Giving thanks for American ingenuity this Thanksgiving

Giving thanks for American ingenuity this Thanksgiving
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This holiday season marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. A year later, they modeled Thanksgiving and we celebrate Thanksgiving annually as a national holiday. 

Yet, Thanksgiving 2020 will be different because 2020 has been a year like no other because of COVID-19. Schools are canceled. Local and state officials are telling people to cancel their Thanksgiving plans or severely restrict them. Even if people must scale back, does that mean giving thanks must be canceled as well? 

No, we must find something in our lives for which to give thanks, though it isn't easy during this COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the Pilgrims left us more than the habit of serving corn as a side dish. The Mayflower Pilgrims gave thanks despite losing half of their loved ones in one year. In this way, their story is particularly fitting this year where more than 247,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. 


A writer for the Salem Gazette in 1816 understood that if the Pilgrims could give thanks to God for the good in their lives despite their hardships, then Americans could give thanks, too.

"This day is our annual public Thanksgiving. If our pilgrim forefathers, who instituted this religious festival, could give thanks, in a mere temporary hut in the midst of baroness, that they were permitted to 'suck nourishment from the treasures in the land,' how much more should their descendants, who inherit from them a land now 'flowing with milk and honey,' enter with a voice of Thanksgiving and praise?"

This newspaper article is also notable because it predates the 1841 publication of a lost letter from a Pilgrim describing Thanksgiving, which claimed that the Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving and launched a flurry of interest in the Pilgrims. This 1816 article shows an earlier attribution of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims. 

The 102 Mayflower passengers left England in September 1620 and disembarked at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in December 1620. They lived on the ship until they built shelter on land.

Although they weren't starving, many likely suffered from scurvy caused by their high salt diet. Many also suffered from pneumonia during Massachusetts's harsh winter conditions. 

"As many as two or three people died each day during their first two months on land. Only 52 people survived the first year in Plymouth," Plimoth.org explains, noting the Mayflower sailed back to England with only half of its crew. 


Developing a relationship with the Wampanoag native tribe, the Pilgrims learned how to plant corn and other crops. 

"In the fall of 1621, the colonists marked their first harvest with a three-day celebration," Plimoth.org states, noting that 90 Wampanoag joined them.

Years later a group of New Englanders gathered for Thanksgiving in Philadelphia in 1817. The Pilgrims gave thanks to God despite their harsh conditions. Nicholas Chauncey gave a speech about "those who established our feast of love."

"Sir, our ancestors were living martyrs," Chauncey explained. "They endured exile and danger, and disease and hunger and cold and nakedness and the want of all things."

Chauncey called his forefather's heroes who had "a grand moral quality" despite their hardships.

"They had that energy, though its subject may be alive to pain and sagacious to discern danger, that presses forward in spite of both to the accomplishment of its purposes."

That energy to press forward to accomplish a purpose is something I'm grateful for this year. It's called resilience, perseverance on a spring, which is the theme of my new book "Resilience on Parade."

In particular, I am grateful for the resilience of our scientists at Moderna and Pfizer and other companies. Pfizer was the first to announce that its COVID-19 vaccine shows 95 percent efficacy. Their joy was unmistakable. 

We were jumping out of the shadows screaming, basically, ‘this is unbelievable. Oh, my God, we may put an end to this terrible pandemic’,” said Mikael Dolsten, M.D., Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer.

Their Pilgrim-like perseverance has paid off and we can be grateful that we should be able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks and months. 

"My personal hope is to see people vaccinated in the U.S. before the end of the year," Alejandro Cané, a vaccine Pfizer official, told The Hill.

Usually, vaccines take 12 plus years to be developed. Earlier this year I wrote an article for The Hill on the polio vaccine's 65th anniversary. The polio vaccine came six years after my mother contracted polio and decades after President Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease, which disabled and killed thousands. The polio vaccine eradicated polio. 

To have a COVID-19 vaccine within months of the disease appearing in the United States is a testament to American ingenuity that deserves our gratitude. Vaccines are the best way to eradicate COVID-19 and get back to normal life, even if it will still take a while.

Also earlier this year in another article for TheHill.com, I revealed that the political rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton impacted which yellow fever treatment people chose in an epidemic that killed thousands. People foolishly let politics cloud their judgment on whether they favored Hamilton or Jefferson. 

We've seen politics infect this pandemic. When it comes to the vaccine and regardless of politics, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE deserves credit for cutting the red tape for getting the vaccine approved and distributed in record time. 

Until the vaccine has taken hold, we must continue our social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures. But we can be grateful to God this Thanksgiving for the good in our lives and American ingenuity — both for the energy of the pilgrims and our modern pioneers in science who have worked at warp speed for all of us.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of the new book Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women’s Battle for the Vote. She is the host of Red, White, Blue and You.