Our First Thanksgiving
NOVEMBER 01, 1959 by SARTELL PRENTICE JR.
Mr. Prentice is an economist, lecturer, writer, and Counselor on Profit Sharing, now living in Dobbs Ferry,
Our American Thanksgiving Day is a unique holiday, a day set aside by Presidential Proclamation so that we may thank our Heavenly Father for the bountiful gifts he has bestowed on us during the year.
It is also a day dedicated to the Family, the basic unit of our American society, the core and center around which all else in America revolves. This, too, is in accord with our basic religious faith, for the Commandment has come down to us to "honor thy father and thy mother."
And so, from wherever we may be, North, South, East, or West, we Americans travel, sometimes great distances, back to the family hearth, to be present at the traditional Family Reunion and Feast on Thanksgiving Day.
But Thanksgiving Day has still another meaning; on this day we are asked to remember what Edmund Burke, in one of the most eloquent phrases to be found in all literature, described as "that little speck, scarce visible in the mass of national interest, a small seminal principle, rather than a formed body"—the tiny vessel, more accurately to be described as a "cockleshell," the Mayflower, and its hundred passengers, men, women, and children, who sailed on her.
Twelve years earlier, in 1608, they had fled from religious persecution in England and established a new home in
Finally, the Pilgrims landed, as we all know, on Plymouth Rock in the middle of December 1620, and on Christmas Day, in the words of Governor William Bradford,¹ they "begane to erecte ye first house for commone use to receive them and their goods."
So was established the first English colony in New England.
Three years later, when the plentiful harvest of 1623 had been gathered in, the Pilgrims "sett aparte a day of thanksgiving."
Governor Bradford adds, "Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day."²
Three Kernels of Corn
But what of the intervening years? After all, there were harvests gathered in 1621 and 1622.
I know of one family, descended from the Pilgrims, who place beside each plate at their bounteous table on Thanksgiving Day a little paper cup containing just three kernels of corn, as a constant reminder of the all too frequent days during these first years when three kernels of corn represented the daily food ration of their Pilgrim forebears.
Within three months of their landing on Plymouth Rock, "of one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these in ye time of most distres, ther was but six or seven sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toyle and hazard of their own health,… did all ye homly and necessarie offices which dainty and quesie stomaks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cherfully…, shewing herein their true love unto their f reinds and bretheren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered."
One half of the crew of the Mayflower, including "many of their officers and lustyest men, as ye boatson, gunner, three quartermaisters, the cooke, and others," also perished before the little vessel set sail on her return voyage to England in April 1621.
In the following excerpt from his History, Governor Bradford vividly describes the lot of the Pilgrims during these early years. Writing about conditions in the spring of 1623, after their corn had been planted, he says:
"All ther victails were spente, and they were only to rest on Gods providence; at night not many times knowing when to have a bitt of any thing ye next day. And so, as one well observed, had need to pray that God would give them their dayly brade, above all people in ye world….; which makes me remember what Peter Martire writs (in magnifying ye Spaniards) in his 5. Decade, page 208. ‘They’ (saith he) ‘led a miserable life for 5. days togeather, with ye parched graine of maize only, and that not to saturitie’; and then concluds, ‘that shuch pains, shuch labours, and shuch hunger, he thought none living which is not a Spaniard could have endured.’
"But alass these [the Pilgrims], when they had maize (yt is, Indean come) they thought it as good as a feast, and wanted not only for 5. days togeather, but some time 2. or 3. months togeather, and neither had bread nor any kind of come.
"Yet let me hear make use of his [Peter Martire's] conclusion, which in some sorte may be applied to this people: ‘That with their miseries they opened a way to these new-lands; and after these stormes, with what ease other men came to inhabite in them, in respecte of ye calamities these men suffered; so as they seeme to goe to a bride feaste wher all things are provided for them.’ "
Yet, following the harvest gathered in in the fall of that same year, 1623, and for all the years that followed, Governor Bradford tells us, "Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day."
Three years of near starvation—and then decades of abundance. Was this a miracle?
Or is there a rational explanation for this sudden change in the fortunes of our Pilgrim forefathers?
So They Tried Freedom
Describing events that took place in the spring of 1623, Governor Bradford answers our questions, in eloquent words that should be engraved on the hearts and minds of all Americans:
"All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with ye advise of ye cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set come every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves…. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means ye Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.
"The experience that was had in this comone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other ancients;—that ye taking away of propertie, and bringing into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imploymet that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For ye yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and service did repine that they shouldspend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails and cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to do a quarter ye other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with ye meaner and yonger sorte, thought it some indignite and disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brokke it. Upon ye poynte all being to have alike, and all to doe alike, they thought them selves in ye like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of those relations that God hath set amongest men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of ye mutuall respects that should be preserved amongest them. And would have bene worse if they had been men of another condition.
"Let none objecte this is men’s corruption, and nothing to ye corse it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter for them."
This new policy of allowing each to "plant for his owne perticuler" produced such a harvest that fall that Governor Bradford was able to write:
"By this time harvest was come, and in stead of famine, now God gave them plentie, and ye face of things was changed, to ye rejoysing of ye harts of many, for which they blessed God. And ye effect of their particuler planting was well seene, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring ye year aboute, and some of ye abler sorte and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day."
The Importance of Property Rights
Our first Thanksgiving should, therefore, be interpreted as an expression of gratitude to God, not so much for the great harvest itself, as for granting the grateful Pilgrims the perception to grasp and apply the great universal principle that produced that great harvest: Each individual is entitled to the fruits of his own labor. Property rights are, therefore, inseparable from human rights.
If man abides by this law, he will reap abundance; if he violates this law, suffering, starvation, and death will follow, as night the day.
This is the essential meaning of the two great Commandments, "Thou shalt not covet" and "Thou shalt not steal."
When it came time for the spring planting in the following year, 1624, the Pilgrims went one step further. In Governor Bradford’s words:
"I must speak of their planting this year; they having found ye benefite of their last years harvest, and setting corne for their particuler, having therby with a great deale of patience overcome hunger and famine. That they might encrease their tillage to better advantage, they made suite to the Govr to have some portion of land given them for continuance, and not by yearly lotte, for by that means, that which ye more industrious had brought into good culture (by much pains) one year, came to leave it ye nexte, and often another might injoye it; so as the dressing of their lands were the more sleighted over, and to lese profite. Which being well considered, their request was granted. And to every person was given only one acrre of land, to them and theirs, as nere ye towne as might be, and they had no more till ye seven years were expired."
Describing the results of the application of this policy in the year 1626, Governor Bradford tells us:
"It pleased ye Lord to give ye plantation peace and health and contented minds, and so to blese their labours, as they had come sufficient (and some to spare to others) with other foode; neither ever had they any supply of foode but what they first brought with them. After harvest this year, they sende out a boats load of corne 40. or 50. leagues to ye eastward, up a river called Kenibeck God preserved them, and gave them good success, for they brought home 700 ti. of beaver, besids some other furrs, having little or nothing els but this corne, which them selves had raised out of ye earth."
The discovery and application of this concept of individual property rights, derived from the Creator, was the real "seminal principle" so eloquently phrased by the great English statesman and orator, Edmund Burke. As it developed from this tiny seed into a "formed body," it became the cornerstone of our Declaration of Independence and of our Constitution, and produced the extraordinary explosion of individual human energy that took place in nineteenth century America.
Famine Persisted in England
In England, meanwhile, farming "in common" continued to be the general practice for another hundred years. Not until the second decade of the seventeen hundreds did "setting crops for their particuler" begin slowly to be accepted in England—and decades were to pass before the new practice became sufficiently widespread to provide an adequate food supply for the population.
As recently as 1844, an English writer thus describes the conditions which then existed:
"Full one third of our population [in the United Kingdom] subsist entirely, or rather starve, upon potatoes alone, another third have, in addition to this edible, oaten or inferior wheaten bread, with one or two meals of fat pork, or the refuse of the shambles [slaughterhouses], per week; while a considerable majority of the remaining third seldom are able to procure an ample daily supply of good butcher’s meat or obtain the luxury of poultry from year to year.
"On the continent of Europe, population is still in a worse condition…."³º
No country was ever more "underdeveloped" than the wilderness of New England on which our Pilgrim forebears set foot. The majority of those who landed from the Mayflower in December 1620 perished prior to that first great harvest of 1623. For two years they followed the age-old custom prevalent in England of "farming in common"—and they starved.
Through suffering, starvation, and hardship, they learned and applied the fundamentals of freedom—and, instead of starvation, they grew crops sufficient not only for their own needs, but to spare, enabling them to exchange their surplus with the Indians for beaver and other "furrs."
If Pilgrims Had Had "Foreign Aid"?
But suppose some foreign country, or their mother country, had taken pity on them in their misery and sent them ample food supplies during those first terrible years; this would have been impossible, for England herself was virtually on a starvation diet, as were most of the countries on the continent of Europe. But suppose it had been possible; suppose they had received such "foreign aid"?
Would not the Pilgrims have continued to "farm in common"? Would they not have continued to follow the practice that more than two centuries later was to become a basic tenet of Marxian philosophy, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"?
Would the Pilgrims ever have learned and applied the concepts of the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of property—the idea that each individual is entitled to the fruits of his own labor—the Law of Individual Freedom and Individual Responsibility?
Freedom for the individual, with recognition and respect for the right of each individual to his property, is essential to the release of individual human energy, which alone can raise the standard of living of any people.
It is for this reason that aid sent to support socialist governments (which deny the right to private property) and aid sent to help underdeveloped peoples that have not yet learned the lessons taught to the Pilgrims by hard experience—it is for this reason that such "aid" may be likened to attempting to fill a bathtub without first putting the stopper in.4
Would not America be rendering a greater service to these peoples by teaching them, through precept and example, the real meaning of our first Thanksgiving—and by pointing out to them the truth and applicability of the great ideals of individual freedom and individual responsibility under God?
The young American nation grew and prospered because for more than a century and a quarter the sanctity of property rights was recognized as being indispensable to human rights; because her people were free to "plant for their own particuler"; because the resultant "free market economy" invited domestic and foreign capital seeking a profit.
What of Today?
Is America, today, still abiding by these principles?
Not only is the answer "No!" but there is evidence on every hand that we are re-enacting the very mistakes our Pilgrim Fathers made during their first years of "farming in common," mistakes which produced nought but disaster, re-enacting in the New World the age-old miseries of constant hunger and starvation that continued to plague the Old World for some two centuries to come. We are not as yet suffering the Pilgrims’ privation, but we are reverting to arbitrary communalization on an enormous scale, resetting the same old-world stage.
Our present tax structure is a case in point. Its aim is not to finance the costs of a strictly limited government, but rather to reform society, to remold our lives, and to redistribute our wealth according to the ideas of economic and social planners dedicated to the socialization, the communization, of our once free America.
As a consequence, we are now supporting vast armies of government bureaucrats who swarm over the land—and over much of the world—devouring our substance like a plague of locusts. Today, one in every six employed Americans is on a government payroll.
As a consequence, we are compelled to contribute from the fruits of our labor billions of dollars for subsidies and handouts granted by politicians in their endless search for votes and personal power.
As a consequence, we have government operating vast businesses—already representing 20 per cent of the industrial capacity of the USA—businesses that ride the backs of the American people as interest free, rent free, cost free, and tax free princes of privilege, in competition with tax-paying enterprises.
In our program of aid to socialist governments and to underdeveloped nationalities and peoples that have not yet learned to apply the great universal truths tested and proved by our Pilgrim forebears, are we not seeking to fill the bathtub without first seeing to it that the stopper is in place—in a fruitless attempt to buy loyal allies with money? Referring to our sixty billion dollar Foreign Aid since World War II, on January 27, 1957, Hon. Spruille Braden said: "It is a sum equal to the assessed valuation of all real and other property in our seventeen biggest cities!"
Each time I accept a government handout, for any reason whatsoever, I am stealing from the only Treasure House any people has—the surplus wealth created by the productive energies of millions of individual men and women, each seeking a better life for himself and for his children. Each time I produce less, in my work, than enough to earn a profit for my employer, I am stealing from someone else—and contributing toward creating unemployment for others and a higher cost of living for all.
This Thanksgiving Day, let us, each in his own way, humbly ask forgiveness for the degree to which we have all violated the great "seminal principle," either directly, or through tolerating its violation by others.
Then, this Thanksgiving Day, let us highly resolve to dedicate our lives, as individuals, to "planting for our own particuler," rather than living as parasites on the productive energy of others; let us dedicate our lives to a renewed application of the ideal of individual freedom and individual responsibility, which our Pilgrim forebears learned at such sacrifice, and which they passed down to us as our most precious heritage.
1This and subsequent quotations are taken from Bradford’s History "of Plimoth Plantation" from the original manuscript. Printed under the direction of the Secretary of the Commonwealth by order of the General Court. Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Company, State Printers. 1898.
2Presumably 1647, the last year covered in Bradford’s History.
3Treatise on Artificial Incubation" by Mr. W. Bucknell, London: p. 36, quoted in Dictionary of the Farm by Mr. W. L. Rham (Charles Knight and Co., 1844), pp. 418-419. I am indebted to my uncle, the late Col. E. Parmalee Prentice, for the vast amount of research he carried out in gathering material such as this for his remarkable book, Hunger and History (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1951), without which this part of the article could not have been written.
4The distinction between free market services to individuals and intergovernmental foreign aid may be clarified by this statement by Joseph Stalin in Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (New York: Four Continent Book Corporation, 1940), pages 115 and 116:—"It is essential that the advanced countries should render aid—real and prolonged aid—to the backward nationalities in their cultural and economic development. Otherwise it will be impossible to bring about the peaceful co-existence of the various nations and peoples within a single economic system that is so essential for the final triumph of Socialism."