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The Conservative Curmudgeon
November 14, 2012

Thanksgiving: A Time to Reflect on America’s Uniqueness
by Allan C. Brownfeld

First Thanksgiving

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 West?”

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 Thanksgiving!

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

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 East Affairs.

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