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The Lost Lesson of the First Thanksgiving

Dec 2, 2017
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A painting of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621. They had much to be thankful for–including a decision to abandon a collectivist economic system in favor of private property and individual enterprise. Without the change, the Pilgrims might have starved to death (Wikipedia graphic).

In honor of tomorrow’s holiday, John Stossel offers a forgotten lesson in history (and economics), at RealClearPolitics:

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.


Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even

stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

“So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented,” wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, “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, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land.”

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

“This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. … By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. … “
Read the whole thing. Then, if you have a child in elementary school, ask them what they were taught about the first Thanksgiving. As Mr. Stossel observes, the usual bromides about “the benefits of sharing” miss the real point. The real legacy of that first Thanksgiving–rooted in private property rights and personal initiative–is all-but-unknown.

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