The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in November, 1620, and founded the new Plymouth. They thanked God when they landed, but this was not the first Thanksgiving Day.
The first winter was a hard one, and half the colonists died, but from disease rather than hunger. The Indians helped them during the winter. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims had a hunting party with their Indian friends. This shooting party later got confused with Thanksgiving Day. They feasted for three days, but it was not proclaimed to be a traditional Thanksgiving with prayers, etc.
The English sponsors of the Pilgrims had made an agreement with them before they departed whereby all "profits" of the colony, i.e. all crops, fish, trade goods, etc., would be "in the commonstock." This is recorded by the governor of the colony, William Bradford, in his book Of Plymouth Plantation. All colonists were to take their goods and food from the common stock. The economic system was communism, in accord with their religious beliefs.
How did it work out? Terribly. Bradford wrote that the experience evinced the "vanity" of those who believed that putting all property into common ownership would make them flourish. Sharing everything resulted in "confusion and discontent. "The workers complained about spending time working for others."
By early 1623 the Pilgrims faced a crisis. There was going to be a famine unless something changed. Some were stealing food from the Indians. Some died of hunger. So they held a meeting to decide how to "obtain a better crop."
They decided to give up communism in goods. Bradford wrote that they determined that from then on, "they should set corn every man for his own particular." The land was still common territory, but each family was assigned its own parcel to farm. Land could not be passed on as inheritance, but the family could keep what it grew.
The effect: Bradford wrote that "It made all hand very industrious. [They] now went willingly into the fields." Then in the summer there came a drought. The Pilgrims held a "day of humiliation," in accord with their custom. A "sweet and gentle" rain broke the drought. The bountiful harvest was saved.
To celebrate the abundant harvest, wrote Bradford, the Pilgrims "set apart a day of thanksgiving." This is the first mention of any thanksgiving day in the chronicles. Thanks to their new economic system, instead of famine, they had plenty of food, and would never have a famine again.
So the Pilgrims were not just celebrating God's giving them rain, but their good fortune due to their conversion to the new form of enterprise which was so successful. In subsequent years, the Pilgrims reenacted this Thanksgiving Day so they would not forget what made the harvest possible. For God had indeed blessed their efforts.
The holiday became an American tradition, yet Americans forgot the reason for the occasion, the economics lesson that the Pilgrims learned. Most Americans and even history books confuse Thanksgiving Day with the hunting party with the Indians of 1621.
The Pilgrims gave thanks to the abundance that follows when people are given equal access to natural opportunities and may then keep the fruits of their efforts. The greater loss was not the holiday's origins but the economic insight gained by the Pilgrims. So on Thanksgiving Day, let us celebrate not just the memory of the Pilgrims but also the freedom that makes possible today's abundant harvests.
-- Dr. Fred Foldvary
What Folks Have Been Saying:Makes sense to me.
The Agrarian <Bvd98@yahoo.com>
- Monday, November 22, 1999 at 21:56:01 (EST)
Very enlightening. Ours is a culture which idolizes "newness" and modernism to the extent that it forgets the good lessons learned by our ancestors.
Columbus, OH USA - Wednesday, November 24, 1999 at 13:09:50 (EST)
Interesting. I knew that the Pilgrims had switched from communism to capitalism, and enjoyed more prosperity in consequence. I didn't know that when they divided the land into individual plots, they made land rights purely usufructuary, without any rights of absolute possession. When did they or their descendants let land become absolute private property, I wonder. And where can I find this documented? Regards, Nicholas
Nicholas Rosen <email@example.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Friday, November 26, 1999 at 22:02:32 (EST)
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