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Were the Pilgrims socialist? Each Thanksgiving, conservatives and libertarians make this very case to highlight the follies of socialism and justify the successes of capitalism. Or — less anachronistically and more descriptively — the follies of collectivized property and the successes of private property.

Consider me convinced after reading the words of Plymouth founder Governor William Bradford, among others, who made the case that a decisive turn to private property rights in the spring of 1623 was critical to ensuring economic productivity, where unforgiving famine reigned in years prior.

This argument is most skillfully made here. ReasonTV made a fun little explanatory video. You can read two other good explanations here and here.

In Part II of this commentary, I critique a worthy rebuttal to the free market analysis and offer a few words of advice for further research. Here, I intend only to present relevant, chronological, and annotated quotations in full as well as links to the sources.

NB: Unless I otherwise specify, the quotes below are from Governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, translated by Samuel Eliot Morison. Bradford took over as governor in 1621, the first full year of the Plymouth colony, and largely maintained the helm until his death in 1657. His memoir is generally considered one of our most useful insights into Plymouth’s formative years.


Before the Mayflower made its voyage, the Pilgrims achieved a funding deal with a London investment company, the Merchant Adventurers. The contract, signed July 1, 1620, would last 7 years. Of the contract’s ten points, two specify the nature of the commune the Pilgrims agreed to set up:

3. …all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in the common stock until division…

10. That all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony. (p.40-41)

The Pilgrims did not like these terms, for they preferred private property rather than common stock, but abided by the rules nonetheless. The deal was the best they could do.

Most of us are familiar with both the challenges of surviving in New England and the blessings of cooperation with local natives. In the fall of 1621, less than a year after the Pilgrims hit shore, 90 natives joined the Pilgrims (about half of the original 102 Pilgrims had survived by then) for a substantial harvest festival that lasted three days. Though not technically a “thanksgiving,” this festival is generally considered the original precursor to our Thanksgiving.

The event was a success, but unfortunately did not reflect their overall economic reality, which was one of constant uncertainty, as subsistence depended on too many unreliable factors. According to Gov. Bradford, by the summer of 1622, growing corn remained an amateur pursuit, trade with natives was suffering, and thievery was rampant. Moreover, hunger made the settlers weak and lethargic. The summer harvest in 1622 was underwhelming during what Bradford termed, a “time of wants”:

Now the welcome time of harvest approached, in which all had their hungry bellies filled. But it arose to a little, in comparison of a full year’s supply; partly because they were not yet well acquainted with the manner of Indian corn (and they had no other), also their many other employments; but chiefly their weakness for want of food, to tend it as they should have done. Also, much was stolen both by night and day before it became scarce eatable, and much more afterward. And though many were well whipped, when they were taken for a few ears of corn; yet hunger made others, whom conscience did not restrain, to venture. So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue, the next year also if not some way prevented, or supply should fail, to which they durst not trust. Markets there was none to go to, but only the Indians, and they had no trading commodities.” (p. 111-112)

Luckily, an unexpected ship from England made its way into Cape Cod that summer to temporarily alleviate their dependence on trade with the natives.

Uncertain conditions remained the following year. This time, however, trade was actively disrupted thanks to “Standish’s Raid” in March of 1623. (The story of the Wessagusset raid is beyond the scope of this post, though it is a worthwhile episode to learn.) The brutality of the incident spooked local natives, who fled their grounds. According to historian Nathan Philbrick, trade relations suffered:

In the immediate aftermath of the Wessagussett raid, the Pilgrims were astonished to discover that they had, at least temporarily, ruined their ability to trade with the Indians. “[W]e have been much damaged in our trade,” Bradford wrote to the Merchant Adventurers, “for there where we had [the] most skins the Indians are run away from their habitations, and set no corn, so as we can by no means as yet come to speak with them.” Without furs as a potential source of income, the Pilgrims looked to codfishing—with the usual disastrous results. (p. 154-155)

This is when the Pilgrims decided to partially abandon their contract with the Merchant Adventurers. The financiers had originally thought collectivized property would best guarantee them a return on their investment, but the Pilgrims had other ideas from the start. Eventually, poor output in the first few years forced the Pilgrims to experiment with private property. In the following critical passage, Gov. Bradford explains the reasons for their fateful decision and the social and economic successes it brought the community throughout the rest of his life. He even manages to criticize utopian idealists like Plato for reaching conclusions he knew firsthand to be faulty:

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 than 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 amongst 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 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.

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; and 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 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., 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. 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 amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst 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. (p. 120-121; also cross-referenced here)

This was not completely private land, for it still fell to the collective after the owner’s death; only later were laws written for the inheritance of property. Still, property was privatized for the short term in order to unlock the Pilgrims’ industry, and the community never looked back.

It is worth pointing out the role of God, which is evident in Gov. Bradford’s words at the end of both the excerpt above and below. After they switched to privatization and found their new work ethic, a terrible drought descended from late May until mid-July, causing further suffering. That July, Bradford called for a day of fasting and prayer. He recounts that the very evening of his colony’s day of fasting and prayer brought the first drops of an unexpected, steady, and reviving rain. The Pilgrims took the rejuvenation of their crops as a sign of God’s grace, and by the end of July 1623, they held their first day of thanksgiving — a solemn day of prayer — to express gratefulness to God.

A day of thanksgiving was again celebrated years later and only in the 1630s did it become more of a regular tradition. I mention this to contextualize the autumn harvest festival of 1621, a one-off event that we now commemorate as, “Thanksgiving,” with later thanksgivings, which only began in the summer of 1623 after land privatization and the remarkable drought-fasting episode.

I will not quote Bradford’s entire passage regarding the drought, fasting, and thanksgiving because it is not entirely relevant to our main economic analysis; you may find it on pages 131-132.

The first thanksgiving in 1623 also preceded the arrival of newcomers. In the following passage, Bradford relates a concern both the settlers and the newcomers had for their own private possessions. Neither group wanted to share except through voluntary exchange — a critical staple of the free market. Further, he recounts the success and contentment this arrangement distilled:

On the other hand the old planters were afraid that their corn, when it was ripe, should be imparted to the newcomers, whose provisions which they brought with them they feared would fall short before the year went about (as indeed it did). They came to the Governor and besought him that as it was before agreed that they should set corn for their particular [for themselves], and accordingly they had taken extraordinary pains thereabout, that they might freely enjoy the same, and they would not have a bite of the victuals now come, but wait till harvest for their own, and let the newcomers enjoy what they had brought; they would have none of it, except they could purchase any of it of them by bargain or exchange. Their request was granted them, for it gave both sides good content; for the newcomers were as much afraid that the hungry planters would have eat up the provisions brought, and they should have fallen into the like condition.

This ship was in a short time laden with clapboard, by the help of many hands. Also they sent in her all the beaver and other furs they had, and Mr. Winslow was sent over with her, to inform of all things, and procure such things as were thought needful for their present condition. By this time harvest was come, and 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. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day. (p. 132)

The final line is worth repeating: “…so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” This is remarkable for a community that had only months before, “languish[ed] in misery.” Since the final date of Bradford’s journal stretches to 1647, this would indicate at least 24 years of productivity, free from “any general want or famine,” even with a population that had expanded more than ten-fold by then. What else but a radical break from collective to private property rights could transform two and a half years of uncertain survival into at least a quarter-century of confident growth and productivity, especially when the cause coincided so perfectly with the effect?

Click here for Part II, in which I deconstruct a New York Times critique of this kind of free market analysis and offer other potential avenues of rebuttal.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] the Pilgrims socialist? Part 1 of this commentary set out to prove exactly that by providing something of an annotated chronology […]

  2. […] Private Property Saved the Pilgrims THE PILGRIMS & CAPITALISM, PART I: What to Remember Every Thanksgiving THE PILGRIMS & CAPITALISM PART II: What to Remind Yourself […]

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