On Thanksgiving we are reminded that the first Thanksgiving was a celebration both of survival and of freedom.
The Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts in 1620 were a persecuted people seeking the freedom to practice their religion. Their purposes stood in contrast to the settlers who came to Jamestown, Va., 13 years before in search of commercial opportunity. For both settlements survival was an uncertain proposition.
As we have learned from history, the freedom that survived at Plymouth was a particularly narrow kind of freedom, governed by the religious orthodoxy that made the Massachusetts colony subject to rigid adherence to a particular point of view. Dissidents eventually split away. One hundred forty years later the Congregational Church of Connecticut, inheritor of the Puritan tradition, was too strict for the unruly dissidents who found greater freedom when they established their homesteads beyond the reach of orthodoxy in the mountains and valleys of Vermont.
In establishing their new home in Massachusetts the first settlers built a sort of mansion within whose walls they were able to practice and promote their beliefs and grow as a community. But freedom is a mansion that can never stop growing. As soon as the walls of orthodoxy go up, we find we have confined ourselves, and as new people arrive at new ways of thinking, they find they must add on to the mansion, creating new wings to house new views.
If the Pilgrims of 1621 gave thanks for their hard-earned freedom, we can give thanks for the way that the dwelling place of freedom has never stopped growing. Over the decades and centuries we have found room within our house for African-Americans and other racial minorities. We have recognized women as equal citizens. Gays and lesbians have gained equal rights including, in many states, the right to marry.
We have learned to accommodate diverse points of view, even those we believe are scurrilous or dangerous, silly or foolish. As the mansion of freedom has enlarged, we have seen it extend over the landscape in odd and surprising directions. America is a place of an ever-splintering religious life, with a proliferation of sects and church groupings. Previously despised religions have found their way toward acceptance. We have had a Catholic president and a Mormon presidential candidate. We have had Jewish and female vice presidential candidates. We have openly gay members of Congress. They demonstrate the increasing capaciousness of the ever-expanding mansion of freedom.
As any homebuilder knows, rot may imperil even the sturdiest structure, and freedom is never guaranteed. We celebrate the heroes of the civil rights movement who took great risks in the quest for freedom. The early pioneers of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s are now elderly men and women. But so are the racists who bombed and murdered and taunted and spat on them. Victory in Congress did not erase the hatred, which when left unchecked can cause the structures of freedom to give way.
What we believe today is an assortment of diverse creeds and points of views that goes far beyond the orthodox views of the Pilgrims who gave thanks in 1621. It is the freedom that those Pilgrims seized in order to practice their religion that they bequeathed to us. That is what we give thanks for. We give thanks, whatever we as individuals happen to believe, that the Muslim and the Jew, the Christian, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the secularist, the atheist have all found a place on the land spreading out from the rocky shores of Massachusetts.
If anything distinguishes America among the family of nations on this quintessential American holiday it is that we have tried to make room for everyone, to affirm our own individuality while affirming the individuality of all our neighbors. We join with family, friends and neighbors on this day to give thanks for the whole.
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