The Pilgrim Fathers came to colonial America to escape religious persecution in Great Britain, but also to establish a new type of society in the wilderness. They were determined to follow Plato’s model in “The Republic,” and create a communal utopia.
It lead to economic disaster, which was only overcome through the Plymouth Colony elders admitting their error, and instead “privatizing” the colony’s property. By doing so they set loose individual initiative and market-based incentives.
The Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food. Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement.
In Governor Bradford’s words:
“By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
The desire for “spreading the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic. The Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way for men to live together in society.
They, instead, accepted men and women as they are: hardworking, productive, and innovative when allowed the liberty to follow their own interests in improving their circumstances and that of their families. And even more, out of such industry come the quantities of useful goods that enable people to trade to their mutual benefit.
In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed from the false dream of communal-ism to the effectiveness of capitalism. At a time of economic uncertainty, it is worthwhile recalling this beginning of the American experiment and experience with freedom.
This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. This year, when we sit around our dining table with our family and friends, let us also remember that what we are really celebrating is the birth of free men and women and free enterprise in that New World of America, the triumph of entrepreneurship based on own our hard work.
We wish you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving!