Skip to comments.How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims
Posted on 11/18/2006 12:29:36 PM PST by FreeKeys
When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they established a system of communal property. Within three years they had scrapped it, instituting private property instead. Hoover media fellow Tom Bethell tells the story.
There are three configurations of property rights: state, communal, and private property. Within a family, many goods are in effect communally owned. But when the number of communal members exceeds normal family size, as happens in tribes and communes, serious and intractable problems arise.
Thirty years old when he arrived in the New World, Bradford became the second governor of Plymouth ... and the most important figure in the early years of the colony. He recorded in his history the key passage on property relations in Plymouth and the way in which they were changed. His is the only surviving account of these matters.
The colonists hoped that the houses they built would be exempt from the division of wealth at the end of seven years; in addition, they sought two days a week in which to work on their own particular plots (much as collective farmers later had their own private plots in the Soviet Union). The Pilgrims would thereby avoid servitude. But the investors refused to allow these loopholes, undoubtedly worried that if the Pilgrimsthree thousand miles away and beyond the reach of supervisionowned their own houses and plots, the investors would find it difficult to collect their due.
By the spring of 1623, the population of Plymouth can have been no larger than 150. But the colony was still barely able to feed itself, and little cargo was returning for the investors in England. On one occasion newcomers found that there was no bread at all, only fish or a piece of lobster and water. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery, Bradford wrote in his key passage on property.
Having tried what Bradford called the common course and conditionthe communal stewardship of the land demanded of them by their investorsBradford reports that the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. And this among godly and sober men. In short, the experiment was a failure that was endangering the health of the colony.
The problem that inevitably arose was the formidable one of policing this division of labor: How to deal with those who did not pull their weight?
The Pilgrims had encountered the free-rider problem. Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. And these others might well be able-bodied, too, but content to take advantage of the communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share. As we shall see, it is difficult to solve this problem without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. And this was the course of action that William Bradford wisely took.
PROPERTY IS PRIVATIZED
Bradfords history of the colony records the decision:
At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.
So the land they worked was converted into private property, which brought very good success. The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions (and those of their immediate families), not for the actions of the whole community. Bradford also suggests in his history that more than land was privatized.
The system became self-policing. Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder. He could know that his additional efforts would help specific people who depended on him. In short, the division of property established a proportion or ratio between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result.
Property in Plymouth was further privatized in the years ahead. The housing and later the cattle were assigned to separate families, and provision was made for the inheritance of wealth. The colony flourished. Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in the prosperous years that lay ahead, nothing more was heard of the common course and condition.
(This is an excerpt. Read more at http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3507051.html )
Does anyone know where transcripts of Bradford's diaries themselves might be found? Primary source materials are far more useful in debates than documents that merely cite them.
In the interest of bandwidth, I am posting the link to an excellent article. Kim is very high on my list of superlative writers (Michael Kelly was my #1 favorite, until his death in Iraq) Hmmm, MK, Sowell and Kim Weissman i think would be my top three.
Truly a great thinker and writer. I advise looking up many more of his articles, whatever is left online after Congress Action got taken down.
Even Lenin figured out that it doesn't work.
ping, good read
He wrote a JOURNAL for the family - all in one book. When it was finally found in the late 1800's (in the private library of the Bishop of London) and brought back to Plymouth - it was printed, as Bradford wrote it. (The original is in the Plymouth Hall Museum) I have one of late 1800's edition, titled: "The Bradford History".
Gradually, it became 'lost' again, in that it was out of print for another 50 years or so. It was republished in 1952 and has been in print ever since, available from many sources, including Amazon, both in hard and paperback.
This book IS the source...along with the first book that Bradford and Winslow wrote and sent back to England that first spring to be published as "Mourt's Relations" -
As a descendant of Governor Bradford (7th great-great granddaughter) and many others from the Mayflower, I have spent decades researching their remarkable adventure - and as a writer, have published articles for decades, trying to separate fact from fiction about them. The hardest to educate is the educators. Even this year, magazine, newspaper and TV articles proclaim that they very likely did NOT have turkey that first Thanksgiving - and there are certainly no records of it.
Duh. Only in Bradford's own eye witness account, for one. He wrote about the men going out and getting plentiful fowl, "including wilde turkey" of which they took many.
Now a great grandmother, I had all but given up on the true story of original Pilgrims being told. But I was mighty surprised this week to watch, on the History Channel, an amazingly faithful movie: "Desperate Crossing" - Top notch production, photography, casting. And it follows Bradford's Journal as faithfully as I have ever seen a movie stick to a book. They use the Bradford character as narrator - telling his story, as he wrote it.
If you want the most faithful example yet done of that hardy band of people who, unlike those before and after them, came to this new land in search of a place to live in freedom - not for riches or power - this docudrama is it.
If you want to see a group that felt no compunction to 'convert the heathen savages' but valued them as friends and allies, even admired them, this is the one to see.
It will be shown tomorrow on the History Channel - in my area from 8 in the morning to 11. "Check your local listings" (The DVD can be purchased on the History Channel website.)
Thanks for the reply; I received a link to Brandford's book in FRmail and bought a copy.
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