Were the Pilgrims Socialists?

This time of year our thoughts turn to Thanksgiving.  I will spend hours smoking a turkey and enjoying lots of football with my family.  But, we also take some time at our house to reflect on the First Thanksgiving in America with the Pilgrims.  Who were these people who endured such a harsh land with the desire to be free?

Most Americans know the Pilgrims, or the Puritan Separatists, landed in what is now Massachusetts in 1620.  Many of us do not realize that their original economic system of their colony, Plymouth Plantation, was a form of communism or collectivism.  True, the Pilgrims could elect their leaders.  But, there was neither private property nor a division of labor.  All food and supplies that were grown or created in the town was taken to a general storehouse and then distributed equally among all.  This was according to the original contract between the Pilgrims and their merchant-sponsors in England.  The women, who washed clothes and dressed meat, did so for everyone and not just for their own families.   The men, who raised crops and hunted, brought all their products to the storehouse.  This sounds like the perfect agrarian utopia of Marx and Lenin.  But what happened to it?  The answer can be found in William Bradford’s account, Of Plymouth Plantation. 

Bradford served as Governor of the colony from 1620 to 1647 and recorded the events in the colony in detail. In the first spring after the harsh winter of 1620, Indians taught settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod, and skin beavers for coats.  This is typically the part where the Thanksgiving story ends, with the Pilgrims thanking the Indians for saving their lives, rather than an expression of gratitude rooted in the traditions of the Old and New Testaments.

Yet, the colony did not flourish, even after the Indian help.   By 1623, it was obvious the colony was barely producing enough corn to keep everyone alive.  Supplies from Europe were few and far between.  Without major changes, the colony would face starvation. Bradford described what was going wrong and how it was fixed.  

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years…that by taking away property, and bringing community 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 much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.  For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time for labor and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense…that was thought injustice…At length, after much debate of things…that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before.  And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use and ranged all boys and youth under some family.  This had very good success, for it made all hands 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.”

So, the Pilgrims decided to abandon their original socialist experiment and allowed each family to own their own parcel of land and to make their own decisions on what to do with it. Whatever yield they produced from their own hard labor, belonged to that family and was not transferred to a community storehouse.  There is a basic law of economics that can be summed up in four words:  People respond to incentive.  Now that the incentives were in place, those who would not work before, now went to the fields gladly. 

The colony produced an abundance of food and began to thrive.  The Pilgrims found they had much more food than they could use.  So, they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians.  The profits they made allowed them to retire their debts with their lenders.  Their success and prosperity attracted more Europeans and began what is known as the “Great Puritan Migration.”

Bradford attributed the ultimate failure of the “common cause” to something deeper when he wrote, “Upon the point all being to have alike and to do alike, they thought themselves in the like conditions and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it die 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.” 

Bradford is saying the socialist system is doomed for failure, because people are not wired in this way.  Moving to a capitalist system that allows people to take risks and keep what they earn provided the proper incentives to allow the colony to thrive.  It is this system that has also contributed to much of the success of our country and is a part of American excellence.