Politics & Policy

The First Thanksgiving

How property rights transformed Plymouth Colony.

In grade school, we’re taught that the story of the First Thanksgiving illustrates the importance of teamwork and charity. That’s true, so far as it goes. But on this Thanksgiving Day, in the wake of a Tea Party’s electoral victory, it’s worth pondering the other moral of the holiday of thanks: capitalism works.

The hapless English parishioners who moved to escape religious persecution — first to the Netherlands, and then to America — didn’t actually plan to settle near Cape Cod; their original land grant was for the area around the mouth of New York’s Hudson River. But after delays and unfavorable winds, they arrived on the Mayflower in late 1620 at what would later become Plymouth, Mass. With winter on the horizon, they settled on a recently abandoned Indian village named Patuxet. (A few years before their arrival, an epidemic had killed most of the Indians then living along the Massachusetts coast.)

The good news for the Pilgrims was that the land had already been cleared for farming. The bad news was that they were undersupplied. Some 45 of the 102 emigrants died that first winter of scurvy and other illnesses associated with exposure and lack of nutrition. Nevertheless, they spent the winter building structures and preparing to farm.

In March of 1621, an American Indian named Samoset — who had learned English by interacting with other colonists — reportedly walked into the settlement and proclaimed, “Welcome, Englishmen!” Shortly thereafter, the settlers established a formal peace treaty with a delegation from the Wampanoag tribe. Delegates included Squanto, who had learned English as a slave in Europe — and who, as spring came to New England, showed the Pilgrims how to catch eel, grow corn, and otherwise procure food.

That October, after a meager harvest, the Pilgrims held a fall harvest celebration, something that was common in both English farming communities and agrarian Indian tribes. The celebration was a cooperative effort between the two groups, and what little the settlers had been able to harvest, they had been able to harvest thanks to the help of the Indians — which is why the story shows the value of teamwork and charity.

But what is often left out of the popular account is that one reason the Pilgrims were in such peril during these first few seasons was that they were trying communal farming: During the first two and a half years, there was neither private property nor division of labor at the Plymouth Colony. No one was permitted to own any particular plot of land. Food was grown collectively and distributed equally.

Naturally, some residents began sleeping in. Everyone began pointing fingers. So Bradford concluded, “This community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”

But in 1623, Plymouth Plantation’s leaders allotted private land plots and declared that if residents didn’t work, they wouldn’t eat. Productivity immediately increased.

Some modern liberals dispute this account. For example, on Saturday, Kate Zernike wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “The Pilgrims Were . . . Socialists?” in which she attacked the idea the Pilgrims were hungry because of a lack of individual property rights. She wrote, “The widespread deaths resulted mostly from malaria. Tree ring studies suggest that the settlement was also plagued by drought.” And she argued that “Tea Party audiences, who revere early American history, and hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States,” are guilty of revisionist history. She also attacked some 20th-century books that outline the colony’s path from socialism to capitalism on the grounds that they were written as denunciations of 20th-century Communism.

What she failed to explain is that original texts from the colony explain things the same way.

According to Bradford’s account, which he wrote between 1620 and 1647, the Pilgrims had initially thought “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.”

However, after the cleared land had been divided into sections owned and controlled by individuals and families, “This had very good success, for it made all hands 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 Pilgrims had learned the hard way that when people can reap rewards from their own property and labor, they work harder — and that when property is communally owned, no one has an incentive to develop or care for it, a phenomenon now known as the “tragedy of the commons.”

As we enjoy our turkey and apple pie, we should certainly remember that settling a wilderness requires communities of people willing to work together. But it also requires individual rights that allow each to profit from his own toil. This lesson is just as relevant in this age of corporate bailouts and unemployment checks as it was in 1621. After all, John Locke said that for a society to be productive, it must be built on a foundation of “life, liberty, and estate [property].”

Such is the gritty true story of how an American holiday of thanks first began.

– Frank Miniter is the author of The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide.


The Latest