Property and the First Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving, Americans reflect on their blessings and hope for
uplifting family gatherings of togetherness and unity, with the
Pilgrims used as examples of peace, harmony, and thankfulness.
However, while the Pilgrims’ 1623 "way of thanksgiving"
represents what we wish to infuse in Thanksgiving, Plymouth Colony
before 1623 was closer to a Thanksgiving host’s worst fears –
resentments surface, harsh words are spoken, and people turn angry
and unhappy with one another.

The Pilgrims’
unhappiness was caused by their system of common property (not
adopted, as often asserted, from their religious convictions,
but required against their will by the colony’s sponsors). The
fruits of each person’s efforts went to the community, and each
received a share from the common wealth. This caused severe strains
among the members, as Colony
Governor William Bradford recorded

. . . the young men . . . 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 not more in division . .
. than he that was weak and not able to do 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 .
. . thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And the
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."

summarized the effects of their common property system:

this community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed
much confusion and discontentment and retard much employment that
would have been to their benefit and comfort . . . all being to
have alike, and all to do alike . . . if it did not cut off those
relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much
diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved
amongst them."

How did the
Pilgrims move from this dysfunctional system to the situation
we try to emulate in our family gatherings? In the spring of 1623,
they decided to let people produce for their own benefit:

their victuals were spent . . . 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 than they had done, that they might not still thus languish
in misery. At length . . . 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 . . . "

The results
were dramatic:

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 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."

That was
quite a change from their previous situation, where severe whippings
had been resorted to as an inducement to more labor effort, with
little success other than in creating discontent.

Despite the
Pilgrims’ increased efforts in 1623, a summer drought threatened
their crops. Following their beliefs, they offered contrition
for their sins. Then the drought broke, which led to the Thanksgiving
we still try to emulate. And as historian Russell Kirk reported,
"never again were the Pilgrims short of food." It is
appropriate to remember the Pilgrims as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.
Though we have incomparably more than they did, we can learn much
from their "way of thanksgiving."

But we should
also remember that our material blessings are the fruits of America’s
system of private property rights, whose power for peaceful and
productive cooperation the Pilgrims began to prove by experiment
almost four centuries ago, because those rights, and the freedoms
and prosperity they entail, are under constant assault today.

This is
reprinted from

26, 2008

Gary M.
Galles [send him mail]
is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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