All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

The Puritan Experiment in Common Ownership

One of the more familiar incidents in American history, at least within conservative circles, is the disastrous experiment with a common storehouse in the Pilgrim colony in 1621-23. Governor Bradford describes in some detail in his history of the colony how young men refused to work in the common fields in order to lay up produce for a common storehouse, only to see all goods divided equally among families. Upon petition of the planters, the Governor and his council decided to follow their advice: assign families their personal plots of farm land (according to family size) and abolish the common storehouse. Immediately, men and women returned to the harvest fields.

What is less known about this incident is how the little colony ever made such a disastrous decision in the first place. The fact of the matter is that the colonists had never wanted to inaugurate a system of totally common property. The group of British “adventurers” that had supplied the Pilgrim exiles in Holland with traveling money and capital had insisted that the colony be made a part of the joint-stock company. The assets of the colony therefore were the assets of the company, headquartered in Britain, and the agricultural products were to be shared equally among company members, both colonial and British. Governor Bradford was the chief agent of the company in New England; hence, he was compelled to impose the common storehouse system.

In the original negotiations, it had been understood that profits would be shared by all members of the company, but the colonists had not agreed to the sharing of houses, gardens, and other improved land. They were informed of these terms only as they were about to leave for North America, and as they left, they sent back word to the merchant adventurers that their agents who had agreed to such terms had not been empowered to do so.’ But the continuing dependence upon the company for resources during the first year of the colony’s existence compelled them to give in to the company’s terms.²

The story did not end in 1623, when necessity forced the hands of the colonists. In 1627, the bickering British directors sold out their interests in the colony to the settlers for £1800. The settlers were to spend a decade and a half in paying off their debt, and at times had to borrow extra time at rates of 30 per cent to 50 per cent. Nevertheless, they persisted and finally repaid the debt, in 1642.

In 1627, shortly after buying out the British directors, Governor Bradford supervised the division of the colony’s assets among the settlers. First, they divided livestock. There were few animals, so the 156 people (less than 40 families) were divided into a dozen companies; each company received a cow and two goats. In January of 1628, the land was divided, this time by random lot. Complaints about unequal housing were forestalled by requiring those who received better housing to make an equalizing payment to those receiving poorer housing. Peace was preserved.

There was one decision, however, which was to prove costly. Meadow was in short supply, so it was kept in common ownership. Furthermore, fishing, fowling, and water remained “open” to all settlers.3 The Pilgrims were to have the same difficulties with the administration of these common fields as their neighbors, the Puritans, were to experience. Only after 1675, when the “commons” throughout New England were increasingly distributed to the families in each town, were these problems overcome.

Varying Concepts of Ownership

In order to understand the thinking of the first half century of New England settlers, we have to realize that these immigrants did not bring over from England some universally accepted concept of land ownership. There was an obvious tendency for groups of settlers from one region in England to establish homogeneous townships in Massachusetts. English towns had developed at least three major systems of land tenure: the open field system, the closed field system, and the incorporated borough. All three appeared in New England in the early years.

The open field system stressed the community administration of land. It is this system which we generally associate with the word “medieval,” although the Middle Ages saw many systems of land tenure. Sumner Chilton Powell has described these systems in some detail in his fine study, Puritan Village. The open field system “regarded the advantages of the area as communal property, to be shared by all. No one was to exclude a neighbor from such a necessity as good meadow, or the down, or the woods. And if anyone practiced such exclusion, or attempted to increase the amount of his holding at the expense of his neighbors, all villagers reacted instantly to restore their ‘rights.’ “4 Needless to say, this approach did not survive long in the setting of New England.

Extensive Trading of Land in Berkhamsted

Quite different was an English borough like Berkhamsted. In the early seventeenth century, over one thousand acres “were opened up, bought, or traded, in countless individual transactions. If the men of Berkhamsted were doing nothing else, they were trading land.”5 The legend of the Yankee trader was rooted in this sort of English inheritance. There were some enclosed lands, but most of the farmers were shifting as rapidly as possible to a system of individual farm management.

A third system was a sort of combination, the closed field system of East Anglia. “There was one common pasture, but each farmer was expected to provide a balance of arable, pasture, and hay meadow for himself. He succeeded, or failed on his own farming ability.”6 One of the problems in a Massachusetts town like Sudbury was the diversity of backgrounds of its inhabitants. There was no agreement as to where the locus of economic sovereignty should be. Should it be the individual farmer? Should it be the town’s selectmen who controlled the resources of the town commons?

The towns and colonial governments of seventeenth-century New England were not strictly theocracies; ordained ministers could not be elected to political office. But they were important as advisers. Furthermore, the laymen of that era were very often more theologically motivated than ministers of this century. Most of the towns were regarded as tightly-knit Christian commonwealths by their inhabitants, and during the first fifty years of their existence, they imposed restrictions on immigration into the local community. They were concerned that newcomers might not meet the religious and moral standards of the present inhabitants. As late as 1678, the records of Plymouth Colony offered the hope that “the Court will be careful, that whom they accept are persons orthodox in their judgments.” The Puritan towns of Boston, Cambridge, Dedham, and probably many others all included the requirement that outsiders be cleared by town officials before they were allowed to buy land locally. Braintree even included a restriction on land sales (though not explicitly religious in intent) that local residents would have the right to bid first on all property offered for sale to outsiders.

It is significant that in the final quarter of the century, these religious restrictions were generally dropped. Instead, a new requirement — in fact, a new emphasis on an old requirement — appeared: restrictions on immigrants who might become a burden on the welfare rolls. The towns had steadily become more pluralistic theologically, but the fear of an increase in tax rates was a truly ecumenical device. By offering economic support to local indigents, the townspeople were afraid that outsiders might take advantage of this legal charity. Barriers to entry followed in the wake of “free” goods, however modest — and they were very modest — the size of the public welfare allotments.7

Pressure on the Commons

The fear of increased welfare burdens was not the only economic issue confronting established communities every time a stranger sought admission as a resident of some town. In the early years of settlement, each town had considerable land — six to eight miles square — and relatively few inhabitants. Each resident had legal access to the common pasturage and to any future divisions of land from the huge blocs owned to no avail. “Free” land meant strong demand for its productivity, and town leaders never were able to find a rational, efficient means of restricting uneconomic uses of the town property. Men had a strong incentive to further their personal economic ends, and far less incentive to consider the public’s position. The commons served as incentives to waste, for without a free market and private ownership, it was impossible to calculate accurately the costs and benefits associated with the use of the land. This is the chief economic flaw of all socialist systems, and the early settlers of New England were unable to solve it.

The Eternal Problems of Supply and Demand

Someone who has only a superficial knowledge of the history of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony tends to see them as men obsessed with imposing religious restraints or moral restraints on private activities. They were concerned with such questions, as the records indicate, but from the bulk of the legislation, two problems were eternal, unsolvable, and endlessly bothersome to Puritan leaders: pigs without rings in their noses running through the town, and midnight tree cutters on the commons. The tree cutters, like the pigs, insisted by the town. But as the number of inhabitants increased, and as more and more distributions of town land reduced the available source of unowned land, the per capita supply of land began to shrink. Those inhabitants who had a share in the common pasture and the common lands sought to protect their control over further use and distributions of such property. In town after town, a new rule was imposed: outsiders had to purchase access to rights in the common property from local inhabitants. The result was a new appreciation of private ownership and private control of property, even among men who had grown up in English communities that had used the open field system of farming. The land hunger of New England after 1650 created new incentives to gain and exercise personal sovereignty over the chief economic resource, land.

There was another incentive to reduce the size of the community-owned property: bureaucratic wrangling. Page after page of the Massachusetts town records, year after year: how to restrain access to the common meadow? How to keep midnight visitors from cutting down choice trees for firewood or other uses? How to keep the meadow’s fences in repair? Statute followed statute, to no avail. Fines were imposed, equally on sticking their noses into other people’s property.

The commoners — those who had legal access to the common fields and meadows — were too often involved in what today is known as “free riding.” They planted crops in the common property, but neglected to keep their portion of the commons properly fenced. It was almost impossible to keep track of who was responsible for which plot. Towns had to intervene and assign plots, thus creating opportunities for local political dissension. Animals that wandered around the fenced land often broke down unrepaired fencing between plots, getting into someone else’s crops. Tension here was continual.

Fencing inspectors were important officials in every town. Conflicts over responsibility were endless. Without private plots privately repaired, such conflicts were inevitable. In the early decades of Massachusetts, no single public policy prevailed long. First, the colony’s General Court — the chief legislative agency — placed the responsibility for fencing on the local town; then it placed the responsibility on the local individual citizen; next it switched back to its original position of town control. The statutes did not function well in practice. Different communities had different problems, and the central government had difficulty in dealing with all of them through the use of any single administrative policy.8

The problem facing every selectman in every New England village was “the tragedy of the commons,” as the biologist Garrett Hardin has called it. Each person who has access to the benefits of public property for use in his own personal business has a positive incentive to drain additional resources from the commons, and he has a very low or even negative incentive to restrain him. The cost of his actions are borne by all the “owners,” while the benefits are strictly individual. One more cow or sheep or goat grazing on the town commons will register no noticeable increase in the communally assessed economic burden which rests on any single individual. Yet such grazing is immediately beneficial to the owner of the animal. High benefits, low costs: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited.”9 It is not surprising that selectmen would find themselves burdened with endless disputes concerning the size of the local herds and the proper — “fair” — assessments of the economic costs of running those herds on the commons.

There is an answer to the tragedy of the commons, at least where it is inexpensive to assign property rights. As C. R. Batten has argued, the transfer of ownership from an amorphous common group to individual citizens provides an incentive to reduce the demands made on the land. Private owners have to assess both costs and benefits of any activity, seeing to it that costs do not outrun benefits. By the end of the seventeenth century, Puritan leaders — or at least leaders who were the descendants of Puritans — reached a similar conclusion.¹º

With each piece of legislation, another problem or set of problems appeared. First, only actual town commoners could run their animals in the common meadow or in the outlying common lands. Only local residents could cut the trees. Later, the selectmen had to impose limits on the number of cattle that could be run, frequently on a “one cow per man” rule. Each man was assessed a few shillings per year for this right. Some people brought in horses; Boston banned them on Sundays. Sheep had to be supervised by a sheep herder. As more animals required full-time supervision, towns hired herdsmen. To keep the cost-per beast low, each town resident was required by law to run his animal with the herd. Cambridge, for example, imposed a fine of one shilling on anyone whose cow was found on his land after 8 a.m. Since the driver left at 6 a.m., anyone who had not yet delivered his animal to the herd had to escort his cow to the driver, eating up scarce time. A similar law for goats was passed two years later, in 1639.11 People naturally attempted to evade the law, and by 1648 the revenues supporting the town’s herdsman were not meeting his salary. Consequently, in typical interventionist fashion, the selectmen decided to assess all men a certain amount, whether or not they ran cattle on the commons. A similar rule was established in Watertown in 1665, and the massive evasions encouraged the selectmen to pass an even stiffer law in 1670.13

Corrected Over Time

The confusion reigned for decades. As the Watertown records report so eloquently, “there being many complaints made concerning the disorderliness of cattle and swine and the multitudes of sheep in the town, it was voted that the matter above mentioned is left with the selectmen to consider something that may tend to reformation and to present what they shall do to the town to be confirmed.”14 Needless to say, the selectmen could not do anything about it, any more than half a century of Puritan town governments before them. The only solution was the distribution of the commons to local inhabitants — the demise of the commons.

Traditional patterns of life do not die out overnight. Men are usually unwilling to change their way of life unless forced to do so, either by economic circumstances or by direct political pressure. The little town of Sudbury was a case in question. Its inhabitants clung to the old English system of communal property management. The access to the commons was restricted, in 1655, and at least thirty younger men received no meadow grants for their animals. They went out of the selectmen’s meeting ready to fight. Fight they did, until the town was split. They formed a new community down the road, Marlborough. Not gaining access to the local commons, they were perfectly willing to settle for a 24,000 acre plot a few miles away.15

Factional strife was not a part of the original goals of the founders of New England. Factionalism was a blight to be avoided; this opinion remained a touchstone of American political thought until James Madison wrote Federalist #10. Yet the quarreling over the commons was incessant, in direct opposition to the political and communal ideal of the peaceable kingdom.


The town of Sudbury was not to be the only Puritan village unable to cope successfully with the centrifugal forces created by the presence of socialized property within the town limits. The creation of Marlborough, despite the fact that the young founders also established a town commons, testified to the difficulty of preserving both the old common field tenure system and social peace in the midst of vast stretches of unoccupied land. It was too easy to move out, and this feature of New England was to erode the medievalism of early Puritan thought. The centralized social control necessary to enforce such a system of common land required the existence of widespread land scarcity. Ironically, it was in the final quarter of the seventeenth century that such land scarcity appeared — scarcity of the most productive lands — but by that time the haggling over the administration of the commons and increasing land values had already provided the incentives necessary to convince both leaders and average citizens that the commons should be distributed permanently.

One of the original goals of the founders of New England was that of social cohesion. The life of each community was to be religiously based. The church was the center of the town, both symbolically and very often physically. Men were to live close to each other, share in each other’s burdens, pray together, and construct God’s kingdom on earth. But there was a strong economic incentive to consolidate land holdings.

Even before the market of Boston created demand for agricultural products, men in the villages had begun to barter their land allotments. A man might live in the town with five or six acres of garden and meadow, and he might also have been given some forty or fifty acre plots in the common lands scattered around the town. Obviously, it was to the advantage of some men to consolidate their holdings, trading with others who also wanted to cut down on the time spent to travel — in mud, in snow, in dust — from one plot to another. Then, family by family, an exodus began from the central town. Artisans tended to come into the town’s center; farmers, especially those affected by Boston‘s market (those in the immediate Boston area or close to water transport to Boston), needed to consolidate in order to rationalize production.

Despite the efforts of ministers and local selectmen, the population spread out; decentralization, when not political, was at least social. You could not examine your neighbor’s intimate affairs when he was three miles away. The market for land was an agent of social decentralization.

The Urge for Privacy

The experience of the isolated little town of Dedham is illustrative of the effect of market freedom on traditional patterns of social and economic control. Professor Kenneth Lockridge describes the process:

If the corporate unity of the village was slowly eroding, so was its physical coherence. The common field system began disintegrating almost from the day of its inception. Already in the 1640′s the town permitted men to “fence their lots in particular” and presumably to grow in these lots whichever crops they wished. By the 1670′s it had become usual for men to take up both special “convenience grants” and their usual shares of each new dividend in locations as close as possible to their existing lots, practices which aided the consolidation of individual holdings. The process encouraged by public policy was completed by private transactions, for an active market in small parcels soon emerged, a market in which most farmers sought to sell distant lands and buy lands closer to their main holdings. The net result was the coalescence of private farms. From here, it would be but two short steps for farmers whose holdings were centered in outlying areas to move their barns and then their houses from the village out to their lands. As of 1686 few seem to have taken these steps, but the way had been prepared and the days of a society totally enclosed by the village were numbered. In any event the common-field system was gone, taking with it the common decisions and the frequent encounters of every farmer with his fellows which it entailed.16

The closer to Boston, the faster these changes occurred, for if transport was cheap enough —within 10 miles or so along a well-traveled road — the effects of the free market were felt far more alluringly. It paid to become more efficient.

A Typical Development

The demise of the commons in Cambridge seems typical. The first division took place in 1662. A second followed in 1665. Two small divisions were made in 1707 and 1724. Various methods were used to determine who got what parcels of land: lots were drawn, or acres were distributed in terms of the number of cows a family was allowed to graze on the common meadow, or a committee was formed to consider other methods. In some towns there was considerable strife; in others, the distributions were relatively peaceful. The effects on Cambridge were significant, and in retrospect they seem quite predictable. After 1691, it was no longer necessary to pass new laws against the cutting of timber from the commons. Men owned their own land, and they cut or refused to cut as they saw fit. It was no longer necessary to pass laws against selling timber to men from other towns, a common feature of mid-seventeenth century legislation in the towns. A thoroughly individualistic system of land tenure evolved.

The final impetus to private ownership came in the 1680′s. James II, after coming to the throne in 1685, sent Sir Edmund Andros, the former Royal governor of New York, to take over as governor general of New England. The king meant to consolidate the political structure of the colonies, making them all purely royal colonies. Andros met with instant opposition. He began to hit too close to a crucial legal weakness of New England’s towns.

By 1685, there were four New England colonies, New Haven having been absorbed into Connecticut in 1662: Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. (Plymouth became a part of Massachusetts in 1692). The right of these colonial governments to create valid, legal townships was in question; the right of the towns to act as if they were incorporated entities in giving legal title to land was not in doubt: it was illegal. The king’s seal was not present in the towns, and this was an invitation for the king’s newly appointed bureaucracy — a growing horde —to intervene to their own advantage.

In 1686, the Andros regime imposed a 2.5 shilling quit-rent per annum on all 100-acre lots not occupied or occupied by means of defective titles. Andros called for a re-examination of the land patents. Whether or not this represented a true threat to the majority of land owners, they certainly were convinced that his intentions were the worst, and that a major land-grab was about to be inaugurated. In the various political pamphlets issued in 1688-90 by outraged critics of his administration (later assembled as the Andros Tracts), this criticism was made over and over. It was a major reason cited as a justification for his overthrow in 1688. “Henceforward, the colonies took absolute control of the land….”17 Men desired, as never before, to gain clear-cut title to their lands. It intensified a pressure that was five decades old or more.18

The Market Process

Step by step, individual men asserted their sovereignty over land; the proprietors of the commons steadily transferred the unoccupied land surrounding the village, as well as the land in the more central common fields, to the citizens of the town. While they did not ask for competitive bidding as a means of distributing this land, the officials did effect a continuous transformation of ownership. In doing so, they established a break from the historical inheritance of many towns, the old medieval open field system of common ownership. The continual bickering over the allocation of timber, fallen logs, tree cutting by moonlight, town herds, herdsmen’s salaries, fence mending, planting in the common fields, and policing everyone to see that these laws were obeyed, finally broke the will of the town officials. It was easier to give the land away; it was also more profitable for town residents, in most cases.

The tradition of the independent yeoman farmer so impressed Jefferson that he built an entire political philosophy around it. The idea that individual men are more responsible for the administration of property than boards of political appointees or even elected officials became a fundamental principle of eighteenth and nineteenth century American life. The concepts of personal responsibility and personal authority became interlocked, and the great symbol of this fusion was the family farm. The endless quest for land by American families is one of the most impressive tales in American history. It began as soon as the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower and their Puritan neighbors stepped off the Arabella a decade later. The experiment in common ownership in village after village over half a century convinced ministers, laymen, and political leaders that the private ownership of the means of production was not only the most efficient way to get Christian goals accomplished, but also that such a form of ownership was economically profitable as well. They saw, almost from the start, that social peace is best achieved by means of the private ownership of the tools of production, especially that most crucial of tools, land. The lessons of that first half-century of New England Puritan life is one of the most important heritages of American life. Without it, indeed, American life would be impossible to interpret correctly.



1 George D. Langdon, Jr.; Pilgrim Colony (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 9.

² Ibid., p.26.

3 Ibid., p. 31.

4 Sumner Chilton Powell, Puritan Village (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, [1963] 1966), p. 11.

5 Ibid., p. 26.

6 Ibid., p. 72.

7 On the size of local town charities, see Stephen Foster, Their Solitary Way: The Puritan Social Ethic in the First Century of Settlement in New England (Yale University Press, 1971), p. 137.

8 William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England 16201789 (2 vols., 1890), I, pp. 59-60.

9 Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (13 Dec., 1968); reprinted in Garrett de Bell (ed.), The Environmental Handbook (New York: Ballantine, 1970), p. 37.

¹º C. R. Batten, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” THE FREEMAN (Oct., 1970). 11 The Records of the Town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1703 (1901), pp. 28, 39.

1² Ibid., p. 72.

13 Watertown Records (1894), I, pp. 92, 94-95.

14 Ibid., p. 142.                        

15 Powell, Puritan Village, chap. 9.

16 Kenneth Lockridge, A New England Town (New York: Norton, 1970), p. 82.

17 Roy H. Akagi, The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, [1924] 1963), p. 124.

18 Philip J. Greven, Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970), p. 61.  

  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.