Aside from the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving is the most distinctly American of our national holidays.
As such, if we see it as more than just the day before the Christmas shopping season begins, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity to reflect on the direction of the nation.
The Pilgrims who came ashore at Plymouth Rock were not the first Americans. But their story, and their relatively peaceful interactions with the Indians who welcomed them to the region, form an essential part of the national narrative for many Americans.
It is as a touchstone for self-reflection and self-assessment that this day is most meaningful. Indeed, if we are to have any chance of making America the country it should be, it seems most likely that the process would begin on a day so rich in historical references as Thanksgiving.
This is not a contemporary observation spun out in the aftermath of a particularly disappointing national election. Rather, it is a variation on the theme taken up by Daniel Webster when he delivered one of the most remarkable speeches in the history of American oratory.
Late in the fall of 1820, two hundred years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Webster, then a young political figure who was still rising to prominence, was invited to deliver an oration on the site of their arrival. He used the opportunity not merely to reflect but to engage in the painful process of contrasting historic ideals with contemporary compromises. In addition to physical memorials to the Pilgrims’ progress, Webster said, “we would leave here, also, for the generations which are rising up rapidly to fill our places, some proof that we have endeavored to transmit the great inheritance unimpaired; that in our estimate of public principles and private virtue, in our veneration of religion and piety, in our devotion to civil and religions liberty, in our regard for whatever advances human knowledge or improves human happiness, we are not altogether unworthy of our origin.”
Noting the communal nature of the Pilgrim experiment, which broke from the feudal structures of the European lands they had fled, Webster warned that America was becoming less equal. And, he added, “The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless.”
But Webster did not limit himself to vague economic theory. He spoke specifically of America’s original sin: the practice of slavery.
“I deem it my duty on this occasion to suggest, that the land is not yet wholly free from the contamination of a traffic, at which every feeling of humanity must for ever revolt — I mean the African slave-trade. Neither public sentiment, nor the law, has hitherto been able entirely to put an end to his odious and abominable trade,” said Webster, who spoke at a time when most politicians refused to address the question of human bondage.
“At the moment when God in his mercy has blessed the Christian world with a universal peace, there is reason to fear, that, to the disgrace of the Christian name and character, new efforts are making for the extension of this trade by subjects and citizens of Christian states, in whose hearts there dwell no sentiments of humanity or of justice, and over whom neither the fear of God nor the fear of man exercises a control. In the sight of our law, the African slave-trader is a pirate and a felon; and in the sight of Heaven, an offender beyond the ordinary depth of human guilt.”
Those were radical words for the times. And to utter them in the midst of a discussion of America’s founding and heritage was considered inappropriate by the guardians of political propriety. But Daniel Webster used that day well, just as we should use this day — to call this country to the higher ground.