Byron Schlomach

The Pilgrims' failed experiment with communism

Posted on November 24, 2011 | Author: Byron Schlomach
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When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, they set up a society in which no one could own property and everyone shared equally, no matter how much work they did. The result was misery and hunger. But when the governor allowed each man to plant and raise crops for his own household, something amazing happened.

William Bradford recorded the experiences of the Separatists who came to the New World on the Mayflower and later voyages some years after the events actually occurred. His memory was evidently aided by personal letters that had been retained as well as his own contemporary writings. The following occurred around 1622 and 1623, three years after the establishment of Plymouth colony. It involved not more than probably two-dozen families. For some time, the “Pilgrims” had raised meager crops, running short of food stores every winter. Infusions of new mouths to feed on ships from England did not help, but that, it turns out, was not the source of their problem. Mr. Bradford can speak for himself:

William BradfordAll this while no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. At length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view, — for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance, — all boys and children being included under some family.

This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of the experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, — that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.

For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it.

This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class. If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them.

These matters premised, I will now proceed with my account of affairs here. But before I come to other things I must say a word about their planting this year. They felt the benefit of their last year’s harvest; for by planting corn on their own account they managed, with a great deal of patience, to overcome famine. This reminds me of a saying of Seneca’s (Epis. 123): that an important part of liberty is a well-governed belly, and patience in want.

The settlers now began to consider corn more precious than silver; and those that had some to spare began to trade with the others for small things, by the quart, pottle, and peck, etc.; for they had not money, and if they had, corn was preferred to it. In order that they might raise their crops to better advantage, they made suit to the Governor to have some land apportioned for permanent holdings, and not by yearly lot, whereby the plots which the more industrious had brought under good culture one year, would change hands the next, and others would reap the advantage; with the result that manuring and culture of the land were neglected. It was well considered, and their request was granted.

Every person was given one acre of land, for them and theirs, and they were to have no more till the seven years had expired; it was all as near the town as possible, so that they might be kept close together, for greater safety and better attention to the general employments.

An excerpt from Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement; 1608-1650, by William Bradford, rendered into modern English by Harold Paget and published in 1909, originally titled Of Plymouth Plantation, reprint by Mantle Ministries: San Antonio, TX, 1988, pp. 115-116, 141-142.

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