All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1967

A Great Society

Mr. Breese has taught Industrial Manage­ment at Georgia Tech and headed the Depart­ment of Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aero­nautical Institute in Florida. At present he is a free-lance writer.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing they didn’t wait for a government grant of funds or a massive pro­gram of made work or industrial subsidy. Those things didn’t exist in 1659. If they had, Thomas Macy and his friends certainly wouldn’t have been eligible by the standards of that time.

If our ancestors had thought and acted as so many people do today, Mr. Macy and his friends would have had a high priority claim to relief and subsidy bene­fits for the underprivileged and potentially unfree.

Just think. They were a reli­gious minority (Quaker) highly unpopular among their fellow New Englanders. They had been ac­tively persecuted and forced to leave their homes. Individually, none was prominent, important, or wealthy. They had neither learned nor inherited skills that would be of use in their new en­vironment.

To cap the climax, their place of refuge was highly unfavorable to survival on any but a bare sub­sistence basis. They settled an is­land, well off shore, about fifteen miles long and one to three miles broad. Its only harbor was so blocked by shifting sandbars that only small boats had free access to the sheltered anchorage.

The soil was sandy and infer­tile. Heather and moor-sedge grew well there. Grains and vegetables did not. Sometimes salt spray blew over the island to burn out what crops there were. There was not even a decent stand of timber for house and boat building. Later, even firewood had to be imported.

Note how perfectly they would qualify for subsidy and assistance in our day. Their island was a physical and economic “Appala­chia” without apparent resources to create or maintain any sort of viable prosperity. It was also a religious ghetto whose people were both discriminated against and socially despised by their nearest neighbors. They had neither schools nor money to build them, nor would it have been possible to re­cruit teachers from more favored areas. There were no doctors and no hospitals for the sick, no courts or police to maintain order. The children grew up with neither au­thoritarian guidance nor planned recreation programs.

A grim prospect—made grimmer still by the settlers’ inability, in­dividually or collectively, to qualify for any private loans for working capital. Apparently, there was “no­where to go from here,” and no way to get there.

Beg, Die, or Be Free

In any age and any society there can be only three ways for a peo­ple in such a situation to react. They may seek aid from some source outside themselves, either public or private. They can re­sign themselves to a survival-at-­subsistence-level until the com­munity either dies out or is aban­doned.

Or they can react as freemen. This is the hardest way of all. It calls for heroism of which only the freeman seems to be capable. Almost anyone who ever lived, if he had but found himself at the Pass of Thermopylea, could have stood up and fought with the three hundred. The capacity for a brief, climactic moment of physical her­oism, thank God, seems to exist in nearly all men.

It calls for another and, to my mind, a higher form of heroism to stand up to the endless, debili­tating attrition of a seemingly im­possible economic blind alley. Even greater qualities than these are needed to transform a barren and desolate sand reef into a cultured and prosperous community which served for two hundred years and more as a model to the world at large.

Yet, this is what the early set­tlers of the island of Nantucket managed to achieve.

If anything, I’ve underplayed the difficulties these people faced. For years, they ate fish and hung on as best they could. Sometimes they chewed leather when bacon was gone. In 1672, they built their town on its present site. The things that had to be imported were obtained by bartering smoked and dried fish, on the mainland — when a market could be found.

The off-shore location of the is­land meant that dead “drift” whales were frequently cast up on the beaches by wind and wave. The meat, when fresh enough, was welcome; and the oil and bone provided a valuable natural re­source for trade with the main­land. Some of these whales had died natural deaths; others prob­ably had been killed but not se­cured by the boat-whalers of Cape Cod.

Their First Live One

About the year the town was founded, a northern or Right Whale blundered into the harbor and failed to find its way out again over the shallow bar. The sporting instinct, and the cu­pidity, of the Nantucketer was aroused. Some unsung local smith promptly forged the first of un­numbered Nantucket harpoons, and a boatload of townsfolk put out. The whale was killed and beached.

The rest of the story is an American epic. Perhaps we should say a world-wide epic of the free­man. Lookout stations were erect­ed along the seaward perimeter of the island and manned by volun­teer watchmen. When a whale was sighted, small boats put out from shore to the chase. The dead whale was beached and the oil, bone, and meat secured by shifts of island­ers working together.

These people weren’t too proud to learn. They studied the tech­niques practiced by Cape Cod, Long Island, and Indian whalers, and added improvements through their own experience. In 1690, a skilled whaler named Ichabod Pad­dock was persuaded to bring his family from the mainland and open an apprentice training school for the men and boys of Nan­tucket.

Everybody — but everybody — on the island got into the act. It’s im­portant to keep this well in mind.

By the early 1700′s small sloops, capable of cruising for several days, had begun to replace the row boats used at first. The cruises were short, however, and it was still customary to tow the car­casses to shore stations for butch­ering.

In 1712 Christopher Hussey killed the first sperm whale ever taken by a Nantucket boat. The superior quality of the oil was quickly noted, and the hunt for the sperm whale began. These big fellows were far cruisers. To strike them it was necessary to cruise the reaches of the North and South Atlantic, the Brazil Banks, and the African Coast. Little sloops would not suffice any more. Nor could a dead whale be towed hundreds of miles before the oil was taken from the carcass.

Without Federal Aid

There were still no government grants. There weren’t even “sur­plus” naval or merchant marine vessels available to the infant in­dustry. If the islanders wanted larger vessels, they had to build them. They had to design a new type of ship for a new fishery, and learn how to build from their own designs. They had to import timber—and pay for it from cur­rent income. They had to produce for themselves a hundred different implements and types of gear de­manded by the industry.

All of this had to be financed by a community which included no very rich families and which had, as yet, no collective credit suffi­cient to float a direct loan or se­curity issue.

They started with larger sloops of about thirty tons, capable of cruising for six weeks or so. By 1715 they had six of these. Fifty years later, there were 101 Nan­tucket whalers—sloops, brigs, and schooners. By 1775 the total had passed 150. The oil, bone, and whale ivory they brought home were sold in Boston or directly in London. The islanders were importing timber and brick for the beautiful big houses which still stand as monu­ments of the early days. In time, Nantucket ships were seen in the most distant waters of the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

During the Revolution about 135 island whalers were captured by the British Navy. So highly were these men respected that, in­stead of going into prison hulks, they were forced to continue at their trade under the enemy flag. Far from destroying the fishery, war only stimulated the people to greater exertions; and the fleet continued to grow. Nantucket whaling did not end until the use of petroleum products made whale oil economically unprofitable after the Civil War.

The Fruits of Enterprise

There is no finer example in history of the achievement of co­operative free private enterprise than the story of the Nantucket settlement. These people started from scratch. Brainpower and hard work and common sense made them rich. They found a natural resource where apparently none existed.

Most of the early families be­came related by marriage until they were one big family. Of more than average intelligence, hard­working and thrifty, the people were so law-abiding that little or no government was ever needed or in evidence on the island. There were no paupers and no criminals. No bureaucracy was needed or wanted.

During the height of their pros­perity and activity there was not a single lawyer on the island. None was needed.

Capital for building and out­fitting the fleet was raised by the people themselves on a strictly free enterprise basis. Everyone contributed according to his or her means, and everyone profited.

Each ship was owned in a large number of widely distributed shares and built and outfitted by the sale of these. A particular in­dividual might own shares in ten or a hundred ships and would profit from the voyage of each.

The island boy started to learn the cooper’s trade or the boat builder’s or smith’s at the age of twelve. At 14 he went to sea, and became an officer in his twenties. Generally, he left the sea by forty to concentrate on the shore end of the business and make way for a new generation.

Everyone on the island had an interest in the business, over and above the shares in ships. If a man made harpoons, they must be of the best, for he owned a share in the whales they would strike. If he sold provisions, they must be of good quality, for the well­being of the crew would contrib­ute much to the voyage in which his funds were invested. If he built whaleboats, they must be well made, for his son or brother would man them.

The business affairs of the town were more like the transac­tions of a clearinghouse than like the typical village trade and bar­ter. The amount of money in hand was small. Business was largely a matter of crediting one item against another. A losing voyage was offset by the profits of others.

It was this unity of purpose, in­telligence and courage in planning and venturing, and keenness of spirit in the whale hunt that made Nantucket the greatest whaling port of her era. The memory and study of their achievement stand as inspiration for all freemen to­day.

Above all else, Nantucket stands as the monument to men who thought and acted as freemen. Ob­stacles which might have destroyed them served only as a spur to greater achievement. They had —they needed—no advantage and no resource not instantly available to all freemen at all times.

You and I have these same re­sources, if only we will think and dare to employ them. The lesson these freemen taught will be as valid in 1972 as in 1672.



Wards of the Government

We Americans seem to believe that just because our pioneer fathers once subjugated the Indians, we in turn are obligated to keep them in the bondage of government “security.” As a result, the Indian has the status of a ward instead of a citizen. Instead of being a responsible person, he is a dependent.

And in a like manner, if we free Americans continue to turn to government for our security, we too will surely become de­pendent wards instead of responsible citizens. There will be a Commissioner to control our personal affairs and our individual responsibilities. Instead of calico and blankets, we may be prom­ised a hundred dollars every month. But since the principle is the same in both cases, the results will also eventually be the same.


  • Mr. Breese has taught Industrial Management at Georgia Tech and headed the Department of Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Florida. At present he is a free-lance writer.