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the plymouth experiment

(original title ?thanksgiving)

by: kim weissman

november 28, 1999




this week the nation once again celebrated thanksgiving, 379 years after the pilgrims established their colony at plymouth plantation in 1620. this year, as in many years past, schoolchildren across the nation have spent the few days before the holiday talking about turkeys and pilgrims, making lists of what they are thankful for, and a fair share have been brainwashed by politically correct ?and false ?revisionist history of the first thanksgiving in 1621.


that first thanksgiving, they have been told, came about because the pilgrims, incompetent farmers that they were, nearly starved to death in that first winter on the hostile shores of the new continent. the following spring, the kindly local indians showed them how to plant crops and hunt wild game, and when the fall rolled around and the harvest was gathered, the pilgrims were so pleased with their bountiful crops that they held a celebration to thank the indians for saving their lives.


that thanks, as the tale unfolds, soon turned to genocide as, in later years, the evil white europeans turned their firearms on the indians who, being peace-loving and unfamiliar with such fearful weapons of destruction, were driven from the ancestral lands which they had tended in supreme harmony with nature. the history of our nation was all downhill from there. very satisfying to the politically correct, hitting all the high points which children must know: ungrateful white intruders from europe, malicious use of firearms, and peaceful and magnanimous indians victimized by religious zealots. nice and satisfying to some. and for the most part, incontrovertibly false.


the pilgrims, of course, were not the first europeans to venture onto this continent. columbus came here more than a century earlier, and the natives he first encountered were the carib tribe, who were cannibals. and evidence discovered several years ago points to a european presence on this continent which may have dated back 9000 years before that (pre-dating, incidentally, today's self-proclaimed "native americans"). later, european fishing vessels and fur trappers and traders made frequent visits to these shores and gave the frequent visits to these shores and gave the indians, among other things, a knowledge of firearms.


according to the diary of william bradford, the sometime governor of plymouth plantation (of plymouth plantation, 1620-1647), the pilgrims encountered many indian tribes when they landed here; some friendly, some not so friendly, and some hostile and perfectly willing to attack the pilgrims ?which they often did ?with the firearms they had obtained from the earlier traders. bradford wrote that some of the tribes were already hostile to each other when the pilgrims arrived, and some had been engaged in inter-tribal warfare for years. often it was because the pilgrims allied themselves with one tribe that they were attacked by another, hostile to the first. there was in fact an excess of barbarity on all sides. but now to that first deadly winter at on all sides. but now to that first deadly winter at plymouth plantation, and the subsequent feast of thanks.


before leaving europe the pilgrims entered into a contract, dated july 1, 1620, with the merchant investors (called the "adventurers") who financed the trip. that contract provided,


"the persons transported and the adventurers shall continue their joint stock and partnership together, the space of seven years…during which time all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain in the common stock until division."


the contract further provided,


"that at the end of the seven years, the capital and profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt the adventurers and planters; which done, every man shall be free from other of them of any debt or detriment concerning this adventure."


in short, the pilgrims agreed to establish a commune, with all property and the fruits of all labor contributed into a common pool to be divided equally among the pilgrims for their daily survival, and between the pilgrims and the financiers at the end of the seven year contract. they called their arrangement a "commonwealth", because all wealth ? the product of their labors ?was held in common, and there was no private property to speak of. the modern term for this is socialism. even back then they had a word for it which we know today, derived from the concept of commonly owned property: communism. the arrangement was no more successful in the 17th century than it has been in our own century. human nature being what it is, even among the pious pilgrims, those who work and produce grow resentful when the fruits of their labor are taken and given over to those who do not work, in shares equal to their own, with no reward for their own hard labor.


the first winter was indeed a time of privation and death for the pilgrims, for the simple reasons that they had landed in the new continent too late in the season for planting crops, and without sufficient time and energy following their debilitating voyage to construct housing adequate to protect them from the fast approaching new england winter. half of them died.


the following spring they planted, hunted, and fished to provision the small colony. their harvest that fall was barely sufficient to meet the needs of the frugal pilgrims. every day they looked to god for salvation, and following that first harvest they gave thanks for their survival. but they did not give thanks to the indians ?even contemplating such an idea would have been a sacrilege to such devoutly religious people ?they gave thanks to their lord who had spared them and provided for them. bradford wrote, "and thus they found the lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let his holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity."


bradford, writing in 1621 regarding their first harvest (and his only commentary on the first thanksgiving),


"they began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. all the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterwards decreased by degrees). and besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, indian corn to that proportion. which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in england, which were not feigned but true reports."


one pilgrim, edward winslow, wrote to a friend in england describing the celebration of that first harvest, by letter dated december 11, 1621,


"our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. they four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. at which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. and they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor and upon the captain and others."


the pilgrims did invite friendly local indians to join in their feast, and those indians, as any courteous guest would do at that time of meager provisions, and as we often do today when we are invited to someone's home, brought food to contribute to the feast.


but the harvests were not as abundant as they might have been, and governor bradford and the leading citizens were troubled. they still depended on trade and supply ships for a significant portion of their provisions, and given the nature of seaborne travel in those days, the arrival of those ships was erratic. they barely produced enough food to sustain themselves, and much of their labor went into hunting and fishing, so as to supplement their own needs and to be able to send some furs and salted fish back to pay the debts owed to their financiers in europe. so the leaders of the colony gathered together, and after much debate they decided to make a fundamental change in the way their colony was organized. they had found the system of communism to be terribly harmful, and so they replaced it with a system of private property. in 1623 bradford wrote a lengthy passage into his diary describing their momentous decision to allow, as he put it, every man to work "for his own particular", to work his own crops on his own land:


"all this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. so they 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. at length, after much debate of things, the governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves ... 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. the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. 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 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. the strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could, this was thought injustice. ?and for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands brook it. upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that god hath set amongst men, yet it did at least diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them."


more than a century and a half later, in 1790, an american named james wilson wrote a treatise titled lectures on law. wilson was a signer of the declaration of independence in 1776, a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1787, and was later appointed by president george washington as an associate justice of the u.s. supreme court. in his 1790 work, wilson wrote,


"…all commerce [in plymouth] was carried on in one joint stock. all things were common to all, and the necessaries of life were daily distributed from the public store?. the colonists were sometimes in danger of starving; and severe whipping, which was often administered to promote labor, was only productive of constant and general discontent... . the introduction of exclusive property immediately produced the most comfortable change in the colony, by engaging the affections and invigorating the pursuits of its inhabitants."


the benefit of private property and the destructive effects of socialism were quickly recognized by the pilgrims, and they survived because of those discoveries. those lessons were taken to heart by our founders and enshrined in our constitution. yet too many people today continue to ignore those lessons. the persistent attempts to impose socialist plans and welfare-state wealth redistribution in our country, attacks on private property and individual achievement, the provocation of class envy, and the efforts to instill those ideas in our children through mis-education and demagoguery, continue to cause untold damage and mischief. all spawned by those ideologues who consider themselves smarter than anyone else; those who, as bradford put it, have the "vanity of that conceit…as if they were wiser than god".


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