Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The city on a hill started at Doonesbury's Walden

Jon Swift links to Caveat Bettor, who links to Greg Mankiw, who links to John Stossel and his article "The Tragedy of the Commons." Excerpts:

Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest. "Isn't sharing wonderful?" say the teachers.

They miss the point.

Because of sharing, the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen....

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved....

"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "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. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. ... "

Because of the change, the first Thanksgiving could be held in November 1623.

Kim Weissman discusses the noble experiment in further detail, and correcting a minor factual error that Stossel made (the 1623 Thanksgiving was not the first celebrated in Plymouth):

Before leaving Europe the Pilgrims entered into a contract, dated July 1, 1620, with the merchant investors (called the "Adventurers") who financed the trip. That contract provided,

"The persons transported and the Adventurers shall continue their joint stock and partnership together, the space of seven years…during which time all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain in the common stock until division."...

In short, the Pilgrims agreed to establish a commune, with all property and the fruits of all labor contributed into a common pool to be divided equally among the Pilgrims for their daily survival....They called their arrangement a "commonwealth", because all wealth — the product of their labors — was held in common, and there was no private property to speak of....The arrangement was no more successful in the 17th century than it has been in our own century....

The first winter was indeed a time of privation and death for the Pilgrims, for the simple reasons that they had landed in the new continent too late in the season for planting crops, and without sufficient time and energy following their debilitating voyage to construct housing adequate to protect them from the fast approaching New England winter. Half of them died.

The following spring they planted, hunted, and fished to provision the small colony. Their harvest that fall was barely sufficient to meet the needs of the frugal Pilgrims. Every day they looked to God for salvation, and following that first harvest they gave thanks for their survival. But they did not give thanks to the Indians — even contemplating such an idea would have been a sacrilege to such devoutly religious people — they gave thanks to their Lord who had spared them and provided for them....

The Pilgrims did invite friendly local Indians to join in their feast, and those Indians, as any courteous guest would do at that time of meager provisions, and as we often do today when we are invited to someone's home, brought food to contribute to the feast.

But the harvests were not as abundant as they might have been, and Governor Bradford and the leading citizens were troubled. They still depended on trade and supply ships for a significant portion of their provisions, and given the nature of seaborne travel in those days, the arrival of those ships was erratic. They barely produced enough food to sustain themselves, and much of their labor went into hunting and fishing, so as to supplement their own needs and to be able to send some furs and salted fish back to pay the debts owed to their financiers in Europe. So the leaders of the colony gathered together, and after much debate they decided to make a fundamental change in the way their colony was organized. They had found the system of communism to be terribly harmful, and so they replaced it with a system of private property.

Or perhaps Stossel was right about 1623 being the first Thanksgiving - at least, if we believe the opponents of Jeremy Bangs:

Archaeologist James Deetz made much of the fact that Winslow did not name the turkeys Bradford mentioned. This startling revelation (that in this case one should ignore Bradford’s general comments and suppose that Winslow was providing a complete menu listing) recurs in various websites, such as the 2002 article posted by the Christian Science Monitor.

More frequently repeated is Deetz’s emphatic reminder that Winslow did not use the word “thanksgiving” -- drawing the conclusion that therefore the 1621 event was not a thanksgiving but some sort of traditional English harvest festival he characterized as “secular.”...

Deetz’s assertion that there was no thanksgiving in 1621 is repeated at numerous websites. Often authors explain that what took place was so unlike later Puritan thanksgivings that it couldn’t have been a true thanksgiving, usually citing, for the definition of what that would have been, William DeLoss Love, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston, New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1895), a book whose title alone seems to have inspired the common web article notion that in New England people fasted as an expression of thanksgiving.

The article goes on:

Thanksgiving seems to commemorate a heritage of false memory. The Internet myths of Thanksgiving range from Fundamentalists’ invention of a fake 1623 Thanksgiving Proclamation -- to prove that God was being thanked (not the Indians) -- through Libertarians’ use of the same fake to claim that “the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

So if we're not celebrating capitalism, and we can't even agree on whether we're celebrating something that started in 1621 or 1623, then what are we celebrating?

A Jets victory, that's what we're celebrating. (Redskins have their priorities.)

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