WHY THE PILGRIMS FORSOOK COMMUNISM AND EMBRACED FREE ENTERPRISE
November 1, 2023 | View PDF
We know the basic Pilgrim story: The Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower to find the freedom to worship God as the Bible commands, established a colony at Plymouth, faced great hardships that took the lives of half of them the first winter, but somehow managed to survive and held a feast to thank God for bringing them through these hardships to a land of blessing. All true.
But few realize that forced communal living was a major cause of the Pilgrims’ suffering. How did that happen?
To finance their passage to the New World, the Pilgrims contracted with a finance company, the Merchant Adventurers of London. The Merchant Adventurers would put up the venture capital to pay for their passage and initial supplies. In return, so the Merchant Adventurers would gain a profit on their investment, the colonists agreed that they would establish farms and other business ventures, and in each week the profits from four days’ work would go to the Adventurers and the other two days the Pilgrims would work for themselves (no work on the Sabbath).
But shortly before the Pilgrims’ departure, the Adventurers lost their exclusive fishing rights and therefore changed the terms. Under the new deal, the colonists would work entirely for the Adventurers for the first seven years, after which their debt would be paid. During those seven years, the colonists would hold all houses, land, fields, and gardens in common, probably to discourage them from seeking personal profit.
In his History of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford says the Pilgrims did not want this arrangement, but they reluctantly agreed to it, “seeing all as like to be dashed; and the opportunity lost.” But they inserted a clause in the agreement saying they would follow this communal living arrangement “except some unexpected impediment, do cause the whole company to agree otherwise.”
The result, as with socialism and communism everywhere, was disaster – crop failure, economic privation, starvation, and death. And so, they invoked the “unexpected impediment” clause and changed to private ownership and enterprise. As Bradford says,
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times—that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men that were most 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 any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than 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 labors and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort thought it some indignity 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 many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God has set among men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved among them. And it would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”
Let’s summarize what Bradford is saying:
1 The Pilgrims were exceptionally honest, hard-working people.
2 But even among them, communal living did not work.
3 If it fails among an industrious people like the Pilgrims, even more will it fail if tried with the general population.
4 It didn’t work, because without a profit motive, people don’t work industriously. Seeing that if they work hard, they profit no more than those who are lazy, people refuse to work hard. That is just human nature.
5 “Seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” God did not intend communal living, communism, or socialism.
Bradford’s words are very close to those of Paul in II Thessalonians 3:10-12:
“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.
For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.
Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”
Notice that neither Paul nor Bradford opposed help for those who need it.
Paul didn’t say, “he that cannot work, neither should he eat.” Paul distinguished between deserving poor – those who cannot work – and undeserving poor – those who can work but refuse.
God’s Word endorses private property and free enterprise. The Commandment “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) implies private property, especially in conjunction with the last Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet … anything that is thy neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17). Even in the Last Days, Isaiah tells us, “And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build and other inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” (65:21-22)
Free enterprise is consistent with the Biblical view of property rights, and it is consistent with the Biblical view of human nature. People will work and produce if they and their loved ones will benefit from their work; if not, they will be lazy. The commissar can visit the commune and give a rousing oration about working for the socialist motherland, and that might fire up the workers for half an hour; but to get people to work and produce over the long run, we need the profit motive that free enterprise provides.
So the Pilgrims embraced free enterprise, and thereafter they prospered. As Bradford says,
“This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than 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 allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
Besides trading their locally-grown products with the Native Americans and with the Dutch, they also traded in lumber, fish, crops, and beaver pelts, founding a trading post in Kennebec, Maine, as early as 1625.
Then Pilgrims did not abandon their ideal of a Christian colony; they embraced it. They abandoned an imposed system that was contrary to the Laws of God and the nature of man, and they embraced a system that was consistent with Biblical principles and with human nature.
They paid off all their obligations to the Merchant Adventurers.
More importantly, they kept their covenant with God.
May future generations say the same of us.
Colonel Eidsmoe serves as Chairman of the Board for the Plymouth Rock Foundation (plymrock.org), as Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy (www.obcl.edu), and as Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law (www.morallaw.org). He may be contacted for speaking engagements at (334) 324-1812. Those with constitutional issues may contact the Foundation at (334) 262-1245.