Google “Thanksgiving” and “free enterprise” and you will find links to articles on conservative and libertarian think tank websites with titles like “How Communism Almost Ruined the First Thanksgiving,” “Thanksgiving is a Celebration of Free Enterprise,” and “Thanksgiving, Socialism, and Free Enterprise.” These pieces, remarkable in their ideological consistency, are the product of decades of mythmaking, begun before the internet was a glint in Al Gore’s eye.
Making use of excerpts from Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford’s journals, all of these pieces tell roughly the same story about “the real meaning of Thanksgiving”: the Pilgrims went to Plymouth in 1620 with a utopian vision of holding property in common, but after being mugged by the reality of two years of poor harvests and starvation, they abandoned collectivism for capitalist individualism. These articles conclude in roughly the same way: The lesson of the first Thanksgiving was that “socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets.” What’s more, many of the pieces claim, this true history has been suppressed, “deleted from the official story,” “no longer told in the textbooks because it is thoroughly unPC.”
To understand how Thanksgiving became a conservative touchstone, we need to turn to history—but to the history of opposition to New Deal liberalism, rather than the history of the Pilgrims of 17th-century New England. As Joshua Keating showed in Slate in 2014, the “free enterprise Thanksgiving” arguments misconstrue the history of the Plymouth settlement. For one thing, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving not in 1623, when they supposedly threw off the shackles of socialism, but in 1621, when they were still supposedly suffering under it. While the Pilgrims complained a lot in the early years, they did so more as unhappy shareholders of a corporation, then as victims of communism. The accuracy of these histories of the first Thanksgiving matters. So, too, does how and why this reading of the Pilgrims as repentant socialists and die-hard free enterprisers—as Whittaker Chambers–like converts from communism—emerged.
The narrative of free enterprise Thanksgiving was a proxy skirmish in the battle between conservatives and New Deal liberalism and its emerging welfare state, which many critics on the right conflated with socialism and even communism. In claiming Thanksgiving, a holiday associated with family, abundance, and Americanism, these critics sought the legitimation of history for their view that security underwritten by the state was not only un-American, but the path to authoritarian socialism—a charge that took on particular force during the Cold War, when this narrative of “free enterprise Thanksgiving” was born.
The first use I’ve found of the argument that Pilgrims found success by rejecting socialism appeared in 1920, a time when, according to an editorial in the South Idaho Journal, the story had “special significance” as “theories of socialism are running rampant throughout the world.” But the narrative of Thanksgiving as a vindication of free enterprise capitalism was widely popularized in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and gained momentum in the postwar years, as critics of expansive Rooseveltian liberalism sought to find a usable past to justify their dislike of his popular New Deal. By claiming that the Pilgrims rejected a philosophy that they analogized to New Deal liberalism and embraced free enterprise capitalism, these critics sought the sanction of history for their view that, as a political columnist wrote in 1952, “in recent years this love of liberty has been subordinated to an alien philosophy of security” and “the siren song of the welfare state.”
In 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved up the Thanksgiving holiday, scheduled to fall on the last day of November, by one week to extend the Christmas shopping season, a Republican mayor in New Jersey, reflecting the unpopularity of this decision, called it Franksgiving. (Congress officially set the date as the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.) But Thanksgiving became associated with the Roosevelt administration in a more positive way in 1943, when Norman Rockwell illustrated each of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (“freedom of speech,” “freedom of worship,” “freedom from fear,” “freedom from want”), which the president first enunciated in his 1941 State of the Union address, for the Saturday Evening Post. The most iconic of these images was Rockwell’s 1943 painting, Freedom From Want, which depicted a Thanksgiving dinner. Rockwell’s cozy portrayal of a bountiful family meal domesticated the idea of “freedom from want,” perhaps the most radical of the Four Freedoms, on the cover of a decidedly middlebrow magazine.
The association with Rockwell can make it look, from our perspective, like the Four Freedoms idea was universally embraced; it was not. From the moment he announced the Four Freedoms, critics of FDR condemned him for omitting “freedom of enterprise,” which Herbert Hoover, the former president and inveterate enemy of the New Deal, called the “Fifth Freedom” and the building block of all of the others. In December 1942, as the United States was one year into the global war against fascism, Republican Sen. Alexander Wiley from Wisconsin, referring to this fifth freedom, said: “Deny any man this most important freedom and you have taken the first step toward the tyranny that created the Nazi state.” Throughout World War II, the celebration of the Fifth Freedom, which was simultaneously a condemnation of FDR’s wartime goals, was a regular feature of business advertising. In a 1943 Thanksgiving ad, “the men and women of Kemper Insurance” offered the following proclamation to Roosevelt: “Free enterprise isn’t mentioned in the famous Four Freedoms, yet without it there is no free America.”
New Deal critics repeatedly singled out “freedom from want” as the most dangerous of the Four Freedoms. They emphasized that the security it promised was a trap, the very opposite of freedom. They employed images of imprisonment, enslavement, and caged animals to drive home the point that freedom from want was, in effect, a form of unfreedom. “A man in jail has the ‘four freedoms’ but what Americans want is the right to be free from government, and to work out our own destiny,” said Republican Rep. Frank Fellows from Maine in 1944. Speaking before the Gastonia Chamber of Commerce two years later, North Carolina Sen. Clyde Hoey, a conservative Democrat, claimed that the “African slave,” “criminals,” and the “farm animal” all possessed “freedom from want,” but they all lacked the more important quality of liberty.
In 1949, Thurman Sensing, the research director of the Southern States Industrial Council and a critic of the New Deal, said that Gargantua, the Ringling Brothers famous lowland gorilla who was displayed in a cage at the circus, represented “the perfect example of the four freedoms.” “In our frantic search for security in recent years,” proclaimed Sensing, “we have unquestionably been inclined to trade our birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage.” Government-backed security, in this view, was not freedom at all but its opposite; indeed, as an editorial on the “ ‘fallacy of freedom from want’ in a Louisiana newspaper opined in 1947, such a government assurance of sustenance “can come only as the final and complete step toward totalitarian government and dictatorship.” According to the Spokane Spokesman Review, in 1954, “There’s actually nothing in our Constitution about freedom from want and freedom from fear,” whose “goals are by no means part of what we commonly consider the American heritage.”
The battle over the Four Freedoms joined with related claims about the supposedly true history of Thanksgiving to consolidate the right’s repudiation of Roosevelt’s vision. The argument that the Pilgrims were anti–New Dealers avant la lettre, who experimented with but quickly rejected socialism and then became fervent free enterprisers, first appeared in former Rep. Samuel Pettengill’s 1940 book, Smoke Screen. This portion of the book was excerpted in newspapers in November 1939 and made the anachronistic claim that “our Pilgrim ancestors abandoned the same economic system the Socialists, Communists and Fascists are now urging us to adopt.” This contrasted with the much less explicitly partisan, more American-exceptionalist conventional academic wisdom of the time that, as the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison put it in his 1952 edition of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, the Pilgrims’ history “is a story of a simple people inspired by an ardent faith to dauntless courage”—one that “made the Pilgrim Fathers in a sense the spiritual ancestors of all Americans, the pioneers.”
Pettengill, who had just stepped away from his seat in Congress, was an avid anti–New Deal Democrat from Indiana, soon to cross over and join the Republican Party, who believed that the biggest danger the United States faced was what he called Roosevelt’s “creeping collectivism.” This was the “smoke screen” of his title. Pettengill, beginning the tradition of drawing on Bradford’s journal to show him to be a collectivist-turned-capitalist, aimed to make the relevance of his history clear for the present. In the first sentence of this section of the book, he wrote, “It has been forgotten that the 102 pioneers who came over in the Mayflower set up a socialistic commonwealth, somewhat like … the Tugwelltowns of today.” Pettengill was referring to Rexford Tugwell, the head of the Resettlement Administration, which built the so-called Greenbelt towns.
Following Pettengill, many other critics sought to find a usable past in which free enterprise was as American as apple pie, with Thanksgiving at the center. Others followed suit in linking the dilemma of the Pilgrims to those of the modern conservative opponent of the welfare state. A 1949 editorial in the anti–New Deal Chicago Tribune said, “They go now by the names of communism, socialism, and the ‘welfare state.’ There was a little of all of these in the original experiment at Plymouth, but the same ideas had already been tried and found wanting on American soil.” A 1952 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, making the use of history of Thanksgiving for the purpose of fighting political battles in the present explicit, said, “For, in 1623, as in 1952, Americans saved themselves from the state, the welfare state or the socialist state.”
A key accelerant in the free enterprise Thanksgiving discourse was the publication in 1958 of W. Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Communist, a book that has been reprinted several times since, and has sold more than a million copies. Skousen, a former police chief of Salt Lake City, was very popular in far-right circles , and his histories remain so today. His central claim, like Pettengill’s, was that the Plymouth colonists “tried Communism before they tried capitalistic free enterprise.”
Many columnists and letter writers to newspapers repeated the Pettengill/Skousen narrative for decades thereafter, showing the reach of this story. These include Thurman Sensing, the conservative who had written about Gargantua. Most likely inspired by Skousen, Sensing first wrote about Thanksgiving in 1962 and continued to do so several times into the 1970s. Sensing’s Thanksgiving “lesson” was quoted verbatim in business advertising as early as 1963.
The most prominent dissemination of this view came in 1974, when the famous conservative economist Milton Friedman devoted his Newsweek column to the topic, “Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving.” After a brief preface in which he wrote, “As we seek the roots of our present discontent, we shall do well to ponder the experience of our Pilgrim fathers, who replaced ‘cultivating the lands in common’ with ‘private ownership,’” the rest consisted of quotations from Bradford’s journals, some of the passages already having been flagged by Pettengill and Skousen.
Popularizing these narratives, the late conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, drawing on the “Dead White Guys, or What the History Books Never Told You,” chapter of his 1993 book, See, I Told You So, annually relayed to his listening audience what he called the “true story of Thanksgiving,” which was that the misguided Pilgrims at first followed a plan of collective property ownership that led to starvation and death, but within two years they had “harnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.”
So, though Sensing called this an “Untaught American History Lesson,” and Limbaugh implied that the story had been hidden on purpose, that’s far from the case. The narrative of Thanksgiving as a prescient warning against the dangers of a welfare state morphing into a dictatorship has circulated widely for decades, in both intellectual and popular conservative circles, in newspaper editorials, opinion pieces, advertisements, think tank websites, talk radio monologues, and political speeches.
The “free enterprise Thanksgiving” narratives depicted Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as a prime example of the kind of collective security and overweening bureaucracy against which the Pilgrims supposedly revolted; this is what Pettengill meant when he condemned the misguided New Dealers who “would now go back to the system that the Pilgrims abandoned.” The attempt to recast Thanksgiving from a wholesome symbol of state-sanctioned security to a rejection of that very principle was only a small part of an overall critique of the emerging welfare state. The battle to reclaim the meaning of Thanksgiving was a form of politics by historical means. The lesson had less to do with the fate of the Pilgrims in the 1620s, than with the dangers of totalitarian collectivism in the guise of contemporary liberalism. Do all American families deserve a November Thursday off work to sit around a groaning table together—or just some, who’ve earned their cranberries and sweet potato casserole the right way? There’s a lot at stake in that debate, and those who talk about free enterprise Thanksgiving know it.