How private property saved the Pilgrims from socialist misery

The 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in the New World is a time to reflect on important lessons we want our children to remember about America’s founding. One of the most critical is that hippie communes don’t work.

Yes, the Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 promptly tried to create a socialist workers paradise.

Like all other socialist paradises, it left a failed legacy of starvation and death.

The 1621 harvest meal that we honor as the first Thanksgiving was not the norm. (That’s why it was such a big deal.) The Pilgrims that year celebrated an abundant supply of food that was not common during their first years of settlement. 

They routinely struggled to produce enough food to survive. The cause of this struggle was their collective farming system. 

Benjamin Powell, economist at the Independent Institute, described it this way in a 2008 essay:

“In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.”

In short, the colonists landed in the New World and immediately tried to create Vermont. It worked about as well as… Vermont.

But they didn’t even get Ben & Jerry’s out of the deal. All they got were low crop yields, laggard farmers, and hunger. 

Gov. Bradford understood that something had to change. In 1623, he and the colony’s leadership scrapped the hippie farms and apportioned good, old-fashioned private plots for each household. Here’s how he described it in Of Plymouth Plantation:

“All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with ye advise of ye cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to goe on in ye generall way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys & youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means ye Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.”

Under communal farming, the colonists would “languish in misery.” Private plots, on the other hand, “made all hands very industrious” so that “much more corn was planted…”

Bradford mused further on this switch in economic arrangements.

“The experience that was had in this com̅one course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times;—that ye taking away of propertie, and bringing in com̅unitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imploymēt that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For ye yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter ye other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with ye meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it.”

In other words, the colonists thrived only after they stopped trying to create Vermont and instead created New Hampshire. 

Bradford made a point to criticize the intellectuals who led people astray by praising communal living as more desirable than a society based on family and private property. “Vanity and conceit,” he called it. 

He credited the colony’s “flourishing” to this switch from a socialist economic system to a capitalist one. 

Thus the superiority of private property and trade was being demonstrated in America as early as 1623. It was written into one of America’s founding literary and historical works. And yet, it doesn’t get taught as a central lesson of America’s founding. 

This year’s 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower presents a great opportunity to revive this lesson that Bradford clearly wanted posterity to learn. Economic incentives matter, even to Puritans. Systems that provide the right incentives create prosperity; those that don’t create misery.

1 reply
  1. Deanne says:

    A very good article, and much needed in our modern-day culture. Thank you.

    Here are a couple additional thoughts:

    1.) From what I have read, the “hippie commune” or “socialist workers paradise” was not entirely the Pilgrims’ choice, but was the agreement that had been made with the company that financed their voyage (Company of Merchant Adventurers). The commune system was to be implemented for a specified number of years (seven, I think), but thankfully Bradford didn’t wait that long…

    2.) The Pilgrims were not Puritans; they were Separatists (also called Independents, Brownists, or Barrowists). The Puritans wanted to remain in the Church of England and “purify” it while the Pilgrims wanted to completely separate from it. The Puritans were as much a threat and coercive force to the Pilgrims as the Church of England as seen by their oppressive acts in Parliament against the Pilgrims.

    3.) Not all the people on the Mayflower who stayed in Plimoth were Pilgrims/Separatists. Some were scoundrels that caused the Pilgrims much grief.

    The Mayflower Pilgrims by Edmund Janes Carpenter is a very good book on the Pilgrims.

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