Of Thanksgiving, Socialism, and Historical Revisionism

 An interesting piece recently appeared in the New York Times entitled, “The Pilgrims were… Socialists?” Written by Kate Zernike, the NYT article was apparently intended as a response to the custom on the right of drawing attention to the relative success among the pilgrims of private ownership of land as opposed to the original communal arrangement, citing it as an example of the impracticality of socialism.  As such, it was unusually weak, even for the NYT, whose authors have long since ceased trying to preach to anyone but the choir. 

To get to the bottom of the story, let’s consider what the pilgrim sources actually said about the transition from communal to individual plots referred to above.  Although mentioned by colonist Edward Winslow and others, the most complete account is probably that in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, so I will quote him at some length.

According to Bradford, (Chapter 4 of the History)

All this will no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. Aty length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view – for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance – all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. 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. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and instability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. 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. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class.

If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

In brief, it would seem that one would have to be foolhardy to challenge the assertion by conservatives that the early history of the pilgrims demonstrates the superiority of individual to communal ownership, or socialism.  They are merely letting Bradford speak for himself.  Be that as it may, the meme has been more visible than usual this year, and that apparently stuck in someone’s craw at the Times.  In any event, the editors decided to stick their necks out, knowing that most of the readers that remain to them would simply close their eyes and swallow. 

The article begins with a de rigueur swipe at the Tea Party movement:

In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Here we see the convenient but bogus view on the left of the Tea Party as a monolithic whole, with a uniform view of all things.  I can think of no past association of human beings that has in any way qualified as a “movement” to which that description is less appropriately applied.  The Tea Party movement is a lose association of people who generally favor a smaller role of government in their lives, but who in no way can be said to uniformly believe some common orthodox doctrine, or even to agree on who their “leaders” actually are.  On the left, however, the Tea Party has been racked and squashed into a quintessential outgroup in keeping with the time-honored tradition of our species. 

The author then goes on to create some strawmen, who go well beyond Bradford’s simple claim about the superiority of private property to communal ownership to claim that the pilgrims embraced capitalism, and held their first Thanksgiving to “celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”  The problem is that she can cite no examples on the right in which such claims are actually made, nor can I find any in a shakedown of the usual subjects.  For example, Rush Limbaugh’s offering for this year can be found here.  In it, he quotes Bradford at length, and mentions capitalism only once, and then merely as a system usually associated with private property.  There is nothing there to the effect that Thanksgiving was originally a “celebration of the glory of the free market and private property.”  Rather, according to Limbaugh, the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving to “thank God for their good fortune.”

There is no more sign of Zernike’s “Tea Party version,” on the websites of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Powerline, Instapundit, or any other conservative or libertarian blog I can find.  She claims that her “Tea Party version” appears in a one day course entitled “The Making of America,” by one W. Cleon Skousen, but there is no reference to Thanksgiving in the link she provides.  She also claims it appears in a post entitled “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax,” which celebrates the work of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, but here, again, there is no sign of the TP Version.  Zernike takes the trouble to pull a quote out of context from the latter:

Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.

In fact, the posts author, Richard Maybury, explicitly states that the first Thanksgiving was not held for that reason earlier in the post.  The statement above reflects his contention that the celebration would not have continued to the present day but for the abundance made possible by the change in system, not some revisionist interpretation of the intent of the pilgrims themselves as implied by Zernike.

The rest of the article is more of the same.  Zernike takes issue with Bradford himself:  

…historians (here the usual anonymous ‘experts’ make their usual appearance) say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

Since the pilgrims themselves saw the difference in systems as one between property held in common and helf by private owners, apparently they never read the books of the expert historians. 

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

True, as far as the shareholders were concerned, but completely beside the point as it relates to the distribution of property in the colony itself.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Again, this flies in the face of the source accounts of Bradford and others, who explicitly and repeatedly asserted that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not “enough to get them by,” and who noted in passing that grain was, in fact, rationed.  It always helps to actually read the book.

The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

Again, completely at odds with Bradford’s own account, according to which the cause of the grumbling was the system of distribution, and in no way supports Pickering’s fanciful revisionist version.

Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

This in the teeth of Bradford’s own, explicit assertion, quoting Plato, that the original system, in fact, didn’t work, and that the new system initiated a new era of abundance.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

This “real reason” seems to have escaped Governor Bradford, who was actually there, but was, apparently, not as clever at ferreting out hidden causes as Mr. Pickering.  Before finally fading away with a homily about the Iraq war, Ms. Zernike continues,

The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war.

and, once again quoting the ubiquitous Mr. Pickering,

“What’s going on today is a tradition of conservative thought about that early community structure,” Mr. Pickering said.

No, in fact, no “tradition of conservative thought” is necessary.  All that’s needed is to actually read Bradford’s History, where the assertion that private ownership proved superior to communal ownership is simply and clearly stated.  It’s hard to imagine why anyone would even bother to dispute the point, unless, of course, in spite of its abject failure wherever it’s been tried, they still retain a defiant faith in socialism.  I don’t doubt that, while it’s quite extinct among Chinese Communists, and even North Korean absolute monarchists, it lives on in blithe disregard for the events of the last 50 years in the breasts of a subspecies of American journalists.

For that matter, it seems to live on in Europe as well.  As often happens, the usual suspects at Der Spiegel have picked up on the NYT article, repeating it almost word for word in places, and then adding some thigh-slapping embellishments of their own for their credulous readers, ever eager as they are to read anything that portrays Americans as “weird,” “absurd,” or “crazy.”  In an article written by Marc Pitzke entitled, “Tea Party and Thanksgiving: How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism,” he serves up the usual “Tea Party as monolith” gambit, and then assures his fans that the “Tea Party thesis,” has been “gleefully plucked to pieces” in Ms. Zernike’s lame offering.  Taking care not to let Bradford speak for himself on the matter of communal versus private ownership, he, too, quotes the omniscient Mr. Pickering’s irrelevancies about shareholders.   Aware of the lack in Germany of any source of information that could seriously challenge the mainstream narrative about things American, Pitzke goes Ms. Zernike one better, describing the Tea Party movement, which represents a quarter of US citizens, give or take, as an “arch conservative” group, and, better yet, “a rebellious wing of the Republican Party.”

In pointing out the absurdities of the Left, it would be unfair to leave the impression that the Right is any better.  Their fanciful assertions that Ronald Reagan or, in the case of Catholics, the pope, defeated Communism single-handedly, and that Thomas Jefferson was a good Christian, are at least as dubious.  And the moral of the story?  Read the source material and make up your own mind.

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