Nov. 25, 2010
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. 2 Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. 3 Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. 4 Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. 5 For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.
Today is Thanksgiving Day.
Feast days giving thanks for a good harvest have been celebrated for thousands of years. But when we talk about "the first Thanksgiving," we are referring to a fall feast day in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when about 50 recently arrived colonists shared in three days of feasting with 90 Wampanoag Indians. The pilgrims had arrived almost a year earlier, but after a long journey and no resources for surviving in this new place, about half of them died during the first winter. The wheat they had brought didn't sprout in the rocky soil, and they had no idea which native plants were edible and which were poisonous.
Luckily for them, there were two Indians living nearby who spoke English. One of them, Squanto, had been enslaved by a British slave trader, but was also close friends with an English explorer, John Weymouth. The other, Samoset, was a leader from a tribe in what is now Maine, and had learned English from British fishermen there. The colonists were quite surprised when Samoset walked into their camp and said, "Welcome, Englishmen!" in English. He introduced them to Squanto, and to Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag.
Samoset went back to his tribe, but Squanto felt sorry for the sick and confused colonists, and since he lived nearby anyway, he decided to stay and teach them how to survive in this new place. He taught them to plant corn, to fish and dig clams, to tap maple trees, to use wild plants as medicine, and to build shelters in the Wampanoag style. By that fall, they had successfully harvested their first crops, and they had built seven houses, a common space, and three shelters to store their excess food. So they had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
The colonists decided to set aside a few days to eat and give thanks for their harvest. They had celebrated Thanksgiving in the past, but as a purely religious holiday, full of praying, not celebration. They invited Squanto and Massasoit and their families to come, expecting a few people. But Squanto and Massasoit brought 90 people with them to join the 52 colonists. The feasting lasted for three days, and they probably ate venison, duck, lobsters, mussels, chestnuts, parsnips, eel, corn, dried beans, plums, gooseberries, and squash. There were no potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pies, and probably not even turkey.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1884, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published a piece in The Philadelphia Press, writing about himself in the third person. He wrote:
"Scene.— A large family supper party, a night or two ago, with voices and laughter of the young, mellow faces of the old, and a by-and-by pause in the general joviality. 'Now, Mr. Whitman,' spoke up one of the girls, 'what have you to say about Thanksgiving? Won't you give us a sermon in advance, to sober us down?' The sage nodded smilingly, look'd a moment at the blaze of the great wood fire, ran his forefinger right and left through the heavy white mustache that might have otherwise impeded his voice, and began: 'Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry. [...] We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man's or woman's — the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination — what geologists call the 'trend.' Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it.'"
On November 30, 1905, Thanksgiving Day, Mark Twain (books by this author) turned 70. He wrote: "Every year every person in America concentrates all his thought upon one thing, the cataloguing of his reasons for being thankful to the Deity for the blessings conferred upon him and upon the human race during the expiring twelve months. This is well and as it should be; but it is too one-sided. No one ever seems to think of the Deity's side of it; apparently no one concerns himself to inquire how much or how little He has had to be thankful for during the same period; apparently no one has had good feeling enough to wish He might have a Thanksgiving day too. There is nothing right about this. Do you suppose everything has gone to His satisfaction during the year? Do you believe He is as sweepingly thankful as our nation is going to be, as indicated by the enthusiasms which will appear in the papers on the 30th of this month from the pens of the distinguished persons appointed to phrase its thankfulness on that day?"
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), Barbara Kingsolver (books by this author) wrote: "Turkeys have walked wild on this continent since the last ice age, whereas Old Europe was quite turkeyless. (That fact alone scored them nearly enough votes to become our national bird, but in the end, I guess, looks do matter.) Corn pudding may be the oldest New World comfort food; pumpkins and cranberries, too, are exclusively ours. It's all American, the right stuff at the right time. To this tasty assembly add a cohort of female relatives sharing work and gossip in the kitchen, kids flopped on the living room floor watching behemoth cartoon characters float down a New York thoroughfare on TV, and men out in the yard pretending they still have the upper-body strength for lateral passes, and this is a perfect American day. If we need a better excuse to focus a whole day on preparing one meal, eating it, then groaning about it with smiles on our faces, just add a dash of humility and hallelujah. Praise the harvest. We made it through one more turn of the seasons."
It was on this day in 1864 that a group of rebels failed in their attempt to burn down the city of New York.
By 1864, things weren't going well for the Confederate Army, and it seemed unlikely that they could gain enough military ground fighting in the South to win the war. So Jefferson Davis turned to political maneuvering. There was a group in the North known as the Copperheads, or Peace Democrats, who strongly opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. They wanted peace, but they wanted it for complex reasons — they didn't exactly support slavery, but many of them sympathized with Southern slaveholders; and they didn't want Lincoln to free the slaves, partly out of racism and partly out of fear that freed slaves would move North and compete for jobs. The Copperhead movement was most popular in rural areas of Ohio, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, where they were wary of the North's quick industrialization. They called for a return to America's core values. And they were especially harsh in their criticism of Lincoln, calling him a "fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism," a "tyrant," and a "butcher." They circulated material about Lincoln's pact with the devil, and portrayed him as a black man, "Abraham Africanus."
Davis was hopeful that he could join forces with these Northern sympathizers. He had received coded letters claiming that there were 490,000 Copperheads ready to organize and act against Lincoln and the government. Davis sent Jacob Thompson, a former senator and Secretary of the Interior, to Toronto, to head up a Confederate Secret Service. Thompson set up a plot for Confederate agents to sneak down to Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention would be in September. Their plan was to free almost 20,000 Confederate soldiers who were locked up in Illinois, and those soldiers would unite with the Copperheads into a huge army that would materialize right in the North and force Lincoln to divert troops to the Midwest. At the same time, one of the Copperheads would be endorsed by the party and win the election away from Lincoln, and the Civil War could end in a way that the Confederacy and the Copperheads liked.
But the plot didn't materialize. No one is sure how many Copperheads there really were in the Midwest, but the numbers are probably exaggerated, and in any case there was a big gap between hating the President and being prepared to join a rebel army. So nothing came of that idea.
Instead, a new plot was hatched, this time to burn down New York City just before the presidential election. Eight young Confederate officers, all under the age of 30, went to Toronto to plan the mission. Unfortunately for them — and fortunately for Lincoln, the North, and the city of New York — the men had been distinguished soldiers but they weren't very good secret operatives. Their plan involved burning several targets each, using a substance called "Greek fire," a combination of phosphorous and turpentine that ignited as soon as it had contact with air. But they weren't going to get the Greek fire until they arrived in New York, so none of them practiced using it before they got to the city, at which point they spent a few minutes playing around in Central Park. But the police had been tipped off, and right before the elections, thousands of Union troops arrived in New York to maintain the peace. Sherman's recent victory in Atlanta had refueled Lincoln's popularity, and he won easily. The group decided to postpone their arson. Instead of choosing the sites most likely to spread a fire, like lumber yards and the gas works, they chose mostly hotels. They decided to make piles of furniture and bed linens and at a certain time, all light them on fire.
And on this day in 1864, they gave it a try. They set fire to 13 hotels, a pier, a barge, and Barnum's Museum. But the fires totally failed. Only one hotel was seriously damaged, and no one was badly hurt. It turns out that the men hadn't known enough to open the doors and windows — with them shut, the phosphorous didn't have enough oxygen and just smoldered and went out. The remaining fires were quickly discovered by staff at the hotels and put out by the fire department. What could have been total devastation is now an almost forgotten event.
From the archives:
It's the birthday of American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835). He came to this country as a teenager and took a job in a factory in Pittsburgh. He wanted to educate himself, but although there were public libraries at the time, you had to pay an annual fee to become a member. Carnegie wrote a letter to the editor of The Pittsburgh Dispatch, arguing that poor people should be given free access to libraries so that they could improve themselves. The director of Carnegie's local library read the letter, and it persuaded him to change the rule.
With the help of the library, Carnegie got himself a job as a telegrapher for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and in just 11 years he had worked his way up to vice president. He went on to start his own steel company, and when he sold it 10 years later, it made him one of the richest men in the world. He spent the rest of his life giving that money away, and among other things he built almost 3,000 libraries across the country, and he required that the libraries inscribe phrases like "Free Library" or "Free to the People" over their entrances, so that the libraries would always remain free.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®