The first amnesty

The Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, c. 1864, by Antonio Gisbert Credit Bridgeman Images
The Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, c. 1864, by Antonio Gisbert Credit Bridgeman Images

America’s first illegal-alien amnesty wasn’t the biggest in our history, but it was the most influential, since we’re still talking about it.

The beneficiaries had shown a certain reckless courage in immigrating here, and a high degree of presumption. They entered without permission or papers, ignorant of local laws and customs. They didn’t learn the language, and they kept to themselves.

That they were undocumented didn’t bother them, so firmly did they believe that no human being is illegal. Like so many Americans, they sanctified their own arrival, blessed their own immigration story above others. They were grateful to be accepted by the native-born, and glad for the handouts. Here is their version of how it went down, in 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.

“At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, 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, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Today, when you celebrate our great American holiday, remember that sense of gratitude. If, by ancestral good fortune, your family’s foothold in the United States is uncontested, be especially thankful. Nobody’s going to yell at you to speak Wampanoag. No one will presume criminality in you or your children. No one will chant at you: Build the wall!

Thanksgiving is a lovely story we tell ourselves, about kindness and tolerance and white people fitting in. The American story got richer and deeper over time, with many grave sins and slaughters, not least for indigenous peoples, but generally hewing to a spirit of growing inclusion and welcome for newcomers. How alien that all feels today, in the dawn of Donald Trump’s America.

Lawrence Downes is a member of The New York Times Editorial Board.

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