heterodox: the blog
Trouble in the Time of Thanksgiving: How Our Fraught History Can Still Be the Source of Unity
American history is rooted in real struggles — settlers and Native Americans, free people and the enslaved, majorities and minorities. Too often our two prominent fall holidays — Columbus Day (Indigenous People’s Day) and Thanksgiving — cause these fissures to break wide open rather than bind us closer together. When these commemorations spark polarization, however, it is often because we fail to ask a fundamental question: What is the purpose of teaching and celebrating history?
We shouldn’t study history — or observe historical events — to open old wounds or unearth the sins of our fathers. Rather, we should view these holidays — and history more generally — with open minds as a series of lessons on human nature and as a guidebook for cultivating virtue and wisdom. If we learn to approach our history from this perspective, we might find it can be a catalyst for unity rather than an ongoing source of division.
As we consider relations between Native Americans and European settlers during this season, the troubled founding of Dartmouth College holds a wealth of lessons for us. In the popular version, Eleazer Wheelock founded the college in 1769 with the fundraising help of Minister Samson Occom, a Native American from the Mohegan nation. Less widely known, however, is how Wheelock took advantage of Occom.
On July 23, 1771, Occom penned a letter detailing his plight. He wrote that Wheelock had asked him to “promote [his] cause” of erecting a school for Native Americans “where there was a most glorious Prospect of Spreading the gospel . . . to the furtherest Savage Nations in the wilderness.” Occom explained how he “Chearfully Ventur’d my Body & Soul, left my Country my poor Young Family all my Friends and Relations to Sail over the Boisterous Seas of England, to help forward your school.”
Not only was the journey and absence from those he loved difficult, Occom described how as a Native American he became “a Gazing stock, Yea Even a Laughing Stock in Strange Countries.” Still, the English gave money for the college because “we told them that there were So many Missionaries & So many Schoolmasters already Sent out, and a greater Number woud Soon follow.”
Occom’s friend tried to warn him before he left: “You have been a fine Tool to get Money for them, but when you get home, they won’t Regard you the’ll Set you a Drift.” And, in the end, Occom saw he was, just as his friend predicted, used as “Indian bait” to collect more money than donors would have given if told the truth. Occom details, “Your [Wheelock] having So many white Scholars and So few or no Indian Scholars, gives me great Discouragement — I verily thought once that your Institution was Intended Purely for the poor Indians.”
Wheelock deceived Occom — not only leaving him without a college for his Native American brethren but also betraying their friendship and undermining any sense of partnership between white settlers and Native Americans. And in this way, the story of Wheelock and Occom is not redemptive. But nor should this historical event be viewed simply as another link on a chain of continual white oppressions. If we merely study Occom’s story through today’s lens of injustice, we miss the opportunity to learn about empowerment, salvation, and the strength of the human spirit.
After all, history holds lessons if we are prepared with intellectual humility to learn them. As the English Benedictine monk Bede wrote, “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the … reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse.” This medieval perspective on history looked beyond the litany of historical facts to the moral implications of the lesson.
As we consider stories like that of Wheelock and Occom, we would be wise to learn from Bede’s ability to look above the string of events and instead engage with both the good and the bad, the inconsistencies, and the imperfections of our history.
As professors, this is our responsibility to students. Despite the diversity of our geography, experiences, even race, we both teach students in the classical model, helping them heed the wisdom of Bede and approach history with an open mind as a means to cultivate knowledge, develop character, and instill moral values. In the classical tradition, stories like Occom and Wheelock’s can’t be swept under the rug as if they were insignificant to larger narratives. But, by the same token, we must not reduce these two men to mere caricatures of opposing groups.
In a spirit of open debate and free inquiry, we can help students draw out personal lessons. What were blind spots Wheelock had then versus blind spots we may have today — that people two hundred years from now will criticize us for? Or, is it possible Wheelock didn’t have a blindspot at all? Was he simply embedded in a system of injustice he couldn’t extricate himself from?
What about Occom? How did he allow this experience of betrayal to define him? After all, despite being deceived by his friend, Occom resolved not to be defeated. Upon returning from England, Occom went home to his Mohegan people, persisted in ministerial work, and helped to organize the Christian Indians of New England and Long Island into a new tribe in Upstate New York.
When we study history with an eye toward virtue and wisdom, we find the past is full of complexity. Some episodes, like the betrayal of Occom by Wheelock, are clearly wrong. Others are a mix of good and bad. Contending with this nuance is critical, as it prevents us from wholly vilifying or apotheosizing historical figures, actions, or events. And it teaches our students to judge immoral behavior of the past without being self-righteous — without losing sight of our own fallibility.
What’s more, doing so allows us to commemorate significant historical moments like Columbus Day or Thanksgiving without lapsing into a cynicism that threatens to disintegrate the fragile bonds holding us together — or into a willful blindness that overlooks the work and understanding needed to strengthen those bonds.
Few confronted this task more gracefully than the 18th- and 19th-century Black intellectuals who struggled to reconcile our nation’s foundational contradiction: the evil reality of slavery and the ideals of liberty delineated in our Constitution. Perhaps the most eloquent of these luminaries was Frederick Douglass.
In 1847, a decade after escaping from slavery, Douglass stated, “I have no love for America” and argued that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. Later, however, he found that “subsequent experience and reading” led him to change course. Douglass came to believe that the Constitution, when read and implemented correctly, was a vehicle for liberty. He came to embrace the paradoxes of human existence and cherish the goodness of the American experiment, while acknowledging that evils of the past and present still needed to be redressed. Empowered by this wisdom, he became a great leader in the fight for the freedom and empowerment of his people.
This Thanksgiving, as we consider how our nation remembers the Pilgrims’ first harvest with Native Americans, we must ask ourselves and our students: Are we willing to do the same as Douglass? Can we listen humbly to opposing arguments? Can we engage with opinions different from our own? Will we approach history not as a bludgeon to win a debate but as a means to better understand others’ experiences and help shape our souls?
History uncovers what is common in every human experience — the realities of love and hate, justice and injustice, fidelity and betrayal. It is through the recognition of, and learning from, these commonalities that the study of our history is fundamentally a uniting enterprise — that is, if we choose to learn its lessons.
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