Every year, I anticipate the Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving Wall Street Journal almost as eagerly as Thanksgiving Day itself. Almost, but not quite.
But I do very much appreciate the Journal’s reprinting on the editorial page on this day the same two lead pieces that have appeared each year since 1961. The first, “The Desolate Wilderness,” is a chronicle, based on the account of William Bradford, of the Pilgrims taking leave of the port of Delftshaven in 1620, crossing the Atlantic, and settling in what became Plymouth Colony. Of the Pilgrims, the account ends: “If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.”
The second piece, “And the Fair Land,” was written by long-time WSJ editor Vermont Royster. The editorial ends this way:
"But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere -- in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.
We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.
And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land."
Each Wednesday before Thanksgiving when I read the two editorials – and, yes, we reread them again around the Thanksgiving table – I am reminded of the many things for which I have to be thankful, especially family, friends, and community. But I am also reminded, foremost, that the Pilgrims came here to enjoy the freedom they could not enjoy in the Old Country. Amidst the turkey and stuffing, football and basketball games, and day-after sales that now begin Thursday midnight, it is pretty easy to forget that, in a large sense, Thanksgiving is a holiday which celebrates freedom. And a day to be thankful we live in a country in which we are free to celebrate, or not, in any way we wish. This cannot be said to be the case in many parts of the world.
Of course, this Thanksgiving has us entering another political season, as always one with important choices to be made --choices that ultimately impact in significant ways the balance struck in our Republic between more or less individual freedom, or more or less government control. Striking the proper balance, one that protects individual freedom from government constraint, while giving government its due rein under our constitutional system to protect and promote our common interests, is our unending task.
In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned, quite rightly, that “factions” would divide “society into different interests” representing different political philosophies. Ambitious men in different parties, he said, would seek to “vex and oppress each other.” This understanding of human nature’s dark side informed the Constitution the Founders bequeathed. The chief safeguard against those seeking to vex and oppress is our government of separated and diffused powers. We can be thankful that this constitutional regime has worked well —so far.
But Madison, acknowledging a “degree of depravity” in mankind, also suggested there are other qualities in human nature, which together he called “virtue,” which “justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” In Federalist No. 55, he admonished that, “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” Thus, he concluded: “Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealously of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from devouring and destroying one another.”
This Thanksgiving, as on each before, I am thankful that, almost four hundred years after the establishment of Plymouth Colony, that, so far, here in America, there has been sufficient virtue among us for self-government to thrive.
At the Free State Foundation, we proudly promote, through our research and educational activities, free market, limited government, and rule of law principles. While we are always respectful of those with other views, our work is guided by those bedrock principles.
We are most grateful for your interest in the work we do, and for your confidence and support. And, most importantly, in the spirit of freedom, we wish you a most Happy Thanksgiving!