Not everything we are taught in school is accurate. In school, as in the papers, when truth and legend vie with each other, too often the legend wins out.
Take Thanksgiving. I was taught that it was all about the Pilgrims, and their bounty coming from helpful Squanto and other Indians. Nice story. Great legend. Racial harmony and a big fat turkey, all in one gulp.
But the truth is that George Washington declared Thanksgiving as a holiday for reasons arising from the birth pangs of the nation. Less Pilgrim, more Constitution. His Thanksgiving dedication was the first presidential proclamation — and one that contains a curious “downer” element often missing in today’s stabs at presidential piety. Washington asked that the people “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions. . . .”
That’s the first Thanksgiving.
The tale of a racially harmonious Pilgrim Thanksgiving was invented, later, by a well-meaning educator. The truth about the Pilgrims’ travails was something I was never taught in school. I was told that the governor of the Plymouth colony was William Bradford, however, and his historical account of the colony was available to me. But I never read it until Project Gutenberg put it just a few clicks away.
William Bradford’s History of “Plimoth Plantation” recounts how his fellow Pilgrim settlers established, endured, barely survived, recovered, and eventually thrived in Massachusetts. And it does indeed contain a message of thanksgiving and hope. But it’s not the one I was taught.
By the spring of 1623 — a little over three years after first settlement in Plymouth — things were going badly. Bradford writes (and I update his spelling) of the tragic situation:
[M]any sold away their clothes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to the Indians, and would cut them wood and fetch them water, for a cap full of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both night and day, from the Indians, of which they grievously complained. In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved and died with cold and hunger.
The problem? The colony had been engaging in something very like communism.
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 Platos and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser then God.
Bradford relates the consequences of common property:
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. 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 mens wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, then he that was weak and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, clothes, and., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men . . . they deemed it a kind of slavery. . . .
Yes, the s-word: Slavery. Common property was mutual slavery.
The solution? The plan for society that Bradford attributed to God. He brooked no pleading that common property didn’t work because of sin. As he put it, “seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” The course? I’ll use a word of coined by Robert Poole, one of the founders of Reason magazine: Privatization.
What the Pilgrims privatized was land, and the fruits thereof, assigning to
every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. 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 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 alleged weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
Thus began the years of bounty in Massachusetts. There’s much more in Bradford’s account worth reading, including the increasingly tragic relations with the native Americans. Racial harmony was not the order of that day, alas. One learns from reading such firsthand accounts how imperfect a creature is man.
But it is obvious that some systems of property and governance work better than others, and, on the day that our government has set forth as a day of Thanksgiving, and every day, it is worth being thankful for living in a land that has upheld — to at least some degree — the system of private property that America’s Pilgrims learned to see as God’s “fitter course” for corruptible man, and that has served as the foundation for our political and economic liberties.
It’s worth noting how corruptible government is, too, though. George Washington could sincerely give thanks “for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge.” If it’s a little harder to give thanks, today, for the “peaceable and rational manner” in which our government carries on its daily business, that’s a reason for something more than thanks. Or gripes.
It’s time to work to correct the errors and insanities of our age, just as the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers corrected theirs.
This column first appeared at Townhall.com on the last Sunday of November, 2011.