I love this time of year! Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, a time to celebrate together with extended family without the commercialized trappings of other holidays. (AND it includes the Christmas lighting of Irvine Park!)
But have you ever stopped to wonder what those Pilgrims were really thankful for in those early years when Thanksgiving started?
Yes, the Indians helped teach some planting techniques. But maybe it’s time we dig a little deeper for, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rrrrrrrrrrest of the story.”
William Bradford, who served as the governor of Plymouth for 30 years, was good enough to write down his observations for us, so we can rely on actual history instead of stories.
Hard as it is to fathom today, over HALF of the original 100 Mayflower Pilgrims died in 1620 during their first winter here.
The next two years weren’t much better.
But in 1623, after three years of misery, they suddenly had enough bounty to export food! And they never looked back.
What could have possibly propelled a turnaround like that?
Simple: They converted from communism to capitalism.
When they first started the colony, their overseas investors forced them to share all their property together. According to Bradford, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be shared, and that “all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”
In other words, put into the common stock all you can, and take out only what you need. “To each according to his need; from each according to his ability.” Sound familiar?
Communism may be okay for a small group like a family or a Boy Scout patrol, but it doesn’t scale very well for larger groups.
In Plymouth, collectivism inspired laziness. Bradford wrote that the colony was riddled with “corruption and discontent.” In particular, young men didn’t do as much as they could. But why should they? There was no incentive for them to work any harder.
For example, according to historian Richard Pickering, “Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women didn’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors.”
After another poor harvest in 1622, concerned about the very survival of their colony, they knew they had to figure out a better way. Bradford writes that “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.”
They decided to try a new form of economics — free market capitalism.
Bradford and the colony elders divided up the property among the families. Whatever produce a family did not use for themselves, they were free to trade away with others for something else they wanted.
It was an astonishing success — the harvests of 1623 and beyond provided a bounty of excess food, not just for a single Thanksgiving meal as in the previous two years, but enough to last the winter.
Bradford writes in his diary, “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.” Later, he wrote, “Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
Once the creative powers of individual rewards were unleashed, where every person was allowed to keep the fruits of his own labor for his own family or for trade, everything was different.
In fact, the harvest of 1623 was so great that they had enough not only to trade with each other, but also with the neighboring Indians, who were again invited to a feast including turkey and corn. (THAT part of the story is correct.)
(Good thing there wasn’t an “Occupy Plymouth” movement to protest the fact that some especially hard-working Pilgrims may have reaped more food than others.)
And it wasn’t limited to Plymouth. Jamestown colony’s Ralph Hamor wrote that after switching to private ownership and free markets, there was “plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure.” He said that when everything was shared, “we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now.“
So when you sit down with your family this Thursday, you can be thankful that the Pilgrims tried out a new form of economics that has endured for some 400 years, providing untold wealth for hundreds of millions of people.
And you can thank God that capitalism is still allowed in America.
Tom Arneberg of Chippewa Falls is a community columnist for the Herald. Contact him a Tom@Arneberg.com