November 23, 2017


The Pilgrims' Financial Crisis (Peter Ferrara, 11.26.08, American Spectator)

By 1623, four additional ships of settlers had arrived. The colony had initially prospered just collecting wild growing food, and securing plentiful game such as turkeys and deer providing venison, supplemented by their own agriculture. Given their religious devotion, their concern for personal wealth was not a top issue for them, and even in that time idealistic notions of communal property and sharing communal resources as offering an ideal society of happiness had a strong appeal for those striking out to start a new civilization from scratch.

But as the colony grew, this initial quasi-socialist community of share and share alike was not working to produce enough for essential basic needs, let alone the prosperity that was expected in the new world. Available wild supplies of food, in particular, were no longer enough. Bradford again wrote in his dairy,

All this while no supply [of wild corn] 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 thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefist amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things go 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....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.

As indicated, this experiment in private agriculture was hugely successful, with the colony's agricultural output soaring. But the settlers still increasingly complained that the colony's remaining communal practices and lack of complete private property were constraining and unfair. Bradford wrote further in his diary in 1623,

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 of 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 labor 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....Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course [meaning communal policy] itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Thus was capitalism born in America, sentimental notions of socialism having been tried and failed, not only as a matter of economics, but also because it was seen as a regime of unjust restrictions on personal liberty. The colony adopted private property and free trade, ending its own critical financial crisis, and creating the trademark bountiful American prosperity, which drew waves of new settlers seeking the American dream that had already been born.

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{originally posted: 11/26/08]

Posted by at November 23, 2017 12:26 AM