Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Tom Cotton’s Thanksgiving, or, My Second-Grade Textbook Told the Truth and I Don’t Want Actual History to Get in the Way of My Feeling Good About Myself as a White Male | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Picture of Senator Tom Cotton in a suit and red tie sitting in front of press booth and pointing forward.
Senator Tom Cotton. Image courtesy of Newsweek.

The masters of Twitter and the Blogosphere are once again dismantling Tom Cotton, Senator from Arkansas and Donald Trump wannabe. Cotton might have two Harvard degrees, but he is certainly proving himself capable of matching the willful ignorance of our soon-out-the-door president. 

And I want to pile on with one particular observation. But first. 

On November 18 Cotton delivered a 15-minute speech on the floor of the Senate. As one blogger described it:

On the same day that deaths from the coronavirus reached the quarter-million mark, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) . . . who’s on a mission to turn himself into an actual cartoon character . . . took to the floor of the US Senate to address a pressing issue: the disturbing lack of patriotic appreciation of the Pilgrims and their contributions to freedom and democracy in the USA. 

According to Cotton, the lack of Thanksgiving celebrations this year – 401 years after the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and 400 years after the alleged first Thanksgiving – has to do with the fact that “the Pilgrims have fallen out of favor in fashionable circles.” And why is that? Because of an apparent loss of “civilizational self-confidence,” evinced by the fact that the New York Times ran an article in the Food Section (the Senator from Arkansas has time to scour the Food Section for attacks on American pride?) that referred to the traditional Thanksgiving story as a “myth” and a “caricature.” 

Cotton (whose last name seems so appropriate) would have to work hard to be less subtle in his racism, but then again, lack of subtlety is precisely the point. “Civilizational self-confidence” certainly does not refer to the Native Americans, who had been here for millennia when the Mayflower landed (but who were soon to die in great numbers). Nor does “civilizational self-confidence” refer to the millions of Africans brought to the Americas in chains, with North America receiving its first slaves one year before the Pilgrims’ arrival.

But for Cotton, focusing on American slavery is precisely the problem. He connects the lack of “commemorations, parades, or festivals to celebrate the Pilgrims this year” not to the pandemic, but instead to “revisionist charlatans of the radical left  [who] have lately claimed the previous year [1619] as America’s true founding.” Here Cotton is continuing his campaign against the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a campaign which has included an effort to have this project banned from public schools, as this effort to educate Americans about slavery and its legacy misses the point that slavery was a “necessary evil” that allowed America to be the great nation that it is today.

But this was a point that was probably made in Cotton’s second-grade textbook.

As regards Cotton’s effort to restore white pride in the Pilgrim story, he informs us that the Pilgrims came here “seeking the freedom to practice their faith,” suggesting a commitment to religious freedom that they absolutely did not have. Instead, the Pilgrims wanted the freedom to establish a community where THEIR faith and only THEIR faith would be allowed – a point Cotton chooses to elide.

Cotton also mentions that the Pilgrims “had to conquer the desolate wilderness” without noting why the wilderness seemed desolate (the silence of the first winter in New England was rather terrifying for the Pilgrims). English traders had brought disease to the region for which the Indians had no immunities, and between 1616 and 1619 80% or more of all Indians in the region were killed. As two scholars coolly put it in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases , this epidemic — these authors suggest chicken pox, trichinosis, or leptospirosis as the culprit – “may have been instrumental to the near annihilation of Native Americans, which facilitated successful colonization of the Massachusetts Bay area.”

Again, not a story that Cotton wants to tell.

But for me, the most remarkable omission in this story has to do with Squanto. As I tell my students, the Squanto story is true. As Cotton rightly explained, he did come out of the wilderness to help the Pilgrims, teaching them how to grow corn and other crops, giving suggestions as to where to hunt and fish, and so forth. As William Bradford put it, Squanto “was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

When I ask my students how they imagined Squanto communicating with the Pilgrims, most suggest “sign language.” A reasonable guess, but wrong. And here Cotton is right again: “Squanto . . . spoke fluent English,” to the point that he served as “their interpreter” with other tribes.

But what is astonishing is that Cotton never explains WHY Squanto spoke fluent English. 

Did Squanto stumble upon an English grammar book inadvertently dropped on the shore by one of the traders bringing disease to the region? Did one of those traders take the time to provide this Indian a crash course in the English language? Did Squanto’s role as a “special instrument sent of God” for the sake of the Pilgrims include receiving from the Holy Spirit the gift of speaking in English?


The reason that Squanto spoke fluent English is that in 1614 an English trader named Thomas Hunt tricked Squanto and two dozen or so other Wampanoag Indians into boarding his ship. Then Hunt chained them below deck and set sail for Spain, the goal being to sell them into slavery. 

We do not know how many Indians survived the voyage, or how many were actually enslaved in Spain. We do know that Squanto escaped – perhaps with the help of Catholic friars – and made his way to England, where he learned English. 

In 1619 he was employed as a guide for a ship heading to New England. When he arrived, and disembarked near the village where he had grown up, he discovered that all his family and fellow villagers were dead, and that all that remained were bones and rotting corpses. Taken in but held in tight control by Wampanoag Indians, because they did not trust him, in the spring of 1621 Squanto was allowed to serve as an emissary to the struggling Pilgrims. 

(See here and here). 

The Pilgrims must have freaked out when they heard Squanto speak English. But why he spoke English is not of interest to Sen. Cotton. He wants an American history whitewashed of the horrors of slavery, be it slavery of Africans or Native Americans. He wants an American history whitewashed of Protestant religious intolerance, whitewashed of the annihilation of the native inhabitants.

Sen. Cotton wants a grade-school history that inspires a “civilizational self-confidence” among white students.

That is to say, Sen. Cotton wants to cancel history. Which is further evidence that, when the Right accuses the Left of “cancel culture,” they are projecting.