The Mayflower's Pilgrim Capitalists

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Reading Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, an account of the voyage of the Pilgrims and the settling of Plymouth Colony, what strikes me most is not simply the extraordinary suffering of those who made the crossing, or how close to failure the entire venture teetered for years, or even the author's recounting of the first celebration we've since dubbed Thanksgiving.

What leaps out from the pages of the history, probably because it's so little a part of the common narrative of the Pilgrims, is a crucial decision by the colony's governor, William Bradford, to change the fundamental organization of Plymouth's economy, a move which secured the colony's future. As Philbrick describes it, after three years in America the Pilgrims "stumbled on the power of capitalism" and in the process ensured the colony's survival.

Of course, for many people, the particulars of an economic system hardly seem like the stuff out of which national myths are made. Instead, the popular retelling of the Pilgrims' tale this time of year typically focuses on their role as separatists who fled England seeking religious freedom, came to thrive in the Dutch city of Leiden but worried that their children would lose their English identity and language, and so determined instead to found a colony in America where they could practice their religion but otherwise govern themselves as Englishmen and women.

The Pilgrims got more than they bargained for in the journey. After a brutal 66-day voyage, the Mayflower reached Cape Cod in mid-November of 1620, too late to build a suitable settlement before the winter set in. Living largely aboard the ship while they built the first structures, the settlers were ravaged by disease that winter, and by early spring, only half of the original voyagers remained alive.

Through the spring and the summer the Pilgrims nursed each other back to health, built their settlement, made friends with local Indians, and planted both native English crops and American seeds provided them by the local natives. That fall, as Plymouth Harbor attracted hordes of migratory birds, the Pilgrims went hunting, accumulating enough meat for a big celebration. When a hundred or so Pokanokets Indians showed up with freshly killed deer to add to the plenty, what started as a traditional European harvest festival became a feast of mythic significance, especially after Bradford and Edward Winslow ended their account of the Pilgrim's first year at Plymouth with the story of that Thanksgiving..

But mythic celebrations aside, the Pilgrims would struggle at Plymouth for two more years, never quite securing their freedom from worry and want until Bradford reorganized their tiny economy. For three years Plymouth had operated like other English colonies such as Jamestown, on a communal system where everyone worked the land and shared the fruits of labor. Now instead, in 1623, Bradford decided that each family should have its own plot of land to cultivate and would get to keep what it produced. By rights, this shouldn't have mattered much to the God-fearing Pilgrims. After all, they were engaged in a heroic endeavor to create a new life for themselves in America and all of them were presumably working as hard as possible to achieve that.

Still, as Philbrick writes, under Bradford's new regime, "the change in attitude was stunning." While previously men had tended the fields while women cared for the children, Bradford wrote that now women and children took to the fields, too, and the colony's output increased sharply. "The inhabitants never again starved," Philbrick relates, and eventually Winslow described Plymouth as a place where "religion and profit jump together."

Despite their devout nature, the Pilgrims weren't abhorred by such comparisons because the nature of religion was changing, too. The Protestant reformer John Calvin had placed work and the pursuit of one's occupation in a new religious context. Whereas under the Catholic Church for more than a thousand years work was something one did to subsist, Calvin argued that work was what God willed the faithful to do, and the worldly success that one achieved through hard work was a sign that one was, perhaps, a member of the elect. So thoroughly did many Protestant sects adapt this ethic that more than 100 years after the founding of Plymouth the minister John Wesley, architect of Methodism in England, would observe that "religion cannot but produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches."

The Pilgrims were followed to New England by waves of Puritans who believed as the Pilgrims did that a man's occupation was his calling in life and that success in one's calling was not to be renounced. It was a very different view of work and prosperity which became, not surprisingly, the ethic that defined the new country where, as Alexis de Tocqueville would later observe, all "honest callings are honorable" and where "the notion of labor is therefore presented to the mind on every side as the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence."

Not your typical Thanksgiving sentiment, but words nonetheless to contemplate this time of year.

Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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