The Real Thanksgiving Story
Did you know that our Pilgrim
forefathers tried communism when they first landed at
that for a dramatic beginning to a story? Years ago,
when I used to give a lot of talks to high-school
classes, this was one of my favorites. It always got the
students’ attention. And I have to admit, I also enjoyed
seeing some liberal teachers get so upset with me they
almost lost their lunches.
Here’s the story I
told those students in those long-ago presentations. The
Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were
incredibly brave and hardy souls. They were motivated by
the noblest of virtues. They vowed, each and every one,
to be as selfless as possible — to always put the needs
of the group first. They agreed to own everything in
common and to share everything equally.
And their naïve piety
almost killed them all.
We all know how the
adventure began. A group of devout Christians, seeking
religious freedom for themselves and eager to "advance
the Gospel of the Kingdom of Christ" in the New World,
set sail from Plymouth, England in 1620. An investment
consortium known as the Merchant Adventurers of London
provided the expenses for the trip, including chartering
the Mayflower and its 40-man crew.
The deal was simple:
The Pilgrims agreed to establish a colony in what is now
northern Virginia, where they would plant crops, fish
the waters and hunt in the forests. They would return a
certain percentage of each year’s bounty to London until
their debt had been repaid.
Things went wrong from
the start. First, the syndicate changed the deal,
drastically reducing the amount they would loan the
Pilgrims. The brave adventurers were forced to sell many
of their own possessions, and much of their provisions,
to pay for the trip. As a result, they landed in the New
World badly short of supplies.
Next, the small ship
they had purchased in Holland, which was to accompany
them to America so they could fish the waters off the
coast, had to be abandoned in England. Shortly after
they set sail, the ship, badly misnamed the
Speedwell, became "open and leakie as a sieve," as
its captain reported. They returned to Dartmouth, where
the boat was dry-docked for three weeks as repairs were
But to no avail. After
leaving Dartmouth, the group sailed less than 300 miles
when the Speedwell reported it "must bear up or
sink at sea." This time the ships put in at Plymouth,
England, where it was decided to go on without the
Speedwell. On Sept. 16, 1620, the Mayflower
set out alone to cross the Atlantic.
A month later, when
they had reached the halfway point, fierce storms
battered the ship and threatened the lives of passengers
and crew. Many wanted to turn back for England. But if
they abandoned the journey, they would lose everything
they had invested. The Pilgrims decided to trust in God
and sail on.
Despite the storms,
the hazards, the crowding and the poor food, only one
Pilgrim died during the voyage, a young servant. His
death was balanced by the birth of a son to Stephen and
Elizabeth Hopkins, who named their child Oceanus.
There were 102
passengers on board the Mayflower — 50 men, 20
women and 32 children — along with a crew of 40. The
captain set a course along the 42nd parallel, a bearing
that would carry him to Cape Cod. From there he intended
to swing south and follow the coast to northern
A little more than two
months later, on Nov. 19, land was finally sighted and
the captain turned the ship south toward Virginia.
However, they soon encountered such "dangerous shoals
and roaring breakers" that they turned back to
Massachusetts. It was then that the grumblings of
dissent turned into a full-fledged roar. Many of the
passengers insisted on landing in present-day
Massachusetts, where "none had power to command them."
The Pilgrim leaders
decided to meet the explosive situation by asking each
male on board, except for the crew, to sign a formal
document that would lay "the first foundation of their
government in this place." Thus the Mayflower Compact
The Pilgrims were a
diverse lot. Many of them were illiterate. Yet in
creating the Mayflower Compact, they showed an
extraordinary political maturity. They agreed to
establish a government by the consent of the governed,
with just and equal laws for all. Each adult male,
regardless of his station in life — gentleman, commoner
or servant — would have an equal vote in deciding the
affairs of the colony. Of the 65 men and boys on board,
all but 24 signed the agreement. The only ones who did
not were the children of those adults who did sign, or
men who were too sick to do so.
The first decision
made under the covenant was to abandon efforts to reach
Virginia and instead to settle in New England. The first
explorers landed at Plymouth on Dec. 21, 1620. Weather
delays kept the majority from seeing their new home for
nearly two weeks. On Jan. 2, 1621, work began on the
first building they would erect — a storehouse.
were so scanty, it was decided that the land would be
worked in common, produce would be owned in common and
goods would be rationed equally. Not unlike the society
Karl Marx envisioned of "from each according to his
ability, to each according to his need."
to illness, injury and attitude, the system did not
work. Pilferage from the storehouse became common.
Suspicions of malingering were muttered. Over the course
of that first, harsh winter, nearly half of the
colonists perished. Four families were wiped out
completely; only five of 18 wives survived. Of the 29
single men, hired hands and servants, only 10 were alive
when spring finally came.
struggled desperately for two more years. When spring
arrived in April 1623, virtually all of their provisions
were gone. Unless that year’s harvest improved, they
feared few would survive the next winter. The Pilgrim
leaders decided on a bold course. The colony would
abandon its communal approach and permit each person to
work for his own benefit, not for the common good.
Here is how the
governor of the colony, William Bradford, explained what
happened then. This is from his marvelously readable
memoir (if you can make adjustments for the Old English
spellings), History of Plimoth
The experience that was had in
this commone course and condition, tried sundrie
years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may
well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Plato &
other ancients, applauded by some of later
times; — that the taking away of properties, and
bringing it in communitie into a commone wealth,
would make them happy and flourishing; as if they
were wiser than God.
For this communitie (so farr
as it was) was found to breed much confusion &
discontent, and retard much employment that would
have been to their benefite and comforte. For yet
young men that were most able and fitte for labor &
services did repine that they should spend their
time & strength to worke for other men’s wives and
children with out any recompense.
Can you imagine? Some
of the youngest and healthiest men in the colony
complained that they were working like dogs “for other
men’s wives and children.” Sounds like the situation in
America today, where the taxes taken from those who work
support many millions of others who don’t.
After three years of
noble failure, the colonists had had enough. Once
they replaced communal efforts with individual
responsibility, the differences were dramatic — and
Men went into the
fields earlier and stayed later. In many cases, their
wives and even their children (some barely past the
toddler stage) worked right alongside them. More acres
were planted, more trees were felled, more houses were
built and more game was slaughtered because of one
simple change: People were allowed to keep the fruits of
their own labors.
In that simple
sentence you will find the solution to all of the
world’s poverty. Stop taking what others have earned.
Let people keep the fruits of their own labors. Then get
out of the way and watch the incredible abundance they
On this Thanksgiving
weekend, some 390 years after the Pilgrims celebrated
the first of this uniquely American holiday, let us
remember the sacrifices they made, the devotion they
showed and the lessons they learned.
November 26, 2010 by
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