How Capitalism Saved the Pilgrims

When I was growing up, my father would occasionally tell me the story around this time of year of how private property rights saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

When the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620, as my father told the story, they tried to live communally according to the spirit of the Mayflower Compact. What crops they grew were put in a common storehouse and then apportioned according to each family’s need. The small colony struggled to survive for two or three years until its leaders declared that every family henceforth would be responsible for growing its own food. The new system proved much superior at putting food on the table.

Years later, when I was writing editorials for the Colorado Springs Gazette, I would tell the story in print on Thanksgiving Day, this time quoting from Governor William Bradford’s first-hand account. One of my fellow editors objected to my version, claiming it was Squanto the friendly Indian who saved the Pilgrims by teaching them how to fertilize their crops with dead fish. We agreed to disagree and I stuck to my version.

Earlier this year, as I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Penguin Books, 2007, paperback edition), I came across a passage that weighs in decisively on our editorial dispute. It appears my father did know best after all.

From page 165 of Mayflower:

The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally–the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.

Among the many things I’m thankful for this week is that I live in a country that was founded on the solid rock of property rights and free markets.