Thanksgiving is the right time to revisit the legacy of the Pilgrims--via Mark Twain, the most American of Americans, and someone at least twice exceptional. This is from his speech at the First Annual Dinner of the New England Society in 1881.

I have kept still for years; but really, I think there is no sufficient justification for this sort of thing. What do you want to celebrate those people for—those ancestors of yours of 1620—the Mayflower tribe and the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth rock? What was remarkable about it? Why, those Pilgrims had been at sea three or four months. It was the middle of winter and cold as death off Cape Cod. Why shouldn’t they come ashore? Hang it, a horse would have known enough to land. The Pilgrims were a mighty hard lot. They took good care of themselves, but they abolished everybody else’s ancestors. Where are my ancestors?

My first American ancestor, gentlemen, was an Indian. Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. I ask you to put yourselves in his place. I ask it as a favor; I ask it as a tardy act of justice; I ask it that the world may contemplate, with vision unobstructed by disguising swallowtails with white cravats, the spectacle which the New England Society ought to present.

Later ancestors of mine were Quakers. Your tribe chased them out of the country; promised them death if they came back; for your ancestors had braved the perils of the sea and the savage wilderness to acquire that highest and most precious of boons, the religious liberty to [make us] worship as they required us to worship, and political liberty to vote as the church required.

All those Salem witches were ancestors of mine! Your people made it tropical for them. Yes, they di...


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