The Lesson of the Pilgrims' Experience
Robert V. Andelson
[Reprinted from The Analyst, the publication
of the Henry George Schools of California; November, 1961]
One of the most telling indictments of collectivism ever penned is
the famous passage from Governor William Bradford's History of
Plymouth Plantation, recounting the story of the failure of the
early colonists' experiment with communism. Often quoted to good
purpose by libertarians in arguing the case for individual enterprise,
it has yet another moral, but one which, although equally significant,
is almost always slighted by those who cite the passage.
At the Annual Conference of the Henry George School held this past
July in Hartford. Conn,, it was my privilege to introduce the late Dr.
Glenn E, Hoover, educator, economist, and public servant, who in a
superlatively eloquent address, quoted in full the relevant paragraphs
from Bradford's History. Although he did not expand upon them,
the setting must have made me especially receive to such insights, for
it was while listening to him that for the first time the full force
of the neglected moral came home to me.
I reproduce below the passage in question, leaving intact the
author's quaint phraseology and spelling, but italicizing phrases
usually glossed over which should be especially meaningful to
So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much
come as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done
that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after
much debate of things, the Gov'r (with the advise of the cheefest
amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his
owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all
other things to goe on in the general way as before. And so
assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the
proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but
made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys and
youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made
all hands very industrious, so as more corne was planted then other
waise would have bene by any means the Gov'r or any other could
rase; and save him a great deall of trouble, and; gave farr better
contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and took
their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg
weaknes, and inabilities; whom to have compelled would have been
thought great tiranie and oppression.
The experience that was had in this commone course and condition,
tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may welle
evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other ancients,
applauded by some of later times; - that the taking away of
propertie, and bringing in communitie into a commone wealth, would
make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser than God. For
this communitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much
confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have
been to their benefite and corn-forte. ...
The lesson of the Pilgrim experience is twofold: equality of
condition is no successful basis for a civil society; yet without
equality of access to natural opportunities, individual enterprise can
only be a farce. The colonial elders recognized this latter when,
while abolishing the communal storehouse, they gave each family the
use of a plot of land, guaranteeing the exclusive enjoyment of the
fruits of its improvements but taking care that the ground itself be
never held in perpetuity.
The standard Thankgiving Day homilies do less than justice to the "inspired
common-sense" of these dedicated pioneers. In the wake of their
brief collectivistic misadventure, they reared what may be termed a
microcosmic paradigm of the perfect socio-economic order, an order
ruled by the concept of "a fair field and no favor."
Regrettably, however, only a part of it passed into our national
institutions; the rest was dissipated by the laxity of succeeding
generations and by interference from the Crown.
Those who glory in their Mayflower ancestry, or who delight in paying
homage to the memory of the Pilgrim Fathers, would do well to study
reverently the principles of economic justice which underlay the
We may talk about the virtues of self-reliance, we may consume
mountains of turkey and cranberry sauce, we may even insert the words
"under God" in our pledge of allegiance, but we cannot
regard ourselves as being true to the Pilgrim heritage, until we have
restored these principles to American life.