The Real Story of Thanksgiving
After three years of starvation and want the Pilgrims, under Governor William Bradford, abolished the practice of farming in common, which was they practice they brought with them from England. The harvest of 1623 was bountiful while the previous years had been lean. The Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving resulted as a celebration of the triumph of property rights and individual initiative.
William Bradford was the governor of the original Pilgrim colony, founded at Plymouth by the signing of the Mayflower Compact at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. The colony was first organized on a communal basis, as their financiers required and as they themselves believed would be “most meet and convenient” for their survival. There was to be no private land as all land was to be owned in common. The Pilgrims farmed communally with all of the fruits of their common labor to be divided among the families according to the number of their children.
The results were disastrous. Communalism didn’t work any better 400 years ago than it does today. By 1623, the colony had suffered serious losses. Starvation and misery prevailed.
Bradford realized that the communal system encouraged and rewarded waste and laziness and inefficiency, and destroyed individual initiative. Desperate, he and his fellow governors abolished the communal system and parceled out private plots of land among the surviving Pilgrims, encouraging them to work and farm as individuals, not collectively.
The results: a bountiful early harvest that saved the colonies. After the harvest, the Pilgrims celebrated with a day of Thanksgiving — on August 9th.
The following is from the original text of Bradford’s history of the Plymouth Colony, On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, 1623:
All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much torne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corve every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to goe on in the generall way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more torne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set torne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression. [NOTE: Inherent in the last sentence of this paragraph is the idea that those truly weak and unable would be cared for, but a system was needed that would not give incentive to false claims in that regard]
The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other.ancients, [NOTE: Plato was a collectivist] applauded by some of aater times; -that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in communitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and $orishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and servise did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails and cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, etc., with the meaner and yonger sorte, thought it some indignite and disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it. Upon the poynte all being to have alike, and all to doe alike, they thought them selves in the like condition, and ove as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of those relations that God hath set amongest men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of the mutuall respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have bene worse if they had been men of another condition. Let pone objecte this is mens corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter for them.
217. [end of text from On Plymouth Plantation]