NH Immigration
9:00 am
Wed November 23, 2011

Immigration and Thanksgiving

Exchange Executive Producer Keith Shields explores how the holiday of Thanksgiving has been linked over time in US history with the issue of Immigration

It’s a popular topic in classrooms all over New Hampshire around this time...

But some lessons go beyond just pilgrims and Plymouth Rock and breaking bread with the Natives, in some classes the issue of immigration comes up. 

Immigration and Thanksgiving have been linked over time... whether it’s been protests around the white man’s treatment of Native Americans or those who teach that at one time, nearly all of us were all newcomers to this country.

It would take almost 240 years after the Pilgrim’s landing before President Lincoln, first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. And the woman who had the biggest influence on him, was a Granite Stater by the name of Sara Josepha Hale.  Hale was born in Newport and became a prolific writer who saw what food and family and home and a national holiday celebrating it all could do to unite a very divided country.  Stu Wallace is a Professor of History at the New Hampshire Technical Institute

“I think that she saw the home and the dinner table as an oasis, an oasis whereby we put aside our hatreds our troubles, our differences and our problems and that we seek a retreat if you will... a retreat into all of the good things that made the country great. She particularly the dinner table as a place where we brought out the best in ourselves. We fed ourselves, we fed our neighbors, we shared our traits of generosity and virtue and dutifulness and compassion.”

But the division wasn’t purely centered on slavery and the rumblings of civil war... It was immigration that the country wrested with as well as we celebrated our first years of a Thanksgiving holiday.  Shortly after the war ended, reconstruction began, factories began to grow, a railroad began to unite east and the west, and the US economy was growing.  Fueling those industries were immigrants.  Lucy Salyer is an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire

“We have a huge increase in immigration, like in the 1880's, a ½ a million immigrants come each year, and they’re coming from a lot of different countries, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. So the nation is becoming more diverse and also spread apart. And so those kinds of dynamics are really creating some anxiety amongst some, about if the nation can really grow and become that diverse and still have a sense of common identity and unity. ”

Two cartoonists as this time exemplified how divided the country was with this new immigrant population. The first came from Thomas Nast, a very popular cartoonist. Nast was a German immigrant himself.  In November of 1869, six years after thanksgiving first was recognized, Nast composed a cartoon called “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” for Harper’s Weekly Journal. In it you see a large round table with a young looking Uncle Sam carving a turkey.  Around him are men and women of different ethnicities

“All of these people from all these cultures are present as families, and what is also distinctive is that they are dressed in what we might call their native dress. So we see a lot of culture distinctiveness and diversity, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of anxiety about that. Their sitting around an oval table which suggests perhaps a sense of equality.”

There are portraits of Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Grant gazing on the dinner with approval, a painting of Castle Garden, the immigrant receiving center before Ellis Island, as well as inscriptions that say Come one, Come All and Free and Equal.

“You have this group of people, who seem to be talking to one another, their eating, their harmonious.  And Nast really seems to want to suggest that we can have this nation of difference because what brings us together is not necessarily having the same culture but political principals. ”

But in direct contrast to that was another cartoon also called “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner”.  This one is drawn 8 years later and published for the Illustrated Wasp out of San Francisco.  Much had happened in those eight years. The US was now in the grips of its first industrial depression, many immigrants who fueled those industries were out of work and many more were coming in.  So this Thanksgiving table is much different. Its rectangular and Uncle Sam is still there but his guests and the feeling around the room is now very different . Once again Lucy Salyer

“What’s really striking about this picture also is that it’s all men, there are no families at the table, they’re all immigrant men. They are all sitting separately, no one is talking to one another and perhaps most striking is what they’re eating. ”

The Frenchman is consuming raw frogs. The man from China has skewered a live rat. The Russian has a stick of dynamite in his hand. No one is engaging with each other, and at the threshold of the door, many more people of different ethnicities, who look unpleasant and waiting to get in.

“So it gives this image of immigrants who are very distinctive culturally but there’s not a lot of confidence around that, there’s anxiety that I see in this particular cartoon, that there’s not a sense of togetherness at this particular thanksgiving dinner. That food isn’t serving as a way to bind people but as a way to keep them separate. ”

But during this time Sara Josepha Hale had her say as well.  Hale saw food as a way to come together and the dinner table as a sort of safety zone no matter how different or divided Americans were... in an 1871 editorial for Godey’s Lady’s book, Hale made the case, that a national day of Thanksgiving could do just that

“ The Influx of foreigners into our country is prodigious. Not only by the natural increase of population but by immigration.  To bind together the discordant nationalities into one American brother, what strand so potent as Thanksgiving? Let everyone who claims the name American, wherever he may be – in the old world or the new, on the land or the sea – unite to commemorate the day.  It will be stronger that the laws or armies to make our nation one. ”

  Once again Stu Wallace

“So all of this comes together that the idea of thanksgiving, the idea of different foods, the idea of different people around the table made sense because it was spreading the best of American values but spreading it the haven if you will of the home.  Where she really considered the essence of America to be.”

For the Exchange, I’m Keith Shields

Related Program