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Friday, November 25, 2011

The First Cranksgiving

Happy Buy Nothing Day!  In honor of the holiday, I aim to stay at home and wax historical: blame Rush Limbaugh and John Stossel, perennial ahistorical turkeys who fan the flames of ignorance in their moronic followers by setting the Mayflower Compact ablaze.  Or, you know...something.

Anyway, first let me note that I have no idea whether Limbaugh and Stossel actually believe the bullshit they shovel, whether they are simply misreading history, whether they are deliberately misrepresenting history, or what.  For example, maybe Limbaugh honestly thinks that the Pilgrims shared everything in a socialist mode and were starving until they gave everybody their own plot of land in a reverse collectivization.  And it's quite possible that Stossel simply made a mistake placing the First Thanksgiving in 1623 (when there was, in fact, an old-time Calvinist day of thanksgiving that summer, following a drought during which they also observed a day of prayer and fasting) instead of 1621, and since it fit into his thesis he ran with that without double checking.  Whatever.

The problem with both of their contrarian, libertarian interpretations of Plymouth's history and the True Meaning of Thanksgiving is that they rely on cherry picking snippets and ignoring a larger, more nuanced picture.  Naturally.

Oh, and trying to overlay 21st century templates of socialism and capitalism onto a small, strange 17th century society that predated all that by at least 100 years (early Dutch notions of capital notwithstanding) is necessarily going to make any pet political points a huuuge stretch.  It's like applying the lessons of Jesus' life by saying we should execute 99-percenters on live TV to entertain the 1-percenters on Christmas.  But I digress.


The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store, and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well.

Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this form of collectivism was as costly and destructive to the Pilgrims as that first harsh winter, which had taken so many lives.

He decided to take bold action. Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage, thus turning loose the power of the marketplace.

That's right. Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism.  [Alternately, the fact that they had entered into a contract with a bunch of greedy exploiters, they had clearly almost been undone by what could only be described as capitalism.]


"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "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. At length after much debate of things, (I) (with the advice 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. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

In other words, the people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic. [The most dramatic thing in this artile is Stossel's not understanding that the Tragedy of the Commons is about overexploitation, missing the biggest example that the Pilgrims suffered from as they took too many furs in a desperate bid for profit.]

This article is a decent takedown of the flawed Pilgrims Were Starving Socialists meme.  Beyond that and my modest fisking above, I wanted to take a gander at Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent Mayflower and some original sources.

First, Mayflower:

[pp101-102] Squanto explained that [the alewives and bluebacks of Town Brook] were essential to planting a successful corn crop.  The land surrounding Plymouth was so poor that it was necessary to fertilize the soil with dead herring...Thanks to Squanto, the Pilgrim's stolen corn thrived while their own barley and peas suffered in the alien soils of the New World.


[p119] The First Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year.  Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed.  They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across.  By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive...But by becoming an active part of the diplomatic process in New England--sending Winslow and Hopkins to Sowans; by compensating the Nausets for the corn; and most important, by making clear their loyalty to Massasoit at the "hurly-burling" in Nemasket--they had taken charge of their own destiny in the region.

In their zeal to prove their dubious claims, our glib friends missed an important fact.  The illegal immigrant Pilgrims wouldn't even have been able to experiment with their alleged proto-socialism or capitalism without constructively engaging with the local population, including getting lessons on how to plant the seeds they stole on the land they stole.  These people were completely unprepared for survival, and it took them years to get the hang of things and move beyond subsistence.

Despite a steep learning curve, with help from indigenous allies the Pilgrims were able to celebrate quite a bounty a year after landing, as Bradford wrote:

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; fFor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want.  And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).  And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion.  Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained,  but true reports.

Edward Winslow recorded the scene thus:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others.  And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want,  that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

So, um...it sounds to me as though the "socialist" thing worked out okay that first year.  Of course, 35 more undocumented workers would arrive on Fortune a few weeks later and 60 would come over on Ann and Little James in 1623, further burdening the colony as they were still trying to get established.  Other ships also landed with passengers, some bound for Plymouth and some intending to establish another nearby colony whose sole motivation was...profit:

Thomas Weston was well known to the Plymouth people, for he had been one of the activo promoters of the commercial enterprise which had led to their coming to New England, though his connection with it, being of the pure money-making kind, was, as the result showed, to the advantage of no one. He seems to have been a man of a type not uncommon in the days of Elizabeth and James I., — English adventurers, half traders and half explorers, who probably required the inducement ouly to ripen into something closely resembling a freebooter. His head was full of schemes for deriving great and sudden gain from the settlement of the North American coast, in regard to the possibilities of which he shared to the full all the sanguine faith of Raleigh, Gorges and Smith.

Thus was the genesis of Wessagusset Plantation, which was even more ill-conceived than Plymouth and really upset the region's delicate balance.  For you see, these profit-seeking "rude fellows" went about things in a completely unsustainable fashion, ran out of food and started stealing from the older settlement as well as Native Americans.

With this as backdrop, you can see how Bradford could write

Now ye wellcome time of harvest aproached, in which all had their hungrie bellies filled. But it arose but to a litle, in comparison of a full years supplie; partly by reason they were not yet well aquainted with ye maner of Indean corne, (and they had no other,) allso their many other imployments, but cheefly their weaknes for wante of food, to tend it as they should have done. Also much was stolne both by night & day, before it became scarce eatable, & much more afterward. And though many were well whipt (when they were taken) for a few ears of corne, yet hunger made others (whom conscience did not restraine) to venture. So as it well appeared y' famine must still insue ye next year allso, if not some way prevented [Stossel's quoted passage], or supplie should faile, to which they durst not trust. 

What Stossel missed was all the words before his citation.  The major causes of concern:

  1. "partly by reason they were not yet well aquainted with ye maner of Indean corne" - they still weren't good at farming in the New World
  2. "their many other imployments" - building fortifications due to paranoia in the wake of the Virginia Massacre
  3. "Also much was stolne both by night & day, before it became scarce eatable, & much more afterward" - Weston's men stole both young and mature crops, reducing the supplies

I already addressed #1, so let's look more closely at the other 2 problems.  Winslow noted [Good News From New England, pp531-534]:

Though [fortification] took the greatest part of our strength from dressing our corn: yet, life continued, we hoped GOD would raise some means instead thereof, for our further preservation...By reason whereof our own wants being likely to be greater than formerly: partly because we were enforced to neglect our corn, and spend much time in fortification; but especially because such havock was made of that little we had, through the unjust and dishonest carriage of [Weston's men].

From where I sit, Winslow admits that shortages were due to over-investment in defense and greedy capitalists run amok (don't get me going on the first hanging that resulted from corn theft, possibly executing an innocent man, and Mile Standish's raid that harmed trade relations).  NOT because of shared work and sacrifice.

But yes, Rush/Stossel are correct that people did complain and Bradford changed the corn regime so that everybody was allowed to farm a plot for themselves.  Yet the land and everything else was still held in common until the 1627 Division of Cattle (which oddly enough happened two years after the company the Pilgrims had contracted with went out of business because "capitalist" Plymouth was so unprofitable), and:

They haveing but one boat left and she not over well fitted, they were divided into severall companies, 6. or 7. to a gaugg or company, and so went out with a nett they had bought, to take bass and suchlike fish, by course, every company knowing their turno. No sooner was y" boato discharged of what she brought, but y° next company tooke her and wente out with her. Neither did they returne till they had cauight something, though it were 5. or 6. days before, for they knew ther was nothing at home, and to go home emptie wou'.d be a great discourageniente to y° rest. Yea, they strive who should doe best. If she stayed long or got litle, then all went to seeking of shell-fish, which at low-water they digged out of y° sands. And this was their living in y° somer time, till God sente ym beter; & in winter they were helped with ground-nuts and foule. Also in y° sonier they gott now and then a dear; for one or 2. of y» litest was apoynted to range y° woods for yl end, & what was gott that way was devided amongst them.

Other than raising corn, the Pilgrims still collectivity shared the gathering and consuming of other foodstuffs.  That was quite important since there was a severe drought that summer which further reduced their store of maize.

What else can you say?  Even if you accept the bogus socialism/capitalism construct those blowhards put forth, they're completely off base for three additional reasons:  A) the Pilgrims were actually engaged in a capitalist venture from the outset; 2) they only changed one component of their alleged socialist arrangement; and D) their food shortages had nil to do with any collectivism that was arguably in force.

Other than that, once again heroes of the Right have presented a vigorous and trenchant analysis worthy of domestic fowl drowning in the rain.


November 25, 2011 | Permalink


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These people make me crazy. Love this post. (I have no home computer, and thus am always late to the party.)

Posted by: Nancy in Detroit | Nov 28, 2011 8:42:26 AM

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