Some Thoughts on What We Should Be Thankful For

Most Americans nowadays are more worried with eating too much than with eating too little.

Only nearly half of the original 102 Pilgrims who arrived in North America on the Mayflower in the fall of 1620 survived to see the first Thanksgiving, which took place in November 1621. The remaining survivors died of famine and a lack of shelter. The surviving thanked God for the abundant crop. Food shortages were common in a society without global commodities markets, adequate transportation, or communications, thus robust local harvests were critical.

Most Americans nowadays are more worried with eating too much than with eating too little. That number is even more amazing when you realize that the population of what would eventually become the United States increased by 21,000 percent between 1600 and 2013, yet the proportion of Americans involved in agriculture fell by at least 98 percent.

Americans today live longer, healthier, more fulfilling, and safer lives than at any previous time in history. In reality, the average individual today lives better than the majority of rulers of the past.

Consider the life of the 17th century's biggest person, Louis XIV, to comprehend the astounding increases in the living conditions of common people. Between 1643 to 1715, the Sun King reigned over France and Navarre. Throughout his life, Louis was associated with riches and power. In today's money, his Versailles chateau featured 2,000 windows, 700 rooms, 1,250 chimneys, and 67 stairs and cost at least $3.2 billion.

Yet here was a guy who almost died of smallpox when he was nine years old, and who lost virtually all of his legitimate heirs to smallpox, including his son, grandson, and great-grandson, as well as his younger brother, another grandson, and great-grandson. He was eventually followed by his second great-grandson, Louis XV, who became King of France and died of smallpox.

Smallpox is most commonly connected with the annihilation of Native Americans in North America, although Europeans were not immune to the illness. Smallpox, for example, killed roughly 400,000 Europeans each year as late as the 18th century. The total mortality rate ranged from 20% to 60%. It was above 80% among babies, which was one of the causes for the poor total life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. In 1980, the illness was declared eliminated. We don't think about smallpox now any more than we think of the bubonic plague, which killed over a third of all Europeans in only five years in the 14th century.

One of the consequences of the outbreak was that Europeans were wary about bathing. "Once heat and water formed apertures (pores) in the skin, the plague could readily infect the entire body," according to some medical authorities at the time. As a result, the state of hygiene deteriorated.

For example, Queen Elizabeth I, who governed England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603, is reported to have bathed once a month "whether she required it or not." James I, on the other hand, just cleansed his fingers.

The "journal de la santé," which was kept for Louis XIV by his doctors from birth until 1711, goes into minute detail about the king's everyday routine, yet only mentions bathing once. According to the diary, the king was frequently ill and donned lavish wigs to keep warm as well as disguise his hair loss. People "froze in those huge halls of marble and gold," according to one contemporaneous description. … 'It is so chilly here [Versailles] that at the king's supper wine and water froze in the cups,' wrote the Duke of Orleans' wife.

The palace was also unprepared to handle human excrement. People went to the bathroom wherever they could. So, soon before Louis XIV's death, an edict was passed requiring excrement to be collected from the Versailles halls once a week. Disease-spreading parasites were aplenty thanks to all the pollution. People did not understand the germ theory of illness until the nineteenth century, and doctors frequently did more harm than good.

Imagine what regular people's lives must have been like if this was the life of Europe's richest and most powerful man. People died young due to a shortage of essential medications. People with diseases spent much of their lives in excruciating pain since there were no medications available. Entire families were forced to live in filthy, bug-infested quarters that provided neither comfort nor privacy. Despite working in the fields from dawn to dusk, hunger and starvation were everyday occurrences. Most people never moved beyond their own villages or nearby towns since transportation was rudimentary. Illiteracy and ignorance were rampant.

Most of the time, we miss our genuinely remarkable journey from abject poverty to previously inconceivable wealth. So, this Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for the responsible government, free market economy, and scientific advancement that have made everyone of us a king.

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