As Americans and Granite Staters, we have so much to be thankful for that keeping track of it all can be difficult. Where does one begin?
Family and friends, health and happiness, clean air and water, mountains and maple syrup, having a buffer of at least three states between us and New Jersey.
Gratitude often comes from perspective. Surviving documents from the settlers who enjoyed the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts Bay offer a great dose of it.
Edward Winslow wrote that the men went hunting and fowling, bringing back “as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the company almost a weeke,” and that natives presented five deer to the company for the feast.
“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,” he wrote.
The food was so plentiful that year that it inspired settlers to send home letters so unbelievable that Gov. William Bradford felt the need to remark that they “were not fained, but true reports.” The food was all gathered, hunted or fished. There was no Market Basket; the Demoulas family hadn’t arrived yet.
Here’s your perspective: Imagine living in a world in which enduring the hardships of a colonial settler’s life improved your living standards.
For the Pilgrims, living in the undeveloped Massachusetts frontier was an economic step up. Their idea of abundance was a good harvest (provided by providence) and enough wild game to live on for a week. Even with help from the native inhabitants, the first settlers struggled to produce a subsistence-level supply of food.
Before the Enlightenment unleashed the flood of human ingenuity that created modernity, life was like that for pretty much everyone.
As Enlightenment ideas eroded rigid social hierarchies and unleashed the brainpower of the lower classes (and created a large middle class), an explosion of innovation led to historically unprecedented gains in food productivity.
In 1600, 20 years before the Mayflower landed, the United Kingdom produced enough food to supply its population with 1,877 calories per person per day, according to the data website Our World In Data. That figure was 1,381 in the year 1,300. So over nearly 300 years, the UK gained about 500 calories per person per day.
By 1700, the UK produced 2,229 calories per person per day, for an increase of 352 calories in just 100 years, a huge improvement.
But in the next 318 years, the UK’s food productivity exploded. By 2018, the country produced a 3,344 calories per person per day, a stunning 50% increase in just over 300 years.
The United States produced 2,952 calories per person per day in 1800, the year Thomas Jefferson beat John Adams for the presidency. That was about 500 more than the UK, 700 more than Germany and 1,100 more than France. And the industrial revolution hadn’t taken off yet.
By 2018, the United States was producing a world-leading 3,782 calories per person per day.
“Almost all that ordinary people used and consumed in the 17th century would have been very familiar to people living a thousand or even a couple of thousand years earlier,” Max Roser explains. “Average incomes (as measured by GDP per capita) in England between the year 1270 and 1650 were £1,051 when measured in today’s prices.”
Then came the Enlightenment, and the great enrichment that followed.
As Roser puts it, “an average person in the UK today has a higher income in two weeks than an average person in the past had in an entire year. Since the total sum of incomes is the total sum of production this also means that the production of the average person in two weeks today is equivalent to the production of the average person in an entire year in the past. There is just one truly important event in the economic history of the world, the onset of economic growth. This is the one transformation that changed everything.”
This is why the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy puts such a high priority on economic growth. Without it, the world as we know it would not exist. Neglect or smother it, and our descendants will live worse, not better, lives than we do.
Freedom creates opportunity, which creates abundance, which leads to statistics like this: In the United States today, there are two job openings for every unemployed person. In New Hampshire, there are three job openings for every unemployed person.
Four hundred years ago, we were in a desperate, daily search for enough calories to survive the next few days. Now, we’re in a desperate, daily search for ways to convince people to stop eating so much.
In the United States, and much of the rest of the world today, prosperity and abundance are so common that they’ve become the default expectation for the vast majority of the population. For that, we will be forever grateful.