Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Different Thanksgiving Story

This may be an old story to some, as it was originally posted last year. However, it is new to me and I found it interesting. In The Tragedy of the Commons John Stossel writes about the first few winters the Pilgrims spent in the New World.

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Not surprisingly, when each family was given a plot of land to work and they were allowed to keep the products of their labor, production soared.
"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. ... "

The Pilgrims initially found themselves in a literal state of nature. Their very survival depended on their own effort. But when that effort did not specifically benefit the individual exerting it, he had no motivation to work. When the Pilgrims were guided by the principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" few demonstrated any ability. Some Pilgrims resorted to theft, while others ate dogs, rats, and horses.

And remember, the Pilgrims were devoutly religious. They believed in service to God and their fellow man, and yet even this piety was insufficient to motivate them to work hard. Despite their devotion to God, they chose lethargy and starvation over service to others.

Service to others--altruism--demands more than merely sacrificing one's material values. It demands the sacrifice of one's spiritual values as well. It demands that one place others above oneself, both materially and spiritually, both physically and intellectually. Altruism demands the renunciation of one's values, all of one's values, including one's life.

As the Pilgrims demonstrated, altruism does not lead to brotherly love and sharing. It leads to theft, death, and destruction. Yet life on earth requires the creation and attainment of values. It requires that individuals take the actions necessary to attain their values, not values imposed upon them by society or God. Only when individuals are permitted to pursue their values without interference from others, that is, pursue their own self-interest, can individuals and a community prosper. The Pilgrims demonstrated this fact as well.

And there is a Thanksgiving story you won't hear very often.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for highlighting this article. I wish Stossel had cited a source for further reading. If his account is accurate, then it is another example, drawn from history, of some individuals making changes in their lives as a result of learning from their experiences.

I will add it to my growing list of historical events and movements which have led to progress. I would love to know the "mechanics" of that change for the Pilgrims. E.g., were a few people advocating private property even before the communal experiment began--but were ignored or shouted down until the experiment failed?

I don't know, but I hope to find out someday.

Brian Phillips said...

My understanding is that the excerpts quoted were from Bradford's "Diary of Occurences". I could not locate it online to verify the quotes, but found several other articles citing similar passages.

I tried reading through Bradford's "History of Plimoth Plantation" (that's the spelling) to find something similar, but was unsuccessful. I would be an interesting project however, to uncover more about this story.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I thought I could not learn anything new about Thanksgiving, since it was covered and recovered throughout my K-12 education.

But this is truly new and very revealing, especially when we remember how much value the people of the Massachussetts Bay Colony later put on work. They saw prosperity as an outward sign of inward grace. And it is, though maybe not in quite the Calvinistic was they imagined!