The People’s Republic of Plymouth

The strange and persistent right-wing myth that Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims’ triumph over socialism.

The first Thanksgiving, socialism
“Down with the Commies! Let’s eat!”

Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris/Library of Congress

This Thursday, Americans will gather together for an evening of family, food, football, and arguing with the relatives about politics. And why shouldn’t that argument extend to the meaning of the holiday itself?

One could argue that the idea of celebrating a rare moment of friendship between America’s early European settlers and its native inhabitants is marred somewhat by the centuries of bloodshed that followed. Yes, Americans of a conservative bent might dismiss this as mere P.C. revisionism. But the right has its own version of Thanksgiving revisionist history—the idea that the holiday is a celebration of the pilgrims’ abandonment of socialism in favor of free enterprise.

The storyline goes like this: The early settlers at Plymouth at first experimented with a system of collective ownership of farmland, which, as with their compatriots at Jamestown, led to widespread famine. When they eventually abandoned this system in favor of private ownership, farmers were more productive, the harvest was bountiful, and a feast was held in celebration. Pass the stuffing!

This tale has its roots in the Cold War. “Let us be thankful for this valued lesson from our Fathers—and yield not to the temptations of socialism,” advised a 1968 column by the popular midcentury conservative newspaper columnist Henry Hazlitt.

The notion of Thanksgiving as an anti-socialist parable has been given new life with the rise of the Tea Party, with versions of it reappearing on conservative and libertarian blogs and newspaper op-ed pages every year around this time. “The Pilgrims tried ‘it takes a village’ socialism and almost starved,” remarks a column in Sunday’s Salem (Ohio) News, for instance. A 1999 version of the story published by the Mises Institute, a free-market think tank, is a popular email forward. Fox News’ John Stossel is also fond of the tale, as is George Will. Not surprisingly, the leading exponent of the theory may be Rush Limbaugh, who repeats the “true” story of Thanksgiving every year around this time on his radio show. “Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn’t work!” he told his listeners last year.

The idea, which has the twin virtues of reaffirming the wisdom of the free-market system and discounting the modern multiculturalist notion that the pilgrims succeeded with the help of Native Americans, is rooted in historical accounts. It has some flaws, though.

As Kate Zernike of the New York Times pointed out in 2010, the timeline doesn’t quite work. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621. The system of collective ownership known as the “common course” was abandoned in 1623. And it was abandoned not because of famine but because the settlers wanted to make more money. As for Jamestown, their biggest problems were drought and malaria, not socialism.

It is true that the Plymouth settlers abandoned a system of common ownership in favor of private property, and found it much more to their liking. In his memoirs, William Bradford, the colony’s first governor, writes that the communal lifestyle was “found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment … [f]or the Young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” After every family was assigned its own parcel of land to farm, “this had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”

This all sounds very Randian, but the story is not quite the free-market folktale that its boosters would have you believe.

Communal farming arrangements were common in the pilgrims’ day. Many of the towns they came from in England were run according to the “open-field” system, in which the land holdings of a manor are divided into strips to be harvested by tenant farmers. As Nick Bunker writes in 2010’s Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, “Open field farming was not some kind of communism. All the villagers were tenants of the landlord.”

There was no local baron in Plymouth, but it was a commercial project as much as a religious one, and the colonists still had to answer to their investors back in England. It was this, not socialist ideals, that accounted for the common course. Bunker writes, “Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.”

He continues: “Under the terms of the contract … for the first seven years no individual settler could own a plot of land. To ensure that each farmer received his fair share of good or bad land, the slices were rotated each year, but this was counterproductive. Nobody had any reason to put in extra hours and effort to improve a plot if next season another family received the benefit.”

The pilgrims’ transition—which, again, happened after the first Thanksgiving—can indeed be used to illustrate the benefits of individualism or the tragedy of the commons. But the Rush Limbaugh crowd should note that the settlers at Plymouth were rebelling against the rules set by a corporation, not against the strictures of some Stalinist collective farm or a hippie commune.

“I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?” New York University historian Karen Kupperman said in Zernike’s story. Yeah, this is also a bit of a stretch—Halliburton oil engineers aren’t rotated around to different drilling sites and compensated based on the last group’s productivity. In the end, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, it’s a questionable enterprise to draw lessons about contemporary politics from early-17th-century agricultural practices. But hey, it’s a free country. Everyone has a right to a Thanksgiving parable of their very own.