As truly an American holiday as Thanksgiving is, it was not actually made a formal federal holiday until 1941. And it wasn’t even routinely celebrated nationally on the fourth Thursday of every November until after President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Address in 1863. Still, the holiday does have a strong basis in our nation’s history—a history that is all too often left untold.
As described by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford in his diary Of Plymouth Plantation, the first Pilgrim winters in America were tough. The colonists failed to produce adequate food and shelter, and as a result, many did not survive. But eventually the colony rebounded. The Pilgrims did build sufficient homes and did plant enough crops to feed the entire colony. So great was their bounty that they celebrated with a harvest feast that eventually became the Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate today. But what was the key to the colony’s turnaround? What drove them from poverty to prosperity? The answer may surprise you.
When the first Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, all property was taken away from families and transferred to a“comone wealth.” In other words, the Pilgrims tried to do away with private property. The results were disastrous. According to Bradford, the stronger and younger men resented working for other men’s wives and children “without any recompence.”And the women forced to cook and clean for other men saw their uncompensated service as “a kind of slavery.” The system as a whole bred “confusion and discontent”and “retarded much employment that would have been to [the Pilgrims’] benefit and comfort.” Unable to produce their own food, some settlers “became servants to the Indians,” cutting wood and fetching water in exchange for “a capful of corn.” Others tragically perished.
It was not until private property rights were restored and every man was allowed to “set corn for his own particular” that prosperity came to the colony. Bradford reported, “This had very good success for it made all hands very industrious. … [M]uch more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. … Women went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn.”
A profoundly religious man, Bradford saw the hand of God in the Pilgrims’ economic recovery. After witnessing this experiment “amongst godly and sober men,” Bradford concluded that the elimination of private property was incompatible with human nature. He described those who thought they could make men “happy and flourishing” by taking away their property as “vain … as if they were wiser than God.”
Today, as families across America gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us give thanks to God for the many blessings he has bestowed upon us. But let us also not forget the Pilgrims’ lesson on private property that all too often is forgot in Washington, D.C.