Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving - some history

- The original Thanksgiving was probably not in November - it was probably in late September or early October, which would have been right after most of the harvest was gathered.

- It was not in 1620 - it was in 1621. The Pilgrims, a strict Calvinist religious group at odds with the church and government in England, arrived on the shores of what later became Massachusetts in November of 1620. The modern celebration of Thanksgiving is actually closer to the date that the Pilgrims first landed than to the date some 11 months later when they celebrated their first successful harvest.

- They landed at about the worst possible time - November in Massachusetts is heading into winter and far too late to plant or grow any crops. Lack of skill and fear of the natives limited the amount of successful hunting they could do. They had neglected to bring equipment for fishing since none of them were fishermen by profession. They had to rely mostly on the remaining supplies aboard the Mayflower to feed them through the winter and into the spring and summer of the next year before they could grow or gather much food. In the first terrible winter, half of them died of a combination of malnutrition and disease. Worried about the possibility of being attacked by the native Wampanoag Indians, they buried their dead in secret to hide their shrinking numbers, and the sick men who could still stand staggered to their feet and assembled with muskets in hand whenever an alarm was sounded. Why did this disaster happen? They had intended to land in early summer of 1620 and immediately plant crops, but their departure (from Holland and England) was delayed repeatedly for a variety of reasons. Their journey across the Atlantic didn't get started until September 1620, and then contrary winds and storms meant that it took 2 months to cross the Atlantic.

- The Pilgrims had virtually no contact with the native Wampanoags during the first winter, except for occasional glimpses of people in the distance scouting out their settlement. The Wampanoags, for their part, didn't know what to make or what to do about the Pilgrims. They had just gone through a disaster of their own. The Wampanoags and other native nations in what would become New England were not unfamiliar with Europeans. For almost 100 years, European ships had periodically cruised off the shore, at first to explore, later to fish, trade, and (much more ominously) raid coastal settlements for slaves. By about 1615, the Wampanoags and other native peoples knew a few basic things about Europeans - they were strange looking, strange speaking people who could make some very impressive and very useful things that the natives could not, such as iron tools, woven cloth, guns, and sailing ships - but they were also dangerously unpredictable. One group could be friendly and interested only in trade, while the group that came the next summer might feign friendship and then suddenly attack a town, grab some of the residents, and take them off never to be seen again. These were the kind of people best kept at a distance. Then, in around 1617 or 1618, an unknown group of Europeans unleashed, probably unintentionally, what was probably the most devastating killing weapon that humans could inflict on other humans until nuclear weapons were invented - epidemic disease against a population that had no history of epidemic diseases. Not just any epidemic disease, either - it was smallpox, one of the worst. It devastated the Wampanoags, killing more than half of their population in a year. The worst-hit towns and villages were totally abandoned, with the majority of the population dying and the survivors going to live in other towns. One of the towns that was completely abandoned was a coastal town called Patuxet. It was at the site of Patuxet, abandoned for about a year, that the Pilgrims landed. It was a good location with a fair amount of land that was clear of trees - what had been the fields of the residents of Patuxet until a little more than a year earlier. It was into this ghost town that the Pilgrims moved for the cold winter of 1620-1621, when it once again became a place of disease and death.

There was another problem - the Wampanoags were traditional enemies of another native nation that lived to the west, in what is now Rhode Island - the Narragansetts. The plague had barely touched the Narragansetts, and they now massively outnumbered the Wampanoags. When the spring of 1621 came, Massasoit, the most powerful sachem or chieftain of the Wampanoags, decided that the newly arrived Pilgrims would be much more useful as allies than as enemies. In return for letting them settle on land that the Wampanoags no longer had the population to farm, the Pilgrims promised to aid the Wampanoags in future conflicts with the Narragansetts or any other enemies. The Pilgrims were also a source of European trade goods that were very valuable to the Wampanoags - especially woven cloth and metal tools of various kinds, which were much more durable and resilient than stone tools.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by two groups that did indeed have a lot to be thankful for. By the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims were finally growing plenty of their own food, and the Wampanoags had a new ally to help deter attacks from neighboring nations, as well as a source of trade goods. The atmosphere was probably genuinely happy and festive. The future, of course, would not be nearly as happy, at least not for one of the groups involved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Someday I've got to break the habit of automatically making negative comments about my own physical appearance in any and every conversation. The problem is that I've been doing it for so long that it comes almost as naturally as breathing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lincoln's second inaugural address

In this frustrated history geek's opinion, Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in March 1865, is one of the more important speeches in the history of the United States. It's relatively short, like Lincoln's more famous Gettysburg Address, but it gives a great deal of insight into how Lincoln viewed the Civil War. It was given when victory for the Union was certain, when the war (and Lincoln's own life) had only slightly more than a month left. The last paragraph, in which he calls for peace and reconciliation, is the best known. Less well known, but equally significant, I think, is the part in bold, in which Lincoln basically says that the bloodshed and destruction of the U.S. Civil War was divine retribution for centuries of slavery.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selfishness and unhappiness

One of the weird things about the rather toxic blend of Obsessive-Compulsive disorder and a gnawing sense of inferiority that I usually carry around is that it makes me far too self-centered, or just plain selfish. I am probably one of the more self-centered people that I know. It's not a type of selfishness that brings me any joy or confidence, but it is there nevertheless. My thoughts are often preoccupied with my own obsessions. I tend to look at other people in terms of whether they will have a positive or negative effect on my emotional state, rather than appreciating them for their own sake. I feel like I can not and do not want to help other people when I am already worried about my own bizarre internal problems. I think that these things fall under the definition of "selfish". They are the reasons why I suspect that I would make a poor partner, a poor husband and an even poorer father.