Thanksgiving is Worth Defending | Opinion

This will be a Thanksgiving unlike any other, not just because of a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of an upwelling of hostility toward the holiday itself. Both of these threats must be defeated—the virus because it threatens our lives and our prosperity, and the war on Thanksgiving because it threatens the fabric of our national identity. Fortunately, the attacks on Thanksgiving are based in part on some easily refutable claims.

The first battle in the war on Thanksgiving was the effort to undermine Columbus Day. Columbus is an easy target. Someone else would have "found" this land at some point if he hadn't. Columbus wasn't even the first—Vikings had visited the Americas hundreds of years earlier. And he, like practically every other explorer, behaved in ways that shock the modern conscience. It is no wonder that statues in Chicago and elsewhere have come down and that many places celebrate "Indigenous Peoples Day" in lieu of Columbus Day. If it ended there, there could have been an easy peace.

Thanksgiving is the next front in this culture war. The going will be tougher and the stakes higher, since this holiday is an American original. Other than July 4th (which may be next on the list), Thanksgiving is the only major holiday not based on a religion. Americans of all faiths celebrate it together, and there is something deeply unifying about knowing that every family in every corner of the country is eating (more or less) the same meal and sharing in the same traditions. In a time when e pluribus unum is increasingly undermined by political and social factions, Thanksgiving is a tie that binds.

"We should not celebrate Thanksgiving," goes the cry from the extreme Left, "because it stands for the colonization of Native Americans, the theft of their land and the genocide that was committed against them." Many horrible acts were perpetrated against the indigenous people of America, and it is important that we learn about and acknowledge them. It is also important that we do what we can to help provide opportunities for the native communities that remain.

But the claim that America was stolen from indigenous people is false. The Europeans did not claim to have "discovered" America or that arriving here made the land theirs by right. The main influence on King Charles V of Spain and Pope Paul III in setting the terms of European behavior during the 16th century, Francisco de Vitoria, declared that the indigenous peoples owned the land. He wrote that the law of European kings "gives no support to a seizure of [the land] any more than if it had been they who had discovered us." The policy of every colonial government was in accord with this principle. Felix Cohen, the seminal expert on American Indian law, notes that "except only in the case of the Indians in Minnesota...the United States government has never extinguished an Indian title as by right of conquest; and in this latter case the Government provided the Indians another reservation, besides giving them the proceeds of the sales of the lands vacated by them in Minnesota."

A turkey decorates the Macy's Herald Square store on 34th Street for Thanksgiving under the Empire State Building on November 21, 2020 in New York City. Gary Hershorn/Getty

The Supreme Court confirmed this account in an 1823 case called Johnson v. M'Intosh. Chief Justice Marshall concluded that "discovery" did not give explorers ownership of land in America, but only the right to claim it relative to other European competitors. In this way, when the United States bought 828,000 square miles stretching from New Orleans to Montana from France for about $345 million (in 2020 dollars), it was actually just buying an option to buy the land from its native inhabitants. Recent research by the historian Robert Lee concludes the total cost of acquiring the land of the Louisiana Purchase from its inhabitants at the time to be about $10 billion (in 2020 dollars).

Many terrible actions committed against and by Native Americans mar the creation of America. It would be wrong to ignore these just because the end result was the greatest nation ever conceived. But it is also wrong to claim that colonial and American governments engaged in wanton expropriation. Governments at every level tried to find a way for settlers and natives to coexist. In the Nonintercourse Act of 1790, the federal government criminalized land purchases from natives in order to protect them from swindlers. Even the reservation system and removal were attempts to help Native Americans face the pressure from growing and technologically advanced non-native communities. All of these failed to a great extent, but not for lack of effort or imagination. At some level, the conflict was impossible to contain. The only real solution to the "Indian problem" was to argue that the ships should never have come to America.

The attack on Thanksgiving is an attack on America itself, and that is the last thing we need at this point in our history. Instead, we should all give thanks for being American and redouble our efforts to fulfill the promise of its founding: equal justice for all.

M. Todd Henderson is professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.