Ever taken a cruise? Enjoyed the height of luxury and comfort, being waited on 24/7, denied nothing? Thanksgiving begins with such a journey…a ship crossing an ocean…and that’s where the parallels end. Forty men, women and children known as “Separatists” boarded a boat offering zero comfort and fewer promises of survival with sixty-two other passengers on August 1, 1620, headed for the New World. James I, King of England, had made life miserable for Christians. Denied freedom to worship God as they chose, Christians were being persecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes executed for defying the King. To escape King James and the Church of England, these British Separatists went to Holland where they lived for eleven years before boarding the Mayflower, beginning an arduous journey to the unknown. Three- and one-half months of illness, seasickness, and wetness before they would land in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the daily high temperature is 50.7F/10.4C, falling to 40.8F/4.9C at night in an average November. No friends to greet them, no shelter to house them, no inns to refresh themselves, they were greeted by a “cold, desolate, barren wilderness.” (Bradford, W. Of Plimoth Plantation. Manuscript, 1630-1650.) During that first winter, half the Pilgrims died either of starvation, sickness, or exposure. Come spring, those who survived met the indigenous people we know as the Indians, who shared their knowledge of planting corn, fishing for cod, and skinning beavers for fur. For many 21st century Americans, Thanksgiving starts and stops here – an inaccurate version of history upon which the Thanksgiving story is reduced to Pilgrims giving thanks to the Indians for saving their hides. According to Bradford’s journal, the little colony learned a great deal from the Indians, true, but that’s not the whole story. Read on.
Better by far than life in England, the Separatists were making the best of the situation in the Netherlands, but it was by no means best. There was more freedom to be had in the New World, a place where they could create the kind of life they wanted, be their own community instead of a small band of people trying to remain unaffected by Hollanders’ ways. This is key: they had no financial resources of their own, so they formed a company and entered a business relationship with merchants in London, England. Going to North America was made possible by a business venture, paid for by loans which would need to be repaid. While on the Mayflower, William Bradford penned a document known as the Mayflower Compact, an agreement signed by everyone who would be part of the new colony. The underlying government was essentially socialist in nature; what everyone made or produced went into a common store, and each Pilgrim had one share in it. Theoretically, it was out of this store that the London merchants would be repaid. In short, the experiment failed. There was no prosperity under this model. Hard workers worked hard while the lazy contributed nothing; resentment festered. Bradford had the wisdom and courage necessary to make a radical change. This, dear reader, is the beginning of the free market in America.
Bradford recognized the commune model for what it was – costly and destructive. By assigning each family a plot of land to work and manage as they pleased, the incentive to work and to produce something of value was rewarded. Families could trade, buy, sell, or keep what was theirs. The power of free market enterprise was unharnessed by establishing private property and doing so created an incentive to be industrious. From famine to feast, the Pilgrims produced so much that they set up trading posts. It is for this abundant prosperity that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for His abundant blessings on that First Thanksgiving.