The Pilgrims of Plymouth

“And for the season it was winter, and they know that the winters of that country to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men – and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.”

To finance their excursion to the new world, the Pilgrims formed a joint-stock partnership with a group of London merchants, and received a grant from the Virginia Company.

These investors knew well the failures of other attempts to settle in the New World. To assure success and the repayment of their loan, they required the pilgrims to reorder their lives according to a collectivist economic plan.

Informally known as The Common Course and Condition, each adult settler received a share of stock and at the end of seven years would receive an equal share of the profits. Until that time, as decreed by the company, each settler was to work for the common good. No one would labor for themself. Everything was placed into a common store and everyone took from the store as they had need.

The idea was to compel the settlers to be dependent on each other for their mutual profit. But good intentions being good for nothing, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”  had unintended consequences.

“This [communal system] was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.

And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery.”

By 1623, with a shortage of food and no supplies from across the sea, the colony was faced with its own “starving time” as other failed colonies before them.

Of necessity, Governor Bradford was forced to take drastic action. He scrapped the communistic system, and divided the land into private parcels for every family to work for themselves.

“This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn.”

The wisdom of Bradford’s decision was immediately evident: From what was a “desolate wilderness”, the colony quickly had an abundance of food. By 1627, they had repaid their debt. And by 1630, the way had been paved for the great Puritan migration.

“This common course and condition may well [show clearly] the vanity… that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”

Excerpts: Of Plymouth Colony
by William Bradford

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