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How Did the Pilgrims Beat ‘Communism’ With the Free Market?

Recalling the story of the Pilgrims is a Thanksgiving tradition, but do you know the real story behind their triumph over hunger and poverty at Plymouth Colony nearly four centuries ago? Their salvation stemmed not so much from the charitable gestures of local Indians, but from their courageous decision to embrace the free-market principle of private property ownership a century and a half before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.

The Failure of Communal Living

Writing in his diary of the dire economic straits and self-destructive behavior that consumed his fellow Puritans shortly after their arrival, Governor William Bradford painted a picture of destitute settlers selling their clothes and bed coverings for food while others became servants to the Indians, cutting wood and fetching water in exchange for a capful of corn. The most desperate among them starved.

The colony’s leaders identified the source of their problem as a particularly vile form of what Bradford called communism. Property in Plymouth Colony, he observed, was communally owned and cultivated. This system (taking away of property and bringing [it] into a commonwealth) bred confusion and discontent and retarded much employment that would have been to [the settlers] benefit and comfort.

The most able and fit young men in Plymouth thought it an injustice that they were paid the same as those not able to do a quarter the other could. Women, meanwhile, viewed the communal chores they were required to perform for others as a form of slavery.

The Success of the Free Market

On the brink of extermination, the Colony’s leaders changed course and allotted a parcel of land to each settler, hoping the private ownership of farmland would encourage self-sufficiency and lead to the cultivation of more corn and other foodstuffs.

As Adam Smith would have predicted, this new system worked famously. This had very good success, Bradford reported, for it made all hands very industrious. In fact, much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been and productivity increased. The famine that nearly wiped out the Pilgrims in 1623 gave way to a period of agricultural abundance that enabled the Massachusetts settlers to set down permanent roots in the New World, prosper, and play an indispensable role in the ultimate success of the American experiment.

A profoundly religious man, Bradford saw the hand of God in the Pilgrims economic recovery. Their success, he observed, may well evince the vanity of that conceit…that the taking away of property… would make [men] happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. Bradford surmised, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Lessons for Today

Plymouths Pilgrims may have survived that near-fatal brush with socialism but, sadly, many political leaders remain transfixed by a blind faith in the ability of government to shape and set the course of human behavior. Nowadays the government is taking more and more from hard-working Americans through taxes, and embarking on an experiment that has for centuries proven unsuccessful, and unjust according to the early American settlers. As we remember our blessings this Thanksgiving, also be reminded of our Founders first principles: personal responsibility, individual liberty, and prosperity through free markets.

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