Each year around Thanksgiving, there are numerous articles hoping to correct our understanding of the 1621 harvest feast between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. Rightly so, people want to complicate our understanding of a mythic past and set the record straight. Still, this obsession with correcting the vision of the feast may be missing the point of the day. Thanksgiving reminds us to be thankful, to show gratitude. We would do well to dwell on this over the historical inaccuracies of elementary plays and popular myth. (Still, you should google “real thanksgiving” if you public myths still dominate your conceptions of Thanksgiving).
In the 1700s, several American colonies declared “a public day of THANKSGIVING” in order for people to stop their routines, pray, and count their blessings. In fact, in 1789, George Washington even declared the first national thanksgiving, to take place on November 26 (same as this year!).
While such proclamations happened throughout our country’s history (perhaps most famously, by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Congress did not make Thanksgiving a national federal Holiday until 1941. More than anything, rather than remembering the pilgrims, these days were reminders to show gratitude. Thus, in a simple way, remembering their purpose can hopefully drive us to gratitude this year, even amidst the host of unprecedented events we have endured in 2020.
Diving a little deeper into the connection between Thanksgiving and history, though, I hope to unpack how thinking historically can make us more thankful. A few weeks ago, we explored how when we think historically by understanding how things change over time, we can become more empathetic. We recongized that people in the past were different from us in many ways, and in order to properly understand them on their own terms, we must humble ourselves and seek truth over ideology. This takes an empathy that history cultivates well. Connected to this, it can cultivate gratitude.
When historians can humble themselves enough to enter into the shoes of the historical actors they study, they are better equipped to be thankful for their own circumstances. This of course, does not mean that history naturally progresses (it definitely does not), or that present circumstances are better than past circumstances. Rather, it acknowledges that humility allows for gratitude. When people show humility, they are more able to be grateful for what they do have. Humility implies that they may have or receive things they did not necessarily deserve, and are therefore grateful to have. In a sense, the road to gratefulness is paved with humility.
The discipline of history forces a type of humility that is hard to find in other areas of the academy. Rather than seeking to fit past events into a box, like many theory-driven disciplines hope to do, historians try to understand the events first. Without the need to properly place the past into a neat category, a more full expression of the past is illuminated. In this process, a deeper humility is cultivated. If the past does not align with present convictions, that is ok. We can disagree with past actions while still maintaining our quest to pursue historical accuracy. With no urgent need to use the past for present benefits, historians can humbly try to understand the past rather than co-opting it for a specific purpose or use. This intellectual humility can lead to an intellectual gratitude. We want to push for this intellectual humility with our historical thinking curriculum.
When humility drives inquiry, gratitude develops. Gratitude to be along the historical road with those before us. Gratitude for the opportunities to study. Here in the United States, gratitude to be in a country that allows us to critically examine our own past in order to deepen our own understandings. Gratitude to pursue a democracy knowing the shortcomings of the alternatives.
While it is easier to write about these areas of gratitude than to live in them, having a day of thanks, as commissioned by Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, allows for deeper reflection. As we stop our normal routines in order to reflect on what we are thankful for, we can recognize the unique historical moment we live in, pursue the progress we long for, and be grateful for the things we have, know, and have experienced.