1620 – A Quadrennial That Defines America

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Without 1620, there would be no 1776. There would be no United States. There would be no us.

As we sit down at our Thanksgiving Day tables – which this year includes grandma and grandpa joining us via Zoom – we should consider not just what we are thankful for, but what it took to get us here.

We can turn to the Pilgrims for inspiration.

Long persecuted for their beliefs, they put their trust in their faith and ventured into the unknown, trusting barely reliable sources and taking a chance that would end up costing many of them their lives.

Yet, they didn’t give up. They persevered. They took what the Lord had given them and made the best of it.

And they had allies, or was it a guardian angel?

Ultimately, they survived their dark winter and, next year, we will honor the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving.

But this year, we honor the landing and those that undertook a journey unlike any other – a truly American journey. Indeed, we hail them not merely as Pilgrims, but as the first Americans.

There had been others who came to this New World before the Pilgrims. Some centuries before, others just a few months before. The Pilgrims, however, stood apart from them all – the Spanish, the Dutch, the native inhabitants, even their fellow British subjects.

Indeed, they weren’t even the first Europeans to land in Massachusetts Bay. Captain Miles Standish, while on an early exploratory mission, discovered a decrepit European-style house with an abandoned iron kettle. It was no doubt left by some earlier visitors who perhaps sought greener pastures.

The Pilgrims were not like those venturers.

They didn’t come to America for money. They didn’t come to America to conquer. They came to America to live free (or die trying).

Along the way, their can-do ingenuity repaired the broken main mast that nearly caused them to return to their country of torment. To create some form of governance, they agreed to a document they drafted mid-ocean that we now call the “Mayflower Compact.” This agreement set the stage for the democracy America would soon embrace (albeit not in the pure form).

When the Pilgrims came ashore, they discovered what they thought was a deserted Nauset village. Little did they know the tribe had gone to their winter hunting grounds. Nonetheless, the Pilgrims, starved for food, took some corn they found among the huts.

Some might say they stole the corn. They didn’t. They bought it. They left an IOU note should the homeowners ever return. The next summer the Pilgrims repaid the Nauset upon their return. Is that an American ideal or what?

Perhaps the most American of events occurred when an unknown Indian approached the camp unannounced and alone on a cold afternoon in mid-March of 1621. After being ambushed by Indians in December, you could understand how this stranger alarmed the Pilgrims.

Imagine their relief when the Indian asked, in clear English, “Can I have a beer?” It was Squanto. In the most cordial of American ways, the Pilgrims obliged.

Hmm, come to think of it, maybe Squanto was the first American.

It was, of course, Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to not merely survive, but thrive. And thrive they did. After a desperate winter that saw half of them perish, Squanto showed the new settlers how to sow the seeds they had found.

By the fall, all was grand, and in November, the Pilgrims, together with their now friendly Indian neighbors, sat down for the first Thanksgiving.

It was a decade after their first landing that the seminal “American Ideal” was pronounced so convincingly. The Pilgrims were only the first wave of Puritans to come to Massachusetts. Another group came in 1630. In addressing that group, John Withrop, referencing the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14), said, “…as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us… So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

Today, scholars cite this passage as the foundation of the ideal of American exceptionalism.

It is this ideal that has propelled our nation to heights never before seen in the history of mankind.

Will others eventually exceed these lofty airs? No doubt.

But then, they, too, will be known as “Americans.”

I’ll leave you with this passage from the Thursday, November 27, 1884 edition of the Honeoye Falls Weekly Times:

Thanksgiving.

            The time-honored day is at hand, and many welcome it with pleasure. It is now a national holiday, but it took many years to bring it about. Each state used to have its separate day, but a number of philanthropic persons through the country sought for several years to make it national, and finally succeeded. What a grand affair it is for the entire nation like the United States to devote one day in the year to giving thanks! Family reunions are common, and many far away friends help to complete the family circle. Many friends meet on this day for “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” Truly we have many things to be thankful for; so many that we do no know where to begin to enumerate them. Every year adds more to the interest of this holiday, and the churches are well attended by the people, who are generally willing to contribute to come charitable and benevolent purpose. All hail Thanksgiving day! May it always be observed with reverence, and may the people at every anniversary feel more and more inclined to render thanks to the Almighty for his many blessings to them.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

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