ALEXANDRIA, VA — Now that the 2012 election campaign has come
to an end, it would be good if Americans could set aside partisan acrimony
as the nation prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving.
This holiday has an interesting history, and debate continues over
where, in fact, the first Thanksgiving took place. Those of us who
live in Virginia believe that the Old Dominion has a powerful historical
case that others have tended to overlook.
This writer visited the Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County,
Virginia, many years ago as the plantation prepared to celebrate the
350th anniversary of the first commemoration of Thanksgiving. Plantation
owner Malcolm Jamieson displayed letters from President John F. Kennedy
and former Massachusetts Governor John Volpe declaring that Berkeley
was the site of the first formal Thanksgiving in the New World.
Berkeley is the site of other historical firsts as well. The land
on which it stands was part of a grant made in 1619 by King James I
to the Berkeley Company and was designated “Berkeley Hundred.” On
December 4, 1619, the settlers stepped ashore there and, in accordance
with the proprietors’ instructions that “the day of our
ships’ arrival... shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day
of Thanksgiving,” they celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day
more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived in New England.
There is much history at Berkeley. In 1781, it was plundered by British
troops under Benedict Arnold. During the Civil War, it served as the
headquarters for General McClellan after his withdrawal from the Battle
of Malvern Hill. Federal troops were encamped in its fields, and transports
and gunboats were anchored in the James River. While quartered here
with McClellan in the summer of 1862, Gen. Butterfield composed “Taps.” It
is also reported that the first bourbon distilled in America was distilled
at Berkeley by an Episcopal minister.
To walk around the grounds at Berkeley is to enter another world.
This is where America began. It was strong men and women who built
a nation on these often inhospitable shores. They made many mistakes,
as people are always wont to do, but they created a new society in
which, as George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport,
Rhode Island, there would “be none to make men afraid.” We
are a young country, but we are also an old one. Our Constitution is
the oldest in the world, and we have continuously maintained the freedoms
to which we first paid homage. There has been no period of an elimination
of freedom of religion, or of the press, or of assembly. We have weathered
wars and depressions. We will also weather the difficulties in which
we are now embroiled. But we will do so only if Americans begin to
recall their history and their values and not give assent to those
who seek only to condemn and to destroy.
Several years ago, I visited a U.S. military ceremony in Italy —
near Anzio — with my son Peter and grandson Dario. This visit caused
me to reflect on the unique nature of American society.
It was instructive to read the names of the American dead. Virtually
all nationalities, ethnic groups, and religions are represented there.
In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote, “We are heirs of all time,
and with all nations we divide our inheritance.” If you kill
an American, he said, you shed the blood of the whole world.
America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam
in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover
that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his “Letters
from an American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote
in 1782: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new
race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes
in the world.”
Author Mario Puzo declared, “What has happened here has never
happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been
poor for centuries -- whose children had inherited their poverty, their
illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and
freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price
in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo
was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be
when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded, “For
a thousand years in Italy, no one in our family was even able to read.” But
in America, everything was possible — in a single generation.
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal party leader, said that
America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from the “millions
who have crossed the ocean, who should reckon the millions whose hearts
and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany,
Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course,
is only natural. America has been beloved not only by native Americans,
but by men and women of every race and nation throughout the world
who have yearned for freedom. America dreamed a bigger dream than any
nation in the history of man.
As we gather for our Thanksgiving celebrations, it is proper that
we reflect upon that first Thanksgiving in Virginia. We have come a
long way since that time, and most of that way has been good. Happy
The Conservative Curmudgeon archives
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012
by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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