Politics & Policy

Be Thankful You Have Something to Grumble At

The First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Library of Congress)
Since 1621, Americans have been giving thanks on Thanksgiving.

“Oh, don’t the days seem lank and long

When all goes right and nothing goes wrong,

And isn’t your life extremely flat

With nothing whatever to grumble at!”

– Gilbert and Sullivan

At this shank end of a shabby year, Americans still can be thankful: They do not have the problem of nothing to grumble about. As we steel ourselves for Thanksgiving’s obligatory routs and revels — does anyone really like turkey? or Uncle Ralph, who keeps turning up, like a bad penny? — Americans are cudgeling their brains for reasons to feel gratitude. So, herewith a call for everyone to temper gloom with lucidity. Things could be worse. And they often have been while Americans nevertheless were giving thanks.

In her new book Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, Melanie Kirkpatrick traces the evolution of this celebration from the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast with members of the Wampanoag tribe. Congress urged George Washington to “recommend” to the people a day of thanksgiving, which he did. Thomas Jefferson, however, did not feel “authorized” to promote this “intermeddling” of government with religious observance.

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed that henceforth the last Thursday in November would be an official national holiday. He did so to thank God — and His instrument, the Union army — for the nation’s improving fortunes of war. And specifically for the victory at Gettysburg, where 47 days later Lincoln gave a short speech dedicating a cemetery. Thankfulness did not seem, and was not, inappropriate even in a context of American deaths in hitherto unimaginable numbers. Exactly 100 years later — 53 years ago — Thanksgiving fell six days after the murder of a president.

Things could be worse. And they often have been while Americans nevertheless were giving thanks.

In 1939, the New Deal having failed to banish the Depression — unemployment was 17.2 percent — Franklin Roosevelt unlimbered the heavy artillery, the plucky American shopper. Happy days would be here again because FDR was moving Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the third. In 1933, his first year in office, November had five Thursdays and Thanksgiving was on the 30th, and in 1939 it was again set to land on that day, to the horror of the nation’s biggest retailers, who coveted more post-Thanksgiving shopping days.

But a Brooklyn haberdasher wanted the later date: “If the large department stores are overcrowded during the shorter shopping period before Christmas, the overflow will come, naturally, to the neighborhood store.”

Generally, the nationwide reaction was, Kirkpatrick writes, “swift and vociferous.” The pastor at the Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth, Mass., lamented that “the sacred has given way to the secular forces of life.” Alf Landon, the losing Republican candidate against FDR in 1936, said the president has announced this change “to an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Twenty-two of the 48 states adopted what Republicans cheekily called Franksgiving on November 23, another 23 stayed with November 30, and three states celebrated both days.

Like much of the rest of the New Deal, moving Thanksgiving earlier failed to be an economic blessing. Nineteen days after Pearl Harbor, FDR signed a joint congressional resolution making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving.

Today’s president-elect, who is not always a human sunbeam, seems to regard the nation (“a hellhole”) as akin to tundra in that anything done to it will improve it. Perhaps his deft presidential touch on the tiller of the ship of state will soon have America sailing toward greatness. But his coming ascension to the ship’s bridge might cause a polar frost, followed by scorching heat, at many Thanksgiving dinner tables. Uncle Ralph, squinting at Aunt Emma’s defiantly worn “I’m With Her” button, is going to say, with measured malice, “I wish you were.” At least there will not be anesthetizing boredom caused by the turkey’s tryptophan.

#related#Modern presidential campaigns, like the presidency itself, are too much with us, which makes it difficult to relegate politics to the hinterland of our minds. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, the student government of Barnard College in New York City sent to all students this e-mail: “Happy Turkey Week. Thanksgiving is complicated. We urge you not to forget that this holiday commemorates genocide and American imperialism. But, enjoy the week off and make it into something meaningful.”

The e-mail’s authors deserve the fate of William Veazie, a Massachusetts church warden who in 1696 was spotted plowing a field on the day designated for Thanksgiving. Kirkpatrick says he was fined ten pounds and sentenced to an hour in the pillory in Boston.

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More