The pilgrim’s failed socialist experiment

Dr. Harold Pease

Contributing Columnist

Few realize that New England’s first form of government under the Pilgrims was communalism (socialism) where “each produced according to his ability and each received according to his needs,” applied in practice more than two centuries before Karl Marx first penned the above quote. The result, “share the wealth,” then and now was, and always will be, shared poverty.

William Bradford, Plymouth colony’s governor its first 30 years, wrote of the agreement between the 102 Pilgrim Mayflower passengers and the financial “Adventurers” in his book Of Plymouth Plantation. He noted that the seven-year contract signed July 1, 1620, before leaving Plymouth England, stipulated that the Pilgrims were to pool, for common benefit, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons…” It further noted “that at the end of the seven years, the capital and profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt the Adventurers and Planters…”

During this time the colonists were to “have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony.” It doesn’t get more socialistic than this because the government divvied out the goods and loafers received the same as those who worked.

The first two years the result was shortages and starvation. Half the colonists died. No one did more than the minimal because the incentive to excel was destroyed by the contract. The industrious were neutralized. Bradford wrote of the scarcity of food “no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any.” The contract, Bradford added, “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to the 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….”

In other words, socialism made strong men lazy. Bradford spoke of another problem because of the government created famine—thievery. Even in this Christian community, “much was stolen both by night and day….” to alleviate the prevailing condition of hunger.

The “feast” of the first Thanksgiving did fill their bellies briefly, and they were grateful, but abundance was anything but common. Harvests were not bountiful in that year nor the next. Why did this happen? Because they had fallen victim to the socialistic philosophy of “share the wealth.” This dis-incentivized the productive base of society.

After two years of such, with the survival of the colony at stake, they contemplated upon “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.” They opted to abandon the incentive killing socialist contract in favor of the free market. And so they “assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end….”

The effects were almost immediate. A delighted Governor Bradford wrote: “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 … 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.”

Then suddenly, as though night changed to day, the crop of 1623 was bounteous, and those thereafter as well, and it had nothing to do with the weather. Bradford wrote, “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.” He concluded later, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

One variable alone made the difference and ended the three-year famine. They abandoned the notion of government (or corporation) owning the means of production and distribution in favor of the individual having property and being responsible to take care of himself. Before, no one benefited by working because he received the same compensation as those who did not. After the change everyone kept the benefits of his labor. Those who chose not to work basically chose also to be poor and the government (corporation) no longer confiscated from those who produced to give to those who did not.

In other words, the free market (capitalism) is a much greater stimulus than governmental force. The Pilgrims now wished to work because they got to keep the benefits of their labor.

Secure property rights are the key to prosperity for all who wish to work. When this right is threatened by confiscatory taxation or outright confiscation of property, or by excessive government rules and regulations governing such, whether planned as in a contract enforced by the government at Plymouth, or gradual as in our day, work and production slow and can eventually stop. The answer for them was to extract socialism immediately from their midst, as it is for us today as well. May we have the wisdom to do so?

Dr. Harold Pease is a syndicated columnist. He taught history and political science from this perspective for more than 30 years at Taft College. To read more, visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.