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America, Rediscover Thanksgiving’s Radical Past

“Gratitude” has become a vapid buzzword, but being grateful can be a revolutionary act. Just look to Lincoln and FDR.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt celebrate Thanksgiving at Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1935.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt celebrate Thanksgiving at Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1935.

What does Thanksgiving mean in a culture where we are constantly exhorted to be grateful all year long? In progressive circles—and even in some corporate boardrooms—we now often begin a meeting by giving thanks to Indigenous people, acknowledging that we are on “stolen lands.” Thanks for what? Being conquered and defeated? Oprah, one of the richest women on earth, often admonishes the masses to “practice” gratitude every day, seemingly asking us to acquiesce in our own conquered and defeated state. The injunction to be grateful can feel reactionary, like a dismissal of our legitimate collective complaints, or a license for complacency.

Thanksgiving has historically not been immune from these political problems. Sarah Josepha Hale, in campaigning for Thanksgiving as a national holiday, wrote in 1835, “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing … the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.” This year, loud, confrontational objection to our escalating climate crisis and civilizational collapse would seem more on point than gratitude. Thanksgiving celebrates an abundance that feels precarious now, and for some, already elusive. The traditional harvest festival arrives at a time of crop failures, food shortages, and unusually high food prices. Many of these problems are due to climate change, another example of how global warming is causing hardship and hunger—not just for our grandchildren, as we used to fear, but for contemporary humans.

Still, perhaps it’s my New England upbringing, but I’m not quite ready to give up on gratitude and its national expression. We love to gather with family and friends, and we love food, but we also enjoy feeling grateful. There’s a pleasure in considering what’s good in our lives: Some of the elders are still alive, our kids are miraculous, the Zinfandel and chestnut stuffing just right. Why not thank everyone we love for being themselves, and especially my husband for making the potato gratin (and admittedly all the other dishes, too)? Gratitude can feel like a reprieve from all the tiresome aspiration of capitalism; an embrace of what we have. Giving thanks is a respite from the struggle to achieve more, one reason that for many of us, gratitude is a spiritual practice, whether we’re lifting up our hearts and singing in church, or just taking a walk in the park. Thanksgiving feels good for all those reasons.

Is a revolutionary gratitude possible? I think so. We want to save the planet from destruction because we love the oceans and forests so fiercely and are thankful for them. Perhaps even more, we want to save the humans we cherish. Giving thanks for our friends, family, beautiful strangers, and great civilizations, we resolve to work even harder to protect them all. It feels like a more promising—perhaps more sustaining—emotional foundation than the apocalyptic panic that pervades our news cycle. The history of Thanksgiving offers some inspiration in this vein.

The storied “first Thanksgiving” is often viewed, rightly skeptically by the left, as a whitewash of brutal colonial conquest of the earliest Americans. Yet nineteenth-century opposition to the holiday is equally ugly. Thanksgiving was rejected by the South as a form of crypto-abolitionism because of its association with New England, and specifically with New England Protestants. Southerners even saw it as part of a “war on Christmas” that will be familiar to today’s Fox News viewers; the Richmond Daily Dispatch in 1853 hoped the latter holiday would “never be thrown into the shade by any festival of modern invention.” Thanksgiving was not central to American national culture or identity until Abraham Lincoln confirmed the worst fears of the white Southern elites by putting it to the radical uses they feared.

In 1863, celebrating Northern Civil War victories and acknowledging the staggering sorrow and sacrifice of that conflict, President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving, inaugurating the current tradition. (Hale had written to Lincoln on the matter earlier that year.) Lincoln intended the giving of thanks to represent national unity, asking both divine and moral forces to end the reactionary Confederate threat to the country, to “heal the wounds of the Nation,” care for “those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged,” and restore peace. Lincoln’s plea was published in Harper’s magazine that month illustrated by images of not only prayerful gratitude, but also black emancipation. Lincoln’s gratitude for “fruitful fields and healthful skies” was not a complacent or conservative one, nor was it understood that way at the time.

We can also look to the New Deal era for inspiration. While famous for moving the date of Thanksgiving to increase Christmas shopping and boost the economy—a vulgar move to be sure—Franklin Delano Roosevelt also indirectly played a role in culturally elevating a less capitalistic view of Thanksgiving. FDR outlined his vision of “four freedoms” in 1941, one of which, enraging conservative free marketeers, was the “freedom from want.” Two years later, the Saturday Evening Post solicited essays on each of the freedoms, asking Norman Rockwell to illustrate them. Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” in which an elderly couple serves a turkey to their smiling family, remains the most enduring and iconic of the images. The painting surely captures gratitude, but the accompanying essay by Carlos Bulosan, a poet, novelist, and Filipino immigrant, turned FDR’s phrase into a radical demand: “So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves. It is only when we have plenty to eat—plenty of everything—that we begin to understand what freedom means.” Taken together, Rockwell’s image and Bulosan’s essay inspire gratitude for plenty and a commitment to create a society in which that plenty is shared by all.

But perhaps the most radical gratitude is found in the Indigenous tradition. Not the recent neo-colonialist tradition of awkwardly saying thank you to America’s Native communities, but in their own tradition of thanking everything. “The Thanksgiving Address,” a 1993 English translation of a Mohawk text, offers gratitude to the earth, the waters, the fish, the plants, the animals (“we hope they will always be there”), the birds, and fellow people. This thanksgiving is not without responsibility: “We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things… Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth.” This Thanksgiving, we celebrate that good life, and all life on earth—and demand that it be saved.