Communism and Starvation: the First American Experiment
The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving: The Triumph of Capitalism over
by Richard M. Ebeling Monday, 24 November 2008
The English Puritans, who left Great Britain and sailed across the Atlantic
on the Mayflower in 1620, were not only escaping from religious persecution
in their homeland. They also wanted to turn their back on what they viewed
as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World.
In the New World, they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only
be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing
and social altruism. Their goal was the communism of Plato's Republic, in
which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property
nor self-interested acquisitiveness.
What resulted is recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the
head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked land, but
they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they hoped for, nor did it
create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.
The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the
fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their
families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they
saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working
among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be
redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too,
were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.
As Governor Bradford explained in his old English (though with the spelling
"For the young men that were 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 recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more
division of food, clothes, etc. then 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 labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner
and younger sort, thought it some indignant 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 man husbands brook it."
Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the
population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the
collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two
years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the
original number of the Plymouth colonists.
Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the
extinction of the entire community, the elders of the colony decided to try
something radically different: the introduction of private property rights
and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own
As Governor Bradford put it:
"And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the
proportion of their number for that end. . . .This had a very good success;
for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted
then 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 a ledge weakness, and inability; whom
to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression."
The Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food. Private ownership
meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry
became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the
fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only
did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses
that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and
In Governor Bradford's words:
"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, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was
well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year
about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and
sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them
since to this day."
Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in
the ideas that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise
through collectivism rather than individualism. As Governor Bradford
"The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried
sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of
the vanity and conceit of Plato's and other ancients; -- that the taking
away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, 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 confusion and discontent, and retard much
employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort."
Was this realization that communism was incompatible with human nature and
the prosperity of humanity to be despaired or be a cause for guilt? Not in
Governor Bradford's eyes. It was simply a matter of accepting that altruism
and collectivism were inconsistent with the nature of man, and that human
institutions should reflect the reality of man's nature if he is to prosper.
Said Governor Bradford:
"Let none object this is man's corruption, and nothing to the curse itself.
I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw
another course fitter for them."
The desire to "spreading the wealth" and for government to plan and regulate
people's lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato's Republic. The
Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way
for men to live together in society.
They, instead, accepted man as he is: hardworking, productive, and
innovative when allowed the liberty to follow his own interests in improving
his own circumstances and that of his family. And even more, out of his
industry result the quantities of useful goods that enable men to trade to
their mutual benefit.
In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed
from the false dream of communism to the sound realism of capitalism. At a
time of economic uncertainty, it is worthwhile recalling this beginning of
the American experiment and experience with freedom.