A History of Thanksgiving

The original Thanksgiving was marked by prayer and thanks for the untimely deaths of most of the Wampanoag Tribe due to smallpox contracted from earlier European visitors. Thus when the Pilgrims arrived they found the fields already cleared and planted, and they called them their own. But the “holiday” was not yet declared by the colonists….

Historical Range of the Wampanoag Tribe

Historical Range of the Wampanoag Tribe

Sixteen years after the alleged first Thanksgiving (using the commonly assumed year of 1621), the English decided the rich Connecticut valley would make a nice addition to their colony. They also didn’t like the fact that the Pequots, the indigenous tribes there, did not exhibit the stringent moral decorum of the Pilgrims, and thus acted as an ongoing temptation to the colony. Moreover, the Pequots were “insolent” in that they resisted subjugation and dispossession. In 1637, colonial militia led by Captain John Mason massacred the Pequots. They were burned alive in their villages – men, women and children alike, some 700 of them. (There had originally been many more, prior to the arrive of disease vectors from Europe.) William Bradford, of Plymouth renown, recorded in his diary:

…those that scraped [escaped] the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

William Bradford

William Bradford

He was inspired to issue a proclamation: “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” Thus Thanksgiving Day was born.

You can read more about the righteous destruction of the Native Americans committed by the land-hungry colonists, in the excellent history Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating & Empire Building by Richard Drinnon.


November 25, 1986 – President Reagan Acknowledges Sending Arms to Iran

On this day in history, the “Iran-Contra Scandal” erupted after President Reagan Reagan revealed that profits from secret arms sales to Iran had been diverted to fund Nicaraguan rebels–the Contras–who were fighting a guerrilla war against the democratically elected leftist government of Nicaragua.

President Ronald Reagan shortly after the Iran-contra scandal engulfed his administration in November 1986. (Credit: AP/Dennis Cook)

President Ronald Reagan shortly after the Iran-contra scandal engulfed his administration in November 1986. (Credit: AP/Dennis Cook)

The report caused outrage in Congress, which in 1982 had passed The Boland Amendment (attached to the House Appropriations Bill of 1982 and again attached as a rider to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1983), outlawing U.S. assistance to the Contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, while allowing assistance for other purposes.

Nevertheless, Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, USN, and his deputy, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, USMC, diverted to the Nicaraguan contras millions of dollars in funds received from a secret deal involving the sales of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran (in spite of Reagan’s public pledge not to deal with terrorists).

The Administration was not beset by a fit of conscience; rather, a Lebanese magazine, Ash Shiraa, reported on November 3 that the United States had been secretly selling arms to Iran in an effort to secure the release of seven American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

Lt. Colonel Oliver North

Lt. Colonel Oliver North

In 1988, acting on a recommendation made by the Congressional Iran-Contra [investigative] Committee, the Senate approved bipartisan legislation that would have required that the President notify the congressional intelligence committees within 48 hours of the implementation of a covert action if prior notice had not been provided. The House did not vote on the measure.

Then in 1990, Congress tried again to tighten its oversight of covert action. The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a new set of statutory reporting requirements, citing the ambiguous, confusing and incomplete congressional mandate governing covert actions under the then-current law. After the bill was modified in conference, Congress approved the changes, but President George H.W. Bush killed it with a pocket veto.

In 1991, after adding new language pursuant to the objections of President Bush, Congress once again proposed an oversight law. Congress approved and the President signed into law the new measure, now codified as 50 U.S.C. 413b. You can read the provisions here.

November 24, 1989 – The Entire Communist Party Leadership in Czechoslovakia Resigns

Czechoslovakia had existed as a sovereign state in Central Europe since October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From 1939 to 1945, it was forcefully divided and partially incorporated into Nazi Germany. After the war, pre-war Czechoslovakia was re-established, with the exception of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which was annexed by the Soviet Union. In February 1948 the Communists seized power.

Propaganda Poster of the Czechoslovak Communist Party [KSČ]

Propaganda Poster of the Czechoslovak Communist Party [KSČ]

A growing dissident movement coupled with upheaval in the Soviet Union eventually culminated in this day in history, when twenty-four leaders of the Politburo and Secretariat in Czechoslovakia resigned after admitting to underestimating the force of the pro-democracy movement.

Two days later, the legislature formally deleted the sections of the Constitution giving the Communists a monopoly of power. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Slovak reformer Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

Over the next two years the Slovak separatist movement successfully campaigned for autonomy from the Czech lands. The Dissolution of Czechoslovakia, which took effect on 1 January 1993, officially recognized two separate states in its stead: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.


November 22, 2013 – U.S. Senate Alters Its Filibuster Rules

On this date the U.S. Senate approved, on a 52 to 48 vote, a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the ability of the minority party to filibuster most presidential nominees, allowing a simple majority vote to be determinative. The change meant that the filibuster would no longer applies to judicial or executive-branch nominees but still apply to bills and Supreme Court nominations.

The Democrats contended they were trying to resolve the gridlock that had been plaguing Congress, but Republicans said the Senate’s move represented an outrageous repudiation of the minority party’s right to influence policy.

However, as Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist who researches the filibuster, said:

Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.”


November 20, 1789 – New Jersey Is The First State to Ratify The Bill of Rights

On this day in history, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights had been introduced by James Madison on June 8, 1789.

Originally, seventeen articles were proposed; These were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789. New Jersey approved eleven. The first, relating to how federal representation would be determined based on population, was ratified by New Jersey but not by the required number of states. The second, relating to the salaries of members of Congress, was rejected by New Jersey, but then approved in 1992 as the 27th Amendment. Articles 3 through 12 became the 1st through 10th Amendments.

You can read the twelve articles, as proposed, here. You can also enlarge these Library of Congress images to read all seventeen articles.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

November 18, 2003 – Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay Marriage

On this day in history, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (798 N.E.2d 941, Mass. 2003) that the state constitution guaranteed gay couples the right to marry. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote:

The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry. We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals.   It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.   In reaching our conclusion we have given full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth.   But it has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts thus began on May 17, 2004, as a result of that Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. Massachusetts became the sixth jurisdiction in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec) to legalize same-sex marriage. It was the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney responded by calling for an amendment of the Massachusetts constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President George W. Bush called for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his 2004 State of the Union address, saying, “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”

In 1996, Congress enacted The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Pub.L. 104–199, 110 Stat. 2419) allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. DOMA, in conjunction with other statutes, had barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits. DOMA’s passage did not prevent individual states from recognizing same-sex marriage, but it imposed constraints on the benefits received by all legally married same-sex couples.

In July 2009, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to seek federal marriage benefits for some 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who had wed since the state became the nation’s first to legalize same-sex marriage. She called on the Supreme Court to review the Defense of Marriage Act, contending DOMA was unconstitutional by interfering with a state’s right to regulate marriage under the Tenth Amendment.

Additionally, she contended that DOMA exceeded Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause because the law impacts joint state-federal programs, such as Medicaid and operation of veterans’ cemeteries.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor (133 S.Ct. 2675, 2013) by a vote of five to four in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was “unconstitutional as deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” (DOMa section 3 required federal laws and agency rulings, regulations and interpretations to define the words marriage and spouse as referring only to marriages between a man and a woman.)

However, individual states may still ban same-sex marriages. Because the circuit courts are now split on their support of these bans, the Supreme Court may have to take up the issue, in spite of its announcement in October of 2014 that it would not hear same-sex marriage cases.

November 17, 1951 – Denise McNair’s Birthday

On this date in history, Denise McNair was born. She would live just eleven years. Denise was one of four children killed during the KKK terrorist attack against the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Four members of the Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite with a delayed-time release outside the basement of the church (which had been a rallying point for civil-rights activities).


Twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room for closing prayers when the bomb exploded. Twenty-two were injured, and four killed, including Denise, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14) and Carole Robertson (age 14). Denise was the youngest. She was a student at Center Street Elementary School, where she had many friends including the future Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

More than 8,000 mourners, but no city officials, attended the funeral service. The four who committed the crime were not convicted until after the case was re-opened several times. (One died before being charged, one was convicted in 1978, and the other two were not convicted until 2000.)

In 1964, Joan Baez recorded this haunting song reproduced in the video below, “Birmingham Sunday,” written by her brother-in-law and fellow folk singer and activist Richard Farina.


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