What the Pilgrims Can Teach Our Children About Free Market Economics

Are Free Market principles of economics important to the success of the family in America? Our Pilgrim Fathers thought so.

Four hundred years ago, America’s spiritual founders made a big mistake — a nearly fatal experiment with communism. But the lessons they learned are something for which we can truly be thankful.

Long before Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations, his primer on division of labor, productivity and free markets, Pilgrim Governor William Bradford gave his own take on the relationship between private property, virtue and the the family.

In his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford describes a disastrous two- year experiment in communal living which resulted in slothful men, displaced women, and disrespect between the generations. The viability of the colony was threatened. The Pilgrims eventually abandoned the system in favor of a market-based economy rooted in private property ownership, but only after they made the self-conscious decision to switch economic platforms.

The story begins with the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay Harbor: The conditions are brutal. The weather is relentless. Food is scarce. The danger from the natives is real. To survive they need to build an economy which is sustainable. They adopt and implement a system of communal living described in their July 1620 charter:
“The adventurers & planters doe agree, that every person that goeth being aged 16. years & upward…shall continue their joynt stock & partnership togeather, ye space of 7 years…during which time, all profits & benifits that are gott by trade, traffick, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remaine still in ye comone stock untill ye division.”

An engraved illustration of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving England, from a Victorian book dated 1886 that is no longer in copyright

The practical reality meant that food would be held and distributed in common. There would be no division of labor. Private property ownership was forbidden. The first priority of family members was to serve the community, rather than their own families. Even the women were required to wash clothing and prepare meals for the community.

For some, this might sound like the formula for a Marxist utopia — a Pilgrim kibbutz in which charity, goodwill and prosperity abound.

But there is a resounding economic lesson from history — Communism is self-destructing. It is unsustainable. It is toxic to the human spirit. Efforts by the state to limit property ownership and to dictate the exchange of goods and services in the market inevitably result in both financial and moral decline.
Like all experiments in collectivism, this one failed miserably — so miserably, that by 1623, the impoverished colony was on the verge of famine and extinction.

That might have been the end of the story — Arguably, there might not even be an America as we think of it today or a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but for one thing — redirection. The Pilgrims identified their error and changed their economic policies.

Looking back on their economic disaster, Bradford could see that the root problem was arrogance. When governments restrict private property ownership they are being “wiser than God.”

“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.”

This flawed economic model had a direct impact on virtues which are vital to the success of the family, including self government, hard work and respect for elders.

Even the virtuous Pilgrims began to wonder why they as individuals should have to break their backs for somebody else’s benefit. Wives did not want to work for husbands other than their own. Men had little incentive to lead their individual families to economic success —
“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, neither could many husbands well brook it.”

Bradford observed a spirit of generational disrespect. He disdained that “the aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them,” and “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 much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them…”

The net effect of the poor work ethic and disregard for family social structure was less production, limited specialization, the constant threat of famine, and ultimately community in-fighting and breakdown.

The Solution
The Pilgrim’s response to economic failure is a message to our generation: They did not quit. They identified the issues, made the self-conscious decision to reject wrong thinking, and they changed.

Their answer to the problem was to implement private property ownership, simple principles of limited government and economic freedom. Bradford saw this redirection as the hand of God — “God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

Bradford explains that “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; in all other thing to 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, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family.”

These new policies resulted in prosperity. Bradford explains that “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.”

Thanksgiving background, Harvest vintage and country style

The rejection of communist practices by the Pilgrim fathers was one of the most dramatic shifts in American history of economic policy by a local government. William Bradford and the Separatist leaders made a bold decision that few politicians of our present generation would make — the self-conscious choice to change economic platforms.

The importance of private property is enshrined in two of the Ten Commandments (don’t steal and don’t covet goods), and is fundamental to the virtue and success of a well-ordered society. The God-given incentive for men to enjoy the “fruit of their own labors” is strong. The potential that hard work today can produce a stable family economy tomorrow motivates. These are economic principles for which we can be thankful.

This Thanksgiving take a moment and thank God for the Pilgrims’ legacy of economic freedom. Remember that America had an experiment in communism. It failed. There is no need to repeat it. Remember also that economic failure can be reversed when men are willing to make courageous changes.