Thanksgiving Story: The Pilgrims, Socialism, and Free Enterprise

The story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and Thanksgiving is widely taught in all our schools.  What is seldom taught, however, is what those Pilgrims learned, at great pain, about Free Enterprise versus Socialism. That story stands as perhaps the clearest and starkest-ever comparison between those two rival systems for human interaction.

We all know how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in November, 1620, and how they lost half their population to starvation, sickness, and exposure that first winter. We all know how a Native American named Squanto taught the survivors to fish, plant corn, use fertilizer, and hunt deer. And we know that following their first harvest, Governor William Bradford (above) declared a day of Thanksgiving that we celebrate to this day.

What most of us never learned was that the original contract the Pilgrims brokered with their London sponsors required that everything the Pilgrims produced was to go into a common store, and every member was to be allotted one equal share.  Further, all the land they cleared and all the buildings they constructed were to belong the whole community.

It must have sounded like the ideal society.  Free of outside evil influences, greed and personal property were to be banished.  Everyone was to work for the common good, and altruism was to be its own reward.

How did it work out?  Horribly.  In the three winters of 1621-1623, many died from starvation, pneumonia, or both.  Here is Governor Bradford’s own summary of the community’s results with what we now call Socialism:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth 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 much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their 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, said the Governor, it simply didn’t work.

Wisely, in April, 1623, Bradford abruptly abandoned the idealistic practice of collectivism. Instead, he assigned a plot of land to each family, permitting them to keep everything they grew or made and to market anything they didn’t consume themselves.  He actually harnessed all that awful ”greed” and put it to work in a Free Enterprise system.  Bradford had discovered that even these most idealistic of peoples had no reason to put in any extra effort without the motivation of personal incentives to do so.

So how did Free Enterprise work out for the same people in the same place under the same circumstances?  Boffo!

The Pilgrims soon had more food than they could eat or trade amongst themselves.  So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Native Americans.  They paid off their debts to their London sponsors and soon attracted a great European migration.

As Bradford summarized the new approach:

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 or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.

This was an essential and timeless lesson, learned the hard way.   So why isn’t this lesson featured up front, in neon lights, in American history classes?  Why isn’t it the lead story of the Pilgrim experience?   Perhaps it’s because the people who write our history textbooks still don’t want to believe it.  Perhaps those authors still cling to the hope that some form of Socialism will one day triumph over Free Enterprise.   Unfortunately for those authors, the historical record couldn’t be clearer, and the Pilgrims’ experience is Exhibit One:  when it comes to bettering the life of the common man, Free Enterprise works — and Socialism fails.

For more than 3000 years at Passover, Jews around the world have been re-telling the story of their deliverance from slavery, and for over 2000 years at Easter, Christians have been re-telling the story of their redemption.  Now that it’s been nearly 400 years since the Pilgrims landed in America, perhaps we could begin re-telling the real story of Thanksgiving every year, headlining those life-and-death lessons the Pilgrims learned about the differences between Socialism and Free Enterprise.

[Originally posted at, January 26, 2011]


  1. So, how come the Republucans in the legislature got me to pay for their buddy, Bill Bidwell’s, stadium? Sounds like the republicans are the socialists, doesn’t it? Jeff Grosscost and his buddies had me pay for his SUV, through the alt fuels program. I am all for eradicating socialism, and in Arizona, it starts with that radical socialist party, the Republican party,that believes in public funding of sports facilities, and in handing out public funds to your cronies. Let’s dismantle that party and replace it with a real fiscally conservative pro free enterprise party, without all the baggage.

    • Hi, Bill — Thanks for the comment — I’m beginning to come around to your point of view. Big Government Republicans are only marginally better than Democrats. They spout the right message from time to time, but their actions don’t match. I’m not sure what to do about it. As long as the old bulls of the GOP are running things, investing still more time, energy, and money in the GOP seems futile.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I wish there was a way right now to get the real story in the textbooks. I’m usually angering my liberal sister by making sure my nieces know our corrected history, as opposed to such versions that are being taught as this Thanksgiving story post points out.

    • Thanks, A.

      I can tell you first hand that I was not taught this version of the Pilgrim story in my history classes in the 1960’s. It certainly wasn’t in the textbooks we used. I think my US History teacher did say something about it in passing, but all I really cared about in high school was math & science. I didn’t care too much about politics for a long time — I just blindly voted Democrat like the rest of my family — until Jimmy Carter’s era — that’s when I began to think my “default party” was no longer the party of JFK!

      Bill Bennett wrote a fine history of the United States a few years ago. I bought it. But remarkably, he too left the “lesson learned” part of the Pilgrim story out of his text. Strange … but it shows how important parts of history can get lost or distorted if they’re not told and re-told.

      Oh, well, too soon old, too late smart, eh?

      The one good thing about Barack Obama and his entourage is that they have awakened many people — not enough yet — maybe not enough ever — but the battle surrounding socialism vs free enterprise is not yet over.

  3. The failure of Socialism as the Pilgrims experienced is widely known (I presume). The failure of Socialism under the Russian Empire during Stalin’s reign is widely known (I presume), the failure of Socialism under the Weimar Republic is widely known (I presume).
    But why hasn’t China under Socialism hasn’t collapsed yet, and is able to bail out the Greatest Country on Earth out with consistent loans?
    Why did Germany under the leadership of the 3rd Reich with its National Socialism was able to go from a 50% UN-imployment (1933) rate to a 110% Employment rate in less than 3 years (1936) to a need to hire Guest workers from Italy and Poland?
    Why does Socialism in North Korea and North Vietnam not collapse?
    For those of us who desire to participate in such a discussion must at least form an opinion on the subject post and not whine about a tax levy the public was encouraged to vote on.
    What I mean to say is, one will always get a good American dad to vote whatever levy on his house taxes to have him get his son to sit in a sky box to see Micki Mantel do a home run or spike the ball or whatever be the hero on a football field or baseball diamond as the case may be.
    Gosh, they would even vote to pay to build a NASCAR racing ring right here in Glendale.
    As an Economist, and I consider myself to be one of those I say without hesitation: “anything that need to be subsidized by the general public is not worth having”
    After saying so, under the right circumstances Socialism can work, and one can get the beggars off the street and achieve general prosperity. I have seen it and I suspect China, North Korea and North Vietnam operate that way.
    Knowing the North American Culture, I doubt it will ever be possible here.

    • Always at the cost of liberty, my friend.

    • Many of the beggers on the street are there because they do not want to work. When I had my business I offered them work time and again, Needless to say not one ever showed up. I am not saying all are like that, but a good number are. As far as China how much news actually comes out of the Country? No women for marriage, no modern conveinces, no lights after dark the trivial things do count too, but I like their Immigration policy, try sneaking into that Country.

  4. Hey, what kind of economic system did the Native Americans live under before the Pilgrims came to North America?

    Maybe its not that “socialism” failed, but that our white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant forebears were either incompetent or greedy (or both!) to implement it properly.

    Sure would explain their later treatment of the Natives who saved their asses.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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