With the Thanksgiving holiday now upon us, millions of children will hear the story of the First Thanksgiving of 1621. The standard story as told in schools and the media depicts the First Thanksgiving as a celebration of the Pilgrims’ bountiful harvest and cooperation with the Indians. What the schools do not teach, however, is that a fuller account of the Pilgrims’ story reveals a failure of socialism and a triumph of private property and free enterprise.
The Plymouth Colony started as a type of commune, or socialist community.
The members of the Plymouth colony had arrived in the New World with a plan for collective property ownership. Reflecting the current opinion of the aristocratic class in the 1620s, their charter called for farmland to be worked communally and for the harvests to be shared.
Interestingly, the colonists’ communist ideology was derived not from Karl Marx, who had not yet been born, but from Plato.
The charter of the Plymouth Colony reflected the most up-to-date economic, philosophical and religious thinking of the early 17th century. Plato was in vogue then, and Plato believed in central planning by intellectuals in the context of communal property, centralized state education, state centralized cultural offerings and communal family structure…This collectivist impulse reflected itself in various heretical offshoots of Protestant Christianity with names like The True Levelers, and the Diggers, mass movements of people who believed that property and income distinctions should be eliminated, that the wealthy should have their property expropriated and given to what we now call the 99%.
The experiment in collectivism failed.
What resulted is recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked land, but they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they hoped for, nor did it create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.
The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.
As Governor Bradford explained in his old English (though with the spelling modernized):
“For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could man husbands brook it.”
Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.
To their credit, the colonists finally realized their error and changed course. They re-introduced private property, and allowed families to keep or trade whatever surplus they produced. As a result, conditions for the colonists improved significantly. As Governor Bradford recorded in his diary
By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.
And Governor Bradford seems to have interpreted the experience of the colony as an empirical rejection of Platonic communism.
The experience that was had in this common course [common property] and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; — that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.
So there you have it; the lesson of the First Thanksgiving is a triumph of freedom arising out of a failed attempt at socialism. The story must be quite damaging to progressivism, because during the Thanksgiving season three years ago, a progressive propaganda sheet known as The New York Times attempted to refute it. The progressive counterargument is based on two main points. First, common property in the Plymouth Colony did not result in famine, and the colony’s abandonment of common property was not due to failure. Second, the Plymouth Colony, as a for-profit corporation, cannot fairly be deemed socialist.
The first point seems to be contradicted by the evidence, in particular, by Bradford’s journal, in which he mentioned hunger and famine numerous times.
Now the wellcome time of harvest aproached, in which all had their hungrie bellies filled. But it arose but to a litle, in comparison of a full years supplie; partly by reason they were not yet well aquainted with the manner of Indean corne, (and they had no other,) allso their many other imployments, but cheefly their weaknes for wante of food, to tend it as they should have done. Also much was stolne both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable, and much more after ward…
So how do progressives explain why the colonists abandoned communal property?
Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”
“Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women don’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors,” he said.
In other words, the system was working except that it wasn’t. Which is why people were “griping and groaning”–the system had failed. And it failed for the very reason we would expect, namely, a Tragedy of the Commons that undermined incentives (“Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men…”).
Now consider the progressives’ second major point.
Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.
“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America…
Well, words have meaning, and a society that replaces private property with collective ownership of the means of production meets the textbook definition of socialism. If that’s not socialism, then the word has no meaning. This remains true even if the colony as a whole sought to make a profit by trading with the rest of the world. The Pilgrims may have been capitalists when it came to exporting furs, but the essential fact is that production for domestic consumption was organized socialistically.
In summary, the story of the First Thanksgiving illuminates two crucial and eternal truths. First, collectivism always fails. Second, progressives, to defend their socialist beliefs, will deploy the most appalling sophistry, specious reasoning, and intellectual dishonesty.
The New York Times somehow neglected to interview Leo “The Miller” Martin, a local historian in Plymouth. In the first video below, Leo narrates the saga of the Pilgrims, and addresses the economic issues specifically at the 23:30 mark. The second video below also does a good job laying out the basic facts.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!