses the word Thanksgiving. This really surprised me.

But for the Pilgrims who were celebrating in that famous harvest festival, that celebration was not a Thanksgiving. For them, a Thanksgiving was purely religious, and the first Thanksgiving took place, for them, almost two years later in 1623 in July, when a rainfall ended a drought that had severely threatened their plantings. Gov. Bradford called a Thanksgiving to give thanks.

For them, in other words, for the Pilgrims, Thanksgivings were for specific blessings, not for a general sense of thanksgiving. That said, in 1621, the holiday that has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving, there was lots of gratitude going around.

The Pilgrims were great at gratitude. They said thanks before and after every meal. They sang psalms, which are hymns of praise and thanks. I’m happy calling it the first Thanksgiving.

Allen: Interesting. That word, as you said, it wasn’t necessarily found in those first early descriptions, but it definitely encompasses the spirit of the holiday quite accurately.

Kirkpatrick: One more thing I’ll mention, which I found curious, was sometime in the 1630s, it became popular to call general Thanksgivings—that is, to set aside a day to give thanks for God’s general blessings overall, all blessings. Connecticut was the first to do that.

This was controversial amongst some people, because some argued that having a Thanksgiving Day to give thanks for general blessings would make people forget about the specific blessings that that God provided.

But by the end of the century, general Thanksgivings were the norm and often followed by a feast. There would be worship in the morning, sometimes worship in the afternoon, but eventually, the afternoon worship gave way to family celebrations and a lot of good food.

Allen: But these were always very Christian-focused celebrations, correct?

Kirkpatrick: Yes, that’s correct. One of the things, though, I note in my book is that the Native Americans, of course, had ceremonies of gratitude as well, religious ceremonies in which they thanked their God, or their definition of God. I think in recent years, there has been much greater focus on the Native American aspect of the first Thanksgiving, which I think is a positive thing.

Ronald Reagan was the first to mention the Native Americans in one of his Thanksgiving proclamations, in which he quoted a Seneca prayer of gratitude, which is very lovely.

Allen: Melanie, you bring up the Native Americans. I actually wanted to ask you about that because I found it quite interesting in your book. I think we always picture, or at least, I know I have pictured, that there were a whole bunch of Pilgrims at that first Thanksgiving, and then there was a few Native American Indians. But that wasn’t quite the dynamic, was it?

Kirkpatrick: That’s just the opposite. As you mentioned earlier, half of the Pilgrim company had perished in the past year, so there were only about 50 of them, many of whom were children or youths.

We know from one of the eyewitness accounts that 90 Native American men arrived bearing three deer. In fact, the Pilgrims were … certainly outnumbered, and there were 90 Native men compared to this group of 50 men, women, and children, who were the English settlers.

I think this is an interesting point. … In recent years, Thanksgiving has been denigrated to some extent as an example of Western putdown of the Indians and the beginning of the terrible devastation of the Native tribes in New England, and then across the rest of the country.

Of course the bloodshed that followed was terrible, but at this point in time, this was between the Natives and the English settlers. This was a moment to cherish. It was a time of friendship, a time of neighborliness and people being jointly helpful.

If anything, the Indians were more powerful than the English, in the sense that they’re the ones who taught the English settlers how to plant in the rocky soil of New England. They showed them the best fishing areas. William Bradford himself wrote that the English had a great debt to the Native Americans in helping them survive in the New World.

Allen In other words, the Pilgrims probably wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the Native Americans’ help, correct?

Kirkpatrick: I think that’s right.

Allen: Wow. Now, today, we think of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims really synonymously. I mean, you can’t have one without the other in our minds. But that wasn’t always the case, as you explain in the book. Could you explain the various, I suppose, transitions that Thanksgiving has really gone through over the years?

Kirkpatrick: Well, this came as a big surprise to me. The Pilgrims weren’t part of the Thanksgiving celebration until the mid-19th century. That was when William Bradford’s journal was rediscovered.

His journal, somehow, was raided, was stolen during the Revolutionary War and taken to England. In the middle of the 19th century, it was found in the library of the bishop of London. This was returned to America and it was a very big deal. That’s when the celebration really began to include the Pilgrims.

There was also an influence on the Thanksgiving that we know today, which is a holiday mostly forgotten now, called Forefathers’ Day. Around the time of the Revolution, there were men in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who thought that America needed some national heroes of its own.

They decided that the Pilgrims fit the bill, and began to meet every year on the day, Dec. 21 usually, the anniversary of the day that the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. They began to help tell the Pilgrims’ story and to hold them up as an example of early American heroes and an example of liberty and religious freedom.

That holiday, which became popular in New England, and was widely celebrated in New England, and then across the country by New Englanders who traveled or emigrated across the country, it was widely celebrated in the early part of the 19th century. When Pilgrim Bradford’s journal was found, that added to the interest in the Pilgrims, which had been peaked by the holiday Forefathers’ Day.

Allen: What role did early presidents, and specifically George Washington, play in really furthering the celebration of Thanksgiving?

Kirkpatrick: The story of George Washington and the first Thanksgiving as a nation was probably the most surprising thing I learned in my research. In 1789, the Congress of the United States, the first Congress of the United States, was deliberating in New York City, which was, of course, the capital of the country then.

They’d been deliberating since, and in September, they decided that they wanted to take a break. A few members of Congress thought it would be good to go to Washington and ask him to declare a Thanksgiving Day.

Now, other members of Congress objected, and there was a heated debate in Congress about whether the president had the authority under the constitution to declare a national Thanksgiving. The two objections are ones that will be familiar to all Americans today. The first was that Thanksgiving was a religious holiday, and therefore, outside the realm of authority of any president.

The second objection had to do with separation of powers. The argument was that because the authority to declare a Thanksgiving wasn’t specifically enshrined in the Constitution as going to the president, the president did not have the authority to do that. That it was only the governors who could declare day a Thanksgiving Day.

Congress debated this, and in the end, we don’t know the exact vote. A resolution passed, and a delegation went to Washington to ask him to declare a Thanksgiving Day for the nation.

Now, we all know what a great leader Washington was, and that leadership was shown in what he did. He issued a Thanksgiving proclamation and he had it sent to the governors of each of the 13 states. But he didn’t order them to celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, he requested that they do so.

In other words, Washington was saying that he understood that a presidential proclamation did not have the force of law. Now, of course, because of the high esteem in which the president was held, every governor went along with his request and the national Thanksgiving was celebrated nationwide.

Allen: I find that so fascinating. I also found really interesting in the book that for years and years, states didn’t necessarily celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day, that they chose to celebrate it maybe sometime in November or the end of October, even the beginning of December. It wasn’t until a woman named Sarah Hale came along that she pushed for the day to be celebrated across the nation on the exact same day every year.

Kirkpatrick: That’s right. I’ll come to Sarah Josepha Hale in a moment. But first, I’ll tell you that there’s an adage that I think is very funny that explains how Thanksgiving worked.

It was said back in the early part of the 19th century, that if a man plans his itinerary carefully, he could have a Thanksgiving dinner every week in the fall. So yes, governors chose the date of Thanksgiving, and they did not coordinate. Some states didn’t have Thanksgivings, so it wasn’t celebrated everywhere necessarily.

Sarah Josepha Hale is a remarkable character, and I’m actually writing a biography of her, which will, I hope, be coming out next fall. She was editor of the most popular magazine, of the most widely circulated magazine of the pre-Civil War period, a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Starting in the 1940s, she started a campaign for a national Thanksgiving. In the pages of her magazine, she would write editorials encouraging governors to coordinate and hold Thanksgivings on the same day. Then, privately, she wrote to presidents, and she wrote to governors, and she wrote to members of Congress, trying to make the case for a national Thanksgiving.

As the years got closer to the Civil War, she argued very passionately that Thanksgiving, a national Thanksgiving, would be a way to avoid war. She saw it as, if all Americans celebrated together on the same day, it would focus our attention on our blessings as a nation and avert war.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Every president turned her down, usually with the arguments that I mentioned earlier, as to why they thought the president did not have the authority to call a national Thanksgiving.

But then, in 1863, she wrote to Lincoln, and Lincoln agreed to call a national Thanksgiving. This was a remarkable undertaking given the timing of this. The country was, of course, engulfed in Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg had happened, had taken place in July, when there was a terrific loss of life on both sides.

But it also signaled the turning of the tide in the war. It became clear that the North was winning. Lincoln issued his proclamation with an eye toward the postwar future, a time when the country would again be united.

He used a beautiful phrase in his proclamation, calling on Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving with one heart and one mind. I think that’s a lovely thought that I think we should strive for in every Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps, especially this year, when the country has been so fractured over politics and culture.

Allen: Well, I want to mention that so many of those beautiful Thanksgiving Day proclamations by presidents, by first ladies, by other leaders, are in the book.

You have a whole section in the back of the book that is just readings for Thanksgiving Day, which I think is such a treasure for any family to have. You eat that big Thanksgiving Day meal and then you’re all sitting around like, “What do we do next?” It’s perfect.

Kirkpatrick: You know, Virginia, that was an afterthought. I’d actually finished the manuscript and I had all of these wonderful quotations from more than 400 years of history that I hadn’t been able to work into the book. Most of them are short. I begin with the Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” It’s a hymn of gratitude.

But the translation I published was the one from the Geneva Bible, which was the Bible that the Pilgrims used and took with them to Plymouth. The wording is quite different from the one we know today that comes mostly from the King James, or the Revised Standard Version.

It goes up to the present day. There are quotes from American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War. Then, in more recent conflicts about Thanksgiving Day, there are quotes from famous people in our history like Abigail Adams and Billy Graham. It was a lot of fun putting it all together.

Allen: Yeah. Well, it really is just an absolutely beautiful book. You have recipes in the back as well. It really is a treasure of a book. We’ll be sure in the show notes to link to it, so anyone who wants to order a copy can for themselves.

I’m really glad that we are talking about Thanksgiving, specifically this year. Because I think in 2020, it’s a year where celebrating Thanksgiving could maybe come with a little bit of hesitation, or I might even use the word resentment. It’s been a really hard year.

We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve seen racial tensions that have gone on for months and months in our country and spurred rioting and looting. We’ve had a very heated election.

But if we look back at that first Thanksgiving, after the Pilgrims had watched half … of their friends and family members die, and they had no way of knowing if they would make it through the next winter, I think it’s encouraging to remember that Thanksgiving was really birthed out of hardship. Do you feel like that’s an accurate assessment and fair to say?

Kirkpatrick: I do, Virginia, and that’s an eloquent way of putting it. This is true, too, for the European Thanksgivings that predated what we know as the first Thanksgiving.

One of the chapters in my book talks about those earlier Thanksgivings, which took place in Virginia and Texas and Maine, and even up in Canada, within the Arctic circle. I talk a little bit about Native Thanksgivings as well.

But yeah, Thanksgiving is born out of hardship. The holiday that marks the beginning of the modern tradition of Thanksgivings was Lincoln’s proclamation from 1863. If ever, that was a point in time when our country was torn apart more than it ever has been. Far worse than anything today.

On that note, I’d like to also mention that this Thanksgiving is going to be, as the lockdowns have been, it’s going to be very hard on people who are alone. So many elderly and other vulnerable people can’t meet with their relatives this year. There are a lot of your friends, there are a lot of people who are going to be celebrating, if they celebrate at all, by themselves.

I think one of the saddest images in American culture is someone who has nowhere to go on Thanksgiving Day. While it also has sparked a huge volunteer movement to help people, just those people who are left alone, or elderly, or sick, or in prison, or in the military, there are lots of charitable efforts to make sure that every American, no matter how desolate or how marginalized, will be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner.

Making that happen is a lot harder this year. If you have a food kitchen, you can’t invite people to come and sit around the table together with you. It’s a very challenging year, and I hope we all remember the less fortunate, as we are fortunate enough to sit around our own Thanksgiving tables.

Allen: Melanie, thank you so much for that reminder. And thank you for joining the show today.

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