When it comes to holidays, I’ve always preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas.
When Thanksgiving Day rolls around, I don’t feel pressured to rush to the malls and spend money I don’t have on presents that people really don’t need. Instead, I get together with family to eat a lot of good food, watch a football game or two on TV, and simply enjoy the day.
Thanksgiving is an occasion dating back to the earliest days of the European settlement of America, and it reminds us of a time when we thought it important to work together, for the common good of all. That’s a spirit of community we seem to have lost in recent years.
The religious separatists known as the Pilgrims gave us the tradition of a Thanksgiving observance not long after they landed in Massachusetts Bay in November 1620.
The Pilgrims gave us something else as well — they cobbled together an extraordinary document called the Mayflower Compact that, for the first time, set down a written framework for the establishment of a governing body in what became the United States.
The 41 men who signed the Compact agreed to abide by the rules that would be formulated by the new government of the Plymouth colony. The document was based upon the momentous idea that we set up governments to do things as a group that we would not be able to do individually.
The signers promised that to ensure “our better ordering and preservation,” they would enact ”just and equal Laws” that were considered to be “most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony.”
The words of the Mayflower Compact may sound a little stilted and archaic to modern ears, but they echo throughout the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The agreement signed by a few dozen settlers in a tiny New England colony provided the foundation for a governing system that still serves us today.
There has always been a tension in this country between individualists who criticize any form of government activity and those who recognize that a large, complex society such as ours can only function if it is managed through some form of governmental arrangement.
Similarly, we have long heard the arguments of libertarians and others who insist that governments can do nothing right and that we should wait for the wonders of the free market to solve whatever problems might confront us — as they would put it, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
I would argue from our recent history that there are things governments can do quite well under those we elect to lead us.
When America joined with its allies to defeat the forces of Nazism and fascism in World War II, it was able to do so because President Roosevelt mobilized the federal government on an unprecedented scale to hurl back these threats to democracy.
If we had waited for private enterprise and the free market to win World War II, we’d still be waiting today.
It was the federal government under President Eisenhower that conceived and launched the interstate highway system that links our states and makes access by automobile feasible to virtually every corner of this country. I don’t think private industry could have made this happen without some assistance from the government.
The efforts of the federal government under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon put a man on the moon. That’s something no other country has done to this day, and it is something that our government accomplished just eight years after Kennedy first called for it.
Even the internet, a technology that has transformed the world in ways that are still unfolding, started out as a government project: a computer network designed for the Department of Defense so that the agency could communicate with scientists and professors.
Those original Pilgrims knew nothing about computer networks, of course, when they signed their primitive compact. They were just trying to survive a brutal winter season in an unforgiving land.
They knew that survival depended upon everyone’s willingness to work together for the common good. We seem to have lost that communal spirit in today’s hostile political environment, but I hope that someday we can regain it.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.