Here’s a story to share today. An intriguing Thanksgiving story I never learned in school. ◊
I think we’d all be better off if we had been taught this part of the Thanksgiving story in elementary school and then reiterate this lesson throughout high school and college economic courses. I didn’t learn this until I was over 40 years old. Even then, I learned it first by hearing the essence of the story from radio host Rush Limbaugh over 20 years ago.
This led to some further research.
It’s a part of the American story that all people should be taught as it’s a good lesson in human nature and basic economics.
Of course, we know the 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. Through God’s blessing, they met Squanto, an English-speaking Indian who taught them to how to live off the land and negotiate a treaty with the neighboring tribe allowing the early Plymouth community to live in relative peace for decades.
So, while that first Thanksgiving was out of thankfulness to God for a season of bounty and blessing and survival, going forward all was not blissful in paradise.
The Rest of the Story – a Lesson in Economics
For the next 3 years until the harvest of 1623, the pilgrims actually faced chronic food shortages. 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 concept and economic structure 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.” 1
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. 2
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.” 3
This lesson on 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.
And finally, as highlighted in the passage below from the Old Testament, the concept of private property production yet with fairly shared resources for others less fortunate, is sound economic practice directly from the Word of God.
Were you ever taught 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 From The One Year Book of Christian History, by E. Michael, Sharon Rusten, Tyndale, 2003.
3 The Plymouth Experiment, by Kim Weissman’s, from the Congress Action newsletter, November 28, 1999.