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According to the Acton Institute, Thanksgiving is about Capitalism

December 1, 2017

Organizations that are ideologically driven will often create narratives that serve their own purposes. This is exactly the case with a recent Acton Institute blog post, by Rev. Ben Johnson.

The titled of the post is, The other capitalist thanksgiving story: how trade saved the Pilgrims, and the US

This article by Rev. Johnson is full of misinformation and clearly creates a narrative to serve the Acton Institute’s ideological framework of celebrating capitalism.

The article begins by stating, “by now the Pilgrims’ disastrous experiment with collectivism in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is well-known, in free market circles if not among the young.”

The Acton writer wants to prove from the get go that collectivism or communalism doesn’t work, because the Pilgrims were a failure at it. One could hardly call the settler colonialists, living in what would later be named Massachusetts, an experiment in collectivism. The failure of the settler colonialists was due to their lack of agricultural knowledge in terms of their ability to feed themselves. They had to rely on the generosity of the Wampanoags, Pequot, Mohegan and Narragansett nations.

The Acton writer then goes on to state:

“At the beginnings of the system that we today know as capitalism, the Pilgrims were true economic pioneers,” wrote Peggy Baker, director emerita of the Plymouth Hall Museum. “Their adventure was one of spirituality, of settlement, and of finance.”

Again, Rev. Johnson pieces together a narrative to fit his ideological justification for capitalism. Cherokee scholar Ward Churchill (A Little Matter of Genocide) has a much different take on the relationship between the Pilgrims and the surround Native nations at the time of the so-called first Thanksgiving.

Once they’d achieved self-sufficiency, of course, the Pilgrims set about destroying their native saviors with a vengeance, finishing the first part of the job by 1637. Richard Drinnon, among others, has described the link they forged between total destruction of the indigenous way of life on the one hand and of the very habitat of New England on the other. By 1675, when the colonists of what was by now not only Plymouth, but Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies as well, turned from the now-obliterated Pequots and Western Niantics to tackle the adjacent Wampanoags and Narragansetts, the wholesale and systematic destruction of villages and croplands was standard tactical fare.”

Thus, if by trade and capitalism, the Acton writer means wipe out the indigenous communities, take their land and eliminate trade competitors, then yeah, this is what happened.

However, Rev; Johnson does not mean the same thing as Ward Churchill. In fact, Rev. Johnson spends the rest of the article praising the “durable colony” because of the trade and commerce they created, which was assisted by the government shifting from government restriction to government promotion of trade. Thus, another ideological point is supported by Johnson’s narrative, which states that government should not regulate, but promote trade.

What is glaringly omitted in the rest of the Acton blog post is the murder of neighboring indigenous communities and the theft of their land. Indeed, Rev. Johnson cannot tell this part of history, because it would disrupt the ideological narrative he has created, one that ignores genocide.

The Acton writer concludes his blog post with the following paragraph:

By the time the two colonies were combined as the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1692, trade and commerce had created a durable colony, assuring the survival of the Pilgrim experiment. The Puritans’ romanticized role in America’s founding would give the nation the tradition of Thanksgiving and may be, at least in part, responsible for its status as the most religious nation in the West. And John Winthrop’s description of the colony as “a shining city upon a hill,” echoing down through the words of a patriotic (and Calvinist) president, continue to shape America’s global image as an inviting beacon of liberty, faith, and human rights – the intangibles that underlie the prosperity we pause to celebrate every Thanksgiving.

This is a fitting ending to Rev. Johnson’s ideological narrative, especially the use of “a shinning city upon a hill” and the claim that the US is a beacon of liberty, faith, and human rights. What Rev. Johnson is essentially describing here is what is referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery.

Native Scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has a much different description of what the Doctrine of Discovery is, which she addresses at length in her book, An indigenous People’s History of the United States.

According to the centuries old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it. Under this legal cover for theft, Euro-American wars of conquest and settler colonialism devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property, real estate. Most of that land ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans. Arcane as it may seem, the doctrine remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them.

In the name of capitalism, the Acton Institute justifies the distorted history of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and perpetuates a settler colonial narrative that continues to impact Indigenous people to the present.

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