As football players chase a pigskin down the field in Miami or Detroit, we settle into our living rooms, loosen our belts, wave off a second helping of pie, and remind the little ones this is the day we echo the thanks of the Pilgrims, who gathered in the autumn of 1621 to celebrate the first bountiful harvest in a land of plenty.
So what is the truth about Thanks Giving?
That first winter in the New World had been a harsh one, of course. Half the colonists had died. But the survivors were hard-working and tenacious, and – with the aid of a little agricultural expertise graciously on loan from the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, and the Mohegan – were able to thank the Creator for an abundant harvest, that second autumn in a new land.
The only problem with the tale, unfortunately, is that it’s not true.
Oh, the part about the Indians graciously showing the new settlers how to raise beans and corn is right enough. But in a November, 1985 article in “The Free Market,” monthly publication of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, author and historian Richard J. Marbury pointed out: “This official story is … a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.”
The problem with the official story, Mr. Marbury points out, is that “The harvest of 1621 was not bountiful, nor were the colonists hardworking or tenacious. 1621 was a famine year and many of the colonists were lazy thieves.”
In his “History of Plymouth Plantation,” the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years because they refused to work in the fields, preferring instead to steal. Bradford recalled for posterity 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.”
Although in the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622 “all had their hungry bellies filled,” that relief was short-lived, and deaths from illness due to malnutrition continued.
Then, Mr. Marbury points out, “something changed.” By harvest time, 1623, Gov. Bradford was reporting that “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.” Thereafter, the first governor wrote, “Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” Why, by 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists actually began (start ital)exporting(end ital) corn.
What on earth had happened?
After the poor harvest of 1622, writes Bradford, “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.” And what solution was decided upon? It turned out to be simple enough. In 1623 Gov. Bradford simply “gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.”
What? Wasn’t that the American way from the start?
Not at all. The Mayflower Compact had required that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”
A person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take out only what he needed – a concept so attractive on its surface that it would be adopted as the equally disastrous ruling philosophy for all of Eastern Europe, some 300 years later.
“This ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ was an early form of socialism, and it is why the Pilgrims were starving,” Marbury explains.
Gov. Bradford writes that during those terrible first three years “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 in 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 historian Marbury’s words, Gov. Bradford “abolished socialism” in the colony, “replacing it with a free market, and that was the end of famines.”
In fact, this lesson had to be learned over and over again in early America. “Many early groups of colonists set up socialist states, all with the same terrible results,” Marbury notes. “At Jamestown, established in 1607, out of every shipload of settlers that arrived, less than half would survive their first 12 months in America. Most of the work was being done by only one-fifth of the men, the other four-fifths choosing to be parasites. In the winter of 1609-10, called ‘The Starving Time,’ the population fell from 500 to 60.
“Then the Jamestown colony was converted to a free market, and the results were every bit as dramatic as those at Plymouth. In 1614, Colony Secretary Ralph Hamor wrote that after the switch there was ‘plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure.’ He said that when the socialist system had prevailed, ‘we reaped not so much corn from the labors of 30 men as three men have done for themselves now.’ ”
They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Sadly this was a lesson the people of Russia had to learn all over again – at the pain of equally devastating starvation and penury – in our own century. By the 1980s, when the discredited and bloodstained rulers of Russia finally threw up their hands and allowed farmers to raise private crops and sell them for profit on a mere 10 percent of their lands, once again more crops were produced on that 10 percent of the land than on the 90 percent devoted to “collective agriculture,” the system under which – as the bitter Russian joke would have it – “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”
Yes, America is a bounteous land. But the source of that bounty – and the good fortune for which we annually gather to give thanks – lies not merely in the fertility of the soil or the frequency of the rains – for there is hardly a more fertile breadbasket on the face of the earth than the Soviet Ukraine.
No, the source of our bounty was the discovery made by the Pilgrims in 1623, that when men are allowed to hold their own land as private property, to eat what they raise and keep the profits from any surplus they sell, the entire community becomes one of prosperity and plenty.
Whereas, an economic system which grants the lazy and the shiftless some “right” to prosper off the looted fruits of another man’s labor, under the guise of enforced “compassion,” will inevitably descend into envy, theft, squalor, and starvation.
Though many would still incrementally impose on us some new variant of the “noble socialist experiment,” this is still at heart a free country with a bedrock respect for the sanctity of private property – and a land bounteous precisely because it’s free. It’s for that we give thanks – the corn and beans and turkey serving as mere symbols of that true and underlying blessing – on the fourth Thursday of each November.
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