Autumn is here again – in England, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, in the US also the season of Thanksgiving. On the fourth Thursday in November, schoolchildren across the country will stage pageants, some playing black-suited Puritans, others Native Americans bedecked with feathers. By tradition, Barack Obama will ‘pardon’ a turkey, but 46 million others will be eaten in a feast complete with corncobs and pumpkin pie. The holiday has a long history: Lincoln fixed the date (amended by Roosevelt in 1941), and Washington made it a national event. Its origins, of course, lay in the Pilgrim Fathers’ first harvest of 1621.
Who now remembers who these intrepid migrants were – not the early ‘founding fathers’ they became, but who they were when they left? The pageant pilgrims are undifferentiated. Who knows the name of Christopher Martin, a merchant from Billericay near Chelmsford in Essex? He took his whole family on the Mayflower, most of whom, including Martin himself, perished in New Plymouth’s first winter. They died Essex folk in a strange land: there was nothing ‘American’ about them. And as for Thanksgiving, well that habit came from the harvest festivals and religious observances of Protestant England. Even pumpkin pie was an English dish, exported then forgotten on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
Towns like Billericay, Chelmsford and Colchester were crucial to American colonization: ordinary places that produced extraordinary people. The trickle of migrants in the 1620s, in the next decade became a flood, leading to some remarkable transformations. In 1630 Francis Wainwright was drawing ale and clearing pots in a Chelmsford inn when his master, Alexander Knight, decided to emigrate to Massachusetts. It was an age of austerity, of bad harvests and depression in the cloth industry. Plus those who wanted the Protestant Reformation to go further – Puritans – feared that under Charles I it was slipping backwards. Many thought they would try their luck elsewhere until England’s fortunes were restored, perhaps even that by building a ‘new’ England they could help with this restoration. Wainwright, aged about fourteen, went with Knight, and so entered a world of hardship and danger and wonder.
One May dawn, seven years later, Wainwright was standing by the Mystic River in Connecticut, one of seventy troops waiting to shoot at approaching Pequot warriors. According to an observer, the Englishmen ‘being bereaved of pity, fell upon the work without compassion’, and by dusk 400 Indians lay dead in their ruined encampment. The innkeeper’s apprentice had fired until his ammunition was exhausted, then used his musket as a club. One participant celebrated the victory, remarking that English guns had been so fearsome, it was ‘as though the finger of God had touched both match and flint’. Another rejoiced that providence had made a ‘fiery oven’ of the Pequots’ fort. Wainwright took two native heads home as souvenirs. Unlike many migrants, he stayed in America, proud to be a New Englander, English by birth but made different by experience. He lived a long life in commerce, through many fears and alarms, and died at Salem in 1692 during the white heat of the witch-trials.
The story poses hard historical questions. What is identity, and how does it change? Thanksgiving pageants turn Englishmen into Americans as if by magic; but the reality was more gradual and nuanced. Recently much scholarly energy has been poured into understanding past emotions. We may think our emotions are private, but they leak out all the time; we may even use them to get what we want. Converted into word and deed, emotions leave traces in the historical record. When the Pilgrim William Bradford called the Pequot massacre ‘a sweet sacrifice’, he was not exactly happy but certainly pleased that God’s will had been done.
Puritans are not usually associated with emotion, but they were deeply sensitive to human and divine behaviour, especially in the colonies. Settlers were proud to be God’s chosen people – like Israelites in the wilderness – yet pride brought shame, followed by doubt that God liked them at all. Introspection led to wretchedness, which was cured by the Holy Spirit, and they were back to their old censorious selves. In England, even fellow Puritans thought they’d lost the plot, as did most (non-Puritan) New Englanders. But godly colonists established what historians call an ‘emotional regime’ or ‘emotional community’ in which their tears and thunder were not only acceptable but carried great political authority.
John Winthrop, the leader of the fleet that carried Francis Wainwright to New England, was an intensely emotional man who loved his wife and children almost as much as he loved God. Gaunt, ascetic and tirelessly judgmental, he became Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, driven by dreams of building a ‘city upon a hill’. It didn’t quite work out: Boston grew too quickly, and became diverse and worldly. And not everyone cared for Winthrop’s definition of liberty: freedom to obey him and his personal interpretation of God’s designs. But presidents from Reagan to Obama have been drawn to ‘the city upon the hill’ as an emotionally potent metaphor for the US in its mission to inspire, assist, and police the world.
Winthrop’s feelings, however, came from and were directed at England. His friend Thomas Hooker, ‘the father of Connecticut’, cut his teeth as a clergyman in Chelmsford when Francis Wainwright lived there. Partly thanks to Wainwright, one assumes, he found the town full of drunks, with ‘more profaneness than devotion’. But Hooker ‘quickly cleared streets of this disorder’. The ‘city upon the hill’, then, was not a blueprint for America, but an exemplar to help England reform itself. Indeed, long before the idea was associated with Massachusetts, it related to English towns – notably Colchester – that aspired to be righteous commonwealths in a country many felt was going to the dogs. Revellers did not disappear from Chelmsford and Colchester – try visiting on a Saturday night – but, as preachers and merchants and warriors, its people did sow the seeds from which grew the most powerful nation in the world.
So if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this year, or you know someone who is, it’s worth remembering that the first colonists to give thanks were not just generic Old World exiles, uniformly dull until America made them special, but living, breathing emotional individuals with hearts and minds rooted in English towns and shires. To them, the New World was not an upgrade on England: it was a space in which to return their beloved country to its former glories.
Featured image credit: Signing of the Constitution, by Thomas P. Rossiter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons