The first Thanksgiving Day came in Massachusetts in 1621. Of course, that was a day of friendship and giving. But this is made remarkable by what came before.
The Pilgrims came over to the New World. They arrived as the weather was growing cold. It was a strange land, and wild. They knew no one. Communication with the civilization from which they came could only happen once or twice a year at most. Soon enough, they began to starve. Many died. Down in Jamestown, an older colony, the settlers had met the same trouble, and then a strongman, Captain John Smith, introduced the principle of self interest. Everyone must contribute. No one could eat who did not work. The survival of all came to depend upon the self-interest of each. That is the first part of the Thanksgiving story.
In light of that first part, the second part begins to seem a noble respite from the rigors of a harsh and competitive world. In the second year, Pilgrims had made their first harvest. And so they determined after the harvest to have a feast and to thank their Maker for their survival and the little bit of prosperity they had won. Also they invited the Indians, strangers who had occupied the land before they arrived, and who for that reason were potential enemies, to join them in the feast. The Indians and the Pilgrims did not pray to the same God. But the Indians had helped the Pilgrims, despite this, and so they joined together to thank each other and the Almighty for their survival. This story, in this form, is a beautiful tale. We would do well to remember this tale upon Thanksgiving Day.
And yet this tale, for all its beauty and goodness, is not so beautiful as the true tale. This story of putting self interest aside for a day does not give a full enough account of the nature of man and the things around him. For self-interest cannot be said to be the driving force of human society. Self-interest is important. But it cannot be called either more or less important than another motive in the human breast. It is not separable from that other motive. Self-interest cannot be understood by itself.
Consider the expression, "charity begins at home." What does it mean? On Thanksgiving Day, most of us will have the great blessing of a feast with those we love most, with the members of our family. The meaning of the expression "charity begins at home" can be found within those families.
The experience of being a mother or father is of course the most fundamental in our lives. There is something special about it. It goes beyond success in business. It goes beyond our own birth, and even beyond our own death. Which of us would not be prepared to take a risk for ourselves rather than suffer our children to take it?
This love of children seems to us special, but in one sense there is nothing special about it at all. It is simply how things must be. When children are young, they are helpless. They will simply die, in a few hours, if we do not care for them. And in humans, this need for care lasts much longer than in the other species. The decision to have children is the commitment of one's lifetime.
Understand that without this charity, nothing in society could happen. It is not special. It is a more common driving force in the dynamic of human life than self interest or the motive for profit. Giving is the way with us. It is not only the most common thing we do, but it is essential to our own health and our own happiness. We are made better by it. We thrive as we do it.
Charity begins at home. Does it also end there? To answer that question, we must bring up politics for a moment. Politics is necessary here because it is the most authoritative form of community here in this life. All of the most important things we do together are powerfully affected by politics. Politics has a monopoly on force. If the law makes a statement, it settles the matter. That is why conditions among human beings, all part of the same species, can be so different from one country to the next. That is why we are specially blessed here in this country.
Because this country is special, and because of the way in which it is special, we can see here best of all why charity to those outside ourselves is simply crucial to our own self-interest. Because just as charity is essential in a family, so also it is essential in a community. Families are, after all, made up of only a few people. They cannot all be self-sufficient.
Misfortune befalls people all the time, and the weak are left helpless. But if they are not helped, then not just the weak inside one family will suffer, but the neighbors, and their neighbors, will be exposed to scenes of misery that will make their lives also a misery. When families break down, either there is charity, or else suffering spreads.
Think of the condition, not merely of families, but of neighborhoods where homes are broken and children lack care. We can see from this that the family is a natural form of association. It is the first form. But we can also see that it is not the only form. Charity begins at home. It does not stop there.
In America we accomplish charity outside the home in a unique way. In Europe, or in most of the old places on the earth, charity outside the home is the preserve of a few. And of course this means that those in need of charity must depend upon a few only for help.
This is bad for those in need. But it is bad for the rest of us, too. In a society where a few dominate, all the others, and not only they who depend upon charity, are left in a condition of dependence.
Americans are self-reliant and self-interested. But Americans are also charitable. Each and every one of us feels entitled to do something not only for ourselves, and not only for our own children, but also for others whom we do not even know. Each of us is a leader, because each of us is an equal citizen.
And so we see that self-interest is important, and the market is important. But they are not all. Self-interest and the market are one force in society, but they cannot be separated from another force. Self-interest and charity are one. Every society requires charity, as much as it requires self-interest and the market.
And here is the most important point: a free society, especially this particular free society, requires and allows each and every one of us to be charitable people. Either we will feed the people who cannot feed themselves, or else the government will feed them. But if the government feeds them, then we will not really be free men and women. We will be lesser people, not so great as the high potentates who have the real power and do the real work. Here, then, we see that we serve our own liberty — and therefore our own interest — when we take charge of the job of helping others.
From this point of view, the invisible hand is not just the market. The invisible hand is the hand of God. The invisible is us.