Paul Jacob

The problem? The colony had been engaging in something very like communism.

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 Platos and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser then God.

Bradford relates the consequences of common property:

For this community (so far as it was) 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 labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other mens wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, then he that was weak and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, clothes, and., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men . . . they deemed it a kind of slavery. . . .

Yes, the s-word: Slavery. Common property was mutual slavery.

The solution? The plan for society that Bradford attributed to God. He brooked no pleading that common property didn’t work because of sin. As he put it, “seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” The course? I’ll use a word of coined by Robert Poole, one of the founders of Reason magazine: Privatization.

What the Pilgrims privatized was land, and the fruits thereof, assigning to

every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. 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 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 alleged weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Thus began the years of bounty in Massachusetts. There’s much more in Bradford’s account worth reading, including the increasingly tragic relations with the native Americans. Racial harmony was not the order of that day, alas. One learns from reading such firsthand accounts how imperfect a creature is man.

But it is obvious that some systems of property and governance work better than others, and, on the day that our government has set forth as a day of Thanksgiving, and every day, it is worth being thankful for living in a land that has upheld — to at least some degree — the system of private property that America’s Pilgrims learned to see as God’s “fitter course” for corruptible man, and that has served as the foundation for our political and economic liberties.

It’s worth noting how corruptible government is, too, though. George Washington could sincerely give thanks “for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge.” If it’s a little harder to give thanks, today, for the “peaceable and rational manner” in which our government carries on its daily business, that’s a reason for something more than thanks. Or gripes.

It’s time to work to correct the errors and insanities of our age, just as the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers corrected theirs.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.