Finley: Thanksgiving is a refutation of socialism

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Of all the lessons of America's First Thanksgiving, none is more enduring than that of the rewards of empowering individuals to determine their own fate.

In 1623, the 53 surviving Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony, joined by about 90 Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe, sat down for three days of prayer and feasting in celebration of the first bountiful harvest in this new land.

For two previous years, the crops, primarily corn, or maize, were poor, barely producing enough to keep the settlers alive. What they raised was supplemented by what they could kill and scavenge in the surrounding forests.

But in the spring of 1623, the colony's governor, William Bradford, came up with a novel idea for stimulating production. 

During those first two growing seasons, the tillable land was worked in common, and the meager harvest shared equally. Bradford's account places the daily corn ration during the worst of times, incredibly, at just 3 kernels. Starvation and disease were constants.

Clearly, the communal approach wasn't working. Bradford writes that most of the work was performed by a half dozen of the strongest young men, whom the whole community relied on for sustenance. 

So Bradford set a new course. Instead of holding all the land in common, it was divided between the colonists to plant and work themselves. His words, cleaned up for the modern reader:

"This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means ye 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 ye 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."

Working for themselves, and knowing they'd keep the fruits of their labor, inspired the colonists to work harder. 

As Bradford writes, the original theory was that "taking away of property, and bringing 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 ye 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."

Under the new model of self-reliance and private ownership, when the harvest came, not only were the colonists able to feed their own families, but many, according to Bradford, had enough left over to sell to others, and thus increase their own prosperity and that of the community. 

The first Thanksgiving was a classic version of the Little Red Hen story. It has been repeated over and over in the centuries since, whenever socialism has been tried and failed.

It's a lesson worth remembering, particularly on this Thanksgiving, as America is preparing to embark on an election season in which socialism is again being pitched as the answer to what ails us. 

It didn't work for the Pilgrims. It won't work for us.

Catch Nolan Finley on "One Detroit at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.