The Thanksgiving holiday is here and, as usual, Americans have a lot to be thankful for. The idea that is America should be supreme among those appreciations, along with family, friends, and the good fortune of living in the greatest country on Earth. Indeed, historical accounts of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by some early settlers in what is now New England represent the moral underpinnings of what makes the America the most prosperous nation to ever exist.
Unfortunately, the factual accounts of those first Thanksgivings have been replaced with a simplistic narrative that emphasizes collective sharing over individual initiative.
School children have undoubtedly been learning this month about the Pilgrims’ daring voyage across the Atlantic on the Mayflower to escape religious persecution, their landing at Plymouth Rock, and the hard times that followed. If it weren’t for the kindness of the Native Americans and their communal inclinations, the story goes, the hapless and helpless European settlers would have starved and succumbed to exposure.
The problem is that collectivist narrative regurgitated year after year is false.
This is the real story of Thanksgiving:
William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, was one of those Pilgrims that made the fearful voyage across an angry sea in 1620, hoping to find Virginia, but instead being forced by weather to what is now known as Massachusetts. Arriving during a harsh New England winter, the settlers were already at an incredible disadvantage.
Bradford kept extensive diaries that were later discovered which documented the harrowing experiences of the Plymouth Colony over those first few years and spelled out exactly what the Pilgrims were so thankful for so as to share in a feast with the local Native American tribes.
According to Bradford, there was an even more sinister force than a harsh winter threatening the survival of the diseased, and hungry Pilgrims – collectivism. The investors that financed the Mayflower’s expedition contracted that all property and profit obtained from the venture was to be held communally. All land, crop harvests, trade profits, etc., would be held collectively. The financiers thought, foolishly, that this was the best way to maximize their return on investment.
The results were disastrous. Bradford recounts in his diary that under the common stock system the young healthy men began to resent the mothers with children that did nothing to set corn, but ate just the same. After all, a person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take only what he needed. Some of those young men figured they too would lay back and take ‘according to need’ – the production of crops and other resources withered on the vine.
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes 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 labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for 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. […]”
During two years of death and starvation and delays in resupplies from England, the only thanks given was thanks to God that they were still alive despite their wretched condition. While their “bellies were filled” during a thanksgiving feast, it was only briefly, for they had but little. So in early 1623 Bradford set out to make a change, for with out abolishing this immoral system he knew they would not survive.
“So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that way trust to themselves […]”
Bradford and other colony leaders abandoned the failing system of socialism they had contracted, and instead began to implement a system of private property. The American idea was sparked.
“And so assigned every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. […]”
In a land of plenty, with wild game, fruits, resources, and fertile land surrounding them, a communal system yielded laziness, resentment, and starvation. Bradford’s decision to change that system brought it more in line with human nature and laid the foundation that made these truths self-evident to Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson.
To Bradford, the superiority of these truths was a revelation from God, following the struggles of a system that discounted Man’s nature. The results were emblematic of the new system’s virtue.
Suddenly, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford wrote, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.” Thereafter, he wrote, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
It was after this epiphany that the Pilgrims produced so much that they invited the friendly Native Americans to join them in their overflowing feast of Thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God for showing them a more virtuous system.
In fact, in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn. And so the growth in production continued on, on the premise of capitalism and private property and Individualism, until the founding of the United States of America – the most prosperous nation ever.
So as you gather the family ’round the dinner table to give thanks this year, be sure to give thanks for the American idea that was learned, in hard lessons, by the settlers of Plymouth (and Jamestown before it). Tell your family and friends the real story of Thanksgiving and strive to protect the principles that make that story so special.
Happy Thanksgiving from First in Freedom Daily.