Even the First Thanksgiving Was Political

A seat at the table is a good start. But in America, your place is never assured.

Can you stay for dessert?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a political holiday. It honors and mythologizes the comity -- based on a formal treaty -- between two peoples who needed what the other had to offer at a particular point in time.

Delighted not to be starving, the Puritans of what is now Massachusetts feasted for three days in 1621, and entertained the local Wampanoags as their guests. Neither group was "American" in any recognizable sense, because no such thing existed. What brought them together was not shared identity but shared interests: Trade. Protection from common enemies. Mutually valued exchanges of technology and skills.

puritan chair

This seat is taken.


Having sized up a hostile physical and political environment, from rocky soil to angry neighbors, the settlers found the Wampanoags worth cultivating, and opted to give the Indians a seat at the table.

Seats at the table, as anyone arrayed around a contemporary Thankgiving feast can attest, are not always comfortable -- or secure. They're subject to unforeseen events and unintended consequences, and to calibrations of power and diplomacy both delicate and blunt. As the Wampanoags lost power in the region, they ceded land, hunting grounds and sovereignty. Their precarious seat at the table was bound to slip away.

Their fate, obviously, was not unique. "As the colonial population grew," writes historian Roger L. Nichols, "white self-confidence replaced wariness, and by mid-decade" -- Nichols is speaking of the 1630s here -- "Puritan authorities became more aggressive."

Once-solicitous settlers, eager to glean insights into the production of corn and pelts, consolidated their position. As power relations evolved in their favor, they exercised the traditional prerogatives of the strong, doling out contempt or condescension toward the weak.

Dutch preacher Jonas Michaelius wrote in 1628 of Indians as "uncivil and stupid as garden stakes." Two decades later, Puritan missionary John Eliot showered gentle paternalism on "our Indian people," who, he gamely surmised, may be "better soil for the gospel than we can think."

By 1700, early slavery opponent Samuel Sewall had begun contemplating what later generations would recognize as a "reservation," a protected enclave well removed from any table of equals. 

I should think it requisite that convenient tracts of land should be set out to them; and that by plain and natural boundaries, as much as may be -- as lakes, rivers, mountains, rocks -- upon which for any Englishman to encroach should be accounted a crime. Except this be done, I fear their own jealousies, and the French friars, will persuade them that the English, as they increase and think they want more room, will never leave till they have crowded them quite out of all their lands. And it will be a vain attempt for us to offer Heaven to them if they take up prejudices against us, as if we did grudge them a living upon their own earth.

Long before President Abraham Lincoln established the Thanksgiving holiday, the crowding and the grudging had uprooted millions. Funneled onto a trail of tears, or packed into slave cabins, the ranks of the dispossessed expanded across a bustling continent.

Distributions of power are a reliable source of human conflict, with incumbent groups determined to hold their seats and newcomers eager to claim seats of their own. If there's anything unusual about the clash in our own time, it's the effort to ease, even systematize, the struggle.

Groups and policies exist specifically for the purpose. The Council of Urban Professionals in the U.S., for example, has a "Seat at the Table" initiative to increase the representation of women and racial minorities on the boards of nonprofit and public-sector organizations.

Yet perhaps one lesson to be drawn from America's first Thanksgiving is that the quality and duration of seats at the table are closely correlated to the amount of power held by those seated. Modern American culture informs us that relying on the kindness of strangers is a dubious proposition. And that God blesses the child that got his own. A long national history confirms the insights. The table is always short, the seats ever scarce.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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