Thanksgiving and American Exceptionalism

Nearly 400 years ago, over 100 passengers boarded the ship Mayflower and set sail for the “New World.” Their destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, but two months of sailing over perilous seas blew them farther north than anticipated. The Mayflower ultimately dropped anchor in December near Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Unprepared for the harsh realities of a New England winter, the settlers we now call Pilgrims spent those first bitterly cold months living largely on the Mayflower itself. Unfortunately, disease, exposure and hunger claimed so many lives that less than half the original settlers and crew of the ship lived to see their first spring in this new land.

In March of 1621, the settlers finally moved ashore and were surprised to be visited by a member of the Abenaki Nation. Thankfully, these and other Native American peoples ultimately welcomed the settlers with open arms. They taught their new friends from across the sea how to cultivate indigenous crops and otherwise survive in this new home.

With the successful harvest of the first crops that fall, Governor William Bradford called for a celebration to give thanks for their bounty. They were soon joined by their new Native American friends who would bring back a feast of their own. It is this coming together of different peoples which we honor today with our own Thanksgiving celebrations.

There is something uniquely American about Thanksgiving. It doesn’t honor a historical leader, a religious icon, or a soldier in battle. Thanksgiving isn’t unique to a single culture, nor does it celebrate a religious holiday.

Thanksgiving honors an idea. It recognizes that uniquely American spirit which knows that though we may be different, what we have in common brings us together and is that togetherness which is our greatest asset.

Certainly we should not deny the stains on our history that would be our forefathers’ treatment of many Native American peoples in the centuries to follow. But neither should we forget a fundamental aspect of our nation’s character which makes this country truly exceptional.

Americans have a long and vibrant history of average people gathering together to address their common ills. While this may sound like nothing special for those of us who live in Door County where civic and charitable groups are the norm, the fact is that this was not the norm for much of history.

Nearly 200 years ago, a young aristocratic lawyer by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to study our unique form of government. His book, Democracy in America, is still perhaps the most influential document ever written about American society and political life.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations,” wrote de Tocqueville. “If it be proposed to inculcate some truth, or to foster some feeling, by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”

This was a completely foreign concept to de Tocqueville. In his experience, regular people normally did not voluntarily band together around causes of their own choosing. “I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”

de Tocqueville was amazed that these associations of people weren’t organized or led by those of high level status or great stature. Instead, they were gatherings of ordinary citizens. This simply was not how it was done in the “great” nations of his time.

“Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association,” wrote de Tocqueville. “Thus, the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires, and have applied this science to the greatest number of purposes.”

The concept of American Exceptionalism is an idea that the United States is qualitatively different than other nations. Our spirit of ordinary people working together toward a common goal was, and remains, our nation’s most unique characteristic, and our greatest strength. Today, this idea most clearly seen in the generosity of our people.

By every objective measure, the citizens of the United States are the most generous people on earth. Our country has more civic and charitable groups than any other nation. On a per capita basis, Americans donate 3.5 times more money than the French, 7 times more than Germans, and 14 times more than the Italians. As a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, United States citizens give away more of their wealth to charity than the second (United Kingdom) and third (Canada) ranked nations combined. When it comes to volunteerism, Americans are 15 percent more likely to donate time as the Dutch, 21 percent more likely than the Swiss, and 32 percent more likely than Germans.

This is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s a uniquely American celebration of our exceptional spirit of generosity.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on November 21, 2011.

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