GROVE CITY, PA — November 25, 2019 — A heartwarming tale of camaraderie and gratitude, the story of the first Thanksgiving is a poignant reminder of the humble beginnings of a great nation. But this special time to gather as a nation should serve as an opportunity not only to be thankful for the gifts of the present but also to remember the struggles of the past: America’s first experiment with socialism.
With the hope of establishing a new society based upon their understanding of a Christian community, the Pilgrims arrived in New England in November 1620 to an inhospitable environment. Prior to disembarking their faithful vessel, the members of this new society penned the Mayflower Compact, in which each citizen pledged his commitment to the rule of law and democratic governance; however, the technical details of administrating a social order in an untamed land loomed overhead.
For the first three years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Pilgrims experimented with an early form of socialism, implementing a system of communal resource sharing known as the “common course and condition.” This common store arrangement pertained to all goods, including all supply shipments from Great Britain, the products of individual labor, and even the meal of the first Thanksgiving.*
Although the Pilgrims experienced their greatest hardships from January to March of 1621—known as the Starving Time—in which more than 50% of the population died from lack of nutrition or disease, Plymouth Plantation continued to struggle during its first three years because of its resource allocation system. Even after the Native Americans helped the community to understand how to hunt and grow crops in the challenging landscape of New England, the colonists still depended upon British supply ships for sustenance.
As William Bradford—the five-time governor of the colony who oversaw the majority of Plymouth’s formative years—expresses in his writing On Plymouth Plantation, the common store system wreaked havoc on the peaceful Christian community:
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 the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength and work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice….And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men,…they deemed a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.
In 1623, the Pilgrim’s circumstances quickly deteriorated when a supply ship from Great Britain failed to arrive. Recognizing the instability of their perennially precarious position, the leadership of the community adopted private property rights among the colonists in the hopes of establishing a more prosperous future. As Bradford again describes:
At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end….This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been….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.
Although much is different between the rocky beginnings of the early American settlers and a United States on the verge of the second decade in the 21st Century, one lesson remains timeless: individuals will produce in greater abundance if given the opportunity to succeed for themselves. Even without the modern elements of society that contemporary advocates of socialism contend necessitates more centralized governance—including exploitative industrial giants, systemic racism, and unequal opportunity—the basic communalistic lifestyle of the Massachusetts Bay Colony failed because the socialistic principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” fundamentally contradicts human nature.
As we sit around the table this Thanksgiving and recount the many blessings in our lives, hopefully we can remember the difficulties of generations past and learn from their mistakes.
*Although the date of the first Thanksgiving is unknown, the first reference to this ceremony between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims was described in a letter written by William Bradford in December of 1621.
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Thanksgiving History: America’s Socialist Experiment By GABRIELLE M. ETZEL was first published by The Unvarnished Blog on November 25, 2019