“God hath cleared our title to this place” (Governor John Winthrop)

". . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him. . ."

“. . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him. . .”

(In which I’m about as grumpy as an old man can be.)

Thanksgiving Day has an edge of improbable irony. On the one hand, many (I would no longer say “most”) Americans have much to be thankful for. We (those of us who grew up in the economic boom-times following WWII) used to say that we were better off than the citizens of any other country. That is, of course, no longer true for most of us, but we still have it pretty darned good.

On the other hand, the entire enterprise of giving “thanks” as a nation is so tainted with imperialist motives and (yes, shall I say it?) genocide that we (at least the white descendants of Northern Europeans) might better have an annual Repentance Day.

Shall I draw a totally objectionable parallel between the “birth” our nation and a certain development in the world today that has most of the Western world reacting in horror and consternation?

John Winthrop (12 January 1587 – 26 March 1649), who helped found several of the towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony beginning in 1628 and was the Governor of the Colony presiding over the first Thanksgiving Day was a religious zealot who believed that God was directing the Puritans not only to “purify” the religion of England but also to conquer North America to create a sort of “caliphate” of religious law and purity. Bethany Berger, Professor of Real Property Law at the University of Connecticut Law School, says of Governor Winthrop’s motivations that

Although religious superiority was the earliest and the most fervent of the initial justifications for colonization, the religious mission of the early colonies also made it easy to see God’s will in the acquisition of Indian bodies (through death) as well as souls (Berger).

She presents evidence (she’s one of those “liberal” academics who looks at evidence and then forms opinions rather than depending on Post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning) from John Winthrop’s letters that the Puritans (Winthrop at any rate) believed they were creating a society that had protection from God because their beliefs were pure.

God hath . . . cle[a]red our title to this place [and the Lord was] pleased with our inheriting these parts . . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him, and abused his Creatures.

The official declaration of the Day of Thanksgiving for the colony’s success in King Philip’s War (1675-1676) asserts that

God that made bare his own arm for our deliverance [so that of the tribes that rose against us] there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations but are either slain, captivated, or fled into remote parts of this wilderness.

". . . there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations . . ."

“. . . there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations . . .”

We are witnessing—or rather, participating in—the desperate attempt to stop the spread of the so-called Muslim Caliphate in Syria and Iraq (and elsewhere). I’ve spent as much time as I care to unsuccessfully looking for actual pronouncements of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but we believe almost without question that the justification for the wholesale slaughter of citizens of those countries is a religious zealotry based on ISIS’ belief that “God hath . . . cle[a]red our title to this place.”

I am not saying (exactly) that our country was founded on the same kind of religious fanaticism that we fear (or don’t like because it is too strong a motivation for fanatic Muslims to thwart our own belief that God has cleared our title to the place) that ISIS seems to inspire.

But it is interesting to let one’s thoughts be provoked to try think about realities rather than myths and fairy tales. Just saying.

I’m not a historian, so I understand my making pronouncements about historical events and their significance is suspect at best. However, in another manifestation that God has cleared our title, “Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave” (PBS).

I’m not certain what the relationship between the Puritan colony in Massachusetts and the (secular?) colony in Virginia was. But it seems fairly clear that as the Puritans were cleansing the earth of “heathens,” the Virginians were importing “heathens” as slaves to make them rich. The first African brought to Virginia who was unequivocally named as a slave in 1640 was ordered by a Virginia court “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere” (PBS).

In Ferguson, MO, 374 years after the court decision in Virginia and 338 years after the citizens of Massachusetts were giving thanks that indigenous people had been “slain, captivated, or [had] fled” by the will of God, the imperialist and racist foundational concepts of our country are being played out.

And many Americans of Northern European descent—the political/philosophical/religious progeny of Governor Winthrop and the Virginia court—are standing by and wringing our hands and wondering why—why people of color can’t understand that we don’t want to subjugate them anymore, that we’re genuinely sorry that, for example, we incarcerate their young men at a rate surpassing the imprisonment of any other group of people in “first world” countries or that we still maintain a system of “reservations” to separate them from our society.

It seems to me (but I am a curmudgeon and an old guy who’s mad at the world—or something) . . . well you ought to be able to figure out what seems to me to be the irony of Thanksgiving Day.

You probably better try to figure it out before you rush off to Black Friday sales, the culmination of our unshakeable belief that God is on our side and someone, somewhere must support our lifestyle no matter what cost to them.
Berger, Bethany R. “Red: Racism and the American Indian.” UCLA Law Review 56.3 (2009): 591-656.
PBS. “Arrival of first Africans to Virginia Colony 1619.” Africans in America Resource Bank. WGBH. PBS online. N.D. Web.

". . . serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere . . ."

“. . . serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere . . .”

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, SMU. Old man. Musician. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. Therefore, I am a fervent supporter of and advocate for the Palestinian People as they struggle to survive genocide. That also means, of course, I have no use for US 45.

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