Socialism at Jamestown

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank chides Dick Armey today for having said that socialism caused starvation at Jamestown.  “Who knew they had socialists in 1607?” Milbank asks.

Actually, lots of people know this. As I wrote three years ago:

Four hundred years ago today 105 men and boys disembarked from three ships and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They built a fort along what they called the James River, in honor of their king.

The land was lush and fertile, yet within three years most of the colonists died during what came to be known as “the starving time.” Only the establishment of private property saved the Jamestown colony.

What went wrong? There were the usual hardships of pioneers far from home, such as unfamiliar diseases. There were mixed relations with the Indians already living in Virginia. Sometimes the Indians and settlers traded, other times armed conflicts broke out. But according to a governor of the colony, George Percy, most of the colonists died of famine, despite the “good and fruitful” soil, the abundant deer and turkey, and the “strawberries, raspberries and fruits unknown” growing wild.

The problem was the lack of private property. As Tom Bethell writes in his book The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages, “The colonists were indolent because most of them were indentured servants, expected to toil for seven years and contribute the fruits of their labor to the common store.”

Understandably, men who don’t benefit from their hard work tend not to work very hard.

But a new governor arrived and instituted a system of private property.

And then, the Virginia historian Matthew Page Andrews wrote, “As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans – an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.”

John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, said that once private property was instituted, men could engage in “gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.”

I gotta go with Milbank, not Armey, though, on another point of contention: Alexander Hamilton was a big-government man. At least by the standards of 1787; no doubt he’d be appalled at the size, scope, and power of today’s federal government, though he might approve the imperial trappings and authority of modern presidents.