Did you know that Thanksgiving is as much a celebration of down-and-dirty capitalism as it is a humble thank you to a glorious Providence for its gracious bounty? As Jerry Bowyer’s op/ed piece in Forbes yesterday patiently explained, those earnest Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony had to learn the hard way that the best man-made ideologies don’t hold a candle to simple human nature.
So when you bite into that delicious turkey today and then cram your eyeballs with football, football, and more football, you might find a moment to ponder the infinite perfection of the best imperfect economic system ever devised by the natural inclinations of normal men and women.
The most historically significant North American colony was Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 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.
You probably will not be surprised to hear that the colonists starved. Men were unwilling to work to feed someone else’s children. Women were unwilling to cook for other women’s husbands. Fields lay largely untilled and unplanted. Famine came as soon as they ate through their provisions. After famine came plague. Half the colony died.
After 2 1/2 years, the leaders of the colony abandoned their socialist mandate and created a system which honored private property. The colony survived and thrived and the abundance which resulted was what was celebrated at that iconic Thanksgiving feast.
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. For Plato, it literally did take a village to raise a child.
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%. This kind of thinking was rife in the 1600s and is perhaps why the Pilgrim settlers settled for a charter which did not create a private property system.
The colonists threw off the statist intellectual fashions of their day. They concluded that the ancient principles of private property as recorded in the Ten Commandments were superior to the utopian speculations of Plato and his 17th-century imitators. Human nature was a fact of life, self-centered, fallen.
Or in the words of William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony and chronicler of the pilgrims who came to America looking not only for religious freedom but also looking to create a social paradise on earth by living their lives in accordance with the elite ideology of the day….
At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corve every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to goe on in the generall way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more torne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente.
The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set torne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.
The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in communitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and norishing; as if they were wiser then God.
For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and servise did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails and cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, etc., with the meaner and yonger sorte, thought it some indignite and disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it.
Upon the poynte all being to have alike, and all to doe alike, they thought them selves in the like condition, and ove as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of those relations that God hath set amongest men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of the mutuall respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have bene worse if they had been men of another condition. Let pone objecte this is mens corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter for them. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1623)