Thanksgiving is all about football, family, friends, and coming together to feast on turkey and all the trimmings. The spirit of peace and friendship prevails as it did between the original pilgrims, who celebrated their first harvest in the new world after surviving a devastating winter, and the Native Americans who helped them survive.
Yet the story of Thanksgiving begins with an experiment in communism that almost wiped out the colony at its inception. The original pilgrims were financed in their voyage by a group of investors who imposed a communistic system on them to be observed for seven years, to be followed by an equal distribution of property. They believed that such a system, by which each male pilgrim of age would be defined as an equal unit of labor, would yield them profits from the excess capital.
The main source for this history is the journal of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, published as “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Bradford, who lived through the experiment, thus reported on the “communistic plan” from first-hand knowledge.”
William Bradford wrote:
the failure of that experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as it they were wiser than God.
For in this instance, community of property was found to breed much confusion and discontent; and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit.
For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense.
Interestingly, Bradford was aware of other communistic experiments and their failed history.
The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice.
The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them.
As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing, their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it.
If all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them.
Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself.
Governor Bradford then records how the colony remedied the problem:
At length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household. … So every family was assigned a parcel of land.
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, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction.
The women now went willing into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability, and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
The rejection of the communist system by the pilgrims, which profoundly affected the future course of American society, led to the bountiful harvest and the first Thanksgiving feast.
In 1789, President George Washington declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday: a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
In his first year as president, Washington set aside a day, November 26, to be observed in perpetuity, by which Americans could acknowledge their blessings and "unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions."
Chuck Morse is a radio host who broadcasts live Thursday's at 10 a.m. ET at WMFO-Tufts. Chuck hosts the podcast "Chuck Morse Speaks" on iTunes and Stitcher and his books are available on Amazon.com. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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