"Welcome to the New World, Captain."
--Jack Ryan (The Hunt for Red October)
In September of 1620, over one hundred colonists sailed from England on the Mayflower. Their destination was the New World. Forty one were Pilgrims from Holland seeking religious freedom. Eighteen were indentured servants bound as slaves for seven years. The remainder were mostly Anglicans from England seeking economic opportunity.
The group was funded by a joint stock company with a group of London merchants. In the alliance, each adult settler was granted a share in the company, and each investment of 10 pounds also received a share. At the end of seven years, accumulated earnings from the colony would be divided among the shareholders.
Until that division, the company decreed a communistic system of production and distribution. Each settler would contribute his/her all to the common store and draw from it according to need ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs").
The Mayflower landed at Plymouth in mid-December 1620. By the end of winter, half the colonists were dead. Hardship defined the next two years. Harvests were meager. Famine persisted.
The popular story is that the colonists didn't know how to farm and that it wasn't until local indians showed them the ropes that things turned around.
In reality, the major reason for the persistent hardship, for the "starving time," was the communism imposed by the company. William Bradford (1952), who became governor of the colony in 1621, wrote:
"The experience that was had in the common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's...that the taking away of property and bringing community into the commonwealth...was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong...had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice...Upon...all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought...one as good as another, and so...did...work diminish...the mutual respects that should be preseved amongst men...Let none object this is men's corruption...all men have this corruption in them."
Bradford is describing a classic 'tragedy of the commons' problem. People acting in their own best interest deplete shared resources despite knowing that depleting common resource pool will hurt the group's long term interest.
In order to survive, the colony changed the rules. In 1623, communal property was replaced with private property. Each family was permitted to cultivate its own plot of land. Bradford wrote:
"The Governor (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, for it 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 too 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."
When the Plymouth colonists finally sat down to celebrate that first Thanksgiving dinner, some perhaps said prayers of thanks for learning the lesson of property rights.
Bradford, W. 1952. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Knopf.