The Pilgrims were, of course, migrants seeking refuge from intolerance and threats, hardship and violence. It is the recollection of their experience that underpins the deeply rooted American values not just of welcoming the stranger but of respecting religious diversity.
As dissenters against the interwoven church and state of their native England, Pilgrims were hounded in their homeland. “Like others who refused to follow the Church of England’s teachings, some of them were harassed, fined or even sent to jail,” recall the historians of the Pilgrim experience. “When they felt they could no longer suffer these difficulties in England, they chose to flee to the Dutch Netherlands.”
In time, however, economic hardship and fear of war led them to undertake a perilous Atlantic voyage to North America.
President Obama picks up the story in his 2015 Thanksgiving Proclamation:
Upon arriving in Plymouth, at the culmination of months of testing travel that resulted in death and disease, the Pilgrims continued to face great challenges. An indigenous people, the Wampanoag, helped them adjust to their new home, teaching them critical survival techniques and important crop cultivation methods. After securing a bountiful harvest, the settlers and Wampanoag joined in fellowship for a shared dinner to celebrate powerful traditions that are still observed at Thanksgiving today: lifting one another up, enjoying time with those around us, and appreciating all that we have.
In a moment of ugly politics and harsh pronouncements—especially with regard to refugees from Syria but also toward migrants and immigrants from many lands—and a harsh disregard for religious and cultural diversity, the president gently reminds Americans of their own history and recognizes that “the inherent selflessness and common goodness of the American people endures.”
“In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country’s story,” declares the president. “Each of us brings our own traditions, cultures and recipes to this quintessential American holiday—whether around dinner tables, in soup kitchens or at home cheering on our favorite sports teams—but we are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our nation. Let us express our gratitude by welcoming others to our celebrations and recognize those who volunteer today to ensure a dinner is possible for those who might have gone without. Together, we can secure our founding ideals as the birthright of all future generations of Americans.”