Thanksgiving Story: The Pilgrims, Socialism, and Free Markets

pilgrims-300x215The story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and Thanksgiving is widely taught in all our schools.  What is seldom taught, however, is what those Pilgrims learned, at great pain, about Private Property & Free Markets versus Socialism. That story stands as perhaps the clearest and starkest-ever before-and-after comparison between those two rival systems for human interaction.

We all know how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in November, 1620, and how they lost half their population to starvation, sickness, and exposure that first winter. We all know how a Native American named Squanto taught the survivors to fish, plant corn, use fertilizer, and hunt deer. And we were taught that following their first abundant harvest, Governor William Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving that we celebrate to this day.

What most of us never learned was that the original contract the Pilgrims brokered with their London sponsors required that everything the Pilgrims produced was to go into a common store, and every member was to be allotted one equal share.  Further, all the land they cleared and all the buildings they constructed were to belong to the whole community.

To those with visions of utopian egalitarianism, this must have sounded like the ideal society.  Free of outside evil influences from Europe, personal property and greed were to be banished.  Everyone was to work hard for the common good, and altruism was to be its own reward.

How did it work out?  Horribly.  In the three winters of 1621-1623, many died from starvation, pneumonia, or both.  Here is Governor Bradford’s own summary of the community’s results with what we now call Socialism:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s 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 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 other words, said the Governor, it simply didn’t work.

Wisely, in April, 1623, Bradford abruptly abandoned the idealistic practice of collectivism. Instead, he assigned a plot of land to each family, permitting them to keep everything they grew or made and to market anything they didn’t consume themselves.  He actually harnessed all that awful ”greed” and put it to work in a Free Market system.  Bradford had discovered that even these most idealistic of peoples had no reason to put in any extra effort without the motivation of personal incentives to do so.

So how did Free Markets work out for the same people in the same place under the same circumstances?  Boffo!

The Pilgrims soon had more food than they could eat or trade among themselves.  So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Native Americans.  They paid off their debts to their London sponsors and soon attracted a great European migration.  As Bradford summarized the new approach:

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 means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.

This was an essential and timeless lesson, learned the hard way. It established our national character.

So why isn’t this lesson featured up front, in neon lights, in American history classes?  Why isn’t it the lead story of the Pilgrim experience?  Why has the history been falsified and its most important lesson ignored?

Perhaps it’s because the people who write our history textbooks still don’t want to believe it.  Perhaps those authors still cling to the hope that some form of their beloved utopian Socialism, Collectivism, and Central Planning will one day triumph over Private Property and Free Markets. Unfortunately for those authors, the historical record couldn’t be clearer, and the Pilgrims’ experience is America’s Exhibit One:

When it comes to bettering the life of the common man, Free Markets, Private Property, and Capitalism work — the alternatives don’t.

Granted, socialism, fascism, communism and other grand central-planning systems may work, after a fashion, for a little while, especially for those in power.  But eventually they always fail, hurting most the people those systems were supposed to help. Yet even to this day, people keep falling for the false promises of those failed systems of human governance.

For more than 3000 years at Passover, Jews around the world have been re-telling the story of their deliverance from slavery, and for over 2000 years at Easter, Christians have been re-telling the story of their redemption.  Now that it’s been nearly 400 years since the Pilgrims landed in America, perhaps we could begin re-telling the real story of Thanksgiving every year, headlining those life-and-death lessons the Pilgrims learned about the differences between Socialism and Free Markets.


This is an updated version of articles from January, 2011 and November, 2012.


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