In his otherwise impressive 2007 book, Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick slights what is arguably the Pilgrims’ most important and enduring contribution to America: their trial and error discovery of free enterprise.
Plymouth Governor William Bradford documented this discovery in his classic journal, Of Plymouth Plantation. The journal covered the Pilgrims’ adventures in the first half of the 17th century, including their landing at Plymouth in 1620 and their subsequent adaptation to the New World over the next 30 years.
Unfortunately, the journal all but disappeared for nearly two centuries. The original was found in the Bishop of London’s library and finally made its way into print in 1856. This was eight years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto. In an alternate universe, Marx finds the original, reads it, and realizes the communist experiment has already been tried and failed. He gets a real job and spares the world a century of needless misery.
Bradford describes here the outcome of the colony’s ambitious “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” experiment. The language may be a little difficult for your young progressive relatives, but if you can coax them into reading it, you will be doing us all a favor.
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst 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 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.
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 labours 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 hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.
And 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.
Freed from the theoretical, Americans set about creating a distinctive and largely spontaneous commercial culture. Self-interest would drive it and self-control would restrain it. The Judeo-Christian legacy would inform that self-control and inspire it, but always imperfectly, given the fallen nature of man.
The relative absence of external control would allow this dynamic to work itself out and, in the process, forge the most productive industrial enterprise in world history. If our schools would share the hard-earned wisdom of the Pilgrims with their students, this would be a happier and more prosperous world.