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Flip open any high school history book that discusses the history behind what we now call “Thanksgiving”, and you’re sure to find a watered-down, factually incorrect set of tidbits which convey no meaningful context. Children are taught that the imperiled Pilgrims were saved by the aid of some of the natives, and subsequently established a day to thank God for their bounteous blessings.

The truth is far more interesting.

Consider, first, the background. The Pilgrims were a group of religious separatists fleeing political persecution, led by their pastor, John Robinson, to congregate in a location where they could freely practice their beliefs. Having first migrated to Holland in search of tolerance, they began to fear losing their cohesive, cultural identity. Representatives of the group were sent to England to negotiate a loan whereby the group could have funding to travel to America and establish a colony. The two emissaries were admonished “not to exceed the bounds of your commission,” with emphasis that they not “entangle yourselves and us in any such unreasonable [conditions as that] the merchants should have the half of men’s houses and lands at the dividend.”

The arrangement struck between these representatives and the financiers dictated that after seven years, all property would be divided equally between the investors and the colonists. The group, waiting in Holland, objected. Without the opportunity for owning one’s own property, “the building of good and fair houses” would be discouraged, they argued. The group’s representatives were suddenly caught in the line of fire, having negotiated terms of a contract which their group was unwilling to accept. The hopeful migrants accused their representatives of “making conditions fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.”

As the terms of the contract required common ownership of property—the investors, located far away, wanted a method whereby they could better ensure the group would all work for a common goal, to benefit themselves and pay back their loan—the representatives had to convince their group that their fears were unwarranted. “Our purpose is to build for the present such houses as, if need be, we may with little grief set afire and run away by the light,” wrote Robert Cushman, one of the negotiators. “Our riches shall not be in pomp but in strength; if God send us riches we will employ them to provide more men, ships, munition, etc.”

Further still, Cushman argued that common ownership of property would “foster communion” amongst the group. While some might incorrectly assume that the group’s experiment in communalism was based on the pursuit of Christian principles, this is not so. They were more interested in securing private property, and only agreed to these conditions out of necessity and desperation for financial backing.

The group in Holland thus remain unconvinced as to these arguments, but the investors firmly insisted to the proposed terms. With many of the group having already sold their property in Holland, there was little to do but agree to the conditions and get on with the journey.

Their new home, a colony named Plymouth, was established with great difficulty. Their ship, the Mayflower, landed at Cape Cod in November of 1620. What began with 102 people quickly turned into a small group of a few dozen, with the rest dying within the first few months from sickness and starvation. The new colony was barely able to provide food for its members, so “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” wrote William Bradford in his journal.

Bradford was a prominent figure in the group. He became governor after the first one died a year into their arrival, and was re-elected over thirty times. Being keenly aware of the working conditions of his fellow Pilgrims, he observed that few were willing to spend the time and energy working for the entire group. Writing in his journal, he recorded his thoughts as follows:

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 to 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. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it 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. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

That other course “fitter” for the group was instituted in 1623, after three years of laziness and extremely low productivity. Bradford surveyed the situation and made an executive decision to do away with the communal requirement. Bradford recorded the events surrounding this decision:

At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advise 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 in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. 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.

Bradford wrote that in the former system, “godly and sober men” sought every opportunity to “call in sick”, as it were, and avoid working. The investors were receiving little to no payment, the community was hardly fostering communion, as Cushman had incorrectly suggested, and progress languished.

The land was thus divided up into parcels of private property, which accelerated productivity and the creation of wealth. The results were quite noticeable. In 1621, the year of the first “Thanksgiving” celebration with helpful natives and a table full of goods, the colony had planted just 26 acres. A year later, they planted 60. In 1623, once private property had been established, 184 acres were planted.

The contract with the group’s investors was later renegotiated and finally paid. As for the colonists, Bradford wrote: “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.”

Thanksgiving—at least its true origin—should therefore be regarded as a triumph of capitalism over communism, prosperity and private property over bondage to one’s neighbor. The Pilgrims succeeded because the incentive to produce was finally secured to them with Bradford’s aid, and their own interests were placed above those of their fellow colonists.

Thanksgiving is indeed a story of bounty, of divine blessings, and of sharing our abundance with others in need. While the first such celebration came through the aid of locals sharing their supplies with the English newcomers, succeeding celebrations would have been rendered non-existent without Bradford’s changing the socio-economic conditions under which they worked. Surpluses come most easily when individuals can divide their labor freely, and apply their talent and skill to producing sufficient for their own needs, and extra with which to trade.

The colonists were vindicated in the fears they originally expressed to the negotiators they sent to secure their voyage’s funding. They understood, and later conclusively demonstrated, that a person’s profit motive is key to producing and providing for himself and those around him.

While Americans will be partaking, once again, of the surpluses produced by our (burdened, regulated, licensed, and increasingly controlled) capitalist system, few will contemplate the original important lesson learned by the people who began this cycle of celebrations. Far fewer still will promote, defend, and uphold policies that will mimic the wise decision of Governor Bradford, choosing instead to exploit the current system which allows them to live at the expense of their neighbors.

So, while you sit around the dinner table with loved ones, celebrating the many things with which we have all been blessed, remember: the key to increasing those blessings and better provide for ourselves and the needy around us lies in allowing people to privately pursue their own economic interests. Anything short of that will, in the long run, lead us to what Bradford termed “slavery”.


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