Melissa Harris-Perry: Pilgrims Were Illegal Immigrants, Indians 99 Percenters

Did you know the Pilgrims were not only illegal immigrants, but part of that reviled economic elite known today as the one percent? At least according to Tulane professor and MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry.

Here's Harris-Perry on Al Sharpton's radio show earlier this week reaching for new heights in revisionism (audio) --

SHARPTON: Give me your idea of the kinds of things people ought to deal with this Thursday when their families and friends get together.

HARRIS-PERRY: You know, it's an interesting question. I've been thinking a lot about Thanksgiving and the moment that we're in because, you know, our economic crisis right now is highly tied to the European economic crisis and so I was thinking about kind of what is that first Thanksgiving when these illegal immigrants from Europe come over and are fed by the people of the actual Americas, the Native and indigenous people, you know, here on this land, that they are trying to escape religious prosecution and persecution in Europe and then you have the Europeans basically calling them dirty, no good, worthless, basically 99 percenters, right? And all of that is now playing out in a different way as we see the 99 percent pushing back against this idea that the elites are the only one that deserve to have a Thanksgiving dinner. All of that.

Once again, that was Tulane University, for you parents of soon-to-be college age children. Consider yourself warned.

Harris-Perry is not alone in her take on the Pilgrims as illegals scurrying surrepitiously into America. That's also how they were depicted on the cover of this week's New Yorker.

But such a premise begs the question -- were the Pilgrims actually here illegally?

Apparently not to those who would have had a basis for making this claim -- the Native Americans who lived in southeastern Massachusetts. In fact, their leader, Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, agreed to a treaty with the Pilgrims in March 1621, just three months after the English colonists landed at an abandoned Indian village whose inhabitants had been decimated by smallpox.

Peace between Pilgrims and Wampanoag would endure for more than a half-century, until King Phillip's War in 1675, when their grown children could not resolve the differences between them.

The pact between the Pilgrims and Indians was based on pragmatic self-interest for both sides, according to Nathaniel Philbrick's 2006 book "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War" --

Without Massasoit's help, the Pilgrims would never have survived the first year, and they remained steadfast supporters of the sachem to the very end. For his part, Massasoit realized almost from the start that his own fortunes were linked to those of the English. (in defending his tribe from native foes). In retrospect, there is a surprising amount of truth in the tired, threadbare story of the First Thanksgiving.

But the Indians and English of Plymouth Colony did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise -- a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently.

Harris-Perry's glib analogy wasn't the only dubious take on Thanksgiving from our liberal friends this week. Another came from Huffington Post blogger Richard Schiffman, who criticized Rush Limbaugh in a post titled "The Truth About Thanksgiving: What They Never Taught You in School" --

The popular talk radio host blames the Pilgrim's communal work ethic and equal sharing of the fruits of their labors for the colony's rocky first year in which half of the one hundred settlers perished of starvation and disease.

(Quoting Limbaugh) "The most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work  any harder  than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation!"

The tide turned, according to Rush, when the colony's governor, William Bradford, assigned a private plot of land to each family, thereby setting loose the beneficient powers of the marketplace in the People's Republic of Plymouth Rock.

This revisionist history is greeted with bemusement by professional historians.

That link to "professional historians" leads to a New York Times story by tea-party basher Kate Zernike, headlined "The Pilgrims Were ... Socialists?"

Interesting parallel between Schiffman's post and Zernike's article -- neither one cites from "Of Plymouth Colony," the remarkable and authoritative journal written by William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader who provided every family with a plot of land three years after the colonists came to America and were still struggling.

Prior to departing from England, the Pilgrims signed a contract with their financial backers. Every person age 16 and older would invest 10 pounds in money or other provisions, Bradford wrote, and "be accounted as having 20 pounds in stock and in the division shall receive a double share."

The contract lasted seven years, "during which time all profits and benefits that are got by trade , traffic, trucking , working, fishing, or any other means of any other person or persons, remain still in the common stock until the division."

Not only that, Bradford wrote, but "all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony." Once the agreement expired, the "capital and profits" were to be equally divided "betwixt the Adventurers" -- their backers in England -- "and Planters," the Pilgrims.

That first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 provided a brief respite from the harrowing difficulties facing the fledgling colony. Two years later it was barely surviving, Bradford wrote --

It may be thought strange that these people should fall to these extremities in so short a time ... many sold away their clothes and bed coverings; others (so base where they) became servants to the Indians, and would cut them wood and fetch them water for a capful of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both night and day, from the Indians, of which they grievously complained. In the end, they came to that misery that some of them starved and died with cold and hunger. One in gathering shellfish was so weak as he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place. At last most of them left their dwellings and scattered up and down in the woods and by the watersides, where they could find ground nuts and clams, here six and there ten. ...

Bradford describes the end of the "Common Course and Condition" --

So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number ...

The results?

This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.

For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours, victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point of all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like position, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse had they been men of another condition. Let none object this is men's condition, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Before Bradford ended the "common course and condition," the Pilgrims planted 26 acres in 1621 and 60 acres in 1622. After the families began working their own plots of land, the Pilgrims planted 184 acres, according to Bellevue University economist Judd W. Patton. A year later, Patton writes, the Pilgrims were exporting corn.

Suffice it to say, Bradford's finely observed account of what saved the Pilgrims isn't talked about much at the Huffington Post, New York Times, or Occupy protests.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts