By J. Russell Capps
Christian Action League
This week we observe a very special holiday as a nation. As the years have waned we have mainly forgotten its meaning. Now I don’t disparage gathering with family and enjoying wonderful food. That’s very special. What concerns me is the fact that our younger generations may not have ever even heard of the true history of our nation’s beginnings. This time of year (from history’s facts) we mark the remembrance of those early Pilgrim Fathers seeking religious freedom that crossed the uncharted ocean from Europe to make a new start in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
What is less appreciated is that Thanksgiving also is a celebration of the birth of the free enterprise system in America. Those English Puritans who left Great Britain and sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620 were not only escaping from religious persecution in their homeland. They also wanted to turn their back on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World.
They believed falsely, as so many do today, that they could build a “New Jerusalem” that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. Their goal was the communism of Plato’s Republic, in which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.
What resulted was recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked the land, but they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they had hoped for, nor did it create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.
The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent in their efforts. (Sounds quite familiar today, doesn’t it?). The harder working among the colonists became resentful and soon they too were coming late to work and less energetic in the fields.
Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread, the crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. (Just) Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.
Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the extinction of the entire colony, the Pilgrim Fathers decided to try something drastically different – the introduction of private property rights and the right of individual families to keep the fruit of their own labors. Thus the free enterprise system was begun and the Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food.
Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their own separate farms. When the harvest time came, not only did the families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement. For this they all gave thanks and celebrated with thanksgiving and praise to the God whom they came seeking freedom to serve.
Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error from as far back as the ancient Greeks of some promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. This is the lesson of the first Thanksgiving.
This week as we sit around our dining room tables with family and friends, let us also remember and give THANKS … as we count our blessings, including the celebration of the birth of free men and the beginning of the American experiment and experience with freedom.
May God bless you with a true Thanksgiving time!
J. Russell Caps is a former member of the North Carolina General Assembly who served six terms in the North Carolina House from 1994-2006. He also serves as a member of the Christian Action League’s Board of Directors.