WSJ Editorial: How the Pilgrims Made Progress

Roundup: Talking About History

The textbooks don't explain why the Pilgrims had only a meager harvest in 1621, so we will. For their first two years in Plymouth, the settlers conducted an experiment in communalism. It wasn't until 1623 that they divided the land into private plots and could look forward to the kind of bounty that many of us enjoyed yesterday. In his "History of Plimoth Plantation," the colony's governor, William Bradford, wrote about how the settlers studied human nature and laid the foundation for true Thanksgiving:

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 so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number....

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 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; and 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 (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....

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 11/30/2005

It's worth remembering that it was ca. 1646 when William Bradford wrote his recollection of the decision to alter the Plymouth colonists' experiments in land distribution. Bradford's context was the social unrest arising from the actions of Samuel Gorton, John Lilburne, and the Levellers. The WSJ oversimplifies when asserting that the colonists replaced communalism with private property. Bradford talks instead about assigning plots to be farmed by specific family groups on a non-rotating basis - "only for present use (but made no divission for inheritance)." Single males were assigned to work within a family. Their grumbling about how unfair it was that they should work to support other people's wives and children was evidently discounted in favor of community cohesion. Until 1627, when a limited group of "purchasers" among the colonists bought the responsibility for the colony's debts in exchange for a monopoly on trade with the Indians for furs, the entire colony, including the colonists' labor and products,was mortgaged to the consortium of investors, most of whom were in London. Thus no private, free-hold property existed in the colony before 1627. Private property began in Plymouth not in 1623 but in 1628. The rearrangement of land distribution in 1623 did not grant property but non-rotating usage rights. Bradford used his recollection of this administrative shift (which was a shift within the constrictions of a completely capitalist system) as the base upon which he could construct a propagandistic comment aimed at the social circumstances of the 1640's. But he did not distort the past as much as the WSJ, which to make a capitalist, private-property point, misleads in its first sentence with the a priori assertion that the 1621 harvest was "meagre." Bradford in the 1640's talks of the "small harvest they had"; Edward Winslow, in 1621, says "our corn [wheat] did prove well, and, God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown." Bradford, viewing the harvest in combination with fishing and hunting summarizes that "all the summer there was no want." Moreover, he says that the food supply in the fall of 1621 "made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not fained, but true reports."