Home » News » Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Melanie Kirkpatrick on Unveiling Thanksgiving’s Hidden Heroines

Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Melanie Kirkpatrick on Unveiling Thanksgiving’s Hidden Heroines

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Join Roger Ream ’76 in this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast as he speaks with author and seasoned journalist, Melanie Kirkpatrick. Roger and Melanie discuss her most recent book, “Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman.” They explore the true meaning of Thanksgiving through her book “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” discussing the holiday’s origins and the woman who played a critical role in the American Thanksgiving tradition. Additionally, they discuss Melanie’s 2014 book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” the current climate of censorship in China and her friendship with imprisoned journalist, Jimmy Lai.

Melanie Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, having previously worked for 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, rising from copy editor to opinion editor, member of the editorial board and deputy editor of the newspaper’s editorial pages. In addition to authoring several books, Melanie is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; a trustee emerita of Princeton in Asia, an internship program in Asia for young graduates of American universities; a member of the Trollope Society; a member of the advisory board of the Human Freedom Program of the George W. Bush Institute; and a director of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. She was co-editor of several editions of the Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by the Journal and The Heritage Foundation.

Melanie received the 2001 Mary Morgan Hewett Award for Women in Journalism from the Friends of the East-West Center in Honolulu. The annual award recognizes a journalist who has demonstrated commitment. She received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree in English from the University of Toronto.


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Melanie is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, having previously worked for three decades at the Wall Street Journal, rising from copy editor to opinion editor, member of the editorial board and deputy editor of the newspaper’s editorial pages. Melanie is the author of several books, including most recently, “Lady Editor Sarah Josepha Hale and The Making of the Modern American Woman,” “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” and “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” We’ll discuss all three books, plus her work in journalism. Melanie is a supporter of The Fund for American Studies, so I may also ask her about that. Thank you for joining me today, Melanie.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:01:14] It’s great to be with you, Roger. I’m glad that you’ve invited me.

Roger Ream [00:01:17] Well, I think this is an appropriate podcast for the month of November, because especially of your book about Thanksgiving, which we’ll get to. But could I first ask you to just talk a little bit about your 30-year career at The Wall Street Journal and in journalism? How did you get your start in journalism?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:01:36] I got my start in journalism a little late compared to lots of my colleagues in journalism. I was really interested in journalism in high school and was editor of our school newspaper, but when I got to college, I became very academic. I spent most of my life in the library rather than being out doing things. It was only when I went to graduate school that I realized that after all, I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to do something that was more rooted in the present. So, I went off to Tokyo with Princeton in Asia, which was and still is an organization that places graduates of any college in positions around Asia. And they put me with Time-Life Books, which was a great entry into the world of writing. When I was living in Tokyo, I also was asked to co-host a TV show for junior high school students who were studying English. The story is a little too long. But then I went back to my hometown, Buffalo, New York, where I was able to get a job at the local newspaper. And from that, that journalism experience and that Asian experience, I applied to the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, which was a new edition of The Wall Street Journal. And off I went to Hong Kong to work for them. So, that was how I got my start, and then the rest of my journalism career was with the Journal in Asia and here in the States.

Roger Ream [00:03:22] How long were you in Hong Kong?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:03:23] I was in Hong Kong for six and a half years and in Tokyo for three and a half. So, a total of ten years in Asia, and then I was also sent back by the journal to fill in for various people or to do some reporting and writing.

Roger Ream [00:03:40] We had a program at The Fund for American Studies in Hong Kong for just over ten years and sadly had to shut it down there when things changed very dramatically the last few years. Hong Kong was just a great city. I’m sure you found it that when you were there. Did you have the opportunity to meet Jimmy Lai when you worked for the Journal there? I know he was a leading journalist.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:04:08] Yes. Jimmy was a friend. I met him a few years after I left Hong Kong when he was becoming a little more active in his thinking and in his public presence. He is an amazing man. As you know, Roger, he is in jail in Hong Kong right now. He was a newspaper publisher, a publisher of the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong. And it was pro-market and pro-human liberty, which got him in deep trouble with the authorities who were looking on from Beijing. Eventually his magazine was shut down, everything confiscated, and he was thrown in jail, where he’s been now for, I think, three years.

Roger Ream [00:05:02] Yes, it’ll be sadly three years in December that he was put in jail, and we were pleased to honor him last year in at our annual journalism awards dinner, which a big part of that dinner is to introduce our Joseph Rego fellow who has the opportunity to work at the Wall Street Journal. We love that you’ve been able to come to some of those dinners. You knew Joe.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:05:28] Yes, I knew him. We worked closely together. While I was still at the Journal, he started out as one of the assistant op-ed editors and then moved into a full-time editorial writing job. He died suddenly when he was in his thirties of natural causes, and it was a huge loss to journalism. He was already a star. He had won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing, and he was moving on to, I think, bigger things at the Journal. So, it was a great loss. He was a soft-spoken man, but he had a powerful pen. He really could dive deeply into subjects. He was a great researcher, and his writing had such a flair, a humor, interesting vocabulary. All I can say is that I still miss him.

Roger Ream [00:06:38] Yeah, well, it was great that he was recognized while it was alive with the Pulitzer Prize for that editorial writing. I’m so pleased that in partnering with his parents, Paul and Nancy Rago and The Wall Street Journal, we’ve had six Joseph Rago fellows there, two of whom were hired full-time at The Journal after they completed their fellowship. A third was just hired by the Boston Globe, and our sixth is just started at The Journal. She’s already had a piece that she wrote up here in the paper and is having a great experience there.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:07:12] Well, they couldn’t have a better role model than Joe Rago.

Roger Ream [00:07:16] That’s right. Well, let’s talk about your three books. The most recent is “Lady Editor,” and it covers the life and legacy of Sarah Josepha Hale, who I had not known about until you wrote this book. It’s a fascinating story about a woman who had a tremendous influence on 19th century American culture, but she’s connected to Thanksgiving as well, another book you wrote.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:07:45] She’s known as the godmother of Thanksgiving and that she was responsible through her work as editor of Goldie’s lady’s book to push for a National Thanksgiving Day. And here I need to back up a little bit in history. Before Lincoln called a national Thanksgiving Day in the middle of the Civil War in 1863, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, but not on the same day. Thanksgiving was called by the governor of the state, and sometimes the governors didn’t call it a Thanksgiving Day. But by the second quarter of the century, most of the states and territories were indeed celebrating the holiday. And Hale thought that every American should celebrate the holiday and do so on the same day. She thought it would be a unifying factor for Americans to give thanks for their own blessings, but also for the blessings of America, of their country. It was kind of a quasi-patriotic holiday for her. So, in the late 1840s, she began a campaign to editorialize for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. And since her magazine, Goldie’s latest book was the most widely circulated magazine in America at that time. It was a national magazine, and it had the unheard-of circulation of 100,000 readers. Plus, when your ad the pass along rate many, many, many more. So, she editorialized for Thanksgiving Day. In addition to that, she conducted a private campaign among what we would call influencers. She wrote to every member of Congress and the House and Senate. She wrote to every governor. These were all handwritten letters. So, you can imagine what a task that was. She wrote to other people in the country who were well known and urging them to join her campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day. She also wrote to presidents of the United States. And because she was such an influential, well-known person, they wrote back. Those letters are fascinating because they explain what the objection to Thanksgiving was among people who knew the Constitution. One letter she received from President Millard Fillmore, spelled it out particularly well in which she said: “Look, I’d love to have a national Thanksgiving Day, but this is a power that belongs to the governors, not to the president.” So, it wasn’t until 1863 when she wrote to Lincoln that he, I guess, decided, there may be constitutional objections, but there was a broader issue at stake, and that was the health of the of the union, and the American people needed a unifying a reason to unify. And he wrote this beautiful Thanksgiving proclamation, which I urge you and all your listeners to read if you haven’t already. It’s almost like the war didn’t exist. He was thinking about what America would be like after the war. The Battle of Gettysburg had just happened that summer and the tide was turning. It was clear at that point that the union was going to win. In his proclamation, he didn’t speak to just Northerners. He spoke to everybody and talked about the country coming together with one heart as one people, a beautiful image, which I think still holds today. It’s what Thanksgiving is about. It’s at the heart of the holiday.

Roger Ream [00:12:43] You wrote a marvelous book in 2016. I think it was published by Encounter Books, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” and it’s a timeless book, so people should find it, buy it and read it in November, especially to learn about Thanksgiving. It’s wonderful. You start out with the story of the Newcomers school in Queens, which I’d never heard of, and a visit you paid there. I worry. I have a daughter who’s a has been a teacher, and I know the emphasis in her school system is not really on all aspects of Thanksgiving. It’s about the Indians who participated in the Wampanoag tribe. I think it’s so important that Americans learn the story of Thanksgiving in all aspects, like you tell it in that book. First of all, what prompted you to write the book?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:13:44] The attacks in New York on September 11th. I was downtown just outside the World Trade Center at that time. As with every American, it had a profound impact on me and my thinking. I started thinking more deeply about what it meant to be an American. And as Thanksgiving neared, I went to the section of William Bradford’s, one of the first governors of Plymouth Colony, and he wrote a history of Plymouth Colony. I went to the section where he talked about the first Thanksgiving. It’s only 100 words or so, but it painted a picture of what Thanksgiving still is, a people coming together to give thanks, share a meal and in a always a friendly, peaceful way.

Roger Ream [00:14:47] I grew up the son of a congregational minister. So, Thanksgiving Hours was my favorite holiday. We would have a Thanksgiving service at our church every Thanksgiving morning. We kind of follow the traditional order of the puritan service, except my dad wouldn’t give a 2-to-3-hour sermon. He’d read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. He’s often share some of William Bradford’s writing as well. So, that’s always been my favorite holiday. But I love that story at the start of your book, because you were at a school of immigrants, and you anticipated it would be difficult to get them to speak up when you went into the classroom to talk about it. And then you tell the, hopefully, that would be true today, but these immigrants, like the pilgrims before them, really had an appreciation for the ideas around Thanksgiving.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:15:47] Yes, that’s exactly right. I should point out that Newcomers High School is a public high school, and thanksgiving, at least at the time and probably still today, was not on the curriculum. And there was a high school history teacher, and a high school ESL (English as a second language) teacher who thought that the students really needed to know more about the holiday. For immigrants, traditionally, the celebration of Thanksgiving has been a kind of entry into the American life. It’s part of their pilgrimage to accepting America and being American. So, these kids were just dying to talk to me often and usually in imperfect English. But there was one boy who’d said he was from Tibet, which is of course, a region of China and hasn’t existed as a country for more than half a century. But he said he was like the pilgrims. He said: “I am a pilgrim, too.” He left because his family was persecuted for being followers of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan, a Buddhist religion. Then a girl spoke up and she was from Egypt, and she was a Copt, which is an ancient form of Christianity, and said that her family had to leave Egypt because they were persecuted for their religion. Egypt, of course, being mostly a Muslim country. So, the kids really took the holiday very, very personally. And just one last anecdote. When I asked the kind of facetiously: “Do you have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving?” It was like they answered in unison: “Yes, it’s a tradition.” So, they were very keen to taste turkey and participate. So, I found it very heartening.

Roger Ream [00:18:04] Yeah. Is there anything in researching and writing the book that surprised you?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:18:09] Well, yes, there were quite a few things, but one having to do with what we call the first Thanksgiving, that is the Pilgrims and the one Penan Indians. I found a curious that William Bradford and other pilgrims who wrote about it did not refer to this as a Thanksgiving. To them, it was just another day that they were celebrating the harvest. The first Thanksgiving in Bradford’s writing was a day a couple of years later, in the middle of July, when a rainfall ended a drought, that was seriously impacting the colony and their crops. So, he called a Thanksgiving Day in celebration of that rainfall, and you know. The definition of Thanksgiving today is really an amalgam of a lot of traditions, a religious tradition, of course, and not just the pilgrims and the Wampanoag. There were Europeans and Native Americans celebrating Thanksgivings prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. That was a very interesting chapter for me to research, in Texas, in Florida, in Maine. So, that was one thing that surprised me, I guess. I also was surprised to hear about the spat in the 1940s before the World War II began in America, about the date of Thanksgiving. Sarah Hale and those who supported her campaign all pushed for Thanksgiving Day to be the last Thursday of November, and that had been the case until the late thirties when Franklin Roosevelt, the president, said he was going to change the date of Thanksgiving. He wanted to make it earlier in the month of November so that there was more time for Christmas shopping. And supposedly, under this not very clever economic theory of his, if Americans had another week to shop, they’d buy more. Well, of course, that wasn’t the case. Americans didn’t have the money to purchase more. So, this turned into a big fight among the states. And what happened was that half of the states, primarily those with a Democratic governor, therefore, they would have been supporting FDR. Those Democratic states, for the most part, chose to celebrate on FDR’s designated day. And everybody else, especially in New England, were outraged that he would temper what they saw as the sacred day, and they decided to celebrate on the traditional date, which was the last Thursday of November. And this threw the whole country into a state of debate and annoyance. My own mother from Buffalo, New York, a Democratic state was at school in Boston, a Republican state, and of course, the state where the so-called first Thanksgiving had taken place. So, for four years in college, she couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving because her days off were a week later than the days off back in Buffalo. Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw it was clear that his idea was going nowhere, and eventually, in the autumn of 1941, Congress passed a resolution which named things made the Thanksgiving Day official. That’s how we now vote. It would not be possible today, or it would not be easy, at least, for states to choose their own day, because up until now, as a result of all of that, we have an official date of Thanksgiving and it’s decided by law. The president issues a proclamation, but it’s Congress that has set the date.

Roger Ream [00:23:06] Yeah, that that sounds like faulty economics that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was using to try to change the holiday, especially, at that time, in the situation the country was in. Let me ask for Americans who do cherish Thanksgiving as a special holiday. What can we do beyond eating turkey and watching football games to connect to that tradition of the first Thanksgivings, the Pilgrims and the importance of showing thanks?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:23:36] One of the things that has changed drastically in our lifetimes, Roger, is that most religious institutions don’t have Thanksgiving Day services on Thanksgiving Day itself anymore. They may give thanks the previous Sunday or even have a separate service earlier in the week. That’s a big change. At the same time, one survey shows that if Americans are going to say grace before a meal, they do it on Thanksgiving Day. My anecdotal experience has been that a lot of families stopped to give thanks for various blessings. Many even go around the table and ask participants to mention one thing for which they are thankful. I guess I’d like to see more emphasis on the thanks part of Thanksgiving and not necessarily religious, but to help bring us back to that first Thanksgiving. I close my book with this, I’d like to suggest a revival of a tradition that took hold in the 19th century, and it’s called Five Kernels of Corn. The tradition, which we follow in my own family now, is to place five kernels of corn on the Thanksgiving table. And the five kernels of corn are in memory of the starving time that the pilgrims experienced when they first came to America and the grace with which they accepted, according to legend, five kernels of corn that were handed out to them as food. The legend is probably a legend, not rooted in fact, but the but the spirit behind it was certainly true. The idea is that even during hardship, we can give thanks as a community for what little we have. And that tradition took hold in the 19th century and people would place the five kernels of corn on their Thanksgiving table as a memory of that. I’d like to see that tradition revived.

Roger Ream [00:26:23] Excellent. I like that idea. Well, in the time we have remaining, I want to talk about your 2014 book on North Korea, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” It was brought to my mind just in the past month when I read that China had sent quite a few refugees who’d escaped from North Korea back to North Korea, too. Who knows what fate they face, not a not a good one, I’m sure. At the United States government, I think, and other governments called out China for doing that. But you tell quite a story in this book. First of all, what inspired you to write it?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:27:13] As we mentioned earlier in this hour, I spent a lot of years in Asia and became interested in North Korea over that time. I also visited South Korea several times and wrote stories about its remarkable achievements in the economy and in its culture. In the late nineties, I began hearing reports of people who were escaping from North Korea. It’s a crime to leave North Korea without permission. And yet there was a famine going on and tens of thousands of North Koreans illegally crossed the northern border into China. At the same time, China had been opening a little bit. They had diplomatic relations with South Korea so South Koreans could go to China. And, of course, Americans had been going to China since the late seventies. What happened was a lot of religious people, missionary pastors from America and South Korea, started setting up operations in northeastern China to help the North Koreans who had settled in China to help them get out of China along a kind of underground railroad. There were also brokers, often not very nice people who would help North Koreans escape as well. And under South Korea’s constitution, any Korean who made his way to the south could stay in South Korea and was considered a citizen of South Korea. So, these escapees began turning up in South Korea and their stories became known. It was an ordeal to leave. A people could not go directly from north to south. They had to go thousands of miles across China, usually crossing the border on foot into a Southeast Asian nation that bordered the countries, sometimes going north to Mongolia, again, crossing by foot. They were desperate to get out. In the “Escape from North Korea,” I interviewed many North Koreans who had escaped from their country. I also interviewed their rescuers. It was a fascinating experience for me, a very powerful experience to talk to these people who were so desperate to escape. They told stories about children dying in their arms of starvation and many other terrible things, but they had hope and they were able to somehow manage to get out and create new lives for themselves.

Roger Ream [00:30:38] Yeah, it is quite a story that you tell in your book and the witness of some of these people, some of whom are in the United States now speaking about their experiences is powerful as well. You capture that in your book. I like to tell young people to open their search browser and put into it “Korea at night” and look at those satellite images, which I know you’ve seen that show half of that peninsula illuminated considering civilization and the other half in darkness. Why do you think the Kim Jong Un’s family has been able to maintain such a hold on power so many decades?

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:31:18] That’s a tough one, Roger. One of the reasons is the lack of information that North Koreans have about life outside their borders. The Kim family has controlled access to the country for 70 years now. To give just one powerful example, there are only an estimated 1000 or so North Koreans who have access to the Internet. North Korea has its own intranet, and of course, it can control what the North Koreans see. All this is changing. And there is a chapter in my book called “The Information Invasion,” which has been going on now for more than a decade. And North Koreans are beginning through to find out more about the outside world through videos that are videotapes that are smuggled in or access to international radio broadcasts, for example. So, that’s one reason, a lack of information about the outside world. I should add, perhaps even more importantly, lack of information about the Kim family regime, which is highly secretive, and most North Koreans know very little. They are required to have pictures of the of the Kim leaders in their homes and to dust them. They worship, in a way, the Kim’s, but they don’t know very much about how they operate. So, that’s another example. But a third and is the brutality of the regime is unprecedented in the modern world. So, that discourages people from speaking out. The Kim family’s regime over the 70 years have threatened people with punishment of their families for crimes of an individual. So, if an individual North Korean is found to have escaped illegally from the country, his family is often punished. So, that’s a powerful deterrent from trying to speak ill of the regime or you just want to keep your head down and out of sight.

Roger Ream [00:34:03] Well, I recall a story that it might be in your book, or I may have heard you giving a talk about your book say this, but I don’t remember the source. It was about a North Korean who was a diplomat and was sent to a middle Eastern country for a posting. When he arrived there, he was shocked to see that people wore shoes because the story he had heard in North Korea was that only the North Korean people have shoes to wear, and it was just an amazing story. I guess these books we’re talking about Thanksgiving and Escape from North Korea, in a sense are companions. If you read “Escape from North Korea,” you know you have a lot to be thankful for. If you were either born in the United States or you live here now as an immigrant, you have so much to be thankful for that you weren’t born in North Korea. At The Journal, I know you had responsibility for the Index of Economic Freedom, which The Wall Street Journal has published in partnership with the Heritage Foundation. That is a powerful teaching tool that shows that the freest countries are also the richest, the cleanest, the healthiest, and that the most totalitarian countries like North Korea and now, of course, Venezuela and Cuba and many others are among the poorest, least healthy and least well-educated countries. I think your book on North Korea, that satellite image, that index, are all just great teaching tools for us to have in the classroom to teach young people today about the importance of liberty.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:35:47] You said it well, Roger. I experienced it when I lived and worked in Asia. I saw what was called the four tigers: Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia grow from poor countries to prosperous. And in the case of Taiwan and South Korea and to democratic free societies under a rule of law. So, there is a connection, and you speak well of it.

Roger Ream [00:36:32] I saw a story in The Wall Street Journal last week that showed a significant exodus of Western companies from Hong Kong with the loosening of the rule of law, of course, and pulling back from democracy.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:36:50] When China was first opening to American businesses in the late seventies and early eighties, American businesses would require that any dispute be resolved under Hong Kong law, not under Chinese law. And that was because they felt they could trust the British legal system that was in place there, as indeed they could. And now Hong Kong, being under the thumb of Beijing, has become a much riskier place to do business.

Roger Ream [00:37:36] Before we conclude, I’d like to ask if you have another book underway. I hope the answer is yes.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:37:43] Not underway, but under thought.

Roger Ream [00:37:48] Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation. Thank you for writing some fantastic books that I hope people will still go out and buy. I’m sure they’re all available on Amazon. They’re fascinating reads. Especially in this month of November, I hope people will be mindful of the things we’ve talked about today and that Melanie Kirkpatrick has written about Thanksgiving. So, thank you very much.

Melanie Kirkpatrick [00:38:15] Thank you, Roger. And thank you and your colleagues at The Fund for American Studies for all that you do. Teaching young Americans to value our nation and our nation’s history are extremely important activities and I applaud you for it.

Roger Ream [00:38:35] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcast. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.


About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.

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