By Dr. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, PhD
In 1623, the Pilgrims ceased rotating their field assignments each year and assigned use of the same plot to the same family group for that year and the next years. That this represented their discovery of the advantages of private property over communalism is a commonly repeated distortion that dates back to William Bradford himself. So when an oversimplified version of Bradford's memories surfaces in some place like The Wall Street Journal, as it did on the day after Thanksgiving, 2005, one shouldn't be too surprised.
But it's still incomplete and even inaccurate. The Wall Street Journal's editorial begins, "The textbooks don't explain why the Pilgrims had only a meager harvest in 1621, so we will. For their first two years in Plymouth, the settlers conducted an experiment in communalism. It wasn't until 1623 that they divided the land into private plots and could look forward to the kind of bounty that many of us enjoyed yesterday."1 The writer follows this with a shortened selection from Bradford's words.
Did the Pilgrims divide the land into private plots in 1623? Bradford talks instead about assigning plots to be farmed by specific family groups on a non-rotating basis - "only for present use (but made no division for inheritance)."[p. 162]2 Single males were assigned to work within a family. Their grumbling about how unfair it was that they should work to support other people's wives and children was evidently discounted in favor of community cohesion. Until 1627, when a limited group of "purchasers" among the colonists bought the responsibility for the colony's debts in exchange for a monopoly on trade with the Indians for furs, the entire colony, including the colonists' labor and products, was mortgaged to the consortium of investors, most of whom were in London. Thus no private, free-hold property was owned by the colonists in Plymouth before 1627. Plymouth's private property began not in 1623 but in 1627-28. The rearrangement of land distribution in 1623 did not grant property; it assigned non-rotating usage rights for an unspecified period that ended four years later (when the grants were continued as private property).
It's worth remembering that it was ca. 1646 when William Bradford wrote his recollection of the decision to alter the Plymouth colonists' experiments in land distribution.3 Bradford's context was the social unrest arising from the actions of Samuel Gorton, John Lilburne, and the Levellers. Gorton had been troublesome in Plymouth before causing serious unrest in Rhode Island, where his opposition to taking oaths in court or as part of legal business contracts was abhorrent to representatives of established government. Gorton in New England and the Levellers in England preached a far-reaching equality that was thought to threaten society's stability by abolishing what Bradford and many others thought were divinely ordained differences of social standing and responsibility expressed in wise government.
The Wall Street Journal undeniably oversimplifies when asserting that the colonists in 1623 replaced communalism with private property. The 1623 alteration of labor assignments took place within the constrictions of a completely capitalist system and really had nothing to do with communal property. In the mid-1640's, Bradford used his recollection of this administrative shift as the base upon which he could construct a propagandistic comment aimed at the social circumstances of the later period. In 1646 it was important to oppose Gorton and the Levellers' threat from England, important to consider that practical experience of human nature had disproved idealistic theory — "the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God." [p. 163] Bradford ends his memories by noting that Edward Winslow had been sent to England in 1646 to defend New England against complaints of mistreatment lodged in London by Samuel Gorton. [p. 528]
But Bradford did not distort the past as much as The Wall Street Journal, which to make a capitalist, private-property point, misleads in its first sentence with the a priori assertion that the 1621 harvest was "meagre." Bradford in the 1640's talks of the "small harvest they had"; Edward Winslow, writing in 1621, however, says "our corn [wheat] did prove well, and, God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown." Not the greatest, but also not bad. Bradford, remembering the harvest in combination with fishing and hunting summarizes that "all the summer there was no want." Moreover, he says that the food supply in the fall of 1621 "made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not fained, but true reports." [p. 127]
1. The author, without mentioning it, derives his theme from the Libertarian articles by Fred E. Foldvary and Richard J. Maybury that are discussed in my online article, "Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce". The editorial from The Wall Street Journal is available online at the History News Network site, where I wrote a short response that is here expanded.
2. The quotations from Bradford in this article are taken from: Bradford's History "Of Plimoth Plantation." From the Original Manuscript (Boston: Wright & Potter, State Printers, 1901). I have modernized spelling and punctuation. The terms of labor and housing caused dissatisfaction, being rather like the conditions of labor in American company towns, with company housing and company stores, around 1900. See Bradford's History, pp. 58-71.
3. Although a variety of other similar contextual aspects are stressed by Douglas Anderson, in his detailed analysis of the composition of Bradford's memoires, he does not connect the Gorton and Leveller controversies with Bradford's recollection of the 1623 land division. See Douglas Anderson, William Bradford's Books Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 108.