Five years ago in my Thanksgiving message, I explained that I eagerly awaited the Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving Wall Street Journal almost as eagerly as the Thanksgiving Day turkey and stuffing. Well, almost, but not quite.
But I do look forward each Thanksgiving eve to the Journal’s reprinting on its editorial page of the very 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 Plymouth Colony.
Of the Pilgrims’ journey, William Bradford's account ends this way:
“Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew. 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, “And the Fair Land,” written by long-time WSJ editor Vermont Royster, 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."
When these two pieces are read together – and at our Thanksgiving meal we usually read aloud "The Desolate Wilderness" before cutting the turkey – and when we consider America's journey from the land with "a wild and savage hew" in 1620 to the "fair land" described by Vermont Royster in 1961, it is evident we have much for which to be thankful.
It is worth reminding ourselves, and perhaps particularly so after a closely contested election, that, as Vermont Royster said, "for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators."
If the idea of America is about anything, it is about the aspiration of those who inhabit our land to live in freedom under the rule of law, not under the rule of men. This is not to say that the reality of America has always lived up to the idea of America. It obviously hasn't.
But that should not detract from the fact that the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock did not come to America primarily seeking riches; they came seeking individual freedom – freedom to worship, speak, and think as they pleased. And most of those who have followed the first Pilgrims to our shores have not come primarily seeking riches; most have come seeking the freedom that America offers, and the opportunity for personal fulfillment that individual liberty provides.
For me, Thanksgiving is a holiday, of course, for giving thanks for America’s bounty. But it is also a holiday for celebrating, and giving thanks for, the freedom we enjoy, as a self-governing people, under our constitutional system of limited government, separated powers, and checks and balances.
So, as we celebrate this Thanksgiving, it is worth remembering Ronald Reagan’s injunction:
"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."
At the Free State Foundation, we are thankful that we live in a land – unlike many lands around the world – where we are free to advocate the principles in which we believe: limited government, free markets, property rights, the rule of law, and especially, in the context of much of our work in the communications law and policy field, free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As you enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday, we want you to know we are grateful for your support for our work, and, most of all, for your friendship.