Pilgrims Lay Base for U.S. CapitalismDecember 19th, 2007
As all school children know, we celebrate Thanksgiving to honor the pioneers who colonized America. In particular, we honor the Pilgrims, who came over on the Mayflower seeking religious freedom and settled in Plymouth in 1620. Their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 commemorated their first successful harvest in the New World. Wild turkey was a prominent feature of the menu that day. In 1789, George Washington made Thanksgiving a national holiday that has continued down to the present day. Less well known is the lesson about the importance of economic freedom that the Pilgrims learned in those early days.
In the beginning, the economic organization of the Plymouth Colony was based on communism, of the sort that had been advocated by Plato in ancient Greece. Land, food and clothing were shared equally, with the result that no one profited from hard work nor suffered from laziness. By 1623, the resulting low level of food production created a crisis.
According to William Bradford, governor of the colony, many colonists survived only by selling their clothes, bed covers and anything else they had to the Indians in return for food. Others simply starved.
“So they began to think about 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,” Bradford wrote. This led the Pilgrims to reconsider their economic organization. After much debate, they decided that people should be responsible for themselves. The land, which previously had been farmed in common, was divided up among all the families, in proportion to their size. Henceforth, each colonist would farm his own land, reaping the rewards for himself.
According to Gov. Bradford, this new policy “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, who previously had not farmed, “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.”
The overwhelming triumph of the new private property regime ended the experiment in communism. In Bradford’s words, the experience showed the “vanity” and “conceit” of Plato’s view “that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing.”
In reality, communism “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” And it was an injustice that “the strong, or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could.”
Subsequently, what became the Massachusetts colony prospered, although never as a pure free market. Prices and wages were often fixed down to the time of the Revolution. Flour mills and such were often state owned. Yet at the same time, unlike some other religious sects, the Puritans did not condemn profit or the pursuit of wealth. Saving and hard work were considered virtues.
Thus in many ways they were instrumental for establishing the moral and ethical basis of capitalism in America.
So we owe a great debt to the Pilgrims. Their trials and errors in those early years of the 17th century were essential to laying the foundation of the American economic system as one based on private property and capitalism. And these have been the fundamental bases for wealth and prosperity ever since. For this, we should all be grateful.