Each Thanksgiving holiday is a reminder of that famous first thanksgiving feast, in the Fall of 1621, in Plymouth, most about which we know comes from the letter of one man, Edward Winslow. Though it sounds strange, the failures of the first Pilgrim (and later Puritan) colonists might be more important, for us today, than their successes. The many failures, challenges, and setbacks endured by those early pioneering colonists offer important lessons from which we, today, can learn much if only we are willing to study, reflect, and think.
The good news worthy of celebration and thanksgiving, in late 1621, was that, with the help of the local Wampanoag tribe, there was a harvest, which meant food for the newly-arrived colonists. More worrisome was the fact that fully half of the Pilgrims who’d sailed across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower did not attend that famous first Thanksgiving. They had succumbed to starvation, dehydration, exposure to freezing temperatures, or disease during the ocean voyage and subsequent first Winter in the New World.
Not many would consider a fifty percent death rate in the first year a “successful” colonial experience. Still, many colonists remained grateful for being in the New World, so desperate were they to slip away from heavy-handed, controlling governments in the Old World.History, however, reveals that it was easier to get the colonists out of the Old World than to get the Old World out of the colonists. Upon arriving in North America, many Pilgrims (and later Puritans) immediately implemented versions of the same oppressive policies they had boarded ships and sailed across the ocean to escape.
According to the diary of Plymouth Governor William Bradford, even after the harvest, there remained many hungry bellies because “much was stolen both by night and day before it became scarce eatable.” Wherever one finds human beings, one finds theft and other human vices. In the shiny hilltop city of Plymouth, however, theft was especially rampant.Why? Because early Plymouth was a centrally planned community. In Plymouth, everything was controlled, commanded, regulated, & rationed by one central government authority. Like all central planning attempts, the results in Plymouth were corruption, crony favoritism, scarcity, hunger, and desperation. Desperate, hungry people are more inclined to become thieving people, especially when they think others are cheating or exempting themselves from the rules they impose on others.These are lessons central planners today still don’t seem to understand.
It would have 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 Christian theocracy, and colonists often used religion as a weapon. They were not seeking religious liberty. Many had left Europe because they wanted to be the religious persecutors rather than the religious persecuted.Religious persecution in the New World led to the same cruel injustices as in the Old. For example, the Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, perfected the torturous arts of cutting off ears and burning holes in the tongues of those who did not profess “correct” Puritan religious beliefs. For the politics of the early colonial period, religion was often an excuse to use government power to command and control others (as if those in government need any more excuses to command and control others).
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 real property owner was the political sovereign, the King. The idea of genuine private property, and everything connected to it, had yet to be discovered and fully understood. In many New World settlements, including Plymouth, colonists embraced socialism, which is another name for government central planning. Rather than individuals owning land, privately, and doing with it what they pleased, government owned all the land and commanded colonists to rotate farming responsibilities.
The results were what economists later would call “tragedy of the commons” and “rent-seeking.”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 and innovative—and tend to property that’s not his own—when the fruits of his labor are taken by force and given to others?Socialist central planning 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 socialist central planning and embraced the ideas 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 North 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 American Founders, unlike earlier Pilgrims and Puritans, replaced centralized planning with a Constitutional design that featured not one government, but many governments—at the national, state, county, and municipal levels—all of which featured limited and separated powers. The result was a nation without precedent in the history of nations, where individual citizens made 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, how (and whether) they wanted to worship God.
These are important lessons that the American Founders learned from the early colonists’ failures of central planning, socialism, and religious persecution. These lessons helped to create conditions in which a small group of people living in extreme poverty harnessed the incentives of freedom, created new wealth, and became a prosperous and powerful nation that continues to attract people from around the globe. These are lessons we, citizens of the United States, 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, limited, constitutionally enumerated powers, and who seem eager to repeat the Pilgrims’ failures of central planning.