Inclusion and exclusion in two historic Thanksgiving cartoons

By Daniel Gifford
Cartoon shows a large group of men and women from of various races, ethnicities, and  cultural backgrounds gathered around a table for a meal. At the head of the table, Uncle Sam carves a turkey; the table's center is dominated by the model of a temple with the words "Universal Suffrage."

Thanksgiving is often imagined as a time of gathering and inclusion. We frequently picture our quintessentially American holiday as when we lay aside differences and use a meal to join hands, break bread (or wishbones), and be one with our family, friends, neighbors, and nation. One historian has gone so far as to call it "a haven in a heartless calendar." But Thanksgiving, like every holiday, is fraught with questions about inclusion and exclusion; control and power; and the exercise of determining who is "in" the inner-circle of tradition and who is out.

Cartoon shows a large group of men and women from of various races, ethnicities, and  cultural backgrounds gathered around a table for a meal. At the head of the table, Uncle Sam carves a turkey; the table's center is dominated by the model of a temple with the words "Universal Suffrage." At the bottom of the image is the title, "Unlce Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner" as well as the phrases 'Come One Come All' and "Free and Equal."

An image that often crops up this time of year is Thomas Nast's famous 1869 "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner," an illustration he created for Harper's Weekly. It is the very essence of the communal ideal. Citizens from every ethnicity and nation gather equally around a table. They converse with each other as friends—chatting, entertaining babies, smiling at the pleasant surroundings and good food. Uncle Sam serves as a benevolent father figure at the head of table, carving turkey, while his female counterpart of Columbia shares in the hosting responsibilities at the other end. With Nast's encouragement to "Come One, Come All," this table of equality and universal brother- and sisterhood is the perfect metaphor for the all-inclusive Thanksgiving.

Cartoon shows a long line of individuals from from of various races, ethnicities, and  cultural backgrounds holding plates and lined up before an altar chiseled with the words "The Union Altar." Uncle Sam, wearing the garb of a Pilgrim and apron, stands ready to cut and serve the steaming turkey that sits atop the altar.

What many forget, however, is that Nast returned to this metaphor several years later in his 1885 cover for Harper's Weekly. Titled "The Annual Sacrifice that Cheers Many Hearts," any pretense of equality is gone. Now instead of an egalitarian round table, Uncle Sam stands atop an altar, peering down on his invited guests from above. Instead of enjoying themselves and each other's company, they line up below Uncle Sam (Columbia has been jettisoned), plates in hand, waiting for turkey to be bestowed upon them—all eyes on their host. With Uncle Sam in a pilgrim costume and an American Indian first in line for his slice of roasted bird, the cover does double duty as a twist on the "First Thanksgiving." Except now it isn't settlers and natives gathering at a communal table: it is a clear hierarchy with the white Uncle Sam on top (literally).

Painting in a gold frame. The self-portrait of Thomas Nast depicts Nast slumped and haggard, gazing out at the viewer in a rumpled suit. Behind him, a green curtain has been drawn back slightly to reveal a fraction of a cityscape. The most prominent architectural feature is a church steeple topped with a crucifix.

The two Nast images are a reminder that the stories and traditions that bring Thanksgiving to life each year are themselves changeable. Fans of the Addams Family movies might recall a scene from 1993's Addams Family Values that illustrates just this point. In it, Wednesday Addams takes over a Thanksgiving pageant and re-centers the story on the Indians (portrayed as her fellow misfits), who then unleash vengeance through various high jinx. As the potential for mayhem builds, Wednesday's blond antagonist bitterly complains "she is changing the words," suggesting that Wednesday is rewriting the script of the first Thanksgiving right before the gathered parents' eyes. But of course this is exactly what happens—we do change the script depending on who we want to be included.

Take the story of the first Thanksgiving—all the versions we know have three basic elements: Pilgrims, Indians, and a meal, right? But this is not the only version of the first Thanksgiving that has been widely circulated. Textbooks, story books, and children's magazines in the early 20th century frequently described the first Thanksgiving as when "a good ship with weather-beaten sails and backed sides sailed into harbor, bringing food against the winter, seed against the returning springtime, friends and reinforcements against the enemy." I have found multiple versions of this same basic story: Thanksgiving began with additional white settlers joining their compatriots. American Indians are nowhere to be found.

The alternate mythology is a startling reminder that—like Thomas Nast and Wednesday Addams—we do have the power to change the words, the images, and the stories. That power is exercised in different ways throughout history, making Thanksgiving far from a "haven in a heartless calendar." It is a reminder that questions of inclusion and exclusion are constantly asked and answered in American history, including (perhaps especially) during holidays.

Manager of Museum Advisory Committees, Office of External Affairs, Daniel Gifford is a scholar of holidays and the history of vacationing in America. Have a question for Daniel about the history of holidays? Ask in the comments and he may answer it in a future blog post!