Thanksgiving and Markets

When the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony celebrated the first Thanksgiving on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, they shared a feast with the Pokanoket tribe, in thanks to God for the colony’s bountiful harvest. As Plymouth Governor William Bradford explained in his memoirs, ending the colony’s initial communal system produced the abundance of the first Thanksgiving, and marked the end to famine and plague, during which half the colony died. Governor Bradford explained that initially, “The strong…had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could…”

The key to the Pilgrims’ success? Embrace of the market. Bradford observed the commune overcame its problems:

The experience…may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Plato & other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that ye 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 and discontent, and retard much imploymet that would have been to their beneflte and comforte…

So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie.

At length, after much debate of things, the Govr…assigned to every family a parcell of land… This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious…and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne; which before would aledg weaknes and inabilitie… 

The success and content of the abundant yield led to the first Thanksgiving. By embracing the market, the Pilgrims unleashed incentives that enabled people to reap the rewards of their labor.