Tracy McKenzie "Flips the Bird" on Rush Limbaugh

Over at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz of Asbury University reviews Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.  In the process, he shows how McKenzie’s book offers a more accurate picture of the so-called “first Thanksgiving” than the one offered by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in his new book Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. (McKenzie addresses these differences here). Apparently Rush believes that capitalism helped save the Pilgrims from the New England wilderness.

Here is a taste of Swartz’s review:

  • Pilgrims were not free-market democrats. It’s anachronistic to understand the English Pilgrims as free-thinking patriots 150 years before the founding of the nation. McKenzie points out that a democratic ethos of “the people” ruling was still a good two centuries away. Nor were they proponents of modern forms of free enterprise—or of socialism, for that matter.
  • Historians can’t draw a straight line between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the contemporary holiday. For 220 years, nobody even remembered the first Thanksgiving. (Historical records only give us the barest of sketches: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted”). It was a holiday, but it wasn’t linked to the Pilgrims until the mid-19th century. The Bible Belt, in fact, despised Thanksgiving because of sectional rivalry. It took the growing popularity of football in the 1870s and 1880s, when the first league held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day, to accelerate the holiday’s popularity. Thanksgiving, McKenzie writes, became “a domestic observance for which church attendance was optional but a plump turkey was not.” The pious “memories” of the typical evangelical are less accurate than a 1908 Budweiser ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune that read, “How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser. How they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”
  • And perhaps most shocking to our holiday sensibilities, the first Thanksgiving almost certainly featured more eel than turkey. If they ate any birds at all, they were probably geese. There were no sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. If you really want to be historically authentic, eat some turnips and eel this Thanksgiving. McKenzie also points out that the quaint image of Pilgrims as broad-shouldered pioneers wearing shiny buckles, black suits, and white collars has been “conjured out of thin air.” The Pilgrims probably looked more like junior high schoolers: five feet, six inches and about 130 pounds and clothed in an exuberant array of reds, blues, greens, and yellows.
This whole discussion reminds me of the opening section of chapter 3 of my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (Of course it does!):

The historian David Lowenthal tells the story of a Midwestern man’s visit to Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that interprets the earliest days of the seventeenth-century settlement of New England.  Lowenthal witnessed this man–this “booster of individualism and free enterprise”–have an interesting encounter with the actor playing William Bradford, the governoro of Plymouth Colony.  Lowenthall writes, 

“Like many Americans, this visitor grew up in the faith that the Pilgrim Fathers were true begetters of his own values.  Now he was finding this prototype Father’s views diametrically opposed to his own.  Bradford was a Calvinist predestinrarian, a believer in community to whom secular capitalist enterprise was blasphemous, selfish individualism anathema.  Seething with indignation, the visitor could not just dismiss pious Bradford as a crank or a Communist…For the first time in his life, this visitor confronted a world view fundamentally at odds with his own and had to engage with it as an idea.”

Indeed, William Bradford lived in a world that was quite difference from the world of this Midwestern visitor or, for that matter, anyone born and raised in the modern United States.  This man learned an important lesson about trying to superimpose his system of belief on the past.  As Lowenthal, echoing the late novelist L.P. Hartley, reminds us, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

17 thoughts on “Tracy McKenzie "Flips the Bird" on Rush Limbaugh

  1. I appreciate the erudites that post here. However, the simple question is do we want a civilization that encourages hard work and enterprise or one that rewords sloth? I exempt the Biblical exhortation that any humane society takes care of the widows, orphans and disabled. What made America great was the freedom to achieve in spite of one's circumstances. America is not perfect. No person or country is. I ask the question what nation in the history of the world has been more blessed and has made more opportunities for their citizens than America? Do I hear silence? Get down on your knees and thank God for this great nation which God has blessed.


  2. I defended the conservatives against unprincipled attacks, as I would defend you, Jimmy.

    What it is that makes lefties feel obliged to fulminate at the very mention of Limbaugh's name, I don't know. A psychological tic.

    As for the linked essay's negative review of Limbaugh's book, the mess up of the timeline is fair to note. However, he underplays the bad state of the colony until individual enterprise was introduced–which is the point of the story.


    What strikes me about these responses is how utterly confident the reviewers are in the historical accuracy of a work of children’s literature that centers on the adventures of a time-traveling talking horse. There are no footnotes. No bibliography. No list of suggested readings. No evidence of any kind.

    It's a kids' book fer crissakes. Take a pill.


  3. Tom is correct that the Pilgrims did find the collective economic organization imposed on them by the CAPITALIST merchants in London unsatisfying and that they did move to private ownership of land. In my posts on Limbaugh's book, I have tried to call attention to three other complicating points that wholly undermine Limbaugh's argument. The first is that the shift to private ownership of land took place three years AFTER the so-called “First Thanksgiving,” whereas Limbaugh says that it took place prior to that event, indeed, he argues that the “First Thanksgiving” would not have been possible except for their shift from collectivism. This is not a small gaffe. Second, in the codified laws of Plymouth Colony (which Limbaugh could have consulted), it is clear that the colony imposed all kinds of restrictions on the free market throughout the rest of the history of the colony, including a variety of restrictions on prices and wages. Finally, Limbaugh is wrong in claiming that the shift to private ownership allowed the Pilgrims to repay their debts to their London backers very quickly. Had he read all of Bradford's history, he would have seen that one of the constant themes of book II of OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION is their failure to do so. Indeed, it would take twenty-eight years for them to repay debts that were supposed to be repaid in seven. In sum, there are numerous factual problems with the book. If academic historians have largely left it alone, I suspect it is because they do not want to appear to lend credence to it by dignifying it with serious attention.


  4. Blogger John Fea said…
    Tom: Thanks (as always) for the comment. As a historian I get a little uncomfortable when I see someone like Limbaugh turn the Pilgrims into people just like us and try to describe them with modern categories.

    A friend of mine recently asked me about the book's treatment of American exceptionalism. If this is what Limbaugh says (and both you and my friend confirm this) then I do not have a problem with his definition.

    Cheers, John. I actually looked up Limbaugh's account of free enterprise and individual initiative saving a moribund Plymouth colony. It is indeed in Bradford's diary as he says [except use of the land was given for individual proprietorship, not ownership]. It's just plain damn fact–when the colonists worked for the collective, they each did as little as they could get away with. When able to reap the fruits of their increased labor, the colony's productiveness went through the roof.

    As for his little joke to Liberty the Horse about being told what to do, his critics and scolds on the left don't get his sense of humor.

    As a social conservative, Rush would be sympathetic to Barry Shain's “Myth of American Individualism” thesis, that to the Puritans, “liberty” meant the freedom to do what's right under the laws of God [the Bible] and nature [natural law], and that they escaped the political-religious hand of the crown as a community–not as individuals, which is at the heart of Mckenzie's crabbing at Limbaugh and is not inaccurate.

    OTOH, that's all a little much too pack into a children's book, and further, contra popular belief, Rush doesn't explicitly thump Bible or the religious dimension of social conservatism. It ain't his thing.

    If this is what Limbaugh says (and both you and my friend confirm this) then I do not have a problem with his definition.

    Unlike Beck and Barton, Limbaugh seldom overshoots his evidence. Which is why critics on the left prefer to punk the former, who are easier targets. Criticism of the far more able Limbaugh usually takes the form of mindless rant, caricature, and character assassination.


    Speaking of which, great to see my pal Jimmy Dick chime in with a nice Two Minutes Hate. He and I had a nice outing together over at Warren Throckmorton's place recently that had a similar contour.



  5. Joshua: Couldn't agree more with your comment. Too often we treat terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” or “democracy” as if they exist in a vacuum and can be applied universally to every moment in American history. Your comment illustrates that all of these terms are grounded in particular moments in time and world views of particular communities.


  6. Tom: Thanks (as always) for the comment. As a historian I get a little uncomfortable when I see someone like Limbaugh turn the Pilgrims into people just like us and try to describe them with modern categories.

    A friend of mine recently asked me about the book's treatment of American exceptionalism. If this is what Limbaugh says (and both you and my friend confirm this) then I do not have a problem with his definition.


  7. Limbaugh's extremely incorrect book is a joke much like Limbaugh himself. There are all kinds of points to land on it. His concept that Puritan collectivism was a failure is a failure in his own mind. The book is just another failed attempt by a rightwing kook to rewrite history to suit his own personal ideology. Might as well stack it up with Beck's pieces of trash as backup plans for a toilet paper crisis.


  8. From McKenzie's review:

    “The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion. Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility–between God and man and between man and man. Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression. Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor.”

    Though I do not know if the pilgrims had any connection at all with Luther's writings, there is a consistency of thought between the statement above and Luther's “The Freedom of a Christian,” the central thesis of which is:

    “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”

    Essentially, as Luther explains, Christians are free IN ORDER that we might serve.


  9. Not a very coherent bash of Limbuagh. Further it skips his main thesis, that the collectivist Plymouth colony was on the brink of failure until each family had their own plot of land to work and keep the added profits.

    The lack of interest in the Limbaugh book from the academic establishment suggests that there's not much inaccuracy to score partisan points on.

    Many of the book's details line up well with historical accounts.

    Limbaugh's political viewpoint certainly shows up, but less than you might expect. He even defines “American exceptionalism” in a manner unlikely to offend Rachel Maddow: “It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It … means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history.”

    Limbaugh, like other conservatives, seizes upon the Pilgrims' story as an example of the terrible things that can happen when people pool their resources in a collectivist manner. The author seems particularly offended by the idea of a “Common House” at Plymouth. To him, the pilgrims suffered from the evils of Common-ism (my word, not Limbaugh's) and survived only by belatedly injecting individualism and free enterprise into their settlement.

    There is indeed a historical basis for Limbaugh's view. William Bradford, Plymouth's governor, wrote that common ownership “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment,” and that more corn was planted when families were given their own land.


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