Every Thanksgiving, like clockwork, an email makes its way around the inboxes of conservative Americans across the country -- along with those of the unsuspecting family members and friends to whom they may forward it. The missive claims to tell "The True Story of Thanksgiving." In reality, all it does is further propagate myths and lies about the already greatly misunderstood holiday.
Limbaugh tells the same story each November, lifted from chapter six, "Dead White Guys, or What the History Books Never Told You," of his 1994 book, "See, I Told You So." The accuracy in Limbaugh's telling of the story basically ends with the title of the chapter -- it is indeed a story about dead white guys, and it is a story that, truthfully, is not told in history books.
But the reason it is not told in history books is not, as Limbaugh implies, because the real story has been hidden, stifled, repressed; rather, the reason it is not told in history books is because it is not actual history. It is ahistorical right-wing propaganda; it is conservative mythology that was conjured to defend an idealized, fictitious representation of the United States of America and its origins.
In Limbaugh's telling, which is echoed ad nauseam by the Tea Party, the Pilgrims were early-17th-century socialists who created a "forerunner to the communes we saw in the '60s and '70s out in California." Their supposed socialist experiment, Limbaugh insists, "didn't work. They nearly starved!"
It was only by abandoning collective ownership of property and adopting capitalist principles, Limbaugh insists, that the Pilgrims subsequently flourished. To celebrate their success, and to give thanks to God and the Almighty Free Market, the conservative pundit maintains, the colonists created Thanksgiving.
Supply-side economics "existed before the 1980s," he insists, referring to the euphemistic name for top-down free-market economic policies implemented by Ronald Reagan. The colonists "set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London. And the success and prosperity of the Plymouth settlement attracted more Europeans."
"It was capitalism and Scripture which saved the day," Limbaugh concludes, which he says is "acknowledged by George Washington in his first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789" -- a proclamation in which Washington mentions neither capitalism nor Scripture (although he does mention science).
Rush Limbaugh uses the story in order to bludgeon socialism. In the process, he also bludgeons history.
Debunking the myths
Limbaugh is indeed right that the Pilgrims collectively owned their property, in a system Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford called the "common course." Yet, in her thorough debunking of the myth in 2010, New York Times correspondent Kate Zernike pointed out that "The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving."
That is to say, the first Thanksgiving was held when the common course was still being practiced, when the Pilgrims, according to Limbaugh, were still socialists.
The system of collective ownership of property was indeed abandoned, but not until 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving. In Limbaugh's description, then, Thanksgiving, the first American holiday, was actually created by socialists.
Historian Richard Pickering, a leading expert on the Pilgrims, explains that, when the common course was abolished, it was not abolished because it did not work -- it actually worked just fine -- but rather because the colonists simply did not like it. Pickering said "there was griping and groaning," and, as Zernike explained, "this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness."
Moreover, the reason the Pilgrims later became more prosperous was not because they became capitalists, but rather because they had learned how to better farm the new crops in the new soil on the new lands they had only just moved to a few years before.
Pundits like Limbaugh spread the same right-wing myths about the Jamestown colony too. But historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman told the New York Times, "To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate. It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?"
In other words, Jamestown, where there was famine, was an especially capitalist colony, completely under the control of corporate power -- the opposite of socialism.
Zernike traces the roots of this persistent right-wing myth back to 1950s and '60s Cold War propaganda. Slate writer Joshua Keating recalls a 1968 op-ed by right-wing libertarian writer Henry Hazlitt, whom Ronald Reagan called an "intellectual leader" who "shaped so much of our thoughts." Keating also cites a slew of similar right-wing pieces that have popped up in the past few decades.
There is something deeply ironic about the fact that, in his book and much-circulated email, and in the myriad right-wing op-eds published since, Limbaugh and his ilk have actually been stealing the intellectual property of Cold War propagandists -- propagandists who had vested interests in portraying early American settlements as failed socialist communes that only succeeded upon embracing capitalism.
Limbaugh's "True Story of Thanksgiving" is just another example of the Big Lie -- and the more Tea Partiers repeat it, the more it is believed to be true, simply by virtue of it having so often been repeated.
American colonization was a capitalist venture
The Tea Party telling of Thanksgiving history does retain a kernel of truth about capitalism and the history of the U.S. The thing is, its implications are the opposite of what they intended.
The colonists may have been motivated by religion, but their sponsors -- those without whom they never could have made the trip -- were motivated by profit. The New World held prospects for minerals, spices, and other natural resources.
Regardless of who owned the property or how it was owned, the Pilgrims' colony was exactly that: a colony. The Pilgrims were settler colonialists.
In his telling of the Thanksgiving story, Limbaugh name-drops Karl Marx. The actual Marx condemned the brutal European colonization of the Americas, which he recognized as fundamentally capitalist in nature. In his 1867 magnum opus "Capital," Marx wrote, with caustic sarcasm:
"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation."
"The discovery of gold and silver in America," as Marx pointed out, was the real reason for the colonization of the Americas -- which began well over a century before the Pilgrims even arrived -- not religious freedom.
The Pilgrims' trip to the New World was financed by the Merchant Adventurers, an English company that sought to profit off of the colony. It was to powerful English capitalists that the Pilgrims were indebted.
Later settlements were funded by the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth. Entrepreneurs sought to profit off of American colonization. The Pilgrims, regardless of their deep-seated religious beliefs, would never have been able to travel across the ocean if it were not for the blessing of business elites.
As for "the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population" of which Marx spoke, this was the result of the avarice of the European settlers and their financiers. The real victims of capitalism were the indigenous peoples of modern-day New England.
The real victims of capitalism: Natives
There was an unavoidable problem in the Virginia Company's business plan. When the Pilgrims landed in New England in 1620, in what is now modern-day Massachusetts, it was already inhabited by Native peoples. Limbaugh's telling -- along with many more tellings of Thanksgiving history -- completely overlooks this basic, elementary historical fact.
Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop had a solution: steal the land of the indigenous peoples. Naturally, the people living on this land did not like that idea, and resisted. Ergo, in order to remove the indigenous people from their lands, Winthrop proposed a simple policy: mass murder.
Writing of Block Island, which is part of modern-day Rhode Island, and which had previously been inhabited by the Narraganset people, whom the settlers conflated with the Pequots, Governor Winthrop said:
"They had commission to put to death the men of Block Island, but to spare the women and children, and to bring them away, and to take possession of the island; and from thence to go to the Pequods to demand the murderers of Captain Stone and other English, and one thousand fathom of wampum for damages, etc. and some of their children as hostages, which if they should refuse, they were to obtain it by force."
English colonist John Mason oversaw the slaughter of entire villages of indigenous peoples. He first proposed setting fire to the Natives' homes. As for those who escaped, William Bradford, who was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact, recounted in his "History of the Plymouth Plantation":
"Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie."
Historian Howard Zinn documented some of the countless crimes the colonists carried out against the indigenous peoples.
In reality, the exact opposite of what Limbaugh and other propagandists say about the history of the Pilgrims is true. Many of the settlers were mass murderers who systematically tried to remove Native peoples (at least those who did not die from disease, of which millions did) from their land in order to colonize it.
That is to say, the real history the Right ironically overlooks is that the colonists systematically stole the property of the Natives through violent barbarism. And the victims, many of the indigenous peoples of modern-day America, were the ones who were actually practicing socialism, owning property collectively, working for the common good and not profit.
Further compounding this ahistorical propaganda, this balderdash that turns reality on its head, is the fact that the colonists would likely have died if it were not for some of the very Native peoples they would massacre. When it came to agriculture, many of the Pilgrims were incompetent. They were not used to growing food in a different climate, with distinct soil and crops. If it were not for the help of indigenous people like Tisquantum -- known more commonly as Squanto -- many Pilgrims would have starved to death.
To put it in a more simplistic framing, à la Limbaugh, the private property-valuing colonists repaid the socialist Natives who helped them survive by slaughtering them and stealing their property.
Renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm detailed in his 1983 book "The Invention of Tradition" how many traditions that "appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented." Hobsbawm showed how invented traditions are ideological constructs, created to say a particular thing about a society, and to ultimately enforce behavior that serves the interests of ruling elites.
The textbook example of invented tradition often given is the kilt. Scholar Anthony Giddens notes that the kilt, perhaps the most prominent Scottish symbol, was in fact invented by an English industrialist in the early 18th century. "Kilts were a product of the industrial revolution," Giddens explained.
Drawing on Hobsbawm's work, Giddens says "Much of what we think of as traditional, and steeped in the mists of time, is actually a product at most of the last couple of centuries, and is often much more recent than that."
Many national symbols are relatively recent inventions that were created to enforce a bond of community that could then be harnessed for nationalist purposes. Thanksgiving is one of these many symbols.
All nations are ultimately founded upon myths -- and the founding myth of a nation says a lot about it. The ways in which the mythology of the first Thanksgiving is told reflect the values of those telling it.
The myths Limbaugh and fellow right-wing pundits propagate are a paragon of this invented tradition. They are based much more in the imaginations of the Right than they are in actual history. They are ideological constructs that serve the interests of economic and political elites who want to see the U.S. remain a more capitalistic, nationalistic, and ultimately narcissistic country.