Pilgrim Lesson: Spreading Wealth Leads to Pooled Poverty

John Aman | Truth in Action Ministries | Updated: Nov 20, 2012

Pilgrim Lesson: Spreading Wealth Leads to Pooled Poverty

Those who still think that it’s a good idea for government to "spread the wealth around" must think they’re "wiser than God."

That’s what Plymouth governor William Bradford concluded nearly 400 years ago after one of America’s first socialist experiments led not to shared wealth, but pooled poverty.

The Pilgrims, whom we remember at Thanksgiving, started life in the New World with a system of common ownership forced on them by Plymouth colony investors. That quasi-socialist arrangement proved disastrous, and had to be scrapped for one which gave these first Americans the right to keep the fruits of their labor — and incentive to produce more.

The 104 people who arrived at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, were organized under a charter which imposed a seven-year period of joint ownership. Thus, from the day they arrived in the new world, all clothing, houses, lands, crops and cash were jointly owned. No matter how hard a man might work, he had little hope of personal gain for his effort.

Unless changed, the charter was an iron-clad guarantee of seven very lean years.

It led to a social order at odds with the dictates of human nature and what 19th-century historian James Eggleston called a "sinking of personal interest …, in dissensions and insubordination, in unthrift and famine." The communal arrangement also ill-fitted the Pilgrims for the demands of life on the edge of a "howling wilderness." The Pilgrims buried 44 people within the first three months, and a total of 50 poor wretches succumbed within the first year.

And the ground proved unyielding. The Pilgrims gathered what Governor Bradford described as a "small harvest" and celebrated their first Thanksgiving with the Indians in the autumn of 1621.

Another small harvest followed in 1622. The meager return came in part because the Pilgrims were unskilled at farming and because of the sandy New England soil. However, it was the lack of any promise of return for their labors that caused even these God-fearing and devout settlers to fail to fully work the land.

Plymouth governor William Bradford wrote that common ownership "was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort."

The young men, Bradford wrote, were ill-disposed to labor on behalf of the wives and children of other men without any recompense. More seasoned and accomplished men took it as an affront to be on par and forced to share in the same labor and rations as the "meaner and younger sort." And husbands "deemed it a kind of slavery" that their wives were conscripted to serve other men, "dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc."

While fishing helped make up the shortfall from the field, the "pinch of hunger" forced the Pilgrims to abandon their corporate charter in March of 1623. After "much debate," Governor Bradford "allowed each man to plant corn for his own particular [for his own household] and to trust themselves for that ... so every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number. ... 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."

Suddenly, these heretofore mediocre farmers made their own capitalist "great leap forward." Authors D. James Kennedy and Charles Hull Wolfe report that while the Pilgrims planted 26 acres of corn, barley and peas in 1621 and nearly 60 acres the next year, they planted 184 acres in 1623.

Bradford reported that "instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God." Under the new system of private enterprise, "any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day."

With the Indian trade, an ample food supply, and God’s blessing, the Pilgrims grew in prosperity and were soon able to buy out the interest of their investors and obtain clear title to their land.

For Bradford, the lesson was very clear:

"The experience that was had in this 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 and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God."

Four centuries later, it’s a lesson we still haven’t mastered.

John Aman is director of communications at Truth in Action Ministries (formerly Coral Ridge Ministries).

Publication date: November 21, 2011

Pilgrim Lesson: Spreading Wealth Leads to Pooled Poverty