The first winter for the Pilgrims was terrible. Between starvation, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, about half died.

The second winter was terrible, again with little food. Those who survived the first two winters only did so by the goodness of the Native Americans who graciously shared their food.

The third winter was far better, with plenty of food. In a few years, there was enough abundance that the Pilgrims had paid off their debt to those who financed their trip. They were alive, thriving, and free of debt.

Those are a few highlights of the Pilgrims’ story told by Karl Denninger in his article from 2006, which is reposted at Market-Ticker:  The Truth About Thanksgiving.

What caused the change from starving to thriving is the part of the story I never heard growing up.

When the Pilgrims arrived, they worked in a communal arrangement. Mr. Denninger explains:

Each person was accorded a “share” of the totality of what was produced at the colony, and each person was expected to do their part in working toward the common good. The land, and that upon it, was owned by the colony as a collective.

That is the approach used for the first two winters. Just about killed them off.

William Bradford explains the problem. Seems there is a lack of motivation when everyone benefits from other’s work and doesn’t see a direct benefit of their own work:

“For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice.”

After the disastrous second winter, the Mayflower Compact was tossed. Instead, each person was assigned a plot of land and was allowed to eat what they raised on their own.

Bradford’s comment on the result:

It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction.”

Mr. Denninger’s explanation of the impact. Within merely a year of revoking the Mayflower Compact

… the colonists found themselves with more food than they could eat. Flush with a bountiful harvest far in excess of their need for food and having bartered for all the goods they needed to get through the winter, they had a feast of thanks with their Indian trading partners.

Within a couple of years the colonists paid off their debt to the London Merchants and became, in fact, free men.

Gracious help from the Indians allowed the Pilgrims to survive the folly of communal property for two years while they were otherwise starving. It was the transition to private property that created the transition to thriving.

The Bible clearly teaches that all good things we have come from God as a gracious gift. Our duty is to use those gifts wisely. The Pilgrims were blessed with lenders who financed their trip, kind neighbors who shared their food freely, fertile soil that yielded food, and their own industriousness for the labor to raise food.

How they applied those and other gifts was up to them. We see two different approaches that had two different results.

Which do you think is more helpful and more productive?

Which approach has a higher level of morality?

Which do you think would produce more prosperity today?


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