Jerry Bower: Lessons From A Capitalist Thanksgiving

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Bowyer is chief economist of BenchMark Financial Network and a CNBC contributor.]

It's astonishing and a little horrifying that America's elites know so little about their country's history. Case in point: Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. Jared is an influential left-ish economic polemicist and a sometime adviser to Barack Obama on economic affairs. I've debated with Jared dozens of times over the past several years, but what happened this week was especially disturbing.

On Monday night, I told Larry Kudlow about the story of the first Thanksgiving.

I explained that the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of abundance after a period of socialism and starvation. It seems Bernstein never heard about this chapter in U.S. history; he called it an "exercise in revisionist history." Admitting that he had never read the memoirs of Plymouth governor William Bradford, he nevertheless dismissed the story as untrue. But the facts are undeniable, and there is nothing to revise. Bradford's historical accounts, which I quote below, have been read by schoolchildren for over 300 years.

The members of the Plymouth colony had arrived in the New World with a plan for collective property ownership. Reflecting the current opinion of the aristocratic class in the 1620s, their charter called for farmland to be worked communally and for the harvests to be shared.

"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."

You probably will not be surprised to hear that the colonists starved. Men were unwilling to work to feed someone else's children. Women were unwilling to cook for other women's husbands. Fields lay largely untilled and unplanted.

"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 well brook it."

Famine came as soon as they ate through their provisions. After famine came plague. Half the colony died. Unlike most socialists, they learned from their mistakes, giving each person a parcel of land to tend to for themselves.

"At length, after much debate of things, the Governor ... gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end."

The results were overwhelmingly beneficial. Men worked hard, even though before they had constantly pleaded illness. Fields were not only tilled and planted but also diligently harvested. Colonists traded with the surrounding Indian nation and learned to plant maize, squash and pumpkin and to rotate these crops from year to year. The harvest was bountiful, and new colonists immigrated to the thriving settlement....
Read entire article at Forbes.com

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/3/2008

I admit that it was not kosher on my part to express incredulity on learning the revisionist (anti-communal) version of Plymouth story, since I had never heard of the story itself before.
I just smelled an anti-socialist rat so distinctively and, as it follows from Mr.Bangs' comment, I turned to be right (as it happened before on so many other issues, which I had insufficient knowledge about.)
It's not that I'm a oracle or something, but on some reason or another every time one hears/reads almost any theoretical generalization advanced by the pundist/zealots of ultra-capitalism, one can reject that generalization without risking much contradiction to empirical data.
That's one of my life-time observations.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 12/2/2008

I was thinking I'd avoid much comment on misconceptions of Pilgrim history this year; but here we go again.

Jerry Bowyer ridicules Larry Kudlow for being ignorant of an interpretation of the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving of 1621 that he claims is the true truth that all schoolchildren used to know. This wondrous message is that communalism doesn't work and individualistic private property is preferable. While that may be true, to hang it on the Pilgrim story is merely unhistorical propaganda. The Pilgrims did not arrive "in the New World with a plan for collective property ownership." They arrived under contract for seven years during which the colony was mortgaged to the company of investors (to which the colonists themselves belonged as partners because their presence and labor in the colony was counted as a share). During the seven years, all profit and property was owned by the mortgage holders as a group, until at the end of the term everything was to be liquidated so that the loans could be paid off and surplus could be distributed proportionally according to the amount of a person's investment. So the system the colonists were working in was entirely capitalistic.

Many years later, William Bradford inaccurately described the early years as having included a rejection of communalism, the point being that the Pilgrims in this version had already discovered by experience that the new ideas of the Levellers and of Samuel Gorton would not work. So Bradford was retrospectively constructing history as a lesson useful for the moment of his writing (in the 1640s), even though his own primary sources (from 1619-1627) contradicted this slant. Bradford included verbatim texts of letters that discussed the terms of finance when the colony was being planned. These sources clarify the terms of the capital investment in the colony, and how the loans were to be paid by liquidation of the common assets of the colony at the end of the term.

Further, Mr.Bowyer's pompous put-down of his opponent for not knowing the true story of Thanksgiving (1621) has an aspect of oddity. The quotations from Bradford he uses do not refer to Thanksgiving (1621), but to an alteration in land distribution in 1623, by which the colonists ceased rotating land use and decided to keep the same land assignments for several years. But there was no private land ownership in the colony before the end of 1627, when the colony's debts were re-negotiated. And the Pilgrims did not die of plague following consumption of supplies. Those who died in the first three months died of "the scurvy and other diseases."

Mr. Bowyer is recycling a libertarian article that is among the a-historical interpretations of Thanksgiving that I have commented on before. See, for example, www.sail1620.org -- for my review article, "Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce."

See you next year! (By then, I hope my long book on this will have been published - Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners - Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation. The ms. is finished.)