The American Pilgrims’ Disastrous Experiment in Socialism
By Carole Hornsby Haynes November 24, 2020
Four hundred years ago this month, a group of devout but daring Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic to the New World to escape religious persecution and the repression of the English government.
While the religious adventure is a familiar story, less often told is that it was a commercial enterprise with a business strategy of a communal lifestyle – socialism. Why socialism failed then is why it has continued to fail in country after country. This story about the failure of socialism in our young nation is not being taught to students.
The adventure of the Puritans in the New World is an amazing story of courageous souls whose unbearable suffering would define them as heroes. Their experiment in self government laid the foundation for our new Republic 150 years later.
The English Separatists Set Sail to the New World
In the early 17th century English King James I chartered a joint stock company, the Virginia Company, with private investors to fund colonial settlements in North America. Voyagers would have to get a government license, a land patent from the Virginia Company, and raise money through investors to fund their journey and establish a new colony.
A subset of the Puritans were the Separatists, later called Pilgrims, who wanted to leave the national Church of England and set up a congregation that would govern itself. They fled to Holland in 1608 but wanted to go to America where they would have freedom to worship as they pleased. They sent a representative to secure a land patent and arrange a deal with investors.
It was only when the ship was about to sail from England that the passengers were told about the specifics of the deal. Everything they produced would be under a communal system and would belong to a “commonwealth” rather than to the individual colonists. The investors wanted a return on their investment so, at the end of seven years, all profits would be split 50-50 between investors and colonists.
Angry about the terms, the passengers failed to grasp that this was an excellent deal for their cash strapped status but a highly risky one for the investors who had no guarantee of making a return -- profit -- on their investment (ROI) or even of getting their investment dollars returned.
On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower ship left England in the middle of a storm season with 102 passengers, including members of the Separatist Church and nonbelievers. The voyage was a preview of what was to come once they landed. The Speedwell ship that was traveling with the Mayflower for fishing and trading in America had to turn back to England because of structural problems. Their passengers were transferred to the Mayflower, creating severely cramped quarters. Freezing temperatures on the deck, sick passengers below, and a very limited supply of food plagued the 66-day voyage.
Blown off course, the Mayflower landed on November 9, 1620 in Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts. It was here in a near mutinous environment that 41 of the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. This document was essentially the cornerstone of self-government under God which has made America unique among nations. From there they sailed on to modern day Plymouth, Massachusetts where they founded the Plymouth Colony in the middle of December.
That first winter the settlers faced incredible suffering with disease, severe cold, starvation, and desolation. Out of the original 102 passengers, only about 52 survived including four women and their first elected governor of the colony, John Carver.
American Indians Taught the Pilgrims Survival Skills
In March 1621, the settlers entered into a treaty with the Wampanoag Indian tribe’s leader, Massasoit. Squanto, a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe, had been captured by earlier settlers but freed by Catholic friars and taken to England where he learned to speak English. He became an interpreter on an English ship in 1618 and returned to the New World where he taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops in the hard rocky New England soil.
Sometime in the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims, together with Massasoit and 90 members of his tribe, held a three-day harvest festival of thanksgiving, feasting, and entertainment with athletic events of shooting, foot races, wrestling, and bow and arrow. Their Indian friends provided much of the food.
Resentment Brought Famine
One of the more familiar stories in American history is the disastrous experiment in a communal social and economic structure in the Plymouth Colony from 1621-1623. The communal lifestyle in the colony resembled a socialist society.
The colony’s storehouse, houses, gardens, and other improved land were all shared. No one could own private land or work at a private business because of their business deal with their investors. The colonists collectively cleared and worked the land. Many worked hard to provide for their families and lay up stores for the winter while others sloughed off, knowing they would receive equal shares from the single pot regardless of how little they worked.
Anger and resentment grew among those who did the lion’s share of the work so they became less willing to work. As a result, the colony could not produce enough food to feed everyone. This is a common problem with socialism everywhere it has been implemented. Once the richest country in South America, Venezuela fell to communism and today its citizens are reduced to eating out of garbage cans amidst mass starvation and violence.
Plymouth Adopted Free Enterprise and Flourished
After two years of living under communism, only a few of the original Plymouth colonists were still alive. By 1626, to avoid an extinction of the colony and provide a solution for repayment to their investors, a new system with private property rights and the right to keep one's production -- free enterprise – was implemented by Governor William Bradford, one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact and the second elected governor of the colony. Each family was assigned personal plots of farm land according to family size and the common storehouse was abolished. Immediately men and women returned to the harvest fields and produced a large harvest.
Governor Bradford noted the new motivation of the colonists in his voluminous journal:
[I]t made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
From Communal Ownership to Private Ownership
Land ownership became a priority of the early settlers. For more than 50 years colonial villages tried to survive under the common ownership system without success. Each village found that private ownership of the means of production was the most economically profitable and the most efficient way to accomplish the Christian goals of social peace. Gradually the communal system gave way to private property rights.
The concept of the family farm grew out of combining personal responsibility with private property rights. It was the tradition of the independent small farmer that heavily influenced the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. The superiority of individual responsibility over that of government about the best use of land became a fundamental principle of 18th and 19th century American life and the American dream.
Will Americans Trade Capitalism for Socialism?
We can look back with pride at those early courageous souls and those who followed. It was their fierce spirit of personal responsibility, liberty, and private property rights that laid the foundation for the principles of limited government, personal freedom, and a competitive free marketplace that have brought us great prosperity.
On this Thanksgiving our nation is engaged in a dead heat civil war that will determine whether America remains a capitalist nation or becomes a socialist one. Americans need to be reminded about how the disastrous colonial experiment in socialism brought starvation, misery, death, and even near extinction.
It was private property rights and personal responsibility for one’s labor that saved Plymouth Colony and saw it flourish. These two pillars of a free market economy formed the economic foundation for America’s freedom and prosperity.
Americans will cease to be free and prosperous if we swap capitalism – free enterprise – for socialism. We must be as willing to fight to keep our freedom as we were to gain it from England.