The true meaning of Thanksgiving

For at least a decade the Review-Journal reprinted every Thanksgiving Day an editorial explaining the true story behind the reason for the celebration. That’s not quite as long as The Wall Street Journal’s holiday editorials that have been printed each year since 1961. Apparently The R-J version was retired and replaced it with one about giving, especially to the charity where the publisher serves on the board of trustees. So, I am starting my own Thanksgiving tradition and reprinting this blog posting from the past two years to fill the void.

We explain how the Plymouth colonists set out to live in an idealistic communal fashion. Everyone would share equally in the products of the colony. But after nearly starving to death in 1621 and 1622, Gov. William Bradford abandoned the social experiment and gave each family its own plot of land, and whatever was produced on it was the rightful property of the owner to consume or trade.

Gov. William Bradford

The result was a prosperous harvest in 1623 and feast of Thanksgiving.

Capitalism saved the colony.

The American Institute of Economic Research has posted online its own retelling of the Thanksgiving story, along with passages from Bradford’s recollections from “Of Plymouth Plantation,” translated into more modern spelling.

The AIER notes that the colony was attempting to live in the manner described in Plato’s Republic in which all would work and share goods in common, ridding themselves of selfishness and achieving higher social state. The problem was that hard work was not rewarded and laggardness and sloth went unpunished.

Bradford wrote:

“For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could man husbands brook it.”

Before the colony could die off from starvation, Bradford divvied up the land and introduced private property.

The governor wrote:

“And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end. … This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or 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 a ledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

And the result was, again in Bradford’s words:

“By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

This is the real lesson of the first Thanksgiving: Capitalism always triumphs over communist utopian fantasies. Humans will work for their own self interest and, instead of it being greedy and rapacious, all benefit and prosper.

12 comments on “The true meaning of Thanksgiving

  1. Rincon says:

    “This is the real lesson of the first Thanksgiving: Capitalism always triumphs over communist utopian fantasies. Humans will work for their own self interest and, instead of it being greedy and rapacious, all benefit and prosper”…..except for the 47%.

  2. Nyp says:

    Except that, inconveniently, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621, several years before Plymouth colony ended their common property arrangements.

  3. Steve says:

    I grew up in Massachusetts. The facts are after that first season the conditions described above were prevalent. For many reasons. One being human nature which ensures common belief may work for a short while but the need for self always bubbles to the surface. In the face of new arrivals who did not have the same beliefs as the core colonists, It was a loosening of communal laws that saved the colony. has very good history on this subject. If you have never been to the plantation it is a good visit. Never mind the rock at the bottom of the hole, Plymouth has a duplicate in the town hall basement in case someone actually manages to steal the rock.

    There were other “first Thanksgivings” as well. Its the 1621 event we celebrate in this country and the less than religious among us may not like many portions of what began it.

    The basic facts of Tom’s article are correct. He should continue to publish it.

    Here are few tastes:

    Click to access historical_key_docs.pdf

  4. Athos says:

    We can continue to ignore the human condition at our own peril. Corrupt leaders will steal the fruits of masses, as will Rinny’s 47 percent.

    Will the producers go “John Gault” or John Smith (no work, no eat)?

  5. Rincon says:

    Don’t forget big business, Athos. Thomas Jefferson: “The country is headed toward a single and splendid government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions and moneyed incorporations and if this tendency continues it will be the end of freedom and democracy, the few will be ruling…I hope we shall…crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to trial and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

    Although he was referring to the banking interests of the time, he recognized to power of money and considered large amounts concentrated into few hands to be an enemy to the republic. Money is power. Huge money is huge power.

  6. Athos says:

    It always has and always will be, Rin. With Jorge and Shifty Paulson bailing out the big banks bad bets 5 years ago, along with the Fed printing funny money ($4 trillion worth of QE 1,2,3,or 4??), for all his “man of the people” crap, Ø is definitely in the pocket of big banks (as was Clinton). Don’t you think so?

  7. Steve says:

    There is a base difference between conservatives and liberals.

    Conservatives are for big banks, corps and gathering wealth. They make no bones about it.

    Liberals are for big banks, corps and amassing wealth while they smile at everyone and lie to us about it. ( I will never get over Michael Moore claiming he is just one of the little people 99% he claimed….sick lie and a bunch of liberal bought it!)

  8. nyp says:

    Perhaps you are right. I am a liberal and I certainly have no problem with big banks or big corporations. Or with rich dudes in general.

    Of course, I am also in favor of taxing the bejesus out of them, but that is a separate matter.

  9. Athos says:

    Banks make risky bets with depositors money. The bets fail. The government bails out the banks with the people’s money. And liberals want to tax the bejesus out of the banks, who will in turn pass the cost off on their customers. Or make risky bets to cover the tax.

    And the cycle begins again until it swirls down the drain, crashing the system.

    Sounds like a liberal construct.

  10. Rincon says:

    Sounds like a liberal construct devised by corporations that preach conservatism in every way until their butt is in a sling; then liberal is wonderful, thank you. I’m with you on this one Athos.

  11. Athos says:

    We can’t ignore human nature. There are corrupt individuals in big business, and government. If they think they can get away with theft, they do. And seeing how no one (that comes to my mind) ever paid for this derivative meltdown in ’08, these crooks, whether insulated by power or money, got away with stealing $860 Billion.

    Couple that with the coverup of QE 1,2, 3, ad infinitum, all I can do is shake my head.

    It would seem that these crooks seem to know that the American people have the attention span of a 2 year old. Just wait a few news cycles and everyone will forget about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, IRS targeting political opponents and even the absolute failure of Øcare.

    Hell of a legacy we’re giving our children, isn’t it?

  12. Rincon says:

    I’ve asked a couple of dozen people to define capital gains and describe how they’re taxed. Maybe 25% know the answer. Those under 30 almost never do. Just an example of voter ignorance. As long as the voters don’t know they’re getting a raw deal, the crooks are safe.

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