Nov. 28, 2002
We know how they suffered, that first year in the place they called Plymouth. We know about the bitter winter of 1620-21, when food and shelter were so inadequate that most of the small company grew sick and half -- 50 out of 101 -- never recovered. We know how the survivors struggled to get the seeds they had brought from Europe to grow in the stony Massachusetts soil and how they might have starved if friendly Indians hadn't taught them to plant corn. And we know how grateful they were for the first small harvest they managed in the summer of 1621, and for the abundance of fish and game with which they were able to supplement it.
It was to celebrate that initial harvest that Governor William Bradford authorized a community feast and invited the neighboring Indians -- Chief Massasoit and about 90 of his warriors -- to "rejoice together" over venison and wild fowl. "All had their hungry bellies filled," Bradford would later write in his magisterial history, Of Plimoth Plantation. Today we look back to that harvest feast of 1621 as the first American Thanksgiving.
But 1621 wasn't a turning point and the celebrants at that "first Thanksgiving" didn't celebrate for long. Bellies were soon hungry again. The fact is, Plymouth Plantation was failing -- and not because of bad weather or stony soil.
It was human nature, not Mother Nature, that threatened the settlers with destitution. Plymouth had been established as a commune and the terms of the agreement, signed before the Mayflower sailed, were strict: "All profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means" were to become part of "the common stock." Moreover, "all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the colony."
In other words, there was to be no private ownership. No one would be laboring to benefit just himself or his family; no one would have any incentive to work harder. Whatever any individual produced would belong to all, and he would be entitled to get back only what he and his family were deemed to need. As Karl Marx would put it 255 years later, "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his need." Communism failed in 20th-century Europe and China. It fared no better in 17th-century Massachusetts.
The system "was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment," Bradford recorded. "For the young men that were most 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 any recompense. The strong . . . had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter [of what] the other could; this was thought injustice. . . . 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 many husbands well brook it."
Bad attitude led to bad crops -- and worse. "Much was stolen both by night and day," Bradford wrote of the 1622 harvest. "And although many were well whipped . . . yet hunger made others, whom conscience did not restrain, to venture." It became clear that unless something changed, "famine must still ensue the next year also."
To their credit, the settlers had the wisdome to recognize that their problems resulted from the lack of private property, which was stifling productivity and bringing out the worst in their characters. And so in the spring of 1623, communism was replaced with capitalism.
"At length, after much debate of things, the governor" -- Bradford meant himself -- "gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. . . . And so assigned to every family a parcel of land. . . . This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise. . . . The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to set corn."
The results were striking. In 1621, the colony had planted just 26 acres. In 1622, it planted 60. But in 1623, with families now working for themselves, 184 acres were planted. (The figures come from economist Judd W. Patton of Bellevue University, whose fine essay on the Pilgrims' economic progress is on the web site of Bellevue's economics department.)
When the harvest season came, Bradford later wrote, "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." The effect of switching from communal to private property "was well seen," Bradford noted -- so much so that "any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day." Before long, Plymouth was exporting corn.
The great lesson of Plymouth's early years is one too rarely taught: that the key to prosperity is private property and a free market. It was a crucial insight, one whose blessings we continue to reap. Let us be thankful.