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Thankful they landed


Painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood

". . .it is the sheer modesty of the occasion that partly recommends it," writes Christopher Hitchens about Thanksgiving. "Everybody knows what's coming. Nobody acts as if caviar and venison are about to be served, rammed home by syllabub and fine Madeira. The whole point is that one forces down, at an odd hour of the afternoon, the sort of food that even the least discriminating diner in a restaurant would never order by choice."

Thanksgiving has always been associated in my mind with the Mayflower, and ever since I sailed east across the Atlantic into the equinoctial gales of September, I have appreciated those men, women, children and two dogs who sailed west across the Atlantic into the teeth of equinoctial storms. Their ship was far smaller than mine, and so crowded that many men slept on deck, sheltering under rowboats, but driven by an ideal they persevered.

Blown off course, deciding to land wherever they can, the Pilgrims realize they have no government they can rely on in the wilderness. So they write three long sentences that call for cooperation and self-government under majority rule, and pledge themselves to be bound by them. (Three sentences were enough since the Mayflower Compact was implicitly grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics.)

No matter that later historians sniffily tell us this is not much of a breakthrough. Men deciding they could and would govern themselves is a breakthrough in 1620, and in many parts of the world today. Their promise to cooperate is also striking.

With the help of the spaniel and the mastiff they hunted for food, and the Indians brought them corn and turkeys. Nevertheless half of them died of malnutrition and exposure before a year had passed. (The Indians, as we note here, were less lucky. It is estimated that 90% of the indigenous people of New England die from the diseases – smallpox, influenza, and diphtheria – the settlers unwittingly brought with them.)

Despite death and loss, and sometimes despite themselves, the Mayflower pilgrims help to plant freedom of religious conscience in their newfound land. That is reason to be glad, today and tomorrow.