Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of the anti-government group Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, has something in common with failed State Board of Education candidate Gail Spurlock: they both see American history through the cracked lens of ideology.
During her campaign for the state board this year, Spurlock claimed that the Pilgrims nearly did themselves in at Plymouth because they created a colony based on communism. Right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have peddled the same story, claiming that the Pilgrims saved themselves only when they decided to embrace free market principles.
Now Sullivan — who wants state lawmakers to continue slashing funds for public schools — is promoting this myth. In a email to his supporters today, Sullivan writes:
“(T)he real story of Thanksgiving isn’t found in the cartoon-like stories of our youth. Instead, it’s that our earliest settlers decided to reject socialism’s central planning and embrace liberty.”
Sullivan goes on to explain that the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony faced problems “of their own making through a misguided ideology.” Sullivan’s email links to a video in which he presents his distorted story of the Pilgrims — “Thanksgiving and Socialism: What Really Happened at Plymouth”:
It’s a good story if you’re an anti-government fanatic. But it’s not true, as historians and others have repeatedly pointed out:
Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.
“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.
The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”
The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.
“One man’s laziness is another man’s industry, based on the agricultural methods they’ve learned as young people,” he said.
Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”
“Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women don’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors,” he said.
The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.
Fortunately, Spurlock lost her election bid and won’t be promoting her twisted versions of American history on the State Board of Education. On the other hand, Sullivan will still be peddling his falsehoods and myths as he pressures lawmakers to continue gutting public education in Texas when the Legislature returns in January. Perhaps he thinks that if he succeeds, even more Texans will be gullible enough to believe his silly stories.