Thanksgiving Revisited: How the Plymouth Pilgrims became Thankful by abandoning Socialism.
The common Thanksgiving story is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths that divert attention away from Thanksgiving's real meaning. The real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance was private property. How did we forget the lesson learned at the Plymouth Plantation and are we going to have to suffer deprivations to learn it again?
The accepted story had the pilgrims boarding the Mayflower, coming to America and they learn new farming techniques from the Indians. The harvest of 1621 is bountiful. The Pilgrims hold a celebration, and give thanks to God. They are grateful for the wonderful new abundant land He has given them.
The problem with this accepted story is that the harvests of 1621 was not bountiful, nor were all the colonists hardworking or tenacious. 1621 was a famine year and many of the colonists were lazy thieves.
William Bradford was the governor of the original Pilgrim colony, founded at Plymouth in 1621. Unfortunately, William Bradford's diaries -- in which he recorded the failure of the collectivist system and the triumph of private enterprise -- were the only surviving account of these matters and were lost for many years. Thanksgiving was later made a national holiday and the present November date was chosen. Regrettably, the lessons the Pilgrims had so painfully learned was not made a part of the traditional Thanksgiving holiday.
Fortunately, Bradford's diaries were later rediscovered. This very important historical work, the History of Plymouth Plantation (until 1646), disappeared from America but was discovered in the Fulham library, London, in 1855, and was returned by the bishop of London to the state of Massachusetts in 1897. In the intervening 250 years, the true history of the Plymouth Pilgrim's had been lost to an idealized version still propagated today, almost 400 years later.
In his 'History of Plymouth Plantation,' the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years, because they refused to work in the fields. They preferred instead to steal food. He says the colony was riddled with "corruption," and with "confusion and discontent." The crops were small because "much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable."
In the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622, "all had their hungry bellies filled," but only briefly. The prevailing condition during those years was famine and death. By 1623, the colony had suffered serious losses. Starvation was imminent.
The harvest of 1623 was different. Suddenly, "instead of famine now God gave them plenty," Bradford wrote, "and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God." Thereafter, he wrote, "any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day." In fact, in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn.
When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they established a system of communal property. Within three years, they had scrapped it, instituting private property instead.
After the poor harvest of 1622, writes Bradford, "they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop." They began to question their form of economic organization.
The big losses in Jamestown had scared off most “venture capital” in London and the pilgrims were forced to accept tough terms to get funding for their trip to the New World. They found an investment syndicate headed by a London ironmonger named Thomas Weston. Weston and his fifty-odd investors were taking a big risk and demanded half of all the production for the first seven years. The investors demanded that all accumulated wealth was to be “common wealth,” or placed in a common pool, only that way could the investors feel reassured that the colonists would be working to benefit everyone, including themselves. “The building of good and fair houses” would be discouraged.
The Pilgrims objected to this arrangement. If they were not permitted private dwellings, they called it the “making conditions fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.” The Pilgrims went along because they had little choice. Many had already sold their property in Holland and so had no bargaining power.
It is worth emphasizing all this because it is sometimes said that the Pilgrims in Massachusetts established a colony with common property in emulation of the early Christians. This was not so. Their negotiating agent Cushman used arguments that were calculated to appeal to Christians in order to justify his acceptance of unpopular terms. No doubt, he felt that a bad deal was better than no deal. The Pilgrims went along because they had little choice.
The deal was made, the money was invested, and The Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620 with 101 people on board.
This had required that "all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means" were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, "all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock." A person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take out only what he needed. Land was owned in common. The Pilgrims farmed communally, too, following the "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" precept.
This was an early form of socialism, and it is why the Pilgrims were starving. Bradford writes that "young men that are most able and fit for labor and service" complained about being forced to "spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children." Also, "the strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak." As such, the young and strong refused to work and the total amount of food produced was never adequate.
By the spring of 1623, the colony was still barely able to feed itself, and little cargo was returning for the investors in England. On one occasion newcomers found that there was no bread at all, only fish or a piece of lobster and water. “So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” Bradford wrote in his key passage on property.
Having tried what Bradford called the “common course and condition”—the communal stewardship of the land demanded of them by their investors—Bradford reports that the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. Moreover, this among “godly and sober men.” In short, the experiment was a failure that was endangering the health of the colony.
No doubt this equalization of tasks was thought (at first) the only fair way to solve the problem of who should do what work in a community where there was to be no individual property: If everyone were to end up with an equal share of the property at the end of seven years, everyone should presumably do the same work throughout those seven years. The problem that inevitably arose was the formidable one of policing this division of labor: How to deal with those who did not pull their weight?
The Pilgrims had encountered the freeloader problem. Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. These “others” might well be able-bodied, too, but content to take advantage of the communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share. As we shall see, it is difficult to solve this problem without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. This was the course of action that William Bradford wisely took.
Under communal land stewardship, Bradford reports, the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice.
Bradford’s history of the colony records the decision:
At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.
Therefore, the land they worked was converted into private property, which brought “very good success.” The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions (and those of their immediate families), not for the actions of the whole community. Bradford also suggests in his history that more than land was privatized.
In 1623, Bradford abolished socialism. He gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit. In other words, he replaced socialism with a free market, and that was the end of famines.
In 1663, a bountiful early harvest saved the colonies. After the harvest, the Pilgrims celebrated with a day of Thanksgiving. In 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn.
The system became self-policing. Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder. He could know that his additional efforts would help specific people who depended on him. In short, the division of property established a proportion or “ratio” between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result.
This Thanksgiving season, one of the many things I am thankful for is our free market system. Moreover, I am also grateful that there are Americans who remember the importance of free markets, and who are working to replace government coercion with marketplace cooperation here in America and around the world.
Cris Alarcon, Nov 22, 2012.