We celebrate Thanksgiving this year at a time of continuing political division and a coronavirus pandemic. It is good that we take this moment to consider America’s genuine uniqueness, which some seem to have forgotten, and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact, which set us on the path of democratic self-government. Today ours is the oldest existing form of government in the world.
America began with a covenant, the Mayflower Compact, adopted in 1620. It was a voluntary and binding covenant recognizing the principle of self-government under God with far-reaching economic, religious, and legal implications for all society. Beginning in Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts, it would establish the American precedent of free men covenanting to maintain a “civil body politic of self-government under God.”
It would culminate in the halls of Philadelphia in the 1780s with the formulation of the U.S. Constitution.
One hundred years ago, during the 300th anniversary of the Mayflower landing and the adoption of the Mayflower Compact, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who became president a few years later, declared:
“The Compact they signed was an event of the greatest importance. It was the foundation of liberty based on law and order, and that tradition has been steadily upheld. They drew up a form of government which has been designated as the first real constitution of modern times. It was democratic and an acknowledgment of liberty under law and order and the giving to each person the right to participate in the government…But the really wonderful thing was that they had the power and strength of character to abide by it and live by it from that day to this.”
All of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, beginning with those arrivals on the Mayflower and excluding only native Americans. What we share is more important than common ancestry. It is a commitment to an idea of individual liberty and self-government, something which has thrived in America since the Mayflower arrived.
There are some who envision a homogeneous American society and therefore lament our increasingly diverse population.
America has always been diverse
Between 1815 and 1914, more than 30 million people left their homelands to settle in the U.S. This was the greatest mass movement in human history. By the mid-18th century, Welsh and Germans had settled in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, which also had a large population of Scotch-Irish. South Carolina and the major towns in New England were home to many French Huguenots. Delaware had a significant population of Swedes and Finns. Sephardic Jews from Holland and Portugal lived in Rhode Island.
Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, the French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that in this town of 8,000 people, 18 languages were spoken. 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.”
America was the place where the hatreds and passions of the Old World could finally be abandoned and in which, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, each man could become whatever his manhood would permit. Liberty for the individual, the Founding Fathers believed, would change the very face of the world.
Mario Puzo, the author of “The Godfather,” the son of Italian immigrants growing up in New York, wrote of America,
“What a miracle it was! What has happened here has never happened in any other country or in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries—-hell, since the beginning of Christ—-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, and 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 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.”
Puzo writes that,
“It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her one dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself. And looking back, she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her.”
In “Redburn,” written in 1849, Herman Melville declares:
“There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the peoples of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world…Our blood is the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea was harder to utter—-It was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
At a celebration in New York City of the 150th anniversary of Norwegian immigration, news commentator Eric Sevareid, whose grandfather emigrated from Norway, addressed the group in the form of a letter to his grandfather. He said:
“You know that freedom and equality are not found but created…This grandson believes this is what you did. I have seen much of the world. Were I now asked to name some region on Earth where men and women lived in a surer climate of freedom and equality than that northwest region where you settled—-were I so asked, I could not answer. I know of none.”
Now in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is immigrants who have created the vaccines that will, hopefully, bring this disease under control. One of these is Mikael Bolsten, a Jewish immigrant from Sweden who is leading Pfizer’s efforts. He hopes that America remains the melting pot which welcomed him and is concerned with the anti-immigrant rhetoric to which we have been subjected in recent days.
He notes that, “A lot of great breakthroughs have come from people who emigrated,” Albert Einstein among them. The CEO of Pfizer is a Jewish immigrant from Greece. The chief medical officer for Moderna, a competing drugmaker that announced that its vaccine 95% effective, is an Israeli immigrant.
Mikael Bolsten is concerned about the hostility to immigrants of some political leaders in recent days. He says,
“I do hope we can heal as a nation and again be a shining sun and bring people together rather than move back from the world. I do hear a lot from Europeans who miss seeing the U.S. as the image of the future and now see the U.S. as isolated.”
Thanksgiving should cause us to reflect upon the uniqueness of the American society and to resist all those who would turn their backs on our history. In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal leader, said that America was becoming “the distant magnet.”
Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West…?”
Our changing demographics and the new immigrants who are arriving from around the world keep America an increasingly dynamic society. Many of them seem to understand the genuine uniqueness of the American society which some others appear to have forgotten.
America has been much loved and has been a new thing in the world, something we should reflect upon this Thanksgiving.