Various stories of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving exist. Some are conflicting while others have been greatly embellished. But, everyone concurs that the first winter at Plymouth was brutal, and deadly, with half of the colony losing their lives. It is not my intention to prove or disprove some of the stories that about that first Thanksgiving. Instead, I hope to share with you a story you may not be familiar with.
While there are many stories that have emerged around that first Thanksgiving, you may not have ever heard what you are about to read. It is more than a story. It is based on accounts from the diary of William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth.
Anyone who takes the time to read what Bradford wrote will not only learn a great deal about the early days of the Pilgrims, but, in many cases, gain an accurate and true account of what really happened. Some may even be shocked to find out that some of the things that have been told about the Pilgrims are absolutely false.
What happened after the first Thanksgiving, after a very brutal and deadly year? The colonist decided to make a major change. They agreed that what had been set up was not working, and, that their very survival depended upon making a drastic change.
Before they sailed to America, the investors financing the trip entered into a contract with the Pilgrims on July 1, 1620. It was a seven year partnership. In the contract, the investors were called, "Adventurers," while the Pilgrims were called, "Planters." At the end of the seven years, all profits would be "evenly divided betwixt the Adventurers and Planters."
The contract called for all property, as well as the fruits of all labor, to go into a common pool to be divided equally among all the Pilgrims. There was to be no private property. They called this arrangement a "commonwealth." Today, it would easily be identified and labeled as, socialism, or communism.
But after that first Thanksgiving, the leaders of the colony decided to make a very big, and in their eyes, a very critical change in how the colony operated. Seeing the results of the commonwealth, they chose to replace it with a system of private property. In observing how the commonwealth operated, they noticed the resentment by those who were working very hard only to have the fruits of their labor given to others who chose to not apply themselves equally as hard.
Bradford noted this at length in his diary: "For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort." He also referred to those who imposed such an operation, "vanity of that conceit … as if they were wiser than God."
The leaders realized that in a commonwealth society people could not be expected to do their best work without some personal incentive. The solution was more than just private property. Each family was assigned its own parcel of land to work. They not only kept and enjoyed the fruit of their own labor, but they could then market what they did not need.
Bradford later wrote, "This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." They began to set up trading posts with the Indians. With their profits they were then able to pay off their debts to the Adventurers back in London.
And as you may imagine, news of their success traveled fast. Their prosperity began to attract more and more Europeans who also wanted to live in a society where there was promise and reward for hard work. The Great Puritan Migration began.
Even though this account is rarely taught in schools, it was recognized by the founding fathers as they labored to put together a viable government and constitution more than 150 years later. The phrase, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" echoes what the Pilgrims decided to do. They worded it as, "the pursuit of happiness," not "the guarantee of happiness."
One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, James Wilson, who was later appointed as an associate Justice on the US Supreme Court, stated that critical decision by the Pilgrims. In 1790 he wrote, "The introduction of exclusive property immediately produced the most comfortable change in the colony, by engaging the affections and Invigorating the Pursuits of its Habitat."
On that first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims were grateful to God for all that they had. They were thankful to God to be alive. They celebrated their gratitude to Him. And then they made a very important decision. A decision weought to be very thankful for, and never forget.
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Michael A. Verdicchio