When did the Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving? The traditional date is some time in the autumn of 1621. In a Slate article by Joshua Keating, of a few years past, that date is used to debunk claims by libertarians and conservatives that Thanksgiving is really a story of the bounties that come from private property. 

But the debunking falls apart on examination. 

Sure, as Keating rightly puts it, the privatization of farm land happened two years after the usual First Thanksgiving date. Things went along swimmingly after the privatization until there was a drought, and then, after much anguish and prayer, the rains came and the crops rose up allowing a big harvest months later. Governor William Bradford, in his history of the Plymouth Colony, mentions an explicit thanksgiving (or, as he spelled it, “thanks-giveing”) held at some unspecified time that autumn of 1623.

Contrast Keating’s account with that of Paul Jacob, published last Thursday at his Common Sense site. Mr. Jacob agrees with the story as told by Keating, but with caveats:

[T]he most obvious political lesson to be drawn from the Pilgrim experience got lost in stories of rain and corn and Indians and such.
But it’s worth noting that Bradford wrote his discussions of communism — and how very wrong Plato and his ilk were — in his primary text, while his talk of the drought was an afterthought in his mss., and appears as a footnote in the edition I’ve consulted.
Both Plymouth stories deserve to be told.

Paul Jacob seems to be making the case that the Privatizaton Thanksgiving is a valid story, basically undergirding the Drought Relief Thanksgiving story. There would have been no latter bounty had the privatization not taken place earlier.

But that is the 1623 Thanksgiving, which Keating calls a second Thanksgiving:

As Kate Zernike of the New York Times pointed out in 2010, the timeline doesn’t quite work. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621. The system of collective ownership known as the “common course” was abandoned in 1623. And it was abandoned not because of famine but because the settlers wanted to make more money.

And Keating and Zernike are in the majority, here: 1621 is the usual year given for the traditional First Thanksgiving. 

But Paul Jacob has an interesting counter to this:

The traditional date for the first Thanksgiving is given a few years earlier, with Squanto showing up and helping them plant and all. However, Bradford’s memoirs do not use the term thanksgiving (or “thanks-giveing”) or even “thanks” in relation to the harvests of 1621 at Plymouth Colony. But there is talk of plenty of food, including that Thanksgiving specialty, the turkey:

And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

And yes, I have checked this. Paul Jacob seems to be right: there is no menton of the bounty of autumn 1621 as a Thanksgiving Day. Nowhere, as Mr. Jacob notes, does Bradford even use the word “thanks” in his account of the harvests of that year.

This suggests to me that the traditional date is just wrong. One of those stories that we were taught by our poorly educated teachers, to make the whole thing sound romantic and less religious as well as less political. It is a huge error, and Keating repeating it seems an incredible lapse, to me. 

Par for the course: if you hold to a majority opinion, you can blithely go on transmitting and re-transmitting falsity. There was no special Thanksgiving in 1621. That is a fabrication of later romantic myth-makers.

But what of his other contention, that the privatization was not a matter of getting rid of socialism and starvation, but, instead, just a way for settlers to “make more money.”

Well, this is something close to prevarication, perhaps outright lying.

How so? 

He goes through a lot of folderol about corporate structure and so forth. But he somehow fails to quote the relevant passages of Bradford himself. In an earlier piece, Paul Jacob did quote the relevant passages, which I repeat here:

By the spring of 1623 — a little over three years after first settlement in Plymouth — things were going badly. Bradford writes of the tragic situation:

[M]any sould away their cloathes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to [the] Indeans, and would cutt them woode & fetch them water, for a cap full of corne; others fell to plaine stealing, both night & day, from [the] Indeans, of which they greevosly complained. In [the] end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger.

The problem? The colony had been engaging in something very like communism.

The experience that was had in this comone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that [the] taking away of propertie, and bringing in comunitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God.

Bradford relates the consequences of common property:

For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imploymet that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For [the] yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter [the] other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with [the] meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it.

This stikes me a thoroughly typical description of the bad consequences that common ownership schemes tend to produce. It is the Tragedy of the Commons, really, and the social consequences described by Bradford are not just about a lack of making a capitalist surplus. Keating’s charge that all Plymouth’s Pilgrims were looking to do was “make more money” is not borne out in the text. This is so clear, that one has to wonder about his veracity as a journalist/propagandist.

And the “socialism” element is also borne out by the text. What else to make of Bradford’s reference to the conceit of Plato and other ancients? How does Keating get around this obvious, quite blatant evidence in our primary text about the Plymouth Colony?

Oh, simple: he does not mention it. I know, he has a nice bit of broad-mindedness in his very last words, but the main contentions of Keating’s article are false, and miss the big story: that the traditional “First Thanksgiving” is just another just-so story told to manipulate youngsters and oldsters alike. Historians seem to continue the legend, even with the evidence to the contrary right in front of them. And Keating deliberately avoids dealing with the evidence that is most damning to the point he wants to make.

Slate’s debunking of a libertarian meme about Thanksgiving is typical of this genre. It is, itself, bunk.