The Reality of Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving story is a familiar one. Or is it?

Two years ago, I wrote a column addressing the real significance of those early years in Plymouth Colony. Here is a slightly updated version of that story:

As countless children have been taught, the first winter after the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620 was a harsh one. Thanks to a benevolent group of Native American Indians, who supplied them with food, seeds and plants, the Pilgrims planted crops which led to a bountiful harvest the following year and the first Thanksgiving feast in December 1621.

But the Pilgrims’ triumph over hunger and poverty at Plymouth Colony can be traced to something more than the charitable gestures of a few local Indians. Rather, it involves their courageous decision to replace a failed, socialistic agricultural system with one informed by the free-market principle of private ownership of property — a century and a half before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.

Writing in his diary of the dire economic straits and self-destructive behavior that consumed his fellow Puritans shortly after their arrival, the Colony’s leader, Gov. William Bradford, painted a picture of destitute settlers selling their clothes and bed coverings for food while others “became servants to the Indians,” cutting wood and fetching water in exchange for “a capful of corn.” The most desperate starved. One settler, in gathering shellfish along the shore, “was so weak … he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place.” Bradford recounted.

The colony’s leaders identified the source of their problem as a particularly vile form of what Bradford called “communism.” Property in Plymouth Colony was communally owned and cultivated. This system (“taking away of property and bringing [it] into a commonwealth”) bred “confusion and discontent” and “retarded much employment that would have been to [the settlers’] benefit and comfort.”

The most able and fit young men thought it an “injustice” that they were paid the same as those “not able to do a quarter” as much work. Women, meanwhile, considered the communal chores they had to perform for others a form of “slavery.”

On the brink of extermination, the colony’s leaders changed course and allotted a parcel of land to each settler, hoping the private ownership of farmland would encourage self-sufficiency and lead to the cultivation of more corn and other foodstuffs.

As Adam Smith would have predicted, this new system worked famously. “This had very good success,” Bradford reported, “for it made all hands very industrious.” In fact, “much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been” and productivity increased. “Women went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn.”

The famine that nearly wiped out the Pilgrims in 1623 gave way to a period of agricultural abundance that enabled the Massachusetts settlers to set down permanent roots, prosper, and play an indispensable role in the ultimate success of the American experiment.

A profoundly religious man, Bradford saw the hand of God in the Pilgrims’ economic recovery. Their success, he observed, “may well evince the vanity of that conceit … that the taking away of property … would make [men] happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.” Bradford surmised, “God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”d

Nearly 400 years later, the U.S. Senate could learn from the Puritans’ travails. The subsidy-laden $291 billion farm bill now awaiting passage there draws its inspiration from the failed approach that so bedeviled Gov. Bradford. Today, however, we adorn what the governor (aptly) termed a “communist” style of agriculture with Orwellian-sounding names such as price supports, marketing loan programs, revenue-based counter cyclical programs, and the Milk Income Loss Contract program.

Indeed, no sector of our economy has worn the shackles of government dependency with greater pride than does agribusiness today. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the former fiscal hawk who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, even flaunted his agribusiness feathers, daring President Bush to veto the bill, provided “the president wants to turn states like mine into solid Democratic states.”

Under this legislation, subsidies would continue to flow to farmers with annual incomes above $200,000 even as the USDA reports that farm income is expected to explode this year by 44% (to $73 billion). The White House reports, moreover, that “farm equity has risen approximately $200 billion per year for the past five years” (emphasis added).

If the nation’s farmers cannot shed their addiction to these welfare-style programs amid so much plenty, they never will.


View All