Did Communism Nearly Wipe Out the Plymouth Pilgrims?
The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony evokes images of a harmonious, even miraculous gathering; the blending of cultures, and a celebration of the blessings of Heaven. But that is the happy ending. The harsh truth of tiny Plymouth Colony was not so agreeable. The spirit of community, taken to its extreme in the midst of intense survival pressures, nearly wiped the Pilgrims out before they could plant, harvest, or give thanks at all.
When the Mayflower arrived in what would be called Plymouth Bay Colony, or New Plymouth, it was late in the Autumn of 1620, and winter was closing in. By the time its passengers had surveyed the land, secured their scant provisions, and abandoned the darkness and stink of the Mayflower’s lower decks, snow had hit the New England coast.
The colonists had stayed aboard the Mayflower for several weeks after reaching North America while the coast was reconnoitered and a suitable place to settle was found. Ironically, after losing only one man during the trans-Atlantic voyage, once the Mayflower took anchor, infections and vermin stalked the dank living decks of the ship, and men, women, and children daily began to succumb to the filth and disease. Water and food were severely rationed, but beset with fear and weakness, disembarking the ship and setting up shelters on land seemed too great a task. But the the model of communal living the passengers of the Mayflower reckoned was their only security, actually threatened their very survival.
The Mayflower Compact was not an enumeration of laws, but a covenant made by the members of the colony to establish civil laws, and combine in a cooperative effort to secure the “general good” of one another. The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 11, 1620, was a contract designed to bind the Pilgrims together as they confronted the brutal conditions threatening their isolated and tiny company.
The colonists, because of a lack of ready resources and increasingly harsh weather, quickly erected a “common house” shared by all until other, single-family, quarters could be built. The colonists, through ignorance or desperation, failed to understand that the pathogens and parasites that plagued them on the Mayflower, would be carried into this new community space where, again, they would dwell in close quarters. The cramped decks of the Mayflower were merely being recreated in the little settlement in the form of a 20 x 20 ft. common dwelling.
Sickness, scurvy, and exposure, by midwinter 1621, had wiped out fully half of those who had sailed from England. The problems with the communal model at Plymouth Colony continued after the winter of 1621. The deeply spiritual Puritans believed in the principles of sharing and sacrifice not as merely economic considerations, but as Godly directives. They wanted to fulfill the promise they had made to help one another survive.
Governor Bradford established a “communistic” economy under which the Colonists were to function. Bradford and his agents set up a community “storehouse” through which food was strictly rationed to each family. Many of the Colonists were weak and incapacitated and the few who could work began to complain that they alone bore the burdens of the rest. Some who felt that their rations were insufficient took to stealing from the others. Since each family of Plymouth had been assigned a little plot of land, and their means and form of production were highly controlled by the Bradford’s government, the Harvest Feast of 1621 would not have been remarkable at all that had the Wampanoag Natives not been so generous with their offerings of wild game.
It took Plymouth Colony until 1623 to realize the advantages of the free market system in crop production. After the deadly winter of 1620-21 and a couple of anemic years that followed, the colonists determined that maximizing their crop production, and deregulating the farms themselves, yielded better results than centralized planning and communal living. Governor Bradford later reflected upon the Plymouth experiment in Socialism:
“The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tired sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; –that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in communitie into a comone wealth would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontente, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and service did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in divission of victails and cloaths, than he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victuals, cloaths, etc., with the meaner and younger sorte, thought it some indignite and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to doe service for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brooke it. “
The leaders of Plymouth reconsidered…
“All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they [the pilgims] begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length after much debate of things, the Gov. (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set downe every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves… And so assigned to every family a parceel of land. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Gov. or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledge weakness, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and opression.”
The best, most moral economic system ever devised, is Free-Market Capitalism. The ideal and central unit of a healthy society is the nuclear family, governed by parents who act in the interests of that family. Governor Bradford his colonists cannot be faulted their failed experiments in communism. But it would prove an insult to the legacy of the Puritans if their descendants failed to learn from their tragic errors. In extreme survival situations communities pull together, and that’s a good thing. However, family units, living apart from one another in their own homes, provide a natural barrier to the spread of contagions. And the family, with parents working in the best interests of the children they love, are most blessed by a the freedom and potential of Capitalism.
The Plymouth Colonists have left an invaluable legacy in both history and principle. We can learn from their courage. We can learn from their devotion to the idea of free religious expression. And, we can learn from their mistakes.
By Marjorie Haun 11/24/13