I first read and re-published this column on November 27, 2003. I never get tired of it. In fact, I think I’m gonna go read it to my kids right now!
Thanksgiving: America’s Lesson on Why Socialism Doesn’t Work
By Matthew A. Givens
Thanksgiving is approaching once again, and with it come visions of children’s plays with Indians and Pilgrims, complete with little Pilgrim hats made of construction paper. The story told in these plays and learned by public school students at every grade level is a simple one.
The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock late in 1620. The first winter was harsh, but the colonists worked hard and applied themselves industriously to their own survival. They had help from the local Indian tribes, who helped them learn how to survive. The result was a plentiful harvest in fall 1621, not to mention the first celebration of Thanksgiving.
It’s a wonderful story. There’s only one problem with it: It isn’t true.
It contains elements of truth. For example, the first winter was harsh, and the local Indian tribes did help the colonists learn how to survive, what to plant and how to prepare the food. But the 1621 harvest was not bountiful. In fact, famine haunted the fledgling colony.
When the colonists first landed, they signed something called the Mayflower Compact. Most of us have heard this document praised as an early social contract helping different people to live together. What most of us never learned was that it was also an experiment in socialism.
The Mayflower Compact required that “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing or any other means” were placed in the common stock of the colony. Further, it required that “all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel and all provisions out of this common stock.” People were required to put into the common stock everything they could, and take out only what they needed.
William Bradford, governor of the colony at the time, wrote History of Plymouth Plantation. In it, he wrote that “young men that are most able and fit for labor and service” complained about being forced to “spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children.” Since “the strong, or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak,” the strong men simply refused to work, and the amount of food produced was never adequate.
In fact, the colony went hungry for years as strong men refused to work hard, and theft of crops still in the ground ran rampant. Bradford wrote that the colony was riddled with “corruption and discontent.” The crops were small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”
The harvests of 1621 and 1622 were adequate enough so that “all had their hungry bellies filled,” but that did not last. Deaths from malnutrition continued into the next year.
But in 1623, something changed. Bradford reported, “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.” By 1624, the colony was producing so much food that it began exporting corn.
What caused this change?
After the poor harvest of 1622, the colony brainstormed for a way to raise more corn and obtain a better crop. The solution, like the Thanksgiving story told today, was simple. In 1623, Bradford “gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.”
The socialistic experiment that had failed them was abandoned and replaced with capitalism. That turned the colonists away from failure and forward into success and growth. And this move away from socialism, along with the resulting prosperity, is what we truly celebrate today. It is easy to see why I call Thanksgiving the first Libertarian holiday.
Thanksgiving, far from being the simple and uninspiring story of a group of people learning how to farm, is actually a celebration of what has made America itself great. It is the story of people working together by working for themselves first, and in so doing, improving the standard of living for everyone. These are the American ideas we hold dear.
As you sit down to your table laden with turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie, remember the true story of Thanksgiving, and what it means to all.
(Mr. Givens is a resident of Montgomery and former vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Alabama)