November 24th, 2010

The Forgotten Story of Thanksgiving

photo credit: Shutterbug Fotos

Flip open any high school history book that discusses the history behind what we now call “Thanksgiving”, and you’re sure to find a watered-down, factually incorrect set of tidbits which convey no meaningful context. Children are taught that the imperiled Pilgrims were saved by the aid of some of the natives, and subsequently established a day to thank God for their bounteous blessings.

The truth is far more interesting.

Consider, first, the background. The Pilgrims were a group of religious separatists fleeing political persecution, led by their pastor, John Robinson, to congregate in a location where they could freely practice their beliefs. Having first migrated to Holland in search of tolerance, they began to fear losing their cohesive, cultural identity. Representatives of the group were sent to England to negotiate a loan whereby the group could have funding to travel to America and establish a colony. The two emissaries were admonished “not to exceed the bounds of your commission,” with emphasis that they not “entangle yourselves and us in any such unreasonable [conditions as that] the merchants should have the half of men’s houses and lands at the dividend.”

The arrangement struck between these representatives and the financiers dictated that after seven years, all property would be divided equally between the investors and the colonists. The group, waiting in Holland, objected. Without the opportunity for owning one’s own property, “the building of good and fair houses” would be discouraged, they argued. The group’s representatives were suddenly caught in the line of fire, having negotiated terms of a contract which their group was unwilling to accept. The hopeful migrants accused their representatives of “making conditions fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.”

As the terms of the contract required common ownership of property—the investors, located far away, wanted a method whereby they could better ensure the group would all work for a common goal, to benefit themselves and pay back their loan—the representatives had to convince their group that their fears were unwarranted. “Our purpose is to build for the present such houses as, if need be, we may with little grief set afire and run away by the light,” wrote Robert Cushman, one of the negotiators. “Our riches shall not be in pomp but in strength; if God send us riches we will employ them to provide more men, ships, munition, etc.”

Further still, Cushman argued that common ownership of property would “foster communion” amongst the group. While some might incorrectly assume that the group’s experiment in communalism was based on the pursuit of Christian principles, this is not so. They were more interested in securing private property, and only agreed to these conditions out of necessity and desperation for financial backing.

The group in Holland thus remain unconvinced as to these arguments, but the investors firmly insisted to the proposed terms. With many of the group having already sold their property in Holland, there was little to do but agree to the conditions and get on with the journey.

Their new home, a colony named Plymouth, was established with great difficulty. Their ship, the Mayflower, landed at Cape Cod in November of 1620. What began with 102 people quickly turned into a small group of a few dozen, with the rest dying within the first few months from sickness and starvation. The new colony was barely able to provide food for its members, so “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” wrote William Bradford in his journal.

Bradford was a prominent figure in the group. He became governor after the first one died a year into their arrival, and was re-elected over thirty times. Being keenly aware of the working conditions of his fellow Pilgrims, he observed that few were willing to spend the time and energy working for the entire group. Writing in his journal, he recorded his thoughts as follows:

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. 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. 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 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. 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. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

That other course “fitter” for the group was instituted in 1623, after three years of laziness and extremely low productivity. Bradford surveyed the situation and made an executive decision to do away with the communal requirement. Bradford recorded the events surrounding this decision:

At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advise of the chiefest among 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 in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands 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. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Bradford wrote that in the former system, “godly and sober men” sought every opportunity to “call in sick”, as it were, and avoid working. The investors were receiving little to no payment, the community was hardly fostering communion, as Cushman had incorrectly suggested, and progress languished.

The land was thus divided up into parcels of private property, which accelerated productivity and the creation of wealth. The results were quite noticeable. In 1621, the year of the first “Thanksgiving” celebration with helpful natives and a table full of goods, the colony had planted just 26 acres. A year later, they planted 60. In 1623, once private property had been established, 184 acres were planted.

The contract with the group’s investors was later renegotiated and finally paid. As for the colonists, Bradford wrote: “instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”

Thanksgiving—at least its true origin—should therefore be regarded as a triumph of capitalism over communism, prosperity and private property over bondage to one’s neighbor. The Pilgrims succeeded because the incentive to produce was finally secured to them with Bradford’s aid, and their own interests were placed above those of their fellow colonists.

Thanksgiving is indeed a story of bounty, of divine blessings, and of sharing our abundance with others in need. While the first such celebration came through the aid of locals sharing their supplies with the English newcomers, succeeding celebrations would have been rendered non-existent without Bradford’s changing the socio-economic conditions under which they worked. Surpluses come most easily when individuals can divide their labor freely, and apply their talent and skill to producing sufficient for their own needs, and extra with which to trade.

The colonists were vindicated in the fears they originally expressed to the negotiators they sent to secure their voyage’s funding. They understood, and later conclusively demonstrated, that a person’s profit motive is key to producing and providing for himself and those around him.

While Americans will be partaking, once again, of the surpluses produced by our (burdened, regulated, licensed, and increasingly controlled) capitalist system, few will contemplate the original important lesson learned by the people who began this cycle of celebrations. Far fewer still will promote, defend, and uphold policies that will mimic the wise decision of Governor Bradford, choosing instead to exploit the current system which allows them to live at the expense of their neighbors.

So, while you sit around the dinner table with loved ones, celebrating the many things with which we have all been blessed, remember: the key to increasing those blessings and better providing for ourselves and the needy around us lies in allowing people to privately pursue their own economic interests. Anything short of that will, in the long run, lead us to what Bradford termed “slavery”.

10 Responses to “The Forgotten Story of Thanksgiving”

  1. Kelly W.
    November 25, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    And now we see the true evolution from “Thanksgiving” holiday to the “Black Friday” holiday.

  2. Kelly W.
    November 25, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    And then the evolution from Black Friday to Christmas.

    Many have decided to shun the capitalistic reasons behind Thanksgiving and Christmas to focus more on the spiritual side of these holidays.

    Capitalism, though, wins outright. The real reasons to celebrate Thanksgiving/Black Friday and Christmas are, of course, to revel in the excesses of capitalism and vanity.

    I would like to see an article by Connor behind the “real” reason behind why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 and not on April 6th (Passover Day on the ancient Hebrew calendar).

  3. Eric Checketts
    November 25, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Great article, Connor.

    Unfortunately, those who support socialism/communism are not interested in history’s repeated lesson on the futility of such a system.

  4. Clif
    December 8, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    I see a real problem with the line of reasoning here.

    I find that libertarians very often tend to create this false dichotomy between socialism and capitalism. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the entire philosophical foundation of libertarianism rests on this false dichotomy.

    Eric’s comment above goes to my point. Actually, Eric, a lot of us dumb libruls are not ignorant of history’s lessons. Despite what Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might have you believe, almost no liberal that I know of considers the Soviet Union to be a model of economic efficiency.

    I have no problems at all accepting the concept that overregulation, punitive tax rates, absence of property rights, etc. can suffocate economic growth.

    The problem with libertarianism is that it doesn’t go too much past that point. Their logic goes, “if socialism is bad, then laissez faire capitalism must be wonderful.” It is that very logic that I find to be fatally flawed.

    In life, their are a number of important principles where we have to strike some sort of balance. Let’s use “faith versus reason” as an example. I think most of us agree that only a fool would rely totally on faith and completely exclude the use of reason to get through life. Likewise, someone who relies solely on reason is likely to believe that he knows things that he doesn’t really know and to close himself off to any further light and knowledge. There are a number of other examples of where two opposing principles are not mutually exclusive. When learning about the atonement, we have to consider the conflict between justice and mercy. As a parent, with regards to disciplining my children, I find that I have to balance these two principles. Risk versus reward is another possible example of what I am trying to describe here.

    I view the socialism vs. capitalism debate the same way that I view some of the competing principles that I just mentioned; as two ideals to balanced – rather than be practiced completely to the exclusion of the other one. I think the communist and the libertarian are both fools.

    Can we find examples of where experiments in socialism have failed? Of course we can! Failed utopian experiments are everywhere. Connor has done a very good job highlighting one such example in his post here. Soviet-styled communism was probably the greatest waste of life and resources in all of human history.

    However, let’s turn the question around and view it from the other side.

    Can you name me a single first-world economy that does not educate its citizens, provide public health services in one form or another, or provide some form of social security? Go ahead, name me one single country in the world where this is case and the majority of its citizens do not live in poverty.

    If limited government is so wonderful, then why has Somalia not turned into a world superpower?

  5. Adamo
    November 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm #


    To be clear libertarians like me, and I suspect Connor (correct me if I’m wrong) aren’t utilitarians. Our arguments for voluntary exchange and freedom and property rights stem from the concept of natural rights articulated by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. The utilitarian arguments are just icing on the cake, demonstrations to utilitarians like you that if you want the greatest good for the most then you should adopt freedom. But even if that weren’t true, I’d still advocate for freedom and property rights, and voluntary trade because I believe in rights. I believe the individual is way more important. This is self-evident and our logical premise. I can assure you my life and liberty is much more precious to me than it could ever be to you.

    But to take your utilitarian bait, it is a logical fallacy to think that if something isn’t provided by government it won’t be provided. And what I find that you fail to recognize is what it means to be provided by government. The government produces nothing. The government is force, no more, no less. The government confiscates from producers (those that trade and produce for profit by voluntary exchange) to provide these things. The market would be happy to provide and in many cases does provide all the things you listed, but some are unwilling to trade for them, and would instead use the monopoly of violence to have them provided at the cost of another. So really what I should be asking you is to name me a first world economy whose government produces anything or provides anything. I think it will be obvious to you that the services you listed are really provided by producers operating in the free market that under threat of violence provide services (indirectly) to others.

    But the USA of the 19th century for the most part was this economy you describe. And that economy took a backward band of colonies and made it to the only super power in the world. And because you are living on that amazing, unprecendetedly productive inheritance, that is so overwhelmingly productive that it is still able to produce an alarming amount despite an enormous lead weight. You see, you’ve reversed the causal relationship. It isn’t the caboose moving the train down the tracks as you imply. It’s the engine. Government is the caboose.

    No country practices the system we propose. Those that have adopted the principles we believe in to the greatest degree do much much much better than those that do not. But this common Reductio ad absurdum isn’t an unusual argument–no economy is libertarian therefore libertarianism is wrong. The irony being you recognize the straw man (which we didn’t make) of Soviet Union is bad therefore so is socialism. But anyway Libertarians are used to hearing logical fallacies as grounds against their arguments.

    Somalia is a straw man. Libertarians aren’t anarchists. We believe that government is force and we okay with using that force for objectives that force is good at. Namely national defense, enforcing contracts (and thereby providing forums for resolving disputes peaceably) , and mitigating (though not eliminating) third party effects.

  6. Karen
    November 28, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Wow, very well said, Adamo. Thank you for not losing your cool or being insulting. I admire that.

  7. Chris
    November 25, 2018 at 10:59 am #

    These historical facts may all be true, but they have very little to do with our modern American holiday of Thanksgiving, celebrated on the 4th Thursday in November.

  8. Branna
    November 27, 2019 at 10:48 am #

    Write a children’s book! ?

  9. Shoal Creek
    November 26, 2020 at 11:06 pm #

    There’s also this:

    We are celebrating Thanksgiving this year on the 231st anniversary of this one time event back in 1789.


  1. 127: Thanksgiving is about avoiding socialism | Society and the State - November 28, 2018

    […] The Forgotten Story of Thanksgiving by Connor Boyack […]

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