Editorial: How to think about Thanksgiving

For those pesky people who can’t resist letting loose with a sermonette, it’s customary on this day to exhort their fellow citizens to rise to a higher calling than football and food. Find the meaning of Thanksgiving, they demand, and unearth something for which to express authentic gratitude.

No sermonizing here, though we personally think studying the travails of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony can be rewarding, even if a plausible excuse not to clean up the kitchen. There’s even a rudimentary lesson in political economy in that saga, all about how those seekers of religious liberty abandoned the futility of communal production and found their bounty in personal initiative.

You can look it up, maybe even learn why those hardy forebears found sublime reasons to attribute the rediscovery of personal initiative to Providence. This is important, not as a religious exercise, but to understand why Americans through the centuries located the source of their freedoms somewhere timelessly beyond political government.

If that seems controversial, just know that even such anti-establishmentarian skeptics as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson embraced such a view. The point was to create a political structure that subordinated the state to the glorious liberty of sovereign individuals.

It’s often said that President Abraham Lincoln, who called for thanksgiving in the midst of a bloody civil war, determined to preserve the federal union at all cost. Even he said that. Actually, Lincoln’s enterprise was beyond his control, and more spiritually arresting: Once committed to war, he was perforce willing to risk national union for universal freedom.

By risking the nation’s very survival, indeed finally sacrificing his life along with the many he commanded into battle, Lincoln ultimately strengthened the Union. Even more, he extended freedom across the continent.

The principles that tested the nation in those bleakest of times were rooted, not only in 1776 Philadelphia, but in Gov. Bradford’s Massachusetts not two centuries earlier. And they projected well into the 20th century, where hundreds of millions of emancipated people express gratitude for the American carriers of that commitment.

In its infancy, the 21st century tests those principles yet again. It may well have been the nation’s greatest folly to try to plant them in the despotic soil of ancient Mesopotamia. It may be more awful still to contemplate what could happen if we interrupt the folly, rooted as it is in American consistency.

That is why we wish you this day an effortless joy — maybe in front of a plasma screen or making your way across a cloud-fleeced Golden Gate Bridge toward the newly greening hills of interior California. On this Bay, across the continent and not four centuries from those Massachusetts Bay colonists, may universal freedom be recorded as another San Francisco Value.

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