The year was 1623, and the first settlers of Plymouth Colony found themselves in a dire situation. Since their arrival in New England three years earlier, the Pilgrims had struggled to jumpstart their fledgling colony – a settlement founded on the hope of religious freedom and with the financial backing of a group of English investors who expected a handsome monetary return. Under the terms agreed to with their investors, the Pilgrims were to be organized under a commonwealth, a form of government that would ostensibly ensure their survival in the harsh New England environment by allowing each member of the colony to draw from a common pool of resources (while giving the investors back in England the ability to more easily collect profit).
However, the results of two years of this arrangement did not give the Pilgrims hope that they were working toward a brighter future in the New World. William Bradford, longtime governor of Plymouth Colony, described in his journal that “the experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men […] was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” Bradford went on to observe that the Pilgrims resented the system of communal property under which they lived: young and able-bodied men felt cheated that they worked harder than others in the colony and yet had nothing to show for it, while wives resented preparing food and washing clothes for men other than their husbands.
Clearly, something had to change if Plymouth Colony was to thrive. Bradford’s journal illuminates the decision reached by the Pilgrims’ leadership in 1623: “The Governor…assigned to every family a parcel of land… This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been…” The results of the governor’s decision to “privatize” (to use a modern term) parcels of land for each family to work as it saw fit – with the full knowledge that the fruits of labor would be to the benefit of each family – had an immensely positive effect on the colony as a whole. The Pilgrims determined to work hard in their best interest and, as a result, the production of the entire colony increased.
Although the classic images of turkeys, pumpkins, and other typical Thanksgiving trappings permeate the modern American holiday we celebrate this week, there remain valuable historical lessons to be gleaned from the people who gave us the first Thanksgiving. Faced with defeat, our American forbears endeavored to change course in favor of the principles of hard work and individual initiative. They found the results of a system based on these ideas to be much more favorable than the alternative – and much more conducive to a fully productive society.
As Americans, we should be proud to inherit the ideas that allowed one of our country’s earliest settlements to thrive. The very industrial spirit that led to the Pilgrim’s success remains on display in America today, whether through the success of our small businesses, the enthusiasm of our young entrepreneurs, or the stories of Fortune-500 companies that started out as one-man (or more likely, one-woman) operations. America’s success – and that of the Pilgrims – proves that these time-honored principles of individual responsibility and free enterprise are just as relevant today as they were nearly 400 years ago.