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Columns

Giving Thanks to Imperfection and Improvement

Why Thanksgiving Should Be a Call for a Better America and World

By Nick J. Danby, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

My tenth great-grandfather, Stephen Hopkins, was a Mayflower passenger.

Besides living in the uncomfortable ship for 66 days with his family, Hopkins was one of the Mayflower Compact’s 41 signatories and served as assistant governor of Plymouth during the colony’s early years. But like the colony and country he helped build, his legacy was imperfect.

A tanner and merchant by trade, Hopkins was a well-traveled man long before he reached Massachusetts. He was a minister’s clerk on the Sea Venture, headed for Virginia, when the ship got swept up in a hurricane in 1609 and left its 150 survivors deserted in Bermuda. Hopkins mutinied against the governor and was sentenced to death, until he gave a powerful address that ended up guaranteeing his pardon. (His story became the basis for the character Stephano in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”).

Hopkins’ extensive experiences saved the Plymouth Colony during tough times. He participated in many exploratory missions and spotted animal traps laid by the Native Americans before colonists would have stepped into them. Most importantly, Hopkins was considered an “expert” in working with the Native Americans. When Samoset visited and welcomes the colonists, Hopkins invited Samoset to stay at his house for the night. In the following years, Hopkins was “sent on several of the ambassadorial missions” to trade and interact with several regional tribes.

His insightful experience and good nature were complemented by a rebellious streak. He was fined and apprehended for getting into fights with fellow colonists, including his “maid servant” who was pregnant with a dead man’s child. When the Plymouth Court deemed him financially responsible for both the maid and the child, Hopkins kicked the maid out of his house and “refused to provide for her, so the court committed him to custody.”

Plymouth Colony, however, was not a utopia. Hopkins incurred the wrath of the Puritans by simply opening a 17th-century saloon. On October 2, 1637, he was fined for allowing patrons to drink and play “shovell board [shuffleboard]” on the Lord’s day. A year later, he was fined for selling beer and a looking glass at twice their value. In today’s America, Hopkins would be considered a fledgling entrepreneur! And, while we are on the subject, if egregious markups were still a crime, Tatte Bakery and Café would be under federal investigation.

My ancestor sailed on the Mayflower and came to America in search of a better life. He represented the original “American Dream,” when people from afar could come to the U.S., no matter their circumstances, and better themselves and the New World. My other ancestors followed in similar footsteps. Another tenth-great-grandfather fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650. He was exiled to America by Cromwell and got a second chance. (He acted far less revolutionary in this new land.) My great grandfather, George N. Brountas, left Greece for the New World and ended up moving to my hometown, Bangor, Maine, in 1897. Desperately eager to escape poverty, Brountas made a living by selling fruit from a cart that he pushed for at least 30 miles every day. His effort and genial personality paid off when he opened up a candy store in 1903 with the money he had saved. The store soon became the Brountas Restaurant and my great grandfather purchased other properties, soon becoming a successful local businessman.

It is important to remember that millions of people from different places and eras came to this New World for a better life. And, in turn, this unique experiment that “began” in Plymouth 400 years ago, has benefited the world.

On November 23, 1944, wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke at the august Royal Albert Hall to a group of Americans in London celebrating Thanksgiving. At the time, Churchill and most Americans presumed that the Allies would defeat Germany and win in Europe. Without any notes, Churchill noted the “sober fact” that the United States had become a great military power, and that was “itself a subject of profound thanksgiving.” Implicitly, Churchill also gave thanks to the hundreds of thousands of American and British men who had given their lives in this effort.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Churchill’s speech was when he explained why this war effort mattered. Contrasting and defeating Hitler’s totalitarian Germany was “the peaceful, peace-loving people of the United States, with all the variety and freedom of their life.” America was held up as an example for the rest of the world.

Then, as now, the U.S. is not perfect — just like the Plymouth Colony, just like Stephen Hopkins. But the U.S. has tried to embody mankind’s desire to seek a better life and better world — just like George Brountas and the many American men who died on the beaches of Normandy and throughout Europe, Africa, and the Pacific in World War II. In doing so, the U.S. should continue to develop responsible and engaged policies that continues to ensure security and peace throughout the world. But American foreign policy should also do something that we often forget about: improve ourselves. If the U.S. wants to continue being a leader in the world, a strong military and astute diplomatic serve are not enough. We have to look inward. We have to improve ourselves.

Thanksgiving is normally a charged political atmosphere for families. Two years ago, the Washington Post reported that “politically divided” families cut their Thanksgiving dinners short from 20-30 minutes. I am sure this year will be no exception. But I encourage you to listen to that “crazy uncle” and hear his opinions as you share yours. A substantive discourse among imperfect Americans — of all stripes — dedicated to bettering this nation and themselves will achieve those ambitions.

Most importantly, between finishing the turkey and devouring the apple pie, I will take a moment to give thanks for my ancestors and America — a unique, imperfect, and extraordinary experiment.

I hope you will as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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