22 November 2018

Common vs. Private Good in Plymouth Colony

In a piece adapted for the Hoover Digest some time ago, Tom Bethell seized on a rather unlikely source for ammo in the conservative battle against “collectivism” in all its forms—William Bradford’s history of the Plymouth Colony, Of Plymouth Plantation (1651). Bethell’s essay bore the cute title, “How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims.” Not to be outdone, Jerry Bowyer played up the connection with the modern Pilgrim-oriented holiday in an article for Forbes.com much inferior to Bethell’s called “Lessons from a Capitalist Thanksgiving.”
These two are in ample company. For some time now, conservatives and libertarians seem to have very nearly plagiarized one another in making the most of what seems at first glance to be the ideal historical evidence against everything from full-blown socialism to the most basic welfare system.[1] Although it is tempting to pick apart the above examples,[2] I make no pretence of answering their objections to more or less leftist political ideals in this article. I do, however, wish to encourage a more careful reading of Bradford, whose chronicle, while often tedious and uninspired as it details the colonists’ failures and successes in the beaver-pelt trade,[3] is nevertheless full of fascinating glimpses of the Pilgrims’ thought and personalities. Bradford’s rejection of “collectivism,” despite its understandable appeal to those of a libertarian bent, is by no means as simple as it at first appears. Indeed, far more valuable than its supposed refutation of socialism is its stark reminders of the moral foundation required to check the darker tendencies of private ownership.
Scarcely four months after the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the governor of the new colony passed away suddenly. His successor was a fellow Puritan Separatist from Yorkshire named William Bradford, and he went on to govern Plymouth Colony for over 30 years. Thanks to Bradford, many of the details of life for the Pilgrims in the New World are intimately known to us. Near the end of his life, Bradford wrote an elaborate account of the history of the colony that has come to be known as Of Plymouth Colony. There he not only recorded extensive information about the logistics of transplanting a bunch of English Puritans to an unsettled wilderness, but he also attempted to use his knowledge of the Bible and Puritan theology to show the hand of divine providence at work in the earliest history of our nation.
Naturally, the experience of the Pilgrims raises numerous questions that have influenced a good deal of subsequent American history, many of which remain relevant today. Although the Mayflower voyage was motivated by a desire to remain faithful to their interpretation of a very old ideal, and it was natural for them to draw analogies between themselves and biblical history, what they were doing was in many ways quite new. A naturally conservative people, the venture necessarily involved the Pilgrims in a degree of social experimentation.
In particular, the original charter drawn up by the Massachusetts Bay Company’s investors before anyone even boarded the ship specified that the “adventurers and planters” were to have “all provissions out of the comon stock & goods of the said colonie,” a stock which was itself to be supplied by common labor. This provision may seem to have been inspired by the New Testament ideal expressed in Acts 2:44-45: “And all that believed, were in one place, and had all things common. And they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every one had need” (Geneva Bible). But it is true that the the would-be Pilgrims themselves were uneasy about the arrangement, and Bradford later ascribes the origins of such a scheme to the philosophy of Plato “and other ancients.” Nevertheless, the English Separatists had written to Sir Edwin Sandys back in 1617: “We are knite togeather as a body in a most stricte & sacred bond and covenante of the Lord,...by vertue wherof we doe hould our selves straitly tied to all care of each others good, and of the whole by every one and so mutually.”
At any rate, the noble experiment had certainly failed by 1623. The sturdy colonists were beginning to grumble against one another, and found that the peace of the colony was greatly improved by apportioning the common land to each family to farm for its own private needs. In a key passage, Bradford famously writes:
“The experience that was had in the comone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times;—that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in comunitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with the meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it. Upon the poynte all being to have alike, and all to doe alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of those relations that God hath set amongest men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of the mutuall respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have bene worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none objecte this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdome saw another course fiter for them.”
This seems a decisive blow against any “collectivist” vision of society. Indeed, Bradford appears almost to suggest that any kind of “common good” can only be attained by individuals, or at least families, seeking after their own private good. Practically speaking, the attempt to hold “all things in common” and distribute them “as every one had need” had resulted in the inability of the small community to support itself. Psychologically or morally speaking, it had led to laziness on the one hand and mutual resentment on the other.
As I noted in my introductory remarks, the parallels with contemporary arguments about taxation and social services are obvious to many conservatives. If people with a strong disposition towards hard work were “corrupted” by equal distribution, what chance do modern Americans have? I am by no means convinced that the American Left has an adequate response to this line of thinking. Before we draw the unqualified conclusion that William Bradford stands with “the 1%,” however, it is worth noting that an ingrained propensity towards hard work was certainly not the only difference between the seventeenth-century Pilgrims and their modern heirs.
But first, the claim that Pilgrims had experimented with some form of “socialism” which was later replaced by private property and laissez-faire capitalism has itself not gone unanswered on the Left.[4] The obvious point is that the entire venture of the colonists was fundamentally capitalist in its inception, and that it was the Massachusetts Bay Company, a sort of seventeenth-century equivalent of a modern corporation, that had imposed the original charter on the colonists, essentially making them “wage slaves” of the company.[5] As Karen Ordahl Kupperman is quoted in the NYT article on the subject, “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate...It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?” Indeed, the decision of the colonists to retain the products of their own labor might well be seen as a rejection of capitalism properly so called.
Furthermore, let’s return to my point about the Pilgrims’ differences from their modern co-opters. I have already quoted from the Separatists’ strong early statement to Sandys of their sense of collective identity. Though bitter experience in the American wilderness may have taught them that even “godly and sober men” were capable of laziness and resentment, and that the ordering of their society must needs reflect that reality, it hardly disabused them of the notion of a “sacred bond and covenant.” This notion lay at the very heart of Puritan faith, and it was “by virtue” of this covenant that they held themselves “straitly tied to all care of each other’s good, and of the whole by every one and so mutually.”
In addition, the Pilgrims had preserved as a kind of spiritual charter a letter from their revered old pastor, John Robinson, who was unable to make the journey with them. The letter, which Bradford includes in his book in its entirety, is full of sage advice for the difficulties they will encounter ahead. Among other nuggets of wisdom, Robinson writes:
“A 4. thing ther is carfully to be provided for, to witte, that with your comone imployments you joyne comone affections truly bente upon the generall good, avoyding as a deadly plague of your both comone & spetiall comfort all retirednes of minde for proper [that is, “one’s own”] advantage, and all singularly affected any maner of way; let every man represe in him selfe & the whol body in each person, as so many rebels against the comone good, all private respects of mens selves, not sorting with the generall conveniencie.”[6]
In other words, whatever the Pilgrims concluded about the wisdom or practicality of a particular economic arrangement, they had from their very inception a strong sense of the common good, and a suspicion of any attempt by individuals to further their own advantage while neglecting the needs of the community. This forms a stark contrast to much of the rhetoric coming from the more libertarian elements on the Right. While the claim might be made that modern libertarians, like the Pilgrims, often in practice find a tendency toward extreme individualism checked by religious commitments, it’s hard to imagine even the most “ecclesial” of them uttering anything like Robinson’s words in a modern political context. Robert Bellah et al. in Habits of the Heart note that for the early American Puritans, the “fundamental criterion of success was not material wealth but the creation of a community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” They go on to write:
“For [Massachusetts governor, John] Winthrop, success was much more explicitly tied to the creation of a certain kind of ethical community than it is for most Americans today. His idea of freedom differs from ours in a similar way. He decried what he called ‘natural liberty,’ which is the freedom to do whatever one wants, evil as well as good. True freedom—what he called ‘moral’ freedom, ‘in reference to the covenant between God and man’—is a liberty ‘to that only which is good, just and honest.’”
Moreover, while Bellah et al. remark on the “unfortunate” truth that the Puritans had a well-known tendncy to regard material prosperity “as a sign of God’s approval,” even after the distribution of private plots of land, Bradford himself makes some very relevant observations about how the Pilgrims viewed their newly acquired “private property:”
“And before I come to other things I must speak a word of their planting this year; they having found the benefite of their last years harvest, and setting corne for their particuler, having therby with a great deale of patience overcome hunger & famine. Which maks me remember a saing of Senecas, Epis.: 123. That a great parte of libertie is a well governed belly, and to be patiente in  all wants.
In other words, in recalling the Pilgrims’ decision to abandon communal farming, and their subsequent prosperity, Bradford recalls the Stoic philosopher Seneca and his moral exhortations against the evils of gluttony. Even in a time of abundance, restraint and even austerity is called for. Bradford goes on to write:
“They begane now highly to prise corne as more pretious then silver, and those that had some to spare begane to trade one with another for smale things, by the quarte, potle, & peck, &c.; for money they had none, and if any had, corne was prefered before it. That they might therefore encrease their tillage to better advantage, they made suite to the Governor to have some portion of  land given them for continuance....And to every person was given only one acrre of land, to them & theirs, as nere the town as might be, and they had no more till the 7 years [of the charter] were expired. The reason was, that they might be kept close together both for more saftie and defence, and the better improvement of the generall imployments. Which condition of theirs did make me often thinke, of what I had read in Plinie of the Romans’ first beginings in Romulus time. How every man contented him selfe with 2. Acres of land, and had no more assigned them. And how it was thought a great reward, to receive at the hands of the people of Rome a pinte of corn....And he was not counted a good, but a dangerous man, that would not contente him selfe with 7. Acres of land.
Here, Bradford cites the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), in order to emphasize the resemblance of the Pilgrims to the ancient Romans in their simplicity of life and in their desire for modest agricultural rather than lavish monetary wealth.[7] Bradford further underlines the importance of community for “safety and defence, and the better improvement of the general employments.” It’s difficult to imagine modern libertarians holding up Roman simplicity and austerity as an ideal. The contentment that Bradford thinks so admirable would seem more like economic foolishness to the same writers who quote the Puritan governor as a champion of private property and capitalism.
Finally, it should be noted that whatever wealth the colonists may have acquired under their new arrangement was—in theory at least—held very lightly. In a passage that Kenneth Murdock lauds as Bradford’s characteristic use of “a moral aphorism for climax,” the Plymouth governor concludes, “A right emblime, it may be, of the uncertine things of this world; that when men have toyld them selves for them, they vanish into smoke.” Prosperity may be misinterpreted as a sign of God’s blessings, but the Puritans seemed to have been just as prepared to see those blessings taken away, and to regard their pursuit as dangerously tending towards vanity.
Taken together, the observations we can gather about the Pilgrims’ religious sense of a “common good” and their conscious affinity for the early Roman ideals of austerity and simplicity of life form a powerful check to the capitalist pursuit of property, and one with which Orthodox Christians can easily sympathize. Looking back as they did to both a biblical and a Greco-Roman tradition, the Plymouth colonists can hardly be held up as poster children for laissez-faire capitalism. Certainly, they underscore the need for a true moral foundation and a robust understanding of the common good for any kind of personal pursuit of property to be just. But the Pilgrims are a uniquely seventeenth-century phenomenon in their devotion to such ideals. As attractive as it may be in some ways (and most of us can recall easily the less attractive parts of Puritanism), emulating them in our own day may be difficult, not to say impossible.

[1] An important, because especially popular, telling of this tale is that of Rush Limbaugh in his book, See, I Told You So (Pocket Books, 1994), which he reads on his radio show each year the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. See the transcript from 2007 here.
[2] Bowyer’s Thanksgiving connection is particularly shaky, and his reference to the exploitative schemes of the Massachusetts Bay Company’s bourgeois merchants as “the current opinion [i.e., political philosophy] of the aristocratic class” just begs for comment, as does Bethell’s reference to the company’s share of the colonists’ labor as a “tax burden.” Are we dealing with aristocrats, the state, or a private company of bourgeois capitalists?
[3] Kenneth Murdock’s judgement, that “No other seventeenth-century American historian can be read today with so much pleasure,” tends to dispel any desire I might have had to read other seventeenth-century American historians. See Kenneth B. Murdock, Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (NY: Harper, 1963), 83.
[4] See, for example, Kate Zernike, “The Pilgrims Were...Socialists?”, in The New York Times November 20, 2010, here, or Stephen Budiansky’s take, “Commies and cranberries,” here.
[5] Tom Bethell naturally gives the capitalist’s classic defence: “But of course they came voluntarily.” Bradford’s account, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that the would-be Pilgrims felt they had no other choice but to accede to the company’s conditions.
[6] Compare the words of a later governor, John Winthrop, in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity:” We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoyce together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” Qtd. in Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (U of California, 1985), 28.
[7] Murdock notes, “The Puritans in New England liked especially the moralistic tone of some of the Greeks and Romans” (68).