Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pilgrim perestroika 

As has long been indicated on the right sidebar, I am reading Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. It is outstanding, and if you read it your Thanksgiving will never again be merely endless eating and drinking in front of the Lions and the Cowboys.

The book is fascinating at many levels, and will broadly deepen your understanding of the Pilgrims themselves and their extremely complex and basically peaceful relationship with the local Indians. There is also a great deal about the economy of the Pilgrims and the Indians with whom they traded, particularly in their early years. I thought that this passage reflected an early American lesson that most people in the world did not learn until late in the 20th century:

The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth's debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally -- the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. "The women now went willingly into the field," Bradford wrote, "and took their little ones with them to set corn." The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.

So many of the lessons of early New England are embedded in the American cultural and political psyche that one is forced to wonder whether this one might also be. Is it possible that collectivism never caught on here because early American utopians such as the Pilgrims tried it and learned that it did not work? If so, our debt to the Pilgrims is far greater than most of us learned in school or around the Thanksgiving table.


By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Aug 14, 10:39:00 PM:

I'm reading now 'A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time,' and within it talks about how the earlier Jewish Zionists who emigrated to Palestine under their own power largely did so to establish (what turned out to be successful) idealistic communal farming communities. *Provided* that they had a certain critical mass of people, it worked. The tiny communes seemed to die off, while the larger ones survived and even grew.

Given the example of the Puritan pilgrims, I suppose that speaks well of the motivating force of nationalism in such ventures.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Aug 14, 10:46:00 PM:

Thanksgiving, in my house, is an annual reunion with my left-wing, Democrat, bra-burning, women's lib, union organizing mother-in-law and her son, my card-carrying communist college professor brother-in-law. I love them both dearly, despite their political naivete. But this year, I will gleefully employ a wicked new opening gambit to the annual dinner debate. Thank you, Tigerhawk.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 15, 01:09:00 AM:

And its certanly not revionists history like is in our rotten schools  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 15, 05:49:00 AM:

The lesson about human nature learned in the school of hard knocks by the Pilgrims -- It takes incentives -- has been lost on Hillary & Company, whose "It takes a village" collectivism would destroy this shining city upon a hill from within.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 15, 10:07:00 AM:

Around here the converstation goes 1619, 1621? Damn Yankess can't do math either.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed Aug 15, 08:36:00 PM:

Along similar lines, I recommend David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Wed Aug 15, 08:54:00 PM:

Great post, TH.  

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