Before socialism failed in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Albania, it flopped in Plymouth Colony.
The Pilgrims encountered, according to the contemporaneous history Mourt’s Relation published in 1622, “the greatest store of fowl that we ever saw,” strawberries, corn, beans, clean water, sassafras, arable if stony soil, and a variety of timber shortly after landing at Plymouth Rock. Yet, after the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Mourt’s Relation notes that the land’s bounty proved “not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us.”
Why did a place offering such a feast threaten a famine? The project’s backers and its leaders contractually agreed for the colonists to “have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods.”
William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony on and off for about three decades, does not say the “S” word—a term popularized 200 years later by Robert Owen, the architect of another ambitious project, New Harmony. Bradford instead used the phrase “common course.” The separatist from the Church of England writes of that “common course” in the posthumously published Of Plymouth Plantation:
For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were the most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.
In the years after that first Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims faced famine. They blamed the unnatural economic system foisted upon them by financial backers. As those backers did not fulfill their obligations, the settlers opted out of theirs.
“At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular,” Bradford, governor at the time, wrote regarding the great change made in 1623, “and in that regard trust to themselves; in all things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family.”
In other words, Bradford introduced private property and the profit motive to the colony.
“This had very good success,” Bradford explained, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
If the 19th-century descendants of Pilgrims and Puritans in the New Colony could repeat at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Hopedale, and elsewhere the 17th-century mistakes made by settlers in the Old Colony, then one begins to see how 20th- and 21st-century people in far off lands could too. Some ideas prove so seductive that even painful experience cannot dissuade.
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition,” Bradford concluded, “tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”