William Bradford’s ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’: How the pilgrims invented capitalism to have the first Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is for me one of the best days of the year, I like it more than I do Christmas because it gets to the heart of things without all the pressure of gift giving.  It is an American holiday like none other in the world and I simply love it.  My feelings about it have been compounded since I was able to stand in the jail cell at the West Gate in Canterbury, England where Robert Cushman was kept due to the crossfire of politics from the Church of England that his puritans were involved in.  It was in that spot where Cushman had decided he and his followers wanted to be free of the constant struggles between the Church and the king to pursue something different, a new life in the recently discovered continent far off to the west across the great ocean to live as they saw fit.  If not for that moment America may never have come to be because the journey they were about to undertake as puritans established a philosophy that took another 100 years to flush out, but eventually became America.  If not for the actions of Robert Cushman in commissioning the Mayflower for that purpose, the settlement of America by the kings of the world would have simply duplicated the failures of Europe.  But Cushman and his Pilgrims did not have the clear lens of history to guide their philosophic advances—all they had was the collectivism typical of religious life and the great work by Plato in his book, the Republic to start with and it is there that our story begins as Americans.  It’s really quite enchanting.


It wasn’t called communism yet, but the Pilgrim were essentially intent to apply the methods of the kind of collectivism articulated by Plato’s Republic in this New World utopian colony.  Karl Marx wouldn’t call it communism for another two centuries but the plan from Cushman and his crew as chronicled by Governor William Bradford was to essentially operate free of private property and to share the collective wealth of everything produced by the colony.  As fantastic as that might sound to the sentiments of emotion, the reality was quite another thing. The Indians which the pilgrims encountered were of the same type of hive mind approach as the collectivism from their original cultures which were from the Far East reflected the efforts of the early colonists.  But the Indians were not industrialized, they did not know of the markets in Canterbury or the great cathedral there—or anything about the king.  They didn’t build houses like these European settlers.  They had become refugees after the great treasure ships from Zheng He dropped them off all over the world on behalf of emperor Zhu Di.  Some of the Chinese adventurers bred with the great cultures of the Aztec in Mexico, some with the descendents of the Bering Strait migration, some with the Vikings who had been coming for hundreds of years as well.  All these cultures were interacting with what was left of the great culture of giants which had come out of the Middle East thousands of years earlier and all these societies had failed, so there was nothing to indicate that these pilgrims would fare any better.

The great insult that was taught to all of us in our public education experiences was to hide these communist beginnings and to make it sound as though the Indians rescued the colony by teaching them how to farm—as if Cushman and his followers were too stupid to figure out how to care for themselves after they had shown the great ambition to even charter the journey to begin with.  Quite the opposite, the pilgrims were quite smart and hardy.  Even though many of them died within a few years of their journey they were able to think and apply what they learned to the world around them with innovation.  The Indians were watching, they were a culture of nomads who had long ago given up on private property ownership and the result was that they didn’t build houses and conduct all the fancy mathematics which had been common to the Mound Builders of the Midwest—they were content to dedicate their lives to the new goddess of earth, so they had little to do with Thanksgiving except to attend dinner with the pilgrims after the survivors of the new colony had figured out the puzzle which had been hampering the world up to that point.

As William Bradford chronicled in his Of Plymouth Plantation it took a few years but through necessity the pilgrims rejected the concept of communism as Plato had envisioned it and evolved into a free market system.  They were able to do this because they had no institutions to confine them to a set philosophy.  They were free of the ominous pressure of the church and the kings always fighting them for power over the people, the pilgrims were able to create the first free market system of capitalism the world had ever seen.  It was the combination of the industrious nature of the Europeans whom had come from a background of accomplishment—they knew what was possible so they had a foundation of intellect to begin with.  But what made the pilgrim capitalism possible was that they had all the tools to be successful, what they needed was a way to strip away all their institutionalized concepts so that the necessity of survival would surpass their desires to continue as all humans had in every endeavor previously known to mankind and that was to function within the confines of the orthodox, and to be regulated by that commitment.  That was certainly the case with the Vikings, it was also of the giants from the Bible lands, the Chinese were already functioning from the rise and fall of many oriental cultures—and what was left of all of them were the Indians who were just a mix of everyone chained to the superstitions of the past rooted to institutionalized behavior that imprisoned the mind of mankind from the beginning of time.  The pilgrims were making the same mistakes and they were dying off, until they changed course and decided to try something different while they still could.  They invented capitalism.

Once the pilgrims allowed for private property and structured their society on individualized survival they began to see after the first couple of doomed years that their colony was producing a surplus.  For the first time they had more food than they needed, and they were able to take their minds beyond the needs of daily survival—and to think about other things on a grander scale.  This is why there was a first Thanksgiving, because the puritans of the Plymouth colony were able to produce more than they needed resulting in a feast.  As ironic as it may sound, the Pilgrims were able to be successful where others hadn’t because they were smart enough to change their behavior before their failures had become accepted as institutional thinking.  Had they the rigid structure of the church there to enforce their will, or a king to confide them to the patriotism of national order, the pilgrims would have been stuck to the way of thinking which had imprisoned mankind for thousands of years.  But because they had the tools of modern thinking, and literacy, they were able to make adjustments that stepped beyond the thinking of Plato at the time and invent something new—a way of thinking that would launch a new nation.

That is why I love Thanksgiving so much.  I love Black Friday and all the advertisements that come out in the paper that day.  It is appropriate that capitalism is such a big part of our Thanksgiving holiday because it’s not just the food or the friendship with the Indians that made the annual event so special, it was the means to recognize private incentive as the fuel that propelled mankind into the future, for really the first time. The excess that was produced by the early Plymouth colony was a discovery of what human ambition could produce if left alone and not micro managed by institutionalized thinking, such as churches and governments.  And that is why Thanksgiving in America is such a special time, and they never get old. I love every one of them.

Rich Hoffman
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