We Americans, today, owe much to the failures of the first Pilgrim (and later Puritan) colonists and the willingness of later generations to learn from those failures.
The good news worthy of celebration and thanksgiving in Plymouth in the Fall of 1621 was that, with the help of the local Wampanoag tribe, there was a harvest and some food for the colonists.
The more worrisome news was that fully half of the Pilgrims who’d sailed across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower did not attend that famous first Thanksgiving.
They had either starved to death, frozen to death, or succumbed to diseases during the ocean voyage and subsequent first Winter in the New World. Not many would consider a fifty percent death rate “successful.”
According to the diary of Plymouth Governor William Bradford, there remained hungry bellies, despite the harvest, because “much was stolen both by night and day before it became scarce eatable.”
Wherever one finds human beings, one will find theft. In the shiny hilltop city of Plymouth, however, theft was especially rampant.
Why? Because early Plymouth was a centrally planned community. Everything was controlled, commanded, regulated, & rationed by one central government authority. And like all central planning efforts, the results were scarcity, hunger, and desperation. And desperate, hungry people are more inclined to become thieving people.
It would’ve been wonderful had European Pilgrims and Puritans come to the New World to establish free societies, including religious freedom and the freedom to own and use private property. But the real history is strikingly different.
Every early North American colony was a kind of theocracy, and colonists used religion as a weapon. They were not seeking religious liberty. They’d left Europe because they wanted to be the religious persecutors rather than the religious persecuted.
And religious persecution in the New World, it turned out, led to the same cruel injustices as in the Old. For example, the Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, perfected the arts of cutting off ears and burning holes in the tongues of those who did not profess “correct” Puritan religious beliefs.
Pilgrims and Puritans were not quick to adopt legal recognition of and protection for private property. They’d come from feudal Europe, after all, where the only true property owner was the political sovereign, the King.
In many New World settlements, including Plymouth, colonists embraced socialism, which is a form of central planning. Rather than individuals owning land, privately, and doing with it what they pleased, the government owned all the land and commanded colonists to rotate farming responsibilities. This led to what economists later would call “tragedy of the commons.”
The young men “most able and fit for labor,” Governor Bradford explained, did everything to avoid farm work while complaining bitterly about being compelled to “spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children.” Why should a man be productive, innovative, and increase his efficiency when the fruits of his labor are taken away and given to others?
Central planning and socialism in Plymouth led to hunger and shortages of everything, except tempers, fueling yet more persecution.
Conditions began to improve only after colonists ditched the failed experiments in central planning and socialism in favor of individual freedom, private property, & free enterprise, where each individual could keep whatever he produced and associate and trade freely with others.
“This had very good success,” Bradford recorded happily, “for it made all hands very industrious.” These colonists discovered, through their own experience, the industrious incentives that emerge when human beings are confident they can keep and protect whatever they create.
AMERICAN FOUNDING & LESSONS LEARNED
’Twas a long journey through time and political theories from the first theocratic, socialist American colonies in the early 1600s to the American Founding a century and a half later where full-blown religious liberty and private property were enshrined in the United States Constitution.
The Founders, unlike earlier Pilgrims and Puritans, replaced central planning with a Constitutional design that featured not one government, but many governments—at the national, state, county, and local levels.
All levels of government were intended to have limited, few powers, which meant individuals would make most decisions about how to live, how to use their own property, how to raise and educate their own children, how to run their own businesses.
These are important lessons that the American Founders learned from the early colonists’ failures of central planning, socialism, and persecution. These lessons helped to create conditions in which a small group of people living in extreme poverty harnessed the incentives of freedom to create new wealth and became a prosperous and powerful nation.
These are lessons we should remember each Thanksgiving, and the days in between. These are lessons we should teach to members of our political class, to whom we have delegated temporary power, and who seem eager to repeat the failures of central planning and socialism that the Pilgrims suffered.