I am guessing that, later this week, many if not most of us will celebrate our uniquely American holiday, Thanksgiving Day. Hopefully, we will be fortunate enough to spend the day and share a meal with family and friends. With a bit of luck, politics will not find its way into our conversations and work will not intrude upon our time at home.
I’m willing to bet that turkey[i] will be on the menu – whether roasted or fried, whole, quartered, or segmented in some other way[ii] – alongside lasagna, moussaka, tandoori chicken, sauerbraten, rice and beans, perogy, goulash, couscous, kebab, borscht, empanada, chicken teriyaki, falafel, lamb, or whatever else our people brought with them when they came to this country.
As wonderful as the Thanksgiving holiday is, for historical reasons I have always associated it with federal taxes. Wait a minute, just hear me out.
A National Holiday
In 1862, to help cover the cost of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed legislation that provided for national income and inheritance taxes.
One year later, in October 1863 – and only three months after the battles of Gettysburg[iii] and Vicksburg[iv] – Mr. Lincoln encouraged Americans to recognize the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving.”
Apparently, Americans were not very thankful for the new taxes because ten years after their enactment the above-mentioned taxes were repealed and would not be resuscitated, in the case of the income tax, until the adoption of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 and, in the case of the estate tax, until the passage of the Revenue Act of 1916.
Thanksgiving, however, was legislated into a national holiday less than ten years later, in 1870, and has endured ever since.
Its staying power is attributed primarily to its universal messages of gratitude[v] and the importance of coming together.[vi] However, another factor underlying Thanksgiving’s staying power, aside from the Turkey-centric meal, is its adaptability. Thus, for many people Thanksgiving has become synonymous with football. Lots of football. What had once been a strictly Packers vs Lions matchup expanded to a two-game lineup after the founding of the AFL, and is now a three-game marathon.[vii]
These days, when I hear any mention of football, whether it’s professional or college football, I immediately think of gambling. How can I not? DraftKings and FanDuel are dueling it out to see which will be the king of sports betting. Their ads are everywhere, and many folks seem to have been swept away by the prospect of betting on their favorite teams using an app on their mobile phones.[viii]
Again, taxes figure prominently. Take New York for example, . . . please.[ix] The state imposes a whopping 51 percent “sin” tax on gross gambling revenues, yet it has become the number one bookmaking market in the country. But have no fear, Albany has assured us that the tax revenue will be reinvested in education – Lord knows, we need the help, but I doubt dollars alone will suffice – as well as in youth sports, and, ironically, in programs for gambling prevention treatment and recovery services.
As important as the football cornucopia that accompanies Thanksgiving is to some folks, there are others who look forward to the restful sleep that is known as the post-Thanksgiving food coma. To attain this state of nirvana, however, is no easy feat and, in some cases, may become a life-threatening exercise in gorging oneself. (Face it, we can’t all be Joey Chestnut.[x] Another reason to be thankful.)
Not to worry. New York just approved a list of 36 licensees to sell recreational marijuana in the state. In fact, there will probably be a store in your local jurisdiction. Take Long Island, for example, where seven licenses were granted to sell recreational cannabis, which I imagine includes cute little gummies.[xi] After a dry, gravy-less turkey dinner and a low-fat dessert, you head over to an establishment owned by a “justice-involved individual.” They’ll have what you need to relax, I suppose.
However, you may notice that the cost of your sleepy-time fix included the 13 percent tax that New York imposes on the purchase of non-medical cannabis products. Albany tells us that most of the tax revenue generated by cannabis sales will go into education and community reinvestment; the balance (approximately 20 percent) will go into . . . drug treatment services.
Turkey, gambling, cannabis-infused edibles.
Lest you start to wonder, “what is going on here?”, let me leave you with what I believe is probably the most revealing speech ever made by an American politician. It’s not exactly contemporary, but the message conveyed applies across time and political jurisdictions.
The “Whiskey Speech,” which was delivered in 1954 by Noah Sweat, a member of the Mississippi legislature, concerned the question of the prohibition of liquor, which was still in force in Mississippi at the time of the speech.
“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey: If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
“But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”[xii]
Have a Happy and safe Thanksgiving.
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[i] In the musical, “1776,” Ben Franklin described the turkey as “a truly noble bird, . . . Native American, a source of sustenance for our original settlers, an incredibly brave fellow…”
Truth be told, Benjamin Franklin did not endorse the turkey as our national bird, but it is a great story, and played out well in the musical, in the song “The Egg.”
[ii] My maternal grandmother had an older sister who was apprenticed as, and eventually became, the cook for a wealthy Greek family in Constantinople, where she resided until the “Istanbul Pogrom” of September 1955. Long story short, she and another sister then living in Turkey eventually made their way to N.Y. (after demonstrating they had jobs waiting for them and a place to stay). Anyway, this older sister – who would never eat turkey because she considered it a “foreign” fowl – would make turkey croquettes that the rest of us would enjoy.
[iii] July 1 through July 3.
[iv] The two-month siege concluded on July 4. I recommend the late Shelby Foote’s works.
[v] For example, the Psalms include many references to thanksgiving. “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” Psalm 28:7.
[vi] As the oldest non-immigrant in my family, Thanksgiving Day always included an expression of gratitude for this country, that it would accept us, allow us to work, to maintain our culture – though it was always secondary to being an American – and to make a home.
[vii] Ah, those advertising dollars.
[viii] “Mobile sports wagering” they call it. Lipstick on a pig, right? Can I still say that? Do you think pigs will be offended?
[ix] Ba-dum-bum-CHING. Henny Youngman just turned over in his grave.
[x] If ever a “contest” should be banned, Nathan’s hot dog eating contest is right up there, along with UFC’s MMA and “e-sports.”
[xi] The kids will never confuse them, right? Nah.
[xii] My emphasis.