It had been the tradition of this column every year at this time to relate the story of Thanksgiving. I am grateful to Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute for its interest in continuing that tradition. For source material, I rely on the accounts of William Bradford, longtime governor of the Plymouth Colony, first published in 1856. ("Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647" by William Bradford, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison.)
Most Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day off from school or work, a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate with a huge feast. If children know anything about the origins of this national holiday, declared each year by presidential proclamation, it's that the Pilgrims, grateful for a bountiful harvest in their new land, set aside this day to give thanks.
Adults may be equally uninformed. They may know something of the hardships encountered by the Pilgrims, a group of English separatists who came to the New World to escape religious persecution. What they probably don't know, because it is not a part of the politically correct public school curriculum, is how these immigrants overcame huge obstacles to prosper in their new land.
The Pilgrims' first winters after they landed at Plymouth in December of 1620 were difficult. The weather was harsh, living conditions inadequate, and crop yields poor. Of the 102 people who set sail for America on the Mayflower, half died in the first three months after they arrived. Those who lived went hungry. Despite their deep religious convictions, the Pilgrims took to stealing from one another.
Finally, in the spring of 1623, Governor Bradford and the others "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery," according to Bradford's history.
One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with from England was a practice known as "farming in common" (the "common course and condition" to Bradford). Everything produced became community property, to be allocated according to need as specified in the Mayflower Compact.
They had thought "the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing," Bradford writes. Instead, "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." Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation, which they saw as an "injustice."
After three winters of near-starvation, Bradford and his advisors decided to experiment when it came time for the spring planting. They set aside a plot of land for each family "that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard to trust to themselves."
"This had very good success," Bradford writes, "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."
The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property, eventually producing enough to trade their surplus corn for furs and other commodities.
Grateful for their ample harvest in 1623, the Pilgrims set aside a day of thanksgiving. "Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them to this day," Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the final year of his history.
Once the colonists grasped the importance of property rights, they were quick to apply the principle. In 1624, they petitioned Governor Bradford for a "portion of land given them for continuance" instead of on a yearly basis. That way, those who worked hard to improve the soil on their land one year stood to benefit, personally, from higher crop yields the next year.
In 1623 and 1624, the Pilgrims were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, are regarded as the basis for a free, productive and prosperous society. At this time, with our personal freedom compromised by enhanced security against terrorist threats and our economic freedom challenged by government actions in the wake of the financial crisis, we must never lose sight of what it is that made this country great.
Caroline Baum is a contributor to e21. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Interested in real economic insights? Want to stay ahead of the competition? Each weekday morning, e21 delivers a short email that includes e21 exclusive commentaries and the latest market news and updates from Washington. Sign up for the e21 Morning eBrief.