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Thanksgiving – and economic lessons

Thanksgiving actually carries with it a stern lesson in economics: socialism almost killed off the Pilgrims and does not work.

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Today is Thanksgiving Day in America, when we remember a great feast (actually, two feasts, in succeeding years) when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe celebrated bountiful harvests. But everyone forgets that the second Governor of Plymouth Colony made a reform that ensured that such abundance would last. That reform was the concept property, which means ownership. Ownership is a private thing, and has once again fallen out of favor. But we have William Bradford to thank, not only for instituting that reform, but also for soundly criticizing the mistaken idea that created the system the reform replaced.

The first and second Thanksgiving

RoseAnn Salanitri wrote, six years ago, of the two Thanksgiving feasts at Plymouth Colony. In December 1620, a ship named Mayflower landed at the Plymouth site, after fighting contrary winds for days. Its passengers, the Pilgrims, actually had two strokes of providence they might not at first have appreciated. First, they landed well north of the lands the Virginia Company of Plymouth had marked out for them. With the result that their contract with them, by which everything beyond subsistence belonged to the Company, was off. Second, they landed at a place already cleared – but utterly abandoned. The Native American tribe that once lived there had all died of an infection called “Indian fever.” The only survivor, Squanto, survived because he wasn’t there. Taken captive years ago, he had traveled throughout England and Europe and learned English. Then he returned to his former village – to find all his people dead.

So now when these English speakers showed up, Squanto taught them certain skills without which they all would have died that winter. As it was, the “Starving Times” still claimed half of them, including the first Governor, John Carver, in April 1621. His successor, William Bradford, managed to keep the colony going. So in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims did have a harvest to celebrate. But then they took in a boatload of new arrivals, fed them – and had to subsist on five kernels of corn a day through the winter.

The socialist system

Somehow the Pilgrims survived on that iron ration, and in 1622 had another bountiful harvest to celebrate. As before, the Pilgrims brought corn and baked goods, and their neighbors the Wampanoags brought turkey and venison.

But the next winter brought the same problems as the previous two, though people don’t remember them. The problem, as Bradford sensibly recognized, was one of economic philosophy. Plymouth governed itself according to socialist precept – holding all land in common, and enforcing commonality of labor. Even a woman’s kitchen was not her own, but was an extension of a community kitchen. This we have straight from William Bradford’s own history Of Plymouth Plantation.


Three theories exist to explain why the Pilgrims tried that system. One theory says the Pilgrims copied the feudal customs of English and European aristocracy. Another calls it a misapplication of the communal sharing system of the earliest Christians, which Saint Luke describes in his Acts of the Apostles (chapters 4 and 5). Bradford himself laid it at the feet of Plato and other ancient philosophers.

As a result, the Plymouth colonists lived at a subsistence level, and barely managed that. On top of that came an adventure involving one of the original London investors, Mr. Thomas Weston. The full particulars of Weston’s untoward conduct are too voluminous to repeat here. But their effect is undeniable, for it brought the Plymouth colony to yet another crisis.

The property reform

William Bradford describes what he faced, and what he and his councillors did about it:

All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family.

This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then 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.

A direct rebuke of socialism

Bradford did not stop with his record of success. Instead he rebuked the very idea of doing things any other way.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato 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. For 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.

For the young men that were most able and 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, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. 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.

Don’t blame humans for human nature

That verb to brook meant to tolerate, put up with, or accept. Nor did William Bradford blame any of them:


Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set among men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of the mutual respects that should be preserved among them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

In modern English, Bradford tells us: the fault lies not in human beings, but in the system. Property, and the ownership interest that goes with it, works. Commons and “commonwealth” do not.

This Thanksgiving – what we should be thankful for

This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate this valuable lesson, and realize how old it is. William Bradford recognized the folly of socialism. Sadly, people tend to forget that folly when abundance grows. People forget that property is the source of abundance. Without it, people live at subsistence, or sometimes less than that. Inevitably, such a system collapses.

And here we face a situation very close to that of the Pilgrims after the First and Second Thanksgiving dinners. We also have our own Thomas Westons, whom we can call the Globalists and the Deep State. So now is a time to pray – for wisdom and strength to steer the country back to the system that saved the Pilgrims and made America great.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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