The little-known story of Thanksgiving

Sharon Rossie

Every week, NPRI President Sharon Rossie writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them.

Around the Thanksgiving holiday, we hear a lot about Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. For some reason, however, we rarely hear about the real reason we give thanks every fourth Thursday in November.

The “official” story of Thanksgiving is a Disney-style fairytale about a group of tenacious pilgrims surviving the hardship of winter and befriending the local Native Americans. But that’s not exactly the whole story. What we’re rarely told is the story of entrepreneurship, individual freedom and limited government that ultimately saved the Plymouth plantation from slipping away into obscurity.

From the beginning, the colony was plagued with poor harvests, harsh winters, starvation and disease. Increasingly, colonists grew convinced that Plymouth was just a month or two away from being wiped out by Mother Nature. But as the years wore on, Governor William Bradford began to think maybe there was a more obvious culprit for all their suffering.

Like Jamestown before it, Plymouth had initially adopted an economic system of “shared ownership” among all its residents. Profits and harvests were placed in a central fund, of which it was proclaimed, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”

In other words, people to put into the common stock all they could afford, and take only what they needed.  Bradford and his colonists had embarked on a truly socialist experiment roughly two centuries before Karl Marx would start ranting about the bourgeois and proletariat.

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford later wrote that the system of shared resources was “riddled with corruption,” and that “confusion and discontent” was rampant. Young men resented having to care for other people’s families, and often refused to work. Other families resorted to stealing from their neighbors, claiming such criminal acts were justified because of the society’s communal nature. The crops that were planted were neglected, food supplies spoiled and resources were wasted as the colonists refused to take ownership of their “common” responsibilities.

The first Thanksgiving, held in 1621, was less of a celebration, and more of a final meal ahead of the inevitable decline into winter. It was viewed by many, including Bradford, as a solemn occasion marking what they thought were the final days of a dying community.

As a group the Pilgrims endured the winter, but after continued famine and another disappointing harvest in 1622, Bradford reexamined his vision for the struggling community. The families in the colony “began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop,” wrote Bradford.

The solution has proven to be a testament to the power of individual liberty.

Each family received a parcel of land, and was told that the crop they harvested on their own land was theirs do with as they saw fit. For the first time since founding Plymouth Colony, individuals would be entirely responsible for their own success or failure.

The colonists quickly learned that allowing individuals to pursue their own self-interest actually helps create prosperity for all. Colonists who couldn’t produce a suitable harvest began exchanging their skills for corn from their neighbors — many of whom had more than enough corn to share with those in need. Commerce erupted in Plymouth, and within just a year the region was producing such a crop surplus that the colony was able to begin exporting its goods.

William Bradford did more than simply lead the colonists at Plymouth into better times — he unleashed the spirit of entrepreneurship and free markets upon the New World.

“Instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford wrote, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”

The prosperity for which we are thankful today would be impossible without the individual freedoms adopted in 1623 on the rugged shores of Massachusetts.

That “freedom to fail” that saved the colony was Bradford’s gift to the generations that followed — and for that reason we continue to give thanks every year for the family, freedoms and prosperity we enjoy today.

To you and yours, I wish you a very blessed Thanksgiving.

Warm regards,

Sharon J. Rossie
NPRI President

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