November 26, 2009
The Pilgrims, Famine, and the End of FeudalismBy John Hunt
Famine stalked the Pilgrims through the first years. But their conquest of famine helped end old-world feudalism.
I suggest the reader access the Project Gutenberg online edition of Governor William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation[ii]. (For the original source, see endnotes.) I'll paraphrase some passages.
The Pilgrims' contract [iii] with their financial backers, the London Merchant Adventurers Company, included conditions of seven years of joint stock and partnership and communal property, followed by a division and release from obligations,
A version of feudalism dominated for the first seven years.
Britain and continental Europe groaned under feudalism's remnants and its communal farming. The Lord of the Manor controlled his peasants -- told them where, when, and what they could do, and how they could do it. (Does that sound like some people we know in 2009?)
From old-world feudalism came the seeds of famine.
The autumn harvest and hunt. The First Thanksgiving [iv]. Grand. Glorious. A product of the friendship and peace treaty [v] with the impressive Wampanoag Sachem (chief) Massasoit and his people. A welcome respite from the hardship of that first winter, when half the Mayflower passengers died. And yes, there was turkey. Bradford wrote, "... there was great store of wild turkeys ..." [vi]
Were they now on easy street? Hardly. Communal farming brought discouragement and strife the next year.
A Meager Harvest, 1622
They were unfamiliar with cultivating American corn. But the main reason was famine,
Remember, they physically worked fields, fished, and cut lumber from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Heavy manual labor brought on a big appetite.
Again, the telling comment:
"That they might not still thus languish in misery," 1623
Bradford wrote of the colony's distress at continuing famine:
The governor faced a choice. The colony would fail under seven years of communal farming, and the investors in London would not be repaid. The Pilgrims would become just another failed English colony, all memory of them to vanish.
Or -- find a better way, grow food, survive, pay their contractual debts. Bradford found that better way: He assigned each family a parcel of land to farm on their own.
Transformational, this paradigm shift. While the old world lay shackled by feudal communal farming, the new world broke free from feudalism's constraints.
Each family became free and responsible to grow their own food supply. They flourished. The lazy became industrious. Misery transformed into happiness.
Apparently Bradford and his advisors read the classics. He disputed Plato and other ancients regarding property rights:
Private property took root. [xiii]
The genie was out of the bottle. From this small beginning would eventually flow the American family farm. In generations to follow, there arose many thousands of American homestead farms, each one tended by a self-supporting family, indeed feeding the world. Word of this American opportunity spread to the old world. Humble people came to America to break free from the "Lord of the Manor."
Today's equivalent of the early family farm is the small business: the plumber, the inventor in the garage, the family-run restaurant, the entrepreneur. Liberty's workshop.
Let me close with warm Thanksgiving greetings to you and yours. Borrowing again Bradford's handwritten eloquence from his latter years,
John Hunt is his children's dad. His public service is finding and producing crude oil and natural gas from privately owned lands in the USA.
[i] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1647 (Project Gutenberg Online Catalog), 152.
[ii] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1647. An e-book, transcribed from the original manuscript, with a "Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts" may be accessed and downloaded from Project Gutenberg online books:http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24950
[iii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 56-58
[iv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 127
[v] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 115
[vi] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 127
[vii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152
[viii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152
[ix] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152-153
[x] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 162
[xi] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 162
[xii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 163
[xiii] A group of scholars at the University of Chicago held high regard for the Pilgrims' decision in influencing property rights. The Founders, especially John Adams, were very aware of the Pilgrims and their history. See The Founders' Constitution Project website, and their majestic five-volume study on our Constitution. Of Plymouth Plantation is the first source document cited under "Property":
[xiv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 332.