As I’ve mentioned once or twice in these commentaries, I’m an amateur historian. As such, I’m aware of a bit of irony in American history. The early settlement known as “Plymouth Colony” or “Plymouth Settlement,” established in 1620, was the first settlement to declare a day of feasting and prayer to celebrate God’s bounty.
Plymouth Colony was also America’s first and only experiment with socialism. As we celebrate another Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share the story with you.
Plymouth Colony was a unique venture. Most of the early settlements in what was then called the New World were business ventures, financed by European governments or tycoons in hopes of making a profit. The Plymouth Colony, by contrast, was a group of English Puritans who were seeking a place where they could practice their religion without being persecuted by the Catholics or Protestants in Europe.
Before landing on the shore of what is now Massachusetts, the colonists agreed on how their colony would be structured and governed. In accordance with the teachings of their Puritan religion, they agreed that their colony would practice what their governor, William Bradford, would later describe as “communal service.” All land would be held by the community, not individuals. Everyone would work in the communal fields. The crops, when they were harvested, would be stored in a communal storehouse. Each family would then draw the food they needed from the communal storehouse.
The system began to collapse almost immediately. Single men, or men with a wife but no children, resented being expected to work as long and hard as men with large families, while the large families received the bulk of the produce.
Before long, people began to claim various illnesses and injuries that prevented them from doing much—or any—work. The people who did show up in the fields accomplished very little, although they stayed there all day. All of this is recounted in Governor Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement.
By late 1622, the Plymouth Colony was hovering on the verge of collapse. More than half the colony had either died or left the colony to seek their fortune elsewhere. Governor Bradford, convinced the colony couldn’t survive another year like the previous two had been, ended the practice of “communal service.” He divided the land among the remaining colonists, and advised the colonists that henceforth, their survival was in their own hands. He put it very bluntly: “If you don’t work, you won’t eat.”
The following year, 1623, was the most successful year the colony had known. Even with fewer than half the original colonists, more corn was planted and harvested than in either of the first two years. The flocks of chickens and sheep were larger and fatter than ever.
The colonists had declared a day of meditation and prayer in the summer of 1621 to celebrate the arrival of more colonists and supplies from England. There had been no celebration in 1622, when the failure of their communal service idea was becoming more and more obvious.
But in the fall of 1623, with the barns full of agricultural produce and the pastures full of livestock, the colonists were ready for another celebration. They invited the nearby tribe of Patuxet Indians, with whom they had a friendly and cooperative relationship, and the colonists spent an entire weekend feasting, giving thanks to God, and celebrating their first truly successful year in the New World.
Thus ended America’s first—and hopefully last—experiment with socialism. And thus began a celebration that we’re still practicing 394 years later. As we enjoy our turkey and pumpkin pie, let’s not forget that the purpose of the first Thanksgiving celebration was to thank God for his blessings and his bounty.