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Were the Pilgrims socialist? Part I of this commentary set out to prove exactly that by providing something of an annotated chronology of relevant quotations from and links to Plymouth founder, Governor William Bradford. Besides my comprehensive post, you can visit the argument as it is most skillfully written here. ReasonTV has its own fun little explanatory video. You can also read two other good explanations here and here.

Or you could have the New York Times briefly explain the argument:

…the pilgrims who came to Plymouth established a communal system, where all had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands. Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued.

Finally, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, abolished this system and gave each household a parcel of land. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims were suddenly very industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. … the moral is always the same: socialism doesn’t work.

This is the general idea, though it might do for a little more context. After the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they developed a positive relationship with the Indians, which they celebrated in the fall of 1621 — the original “Thanksgiving,” although it was more of an autumnal harvest celebration. After several years of economic hardship, the spring of 1623 saw the abandonment of collective property and the institutionalization of private property, and that summer brought the first sustainably successful harvest, which would hold steady for at least another 24 years, according to a detailed account recorded by the Governor of the colony, William Bradford. The Pilgrims’ first real thanksgiving, a solemn day of prayer for God, occurred in July of 1623. Although our Thanksgivings take the same name, it is the 1621 fall festival that we mimic.

The Times article was written last year on November 20, 2010, in an attempt to debunk the free market story. Upon reading it last year, I resolved to do my own research before this year’s Thanksgiving and I have come down on the side of the free market explanation — with a few minor reservations — for all the reasons in the links above and in my Part I of this commentary. Here, in Part II, I will critique the New York Times article and offer the few reservations I have regarding the Pilgrims-free market argument.



NB: Most contentions in the Times article rely on the expertise of Richard Pickering, Deputy Director of a museum on the Pilgrims’ original site at Plymouth.

CLAIM #1: The article first concedes that the Pilgrims held their property communally, but that it was “directed ultimately to private profit.”

It is true that their contract with investors in London for their voyage’s funding is rightly considered a voluntary agreement, and a free market transaction. But a voluntary agreement to collectivize property does not make collective property any less collective. Whether citizens of the Soviet Union vote for collectivization voluntarily from below or whether it is imposed involuntarily from above, a community that collectivizes property is not one that respects private property.

The argument that communities fail when they collectivize property is not affected in the least by the means of collectivization.

CLAIM #2: The Times still uses this perspective to consider the Plymouth arrangement as a corporation, where “the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.” Although the point of the “Plymouth corporation” remains the same, I would suggest the analogy is clearer if the London investors were shareholders and the Pilgrims were employees. Still, several questions arise.

—Who are the managers of this corporation, with sovereignty over property? The London investors? The logistics of managerial control from London were near impossible. How about any of the settlers? As we have seen, no colonist had the legal power to make new property laws.

—Could the workers of this corporation be fired? Exiling the least industrious could have been an option, but according to Gov. Bradford, the absence of work ethic was not restricted to a lone segment of the Plymouth community. Rather, the entire colony “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” (Bradford, 121)

—Was there another corporation where discontented workers could apply for employment? If so, why did none of them abandon camp after half died the very first year? One of the important differences between a corporation and a sovereign community is that leaving a corporation is relatively easy.

There are plenty of ways to contrast corporations from the Pilgrim community, but one can also view standard governments generally as large corporations, whose shareholders are the taxpayer, whose employees are public sector workers, whose board of directors are elected officials, and whose managers are heads of bureaucracies. But if governments can be considered collectivist, government-corporations can be considered collectivist. And given that the Times considers the Plymouth community to be one such corporation-government, Plymouth can be considered collectivist, especially if they collectivize property, which they did. So we are back to the problem with Claim #1: how a community collectivizes its property does not change the fact that it collectivizes its property.

A last point on the Plymouth corporation. One of the stumbling blocks of corporations is when they venture into too many sectors and overstretch their resources. For example, General Electric (GE) was bailed out over fumbles in its financial loan department, rather than in innovative technology, which is was it is generally known for. According to Governor Bradford, the Plymouth corporation similarly bit off more than it could chew by collectivizing property; thanks to land privatization, he wrote, “much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use.” (120)

CLAIM #3: “The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621.” Pickering added, “if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by … they would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Not necessarily. Recall that half of the community had died in the year before the fall festival. They had also met local natives throughout the year, with whom they inked several peace treaties, opened mutually beneficial trade exchanges, and learned farming and fishing techniques. This positive relationship between the Pilgrims and natives was good cause for celebration after the year’s harvest. Ninety Wampanoags joined the Pilgrims for the festivities and the entire party worked diligently to maintain the substantial feast.

The 1621 festival is a great case study for when the profit motive is unnecessary for productivity. Rather, to be alive in Plymouth with such good friends as the local natives was, for the Pilgrims, a blessing, and celebrating this blessing was all the motive they needed to work hard for a handful of days.

But the celebratory motive cannot be the basis of an economy because celebrations only last so long. Without either celebrations or private profit to drive the Pilgrims’ industry before 1623, the community generally suffered from what Governor Bradford termed, a “time of wants.” (111) Far from hinting at economic vitality, the 1621 feast was an aberration.

CLAIM #4: “Bradford did get rid of the common course — but … not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it.”

I will let Governor Bradford speak for himself:

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 … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use. (120)

In other words, their express purpose for land privatization was greater economic productivity, precisely because the old system wasn’t working.

Furthermore, whether or why they did not like the system is irrelevant. The question is whether or not land privatization did what the Pilgrims wanted it to do: release them from, “still thus languish[ing] in misery.” In the very next sentence, Governor Bradford explicitly believes so: “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious.” (120) In fact, so successful was privatization, that by 1647 — 24 years later — Governor Bradford was able to write, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” (132)

Another note on the Pilgrims’ motives. As Pickering points out, it is true that the Pilgrims did not appreciate working for other members of the collective: “they deemed it a kind of slavery.” Bradford similarly spoke of the condition as “great tyranny and oppression.” (120-121) Of course, if the Pilgrims liked working for other members of the collective, the move to private property would not have been necessary. But the Plymouth story acts as a cautionary tale precisely because workers did not get along under collectivization: the community “was found to breed much confusion and discontent” (121). Conversely, private property rights later “gave both sides good content” (132) when newcomers were able to voluntarily exchange their own possessions with individual Pilgrims, rather than with the communal whole.

Pickering here unwittingly makes perhaps the greatest argument for the free market: besides respecting individual liberty and spurring unrivalled productivity, the free enterprise system also makes people in an interconnected world much happier and more harmonious than they otherwise would be. No work explains this better than Leonard E. Read’s seminal 1958 story, “I, Pencil“, which tells the tale of the millions of people with millions of skills all over the world, who work together to create a single, simple pencil, without any individual or group of individuals directing their actions. Economist Milton Friedman opened his award-winning 1980 documentary series, Free to Choose, with his own short version of “I, Pencil.” Here, he speaks to Pickering’s concern for the Pilgrims’ animosity:

Literally thousands of people cooperated to make this pencil. People who don’t speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met. … What brought them together and induced them to cooperate to make this pencil? … It was the magic of the price system. The impersonal operation of prices that brought them together and got them to cooperate to make this pencil, so that you could have it for a trifling sum. That is why the operation of the free market is so essential not only to promote productive efficiency, but even more to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.

So it was with the Pilgrims of Plymouth.



Though the New York Times critique is ultimately a weak one, I can find two potential avenues of solid criticism for the free market story.

1. The most obvious is that correlation is not causation. Just because private property rights were instilled the very year the Pilgrims’ economic fortunes turned does not mean that private property rights turned those fortunes around.

Of course, free market thinkers will point to example after example of nations around the world and throughout history in which private property was similarly correlated with success and collectivized property was correlated with failure. Many of these examples are also clear cases in which, like the Pilgrims, private owners gained industriousness as soon as they owned their own capital.

Plymouth fits right into the context of this great historical tradition. However, Mr. Pickering offered a competing explanation: “The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.”

This is likely true. But it does not disprove the private property theory any more than the private property/economic success correlation proves its own causation. Perhaps credit goes to both. Further research might uncover which caused greater economic success: better farming technique, or the turn to private property. Unfortunately, the Times article sheds no light on this.

2. A second concern may be Governor William Bradford’s bias. Most of the information we have about the causes and consequences of the turn to privatization comes from his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, translated by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Did Bradford spin the truth at all? According to journalist Tom Bethell:

Among [Bradford’s] books … was Jean Bodin’s Six Books of a Commonweale, a work that criticized [collective utopianism]. Bodin said that communal property was “the mother of contention and discord” and that a commonwealth based on it would perish because “nothing can be public where nothing is private.”

Yet more room for further research, however slim.



A. You may notice that half of the Times article deals with the story of Jamestown. I have indeed heard several arguments used to make Jamestown into a similar free market miracle, but I have chosen not to address it here because I remain unconvinced.

B. It is worth noting how the Times treats proponents of both sides of the argument.

Within the first few paragraphs, the free market side is immediately branded as partisan: “Tea Party”, “libertarian”, and “conservative.” This would not be a problem if the article also pointed out the partisan tilt of the opposing side rather than implying objectivity through omission. This suggests that the Times’ argument is mainstream thought among historians, struggling to hold the vanguard of truth against an onslaught of partisan revisionist historians who — as the Times mentions no fewer than four times without substantiation — can never keep their story straight.

On the other hand, the one and only perspective we have for the other side of the Plymouth tale is Mr. Richard Pickering, “a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.” The Times does not indicate his political beliefs or the extent of his expertise, except by implication: he is involved in a Pilgrims museum. The rest of his biography informs us that he is a PhD candidate studying English and that he is a playwright, specializing in topics of 17th century American history. His specialty, therefore, in English and playwriting — though far from a vice — is not quite the specialty in Economics or History the casual reader is led to believe. Whether he is a conservative, libertarian, or liberal remains a mystery.

To add insult to injury, this doctoral candidate smartly pointed out that Governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, from which we have most of our information, may be burdened by the bias of anti-communist paranoia, because its compiler, Samuel Eliot Morison, originally titled the relevant chapter, “Indian Conspiracy; Communism; Gorges.” Furthermore, said Mr. Pickering, “The challenges of the cold war and dealing with Russia are reflected in the text.”

Perhaps if Morison were translating a book from someone who had not written in the English language, this would be a worthwhile criticism.

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.