The Pilgrims’ first winter in the New World had been a harsh one. The wheat the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky New England soil. Nearly half the colonists died.
But the survivors were hard-working and tenacious, and -- with the help of an English-speaking Wampanoag named Tisquantum (starting a long tradition of refusing to learn three-syllable words, the Pilgrims dubbed him “Squanto”) -- they learned how to cultivate corn by using fish for fertilizer, how to dig and cook clams, how to tap the maples for sap. And so they were able to thank the Creator for an abundant harvest that second autumn in a new land.
The only problem with the tale, unfortunately, is that it’s not true.
Yes, the Indians did graciously show the new settlers how to raise beans and corn. But in a November 1985 article in The Free Market, a monthly publication of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, author and historian Richard J. Marbury pointed out: “This official story is ... a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.”
In his “History of Plymouth Plantation,” the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years because they refused to work in the fields, preferring to steal. Gov. Bradford recalled for posterity that the colony was riddled with “corruption and discontent.” The crops were small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”
Although in the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622 “all had their hungry bellies filled,” that relief was short-lived, and deaths from illness because of malnutrition continued.
Then, Mr. Marbury points out, “something changed.” By harvest time, 1623, Gov. Bradford was reporting that, “Instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.” Why, by 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists actually began exporting corn.
What on earth had transpired?
It was simple enough. In 1623 Gov. Bradford simply “gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.”
Previously, the Mayflower Compact had required that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”
A person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take out only what he needed -- a concept so attractive on its surface that it would be adopted as the equally disastrous ruling philosophy for all of Eastern Europe some 300 years later.
“A form of communism was practiced at Plymouth in 1621 and 1622,” agrees Tom Bethell of the Hoover Institution in his book “The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages.”
“Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others,” Mr. Bethell notes. But once private ownership was substituted, “Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder.”
They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Yes, America is a bounteous land, but the source of that bounty lies not primarily in the fertility of our soil or the frequency of the rains. There is hardly a more fertile breadbasket on the face of the earth than the Ukraine, where for decades crops rotted in the field under a Soviet administration that allowed no farmer a private profit incentive to hire enough help to get the turnips picked.
No, the source of our bounty is the discovery made by the Pilgrims in 1623, that when individuals are allowed to hold their own land as private property, to eat what they raise and keep the profits from any surplus they sell, hard work is rewarded and thus encouraged, and the entire community enjoys prosperity and plenty.
And so it is that on this Thanksgiving Day we ask God’s continued blessing on America -- a land blessed most of all by our inherited concept of private property rights, the system that allows each to keep the profit of his sweat and toil -- and for this reason the land of peace and plenty, the envy of mankind, the land of the free.
A version of this column first appeared in 1999.