THANKSGIVING 1971, the 350th anniversary of the “first” of the harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Mass. Invited to speak to a local historical society about that long-ago event, I described the ritual significance of food to the colonists and the Native Americans who attended. Afterward, someone asked, “Did they serve turkey?”
This was no idle question, for it captured the uneasiness many of us feel about the threads that connect past and present. Are our present-day values and practices aligned with the historical record, or have they been remade by our consumer culture? Is anything authentic in our own celebrations of Thanksgiving? And isn’t the deeper issue what the people who came here were like, not what they ate in 1621?
To return to the first of these harvest feasts is to return to the puzzling figure of the Puritan, the name borne by most of the English people who came to New England in the early 17th century. What did they hope to gain by coming to the New World, and what values did they seek to practice?
The easy answers simplify and distort. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later, bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. Over the years, Americans have added to Hawthorne’s unfriendly portrait with references to witch-hunting and harsh treatment of Native Americans.
But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. Tocqueville may not have realized that the colonists had installed participatory governance in the towns they were founding by the dozens. Yet he did credit them for the political system he admired in 19th-century America.
After all, it was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. Well aware of how English kings abused their powers of office, the colonists wanted to keep their new leaders on a short leash.
Tocqueville did not cite the churches that the colonists had organized, but he should have. Like most of their fellow Puritans in England, the colonists turned away from all forms of hierarchy. Out went bishops, out went any centralized governance; in came Congregationalism, which gave lay church members the power to elect and dismiss ministers and decide other major matters of policy. As many observed at the time, the Congregational system did much to transfer authority from the clergy to the people.
Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.
For this reason, no Puritan would have agreed with the ethic of “self-reliance” advanced by Hawthorne’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, people should agree on what was right, and make it happen. Wanting social peace, the colonists experienced plenty of conflict among themselves. It was upsetting when this happened, but among the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.
The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. Believing that the rule of law protected against arbitrary or unjust authority, the civil courts practiced speedy justice, empowered local juries and encouraged reconciliation and restitution. Overnight, most of the cruelties of the English justice system vanished. Marriage became secularized, divorce a possibility, meetinghouses (churches) town property.
And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.
Oh, and what did they eat? Although the menu in 1621 is nowhere specified, it certainly included venison, Indian corn, fish and “wild turkeys,” one species of the fowl that the Pilgrim Edward Winslow reported were accumulated in abundance just before the celebration.
* Text by DAVID D. HALL (NYT), November 23, 2010
David D. Hall, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of the forthcoming history “A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England.”