First among blessings

First among blessings

The profound meaning of Thanksgiving has been lost to the American nation over the years. That isn't a slight against our prevailing idea of Thanksgiving as a time to show appreciation for the many blessings of a fruitful country. There is simply a deeper meaning to Thanksgiving that we have somehow forgotten.  It is a story best told by the first colonists of the New World - the ones we call the Pilgrims - who we credit for our Thanksgiving tradition.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that many of the first colonies in United States territory were deliberate attempts to create socialist communes.  This includes the colony established at Plymouth by the Pilgrims from the Mayflower. Each of these attempts resulted in mass starvation, not to mention widespread disease, crime and misery. In every case food, health and happiness were in abundance as soon as the socialist regime was abolished in favor of property that was more private and markets that were more free.

This is not a story that most modern Americans are fortunate enough to learn. In fact, today we are taught to attribute the colonists' incredible attrition rates to lack of farming knowledge, bad harvests and difficult winters. In other words, we are taught that the colonists were uneducated and unlucky.  That isn't true.  Colonists logically included many experienced farmers in their ranks, and there was no bad luck that preparation could not protect them from.  The primary sources, which seem to have been forgotten in our age of public schooling, tell the real story.

Consider the "History of Plymouth Plantation," written by a governor of the colony, William Bradford. In this account, Bradford relates how the colonists were inspired by the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato, which were in vogue at the time. They implemented the communal society Plato described - a centrally-planned economy where all property and burdens were shared. The men were to work in the same communal field, and the women were to share in the communal housework, such as washing and making clothes.

The result of the colonists' communalism was widespread shirking of work and rampant theft, which led to food shortages, starvation, disease and misery.  Year after year, people died from malnutrition and its effects. For these colonists, winter was a time of extraordinary suffering - not because the land was barren, or the weather was extraordinarily harsh, but simply because their economic system did not produce enough to satisfy even their basic needs.  After having endured this miserable experiment for years, Bradford does not have kind words for Plato, or the idea of communal property:

The experience that was had... 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 labor, 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 equalised, in labors, and victuals, clothes, &c., 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, &c., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.

After years of unnecessary suffering and attrition, the Plymouth colonists began seeking an arrangement that would better provide for their needs:

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 amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to 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.

Other early colonies reported similar experiences.  Like Plymouth, Jamestown instituted a socialist commune and suffered through years of famine and plague.  Jamestown's death rate was extraordinary - only about 1 in 10 people survived.  Jamestown started with a population of six hundred, but after years of staggering attrition capped by "The Starving Time" in the winter of 1609, no more than 60 people remained alive.  Faced with extinction, the colony finally abandoned socialism.  The Colony Secretary, Ralph Hamor, described the incredible change that occurred (language modernized):

there hath reigned no such infection in the Colony occasioned merely by misgovernment, idleness, and faction... since my self cannot but witness (of which I had some taste) in what a miserable condition, we found the Colony at our arrival there... [now] there is that plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily, and doth procure...

Hamor's first-hand account disagrees with the modern American teaching that the colonists' incredible attrition rates were due to animal ignorance and misfortune. He has no doubt that Jamestown's troubles were man-made.  He explains how the colony's fortunes turned when it abandoned the socialist model in favor of one respecting private property (language modernized):

the reason hereof is at hand, for formerly, when our people were fed out of the common store and labored jointly in the manuring of the ground, and planting corn, glad was that man that could slip from his labour. Nay the most honest of them in the general business would not take so much faithful and true pains in a week as now he will do in a day. ... by which means we reaped no so much corn from the labors of 30 men, as three men have done for themselves: to prevent mischief hereafter Sir Thomas Dale hath taken a new course throughout the whole Colony, by which means the general store (apparel only excepted) shall not be charged with anything: and this is it, he has allotted to every man in the Colony three English Acres of clear corn ground, which every man is to mature and tend...

If our Thanksgiving tradition is inspired by the Pilgrims, we should understand why they celebrated.  They were rejoicing in their new-found freedom as much as the bountiful Harvest this freedom promoted. They were celebrating casting off of an oppressive political regime in favor of a more civilized one.  Modern Americans would do well to remember the meaning of their joy.  We ought to give thanks for our freedom first, before giving thanks for our abundance as its happy effect.

Further reading