Thanksgiving: The true story

Andy Matthews

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Thanksgiving: The true story

Last year at Thanksgiving, I shared a great piece I’d read about the true story behind that special holiday. I received an enormous amount of positive feedback on it, and so I thought that this year, I’d simply publish last year’s column once again. Enjoy…  

I’ve always thought of Thanksgiving as the quintessentially American holiday, bringing together so many of the things — faith, food, football, family and friends — that make living in this country so wonderful, and so worthy of deep appreciation.

But one of my very favorite things to do at this time of year is to revisit the story of the very first Thanksgiving.

We all know the story of how the Thanksgiving tradition began — or at least, we know the version of the story that has been approved for official telling in the American classroom. And, having grown up only 30 miles or so from Plymouth, Mass., I got to hear the story not just from my teachers, but directly from the “Pilgrims” themselves on many a class field trip. In other words, it’s a tale with which I became quite familiar.

It wasn’t until many years later, however, that I finally learned the real story of Thanksgiving. That is to say, I discovered the reason why Thanksgiving represents not simply a timeless tradition, but also the triumph of what would become America’s most fundamental values. In short, it’s a story of capitalism prevailing over collectivism.

Many writers and commentators have offered their own takes on this story, but one that I especially enjoyed reading was a piece written by Julie Borowski and published one year ago. I urge you to read the whole thing, but I wanted to share the most relevant part here:

Centuries before the Communist Manifesto was even published, the Pilgrims set up an economic system that looked similar to the “utopia” advocated by Karl Marx. In the early years of the Plymouth Plantation, there was no such thing as private property. All property was held in common and it was forbidden for anyone to produce their own food. It was up to the plantation officials to distribute food and supplies to the Pilgrims based on equality and need. 

The Plantation leaders showed their immense lack of knowledge regarding basic economic principles. Plymouth County Governor William Bradford wrote that, “the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing.” That clearly was not the case since the Pilgrims experienced great despair and massive food shortages for several years.

The Plymouth Plantation lacked the appropriate incentive structure. As economics Professor Benjamin Powell writes, “bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.” Many Pilgrims faked illness or stole instead of working in the fields to produce food. William Bradford later wrote that the colony was filled with “corruption,” and with “confusion and discontent.” He stated that the crops were so small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”

William Bradford finally decided to change course by implementing a new economic system in 1623. He assigned “every family a parcel of land” to do with it as they saw fit and the results were nothing short of miraculous. For the first time in the New World, families could enjoy the fruits of their labor. While it was not a complete private property system, the move away from collectivism saved the Pilgrims. As Governor William Bradford wrote that year, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty.”

I have much to be thankful for this year, but one thing for which we should all give thanks is that William Bradford was able to learn from his initial mistake.

And let’s all be hopeful, too, that those who lead our nation today have the same capacity.

On behalf of all of us at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, I’d like to wish you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

Warmest regards,

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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