What lessons should we learn from first Thanksgiving? Can the Pilgrims of 1621 help us exercise prudence in 2021?
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.
The virtue of prudence—or wisdom regarding immediate choices and actions—requires both personal experience and learning from the experiences of others.
The many failures, challenges, and setbacks endured by the the first Pilgrim colonists, who still believed it was important to be thankful, are experiences from which we can learn much. We can draw upon their experiences as we make political and personal choices today.
LIFE & DEATH
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 it was 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.
Religious persecution in the New World led to the same cruel injustices as in the Old. The Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, for example, 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.
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 individual liberty inseparable from 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 young men “most able and fit for labor,” Governor Bradford lamented, 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 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, resentment, and desperation—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 invent, produce, or purchase.
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 the early Pilgrims and Puritans, replaced centralized planning with a Constitutional design that featured not one but many governments—a “federal” system with different kinds of 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.
QUESTIONS OF PRUDENCE
The choice to board a ship in 1620 and set sail for the New World was a fateful choice. It involved deep questions of how much risk a person was willing to take and how much a person valued competing goods: Is the promise of opportunity in the New World worth the risk of a possible ship wreck, or getting sick, or dying? Who should have answered those questions and made those choices for the early colonists?
What about us, today? When there are questions of risk and value—such as whether to get a vaccine or not, or whether children in schools should wear masks—who should answer those questions and make those choices? And how do we make our responses known to elected officials and unelected bureaucrats?
The early Pilgrim settlers emphasized the importance of their religious faith, yet they rejected religious liberty. Did their commitment to a strict religious code combined with the absence of religious liberty make them more just or unjust?Are you surprised that these devout Christians turned to stealing when they became hungry and desperate?
Should we expect, today, that religious faith alone will fortify the morals of Americans should they become hungry and desperate? In addition to religious faith, what else might encourage or incentivize citizens to behave morally and respect the rights of others?
Is there a lesson for us, today, to be learned from the Pilgrim and Puritan blending of religious faith with government power?
Are we, today, moving toward the ideas of private property and individual liberty embraced by the American Founders, or are we getting closer to the socialism and central planning of the early Pilgrims and Puritans?
Many progressives today are openly hostile toward religion. Some even want to persecute (conservative) religious believers at the very moment they denounce religion as the source of persecution. Might it be rhetorically useful to compare anti-religious modern progressives with the deeply religious, socialist and central planning Pilgrims and Puritans?
After all, atheists are capable of persecuting others no less than religious fanatics. Atheists are capable of cruel experiments in socialism and central planning, and so are religious believers—like the early Pilgrims and Puritans. And they’re all bad.