Thanksgiving – an Economic Story

You know the Pilgrim story about the first Thanksgiving. Did you ever hear it as a lesson in human nature and economics?  ♦

thanksgivingWe all know the Thanksgiving story about the Pilgrims and their first bountiful harvest of 1621. We are taught about the hardships of the first winter season with over half of the early settlers dying in the first year. The Pilgrims were but 40 of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower that landed in Plymouth on the eastern coast of today’s state of Massachusetts. They met Squanto, an English-speaking Indian (for that story see the Nov. 24, 2014 Biblical Viewpoint post) who taught them to how to live off the land and negotiate a treaty with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe allowing the early Plymouth community to live in relative peace for decades.

That first Thanksgiving in the harvest time of 1621 was out of thankfulness to God for a season of bounty and blessing and survival.

The Rest of the Story – a Lesson in Economics
But all was not blissful in paradise. The pilgrims actually faced chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. But it was not because of further severe weather or their limited but growing corn planting and farming knowledge.

It was a matter of economic incentives.

William Bradford, whose own wife died on the Mayflower, was the governor of this original Plymouth settlement. The colony was first organized on a communal basis, as their European financiers required. All land was to be owned in common. And all the production of crops from their farming was also to be shared communally. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed on “equality” and “need” as determined by the Plymouth Plantation.

They called their arrangement a “commonwealth,” a word we know today as communism, because all wealth — the product of their labors — was held in common. There was to be no private property ownership.

Another modern term for this is socialism.

The results were disastrous. Even with sporadic trade and supply shipments from Europe, by 1623 the colony had suffered serious losses and starvation was imminent.

The problem was that people received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food. And people were forbidden from producing their own food. The system bred discontent and disproportionate work effort.

Here are observations directly from Bradford’s own diary, later published in 1647 as Of Plymouth Plantation:

[This commonwealth system} “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” The problem was that “young men, that were most able and fit for labor, did repine (fret) that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.”

Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced. The socialist communal system encouraged and rewarded waste and laziness and inefficiency. It destroyed individual initiative.

Desperate for a change, Bradford and the settlement’s leaders abolished the communal system and implemented a new economic system. In 1623, every family was officially assigned a private parcel of land. With that land they could then keep all they grew for themselves, but they were now responsible for feeding only themselves.

This private property system, a clear move away from communal ownership, had dramatic results. Here is what Bradford noted, even calling out the sophisticated philosophers who espoused commonwealth ideals and “the vanity of that conceit.”

This [new system] had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst Godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.

Modern Lessons
In Kim Weissman’s article “The Plymouth Experiment” (1999), it’s noted that James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and later named as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote about the lesson in the Plymouth transformation in a 1790 legal treatise:

“…all commerce [in Plymouth] was carried on in one joint stock. All things were common to all, and the necessaries of life were daily distributed from the public store… . The colonists were sometimes in danger of starving; and severe whipping, which was often administered to promote labor, was only productive of constant and general discontent… . The introduction of exclusive property immediately produced the most comfortable change in the colony, by engaging the affections and invigorating the pursuits of its inhabitants.” 1

This lesson of the benefit of private property and the destructive effects of socialism were quickly recognized by the Pilgrims and impacted the framing of our Constitution by our nation’s Founders 150 years later.

While I do not recall ever getting this lesson in school at any level, it’s a good lesson in human nature for all of us at any point in time.

Did you know the whole Thanksgiving Story?
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:9-10

1 The Plymouth Experiment, by Kim Weissman’s, from the Congress Action newsletter, November 28, 1999.

Categories: Abundant Living, Faith, Family, Holidays, Thanksgiving

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