Remembering the First Thanksgiving: Life for Americans Getting Tougher
Throughout its history, Thanksgiving for the majority of Americans has been a lavish affair, a day filled with plenty of food, fun and fortune. It was no different for the pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
That celebration marked the conclusion of a remarkable year for the colonists, who upon arriving in Cape Cod fearful and uninformed in the fall of 1620, had endured 11 grueling months of adversity. After surviving a year defined by hunger, disease and death, frigid weather, internal bickering and the threat of attack from the natives, that first Thanksgiving was an occasion worth celebrating.
It’s not difficult for Americans to identify with the abundance and prosperity the pilgrims experienced on that first Thanksgiving. What has been difficult for most Americans, however, is being able to commiserate with the plight of the colonists during the first 11 months in Plymouth.
But in some ways—perhaps, for most, small to this point—conditions in America are changing in ways that make it easier to identify with those hardships.
The cost of Thanksgiving dinner has doubled since 1987, and rose more than 10 percent this year over last. One study performed by Purdue University economist Corinne Alexander noted that overall food prices are up 4.4 percent this year, compared with a 10-year average of 2.6 percent annual gains. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that overall food costs will jump by at least 5.5 percent this year.
The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year that grocery costs rose more in the first six months of 2007 than they did in all of 2006. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, from June 2006 to June 2007 prices of many staples, including oranges, eggs, frozen juices, milk, apples, beans, peas, lentils and fresh and whole chicken, increased by at least 10 percent. Other staples, such as beef, fresh fish and seafood, rice, pasta and cornmeal, coffee and potatoes have risen by more than 5 percent.
The mounting cost of food is hitting home for millions of Americans. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 35.5 million people in the United States were hungry or on the verge of hunger in 2006. “That’s more than 1 in 10 residents in this bountiful country and, sadly, an increase of 400,000 from the year before,” reported the Monitor.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than at the nation’s food banks, many of which have empty pantries and long lines of hungry people needing food and assistance. “We are in some rough waters right now in this holiday season,” said Jan Pruitt, chief executive officer of the North Texas Food Bank. She said the demand has jumped 17 percent over this time last year.
“We have food banks in virtually every city in the country, and what we are hearing is that they are all facing severe shortages with demand so high,” said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest. “One of our food banks in Florida said demand is up 35 percent over this time last year.”
The time when food was plenteous and inexpensive in America is ending. If this trend continues, tens—even hundreds—of millions of Americans will soon be asking, what do we do when the food runs out?
Upon their arrival in New England, one of the most immediate threats to the colonists was the impending winter. Throughout the winter of 1620-1621, the colonists, battling frigid temperatures and snow, learned firsthand about the power of weather over man.
Since then technology has somewhat tempered weather’s ability to impact man. But today more and more Americans are learning about the immense influence of the weather over human existence.
In October, drought conditions and extreme winds fueled catastrophic fires in California. Historic drought grips much of the American southeast, including the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. The drought in this region has necessitated some of the most extreme water restrictions in American history. On October 20, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for the northern third of his state, and requested that President Bush declare the affected counties a major disaster area. Water supplies are so low in some areas that the Red Cross has been called in to distribute water.
“When I saw the supplies, I thought, ‘That can’t be the Red Cross. We’re Americans!’” said Orme, Tenn., resident Susan Anderson.
Officials in Atlanta fear they could run out of drinking water by January. The water level of Lake Lanier, which is the source of most of Atlanta’s water, has dropped 17 feet since the beginning of the drought. This is only one of numerous lakes and rivers drying up across the region.
But the threat posed by weather catastrophes extends way beyond California or the Southeast. According to a warning from the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently, at least 36 states will face catastrophic water shortages within five years.
Even in places where the weather might be normal, rising heating costs are going to make it an expensive winter for millions. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said this week that the national heating oil price is up 83 cents from a year ago, and set a record high for the seventh week in a row. According to analysts, Americans can expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $1,000 more for heating this winter compared to last.
During the months leading up to that First Thanksgiving in 1621, the colonists suffered consistent disagreement and conflict that hampered their ability to establish a united community. Religious differences separated the puritan pilgrims, who were determined to maintain their spiritual tenants no matter the extreme conditions, from the harsh, secular soldier mercenaries who had been hired to transport the pilgrims to America. From time to time these differences became heated and manifested themselves among the leadership of the colonists.
It’s not hard to see that the same prevails today. American politics, and even the nation, is more polarized than ever. This is the topic of former Los Angeles Times chief political correspondent Ronald Brownstein’s latest book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America. Hyper-partisanship has besieged America, he says, and it threatens our national livelihood.
The vicious division within the American government is apparent, as plain to our allies as it is to our enemies. Politicians from both major parties increasingly express withering criticism, blind bias, arrogance and even hatred for those they oppose. Crude and offensive remarks are commonplace. Politicians have grown more passionate and personal in their assassination of opponents’ character and principles.
The media have also jumped into the partisan action. Civil conflict is perhaps the worst kind of conflict, because it turns a nation inward. The American government and media have become so preoccupied with internal strife and division that they fail to recognize the growing external threats.
Writing about the midterm elections last November, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry said, “President Bush will not be able to accomplish anything of substance again. Internal crisis and division will prevent the U.S. from conducting a respectable foreign policy.” Since then, the gridlock in the American government and national politics has grown far worse.
During the first few months in Plymouth, the physical and emotional strain of the colonists was compounded by the constant fear of Indian attack. As they went about their business building and planting, they knew they were being watch by the natives. The colonists—few in number, unfamiliar with the environment and extremely unprepared for conflict—lived by the whim of the natives, who could have swooped in and massacred them at any time.
This is the nature of the American economy and, by extension, the American lifestyle today. The main difference is that modern Americans are consumed by self-gratification and materialism and cannot see the frailty of their existence. Hundreds, even thousands of recent articles tell about the alarming weakness of the American dollar.
On Thursday, the dollar hit a new record low against the euro, as well as a basket of other currencies. “No one really wants to bet against a fall in the dollar,” said Niels Christensen, FX strategist at Nordea. “Fears of recession or lower activity in the United States and strong expectations of rate cuts is driving the dollar down. … I am struggling to find any factor or event that could turn the tide with the dollar.”
“Dump it or stay with it is a question being mulled over by private investors, financial institutions, major corporations and central banks around the world in relation to the weakened U.S. greenback,” wrote Linda Heard on Tuesday. The weak U.S. dollar is forcing multiple states, from China to Saudi Arabia, Ukraine to Ecuador, to reconsider their policy toward the American currency.
Even opec is worried about the dollar, and promised members at its most recent meeting that it would study into the effect of the falling U.S. dollar on the economies of its member nations. The Financial Times reports that “a move by opec to drop the dollar would be taken in financial markets as a signal that member countries would shift their holdings of foreign exchange reserves away from the U.S. currency.”
The signs of America’s future economic collapse are everywhere around us; it’s only a matter of timing. How long will it be before there is a massive run on the dollar? It could be next week, next month, next year or in the next few years—no one really knows. But what is apparent is that the American economy is hanging by a thread, and now depends, much like the existence of the early pilgrims on the natives, on the loyalty and goodwill of the rest of the world.
For the 52 colonists observing the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, the celebration was hardly the culmination of 11 months of joy and abundance. Life was harsh and unforgiving, defined by a perpetual flow of trials and hardships—the opposite to the lives most Americans have today.
However, a growing number of negative factors are bringing those ancient troubles to some degree or another into the lives of more and more Americans. There is no mistaking it, times are getting harder, and all signs indicate the trend will continue.