Private Property Rights and the Pilgrims: The Real Lesson of Thanksgiving

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On the fourth Thursday of November, families will gather all across America and have a feast of thanksgiving. This is to honor the memory of the thanksgiving meal celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. (Note: The 1st Thanksgiving in British America actually occurred on December 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, 2 years before Plymouth). There is much lore and myth that surrounds this meal. Was there turkey on the first thanksgiving table? Probably not…but we are certain there was venison and pigeon. And sorry, don’t save your fork because there was no pumpkin pie for dessert either!

Beyond these myths, there is a story about the Pilgrims that should be recounted. It is the story of their relation to private property. When the Scrooby Separatists first came to Massachusetts, they practiced a communal system of common property at the behest of the investors who put up the money to fund the journey to America. These investors were concerned that they would never recover their investment from a land so far away if they allowed the settlers to own the land privately, so they forced the Pilgrims into a common land-holding system. What this produced was a system in which the fruits of farming and labor went to the community, and each member of the community was entitled to an equal portion. The original colony operated on a “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” system – about two hundred fifty years before Marx would make that phrase history.

However, this common property system in time grew to be a disaster. Harder working Pilgrims resented that their more slothful neighbors were able to benefit by someone else’s labor. Governor William Bradford provides us with the details in his journal, History of Plymouth Plantation.Governor Bradford writes:

. . . the young men . . . did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong . . . had not more in division . . . than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc . . . thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And the men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.

Naturally, without a profit motive, without personal incentive, not every Pilgrim pitched in and did their “fair share” of the work. Undoubtedly, there were some farmers who spent much of their day laboring on crops that would eventually feed other people. A society built upon wealth redistribution was perceived as unjust by many, and led to the breaking down of the colony. For the winters of 1621 and 1622, the Scrooby settlers found themselves near starvation many times. There simply was not enough crops being raised, and no motivating factor to improve this. Governor Bradford notes:

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