Early day socialist experiment didn’t work out well for the Puritans

Overheard at the first Thanksgiving: “Praise the Lord, pass the stuffing and hold the socialism.”

For those of you who might be wondering, our Puritan ancestors did more than run around in shoes with big buckles, hunting wild turkeys with a blunderbuss. They were part of a social experiment, as well.

Theirs was the first European experiment in the New World of collectivism or communal living, where the private ownership of land and the goods harvested from them were to be shared by the community and not held as private property.

There’s a variety of explanations for this, part of it deriving from the religious beliefs of the Puritans and their commitment to a sense of community, as can be seen in the original Mayflower Compact.

The largest inspiration for this adventure in collective living, though, was not inspiration but partly came from the deal the Puritans had struck with the merchants who had staked the expedition to the New World from London. Those merchants wanted all of the production of the colony to be placed in communal hands, obviously hoping for some return on investment in the future.

The folks on the Mayflower probably thought trying something that didn’t involve a lot of private ownership might be worth a spin, since they were coming from a society that had been enforcing increasingly severe penalties for the theft or destruction of property.

Author Laura Randa, writing on history and the death penalty points out that, “In Britain the number of capital offenses continually increased until the 1700s, when 222 crimes were punishable by death.” They included such heinous offenses as cutting down a tree, stealing from a shop items valuing more than five shillings and robbing a rabbit warren.

The focus on the value of property over people was not exactly popular among those who didn’t have much property. This thinking accelerated in England until the mid-18th century and the beginning of the Enclosure Movement, which involved landowners doing away with the common pasturing areas in England. It was an analogous situation to what would later occur in the American West, as fences began to crisscross the Great Plains.

Unfortunately, as most of us know, the Puritan experiment in social science led down a disastrous path, as the lack of private ownership gave no one the incentive to work particularly hard and, after the first tough winter, left the settlers decimated and starving.

The governor at the time, William Bradford, decided the experiment had to end if the colonists were to survive.  Writing in his “History of Plymouth Plantation,” the governor said that he “… allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and the trust to themselves for that ... This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted.”

This ownership of private property brought about more willing work and did not force the leadership to compel work from the colonists.

The governor noted, “The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and instability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

So, more than 200 years before Karl Marx was lounging around Desk 7 in the library of the British Museum, dreaming about proletariat revolution in Germany that would never happen, the Puritans had already tried something akin to communism and found it not very filling.

America, however, was not through with the social experiment of communal property. After a few generations, people forgot the failures and wanted to try it again. So we had examples like Robert Owens’ experiment in New Harmony Indiana in 1825 that tried the communal ownership of property and the banning of money.

This became so chaotic that by the time it collapsed in 1829, Wikipedia points out even the anarchist Josiah Warren felt they had enacted the French revolution all over again with “despairing hearts rather than corpses” and concluded that the individual instinct for self-preservation was at war with the idea of “united interest.”

So this Thanksgiving, be sure and put a little food away in some Tupperware for a local socialist. He might need a good turkey leg.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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