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 Georgists:

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 Plymouth order.

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.