Socialism doesn’t work. Just ask the Pilgrims.
Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, but few perhaps understand their early experiment with socialism and how its failure led them to embrace individual-driven capitalism.
Dr. Judd W. Patton, professor of economics at Bellevue University (Nebraska), tracks the development of the Pilgrims’ settling of New England and their brief flirtation with socialism in an op-ed titled “The Pilgrim Story: Vital Insights and Lessons for Today.”
According to Patton, the Pilgrims began in England as Puritan Separatists, Christians so dissatisfied with the Church of England that they decided to separate from it. Persecuted by the English government, a group of about 100 fled to Holland.
“But it soon became apparent that their new homeland was far from ideal,” Patton wrote. “They also feared that a European war was on the horizon. Thus, after much discussion, they voted to go to America.”
Since the Pilgrims did not have enough funds to outfit for the journey and establish a colony, they sought help from the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, companies known as “adventurers,” which were organized to fund and equip colonial enterprises.
One of the key points of the contract between the Pilgrims and the Adventurers said that all colonists were to get their food, clothing, drink and provisions from the colony’s “common stock and goods.” In addition, during the first seven years, all profits earned by colonists would go into the “common stock” until they were divided.
“Today we would call this a socialist commune,” Patton wrote. “In other words, the Pilgrims accepted the socialist principle, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ Each person was to place his production into the common warehouse and receive back, through the Governor, only what he needed for himself or his family. The surplus after seven years was to be divided equally, along with the houses, lands, and chattels, ‘betwixt the Adventurers and Planters.’”
The Pilgrims actually wanted to own their own lands and homes and to work two days a week for their own gain, but the adventurers would not allow it.
Once the agreement was signed, two ships were outfitted for the journey, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But the Speedwell proved unseaworthy, so everyone still willing to make the journey—102 persons—crowded aboard the Mayflower and set sail.
Patton wrote that after landing on Dec 21, 1620, the Pilgrims suffered horribly their first winter, with around half the colonists perishing. Aid from the now-famous native, Squanto, helped them survive with new planting techniques, but the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were still small.
The colony’s governor, William Bradford, wrote that its socialist philosophy greatly hindered its growth: Young men resented working for the benefit of other men’s wives and children without compensation; healthy men who worked thought it unjust that they received no more food than weak men who could not; wives resented doing household chores for other men, considering it a kind of slavery.
Governor Bradford wrote that to avoid famine in 1623, the Pilgrims abandoned socialism, Patton said.
“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 things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land,” Bradford wrote.
The colonists, each of whom now had to grow their own food, suddenly became very industrious, with women and children who earlier claimed weakness now going into the fields to plant corn. Three times the amount of corn was planted that year under the new system.
When a drought threatened the year’s harvest, Governor Bradford called a day of fasting and prayer to “seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer in this great distress.” God answered that same night with rain that continued in coming days, and the year brought a plentiful harvest.
“By the fall of 1624, the colonists were able to export a full boat load of corn!” Patton wrote. “And the Pilgrims settled with the Adventurers. They purchased the Adventurers stock in the colony and completed the transition to private property and free markets.”
And the Pilgrims learned a valuable lesson about socialism and hard work.