Today we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a day to appreciate that which we have and enjoy. But few realize the full origins of this day of thanksgiving. In 1620 the Pilgrims, seeking freedom from the official Church of England, sailed for the Hudson River but landed instead near Cape Cod. There they found a desolate wilderness with no development to shelter them from the hardships of nature. Half of them died the first harsh winter. Only the beneficence of friendly Native American Indians, who showed them how to plant and raise corn, kept them alive the next winter season. From this initial harvest the settlers celebrated a feast — the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
But lost in this history, and what ultimately allowed for a flourishing population, was the transformation of the colony from a collectivized (commune-ist, with a small “c”) system of production to that of an individual property-based system of production. (This collectivist arrangement for the colonists had been foolishly required by the investors in the venture.)
Governor Bradford recorded the experiences of the Pilgrims in his detailed diary and described their experience with collectivized production this way:
“For this community 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 labour and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.”
In 1623, after having seen the devastation brought on by a collectivized system of production, the colonists wisely transformed their tiny economy into one based on private property production — and flourished. The words from the diary tell the story:
“So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. …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…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 would have been by any [other] means…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 thought great tyranny and oppression.”
Without this change the population of Plymouth Colony would surely have suffered the same devastation in subsequent years as they did the first two. If indeed the Plymouth Colony had been decimated, as others were, their experiences would rate at best a footnote in American colonial history and not be the foundation of one of our major annual holidays.
Thus Thanksgiving Day is not merely a celebration of that for which we should feel grateful, but has its origins in a particular system of producing that which we have — the system of individual initiative in a private property arrangement. This is the arrangement to which the rest of the world is moving, and unfortunately which this country — which achieved its most dramatic successes — is in the process of abandoning. The Pilgrims have a lot to teach a twenty-first century America which is losing its way. A happy individualist private property—based production day to all!
Jim Cox is an Associate Professor of Economics and Political Science at the Lawrenceville Campus of Georgia Perimeter College and the author of The Concise Guide to Economics and Minimum Wage, Maximum Damage.