In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed from the false dream of communism to the sound realism of capitalism.

The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving: The Triumph of Capitalism over Collectivism

by | Nov 27, 2019 | History

This time of the year, whether in good economic times or bad, is when we gather with our family and friends and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together. It marks a remembrance of those early Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the uncharted ocean from Europe to make a new start in Plymouth, Massachusetts. What is less appreciated is that Thanksgiving also is a celebration of the birth of free enterprise in America.

The English Puritans, who left Great Britain and sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620, were not only escaping from religious persecution in their homeland. They also wanted to turn their back on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World.

In the New World, they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. Their goal was the communism of Plato’s Republic, in which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.

What resulted is recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked land, but they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they hoped for, nor did it create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.

The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

As Governor Bradford explained in his old English (though with the spelling modernized):

For the young men that were 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 recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then 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 labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant 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 man husbands brook it.

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the extinction of the entire community, the elders of the colony decided to try something radically different: the introduction of private property rights and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own labor.

As Governor Bradford put it:

And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end . . .This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then 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 a ledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food. Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement.

In Governor Bradford’s words:

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 planting was well seen, for all had, one way or 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.

Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas of that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. As Governor Bradford expressed it:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; — that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, 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 confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.

Was this realization that communism was incompatible with human nature and the prosperity of humanity to be despaired or be a cause for guilt? Not in Governor Bradford’s eyes. It was simply a matter of accepting that altruism and collectivism were inconsistent with the nature of man, and that human institutions should reflect the reality of man’s nature if he is to prosper. Said Governor Bradford:

Let none object this is man’s corruption, and nothing to the curse itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

The desire to “spreading the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic. The Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way for men to live together in society.

They, instead, accepted man as he is: hardworking, productive, and innovative when allowed the liberty to follow his own interests in improving his own circumstances and that of his family. And even more, out of his industry result the quantities of useful goods that enable men to trade to their mutual benefit.

In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed from the false dream of communism to the sound realism of capitalism. At a time of economic uncertainty, it is worthwhile recalling this beginning of the American experiment and experience with freedom.

This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. This year, when we sit around our dining table with our family and friends, let us also remember that what we are really celebrating is the birth of free men and free enterprise in that New World of America.

The real meaning of Thanksgiving, in other words, is the triumph of Capitalism over the failure of Collectivism in all its forms.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).

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The views expressed represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine.

12 Comments

  1. Apart from the fact that the Pilgrims were still using the common system in 1621, would do for another 2 years, and that their reason for doing so was not ideological but because their corporate sponsors contractually demanded that style of land husbandry….

    spot on

  2. Yes, and unfortunately this sort of historical inaccuracy (which is pretty unforgivable) is exactly the kind of thing anyone who wants to disbelieve the rest of the column can point to. It’s exactly the type of thing I hear ALL THE TIME when people criticize anything vaguely Objectivist (e.g. “Rand was wrong about one thing so she’s wrong about everything quite obviously” types of arguments).

    BOO CapMag – things published on here should be better-vetted that this; ultimately this harms the cause more than helps it. Stossel is shaky enough. I know not everyone is Objectivist and you have to take what you can get to a certain degree….

  3. A far cry from typical notions that ‘the religious dolts couldn’t farm, half dying in the first year, and they were saved by the Indians, giving thanks the next year’s harvest.” This is about all most of us got in our government textbooks. (Is anyone else incensed that as children, without the tools or knowledge of how to properly research history, we were corralled forcibly and lied to?)

    “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.”

    The fascinating thing is that it was the private profit interests of the sponsors that laid out the “common course” plan. It appears the investors thought they would get their investment back with profit sooner if all were contributing to one pile. The basic true summary is that private investors with sufficient political ties to get land authorized from the King, aimed at private profit by requiring a collectivist program. Hmmm. This sounds some how familiar….. with similar results.
    Bradford’s personal understanding of Christian teaching favored private property and enterprise, calling the collectivist scheme the Platonist nonsense that it was.

    Regardless, it was not until a system of private property was established did the pilgrims and ‘strangers’ achieve sustainable prosperity, having the first truly bountiful ‘thanksgiving’ in 1623. They may well have not made it that far had an unexpected ship not come by in 1622.

    “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.”” (from Tom Bethell)

    You are right Australian Inquisitor. The evidence far and away suggests that the pilgrims themselves intellectually favored a private property system but followed the demands of their financial backers. It is amazing that they hung in there for so long, presumably a testament to their commitment to their word given in the initial agreement, despite 3 years of disastrous results.
    Threnody, then, for William Bradford — to leave his 4 yr old son and lose his wife in the same year, and make it through such an astounding array of other hardships, ultimately, at base, for freedom.

  4. Could you and Tim C expand on this point and/or refer to sources where one could read in more detail?

  5. Try History of the Colonization of the United States by George Bancroft. Available free to view on Google books. Clearly states 1623 as the year of the abandonment of common property.
    Whatever the Pilgrims gave thanks for at their first two Thanksgivings, it wasn’t what Stossel claims it to be.

  6. Thanks! I’ll look for it.
    As an aside, the article was by Eberling not Stossel. I suppose on Tim C’s point, that would risk making your comment invalid ;)

  7. Eberling, Stossel, George Will and Rush Limbaugh all trot out the same Thanksgiving rubbish, all make the same factual errors.
    Rewriting history to suit your ideological agenda is intellectually dishonest.

  8. I’ve learned a lot about the facts and the history of Thanksgiving and the pilgrims, and about myself, from this posting and everybody’s comments, above. But, though I don’t know about Stossel, Will or Limbaugh elsewhere, Ebeling didn’t say anything wrong here, or omit anything of real crucial substance, although he left room to ask questions. He didn’t try to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes.

    The pilgrims did want to make collectivism succeed. They signed a contract to do so, in order to get on a ship to the New World. When they found they had to break the contract or die, they broke it. I’m sure they were happy to release themselves from it, under the circumstances, even if they then faced being sued or faced criminal charges.

    True, they didn’t have the ideology of collectivism. Maybe they only wanted to be practical. But being practical, in rational terms, requires an appropriate ideology, like individualism and private property. And rationality, itself, is an ideology, the most basic ideology.

    Ebeling didn’t say all this, but, so what? I think he assumed his readers to be smart enough to essentially know it without being told. That assumption might be a mistake, but it’s not being dishonest. Mike Kevitt

  9. Except THEY WERE IN A COLLECTIVE. Any “individual” aims were realized ONLY in the context of a collective, which subsumes, allows or limits any personal ambitions. I.e. a SOCIAL contract of cooperation preempts and permits individualism.

    Individualism EXISTS, but that doesnt mean it is more rational or ethically independent or primary vis a vis the collective.

  10. There’s but one collective which everyone has a birth obligation to be a part of: the culture of society, which means, freely chosen human relations by the individual, by any individual, all under a system of rules upholding the right of such free choice. Only such a system of rules is a system of laws. Only a physical power structure or organization that works only thru a system of laws, as just defined, is a government. Otherwise, it’s a criminal mob acting out criminal plans, not laws. Freely chosen human relations under law and government, as just described and defined, is the only collective anybody must live under.

    Freely chosen relations do constitute collectives. But individuals form, join, leave and disband them at will. This is so individuals can further their own aims, ambitions, objectives, goals, etc. The collective, meaning the relationship, is merely instrumental to the individual. Only the individual has rational or moral standing. The individual is primary and independent. And all this was true of the pilgrims who came to the New World aboard the Mayflower. Mike Kevitt

  11. There is no “individual” apart from sustaining communities and biosphere. Total hallucination to think there is.

  12. True, I didn’t say or imply otherwise. But individuals are free to form, choose, leave or dissolve communities, sustaining or otherwise, at will, except for the culture of society that I described in my comment, above.

    I recognize that there’s one sustaining community not subject to any individual’s choice. Yes or no, not even obligation, is involved. That community consists of one’s parents at their time of mutual coitus, as they have freely chosen their communities (or collectives), including that between each other, assuming no rape. The individual has that stuffed down his throat at conception. ‘Artificial’ conception, or even of gestation and ‘artificial’ birth sometime in the future, won’t change that.

    As for biosphere, you’re right. Nobody is or ever will be born independent of the rest of existence. Today, that still means the biosphere on the Earth, thus, the Earth as well. And no individual can, or will ever be able to, be apart from existence. No choice or obligation involved here, either.

    But, despite all this, the individual can by right form, choose, leave and dissolve collectives at will, except for the culture of society that I described in my comment, above. Mike Kevitt

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