Pilgrims and the Political Agenda



10 comments
Today's guest post comes from Jeremy Bangs, a leading expert on 17th-century history, the Pilgrims, and the Plymouth Colony. Bangs follows up a lively discussion in the comments section of an earlier post with more on the 17th-century historical context.

Jeremy Bangs

In our exchange in the comments section Tom van Dyke expresses annoyance at “scholars with a political agenda.” He “found no attempt anywhere to simply tell the story.” But he “did manage to get to Bradford's account ...”

The problem is that William Bradford is the first of the scholars with a political agenda writing about the topic of the Pilgrims’ early experiments with land distribution. Simply telling the story requires a little analysis of the context beyond a mere repetition of the text(s).

The background information about the financial circumstances of the Pilgrims’ colonial enterprise consists of descriptions by Bradford and Edward Winslow, together with business correspondence and contracts incorporated in Bradford’s memoir. From this we know that for the first seven years the colony was mortgaged to the company of investors. All the assets and increase of the colony were to be liquidated at the end of seven years, when the contracted debt was to be paid and the surplus distributed to the investors. Every colonist was counted as having at least one share in the venture because of the colonist’s labor. Some colonists also invested money and thus owned more than one share. Some investors of money did not become colonists but remained in London (and elsewhere). This arrangement meant that in Plymouth Colony there was no private property (not even property in personal labor) until 1627. All property belonged in common to the investors, but as investors the colonists also were co-owners proportional to their shares. This was capitalism, not communalism, and in no way socialism. The Pilgrims had wanted a different arrangement that would have granted them two days per week for private labor, whose profits were to be personal. But in the end their contract did not grant them even this amount of individualism. In setting up the colony people needed to find a way to conform to the total mortgage of their contract. In the first couple of years, rotating land assignments were made, following a medieval custom then practiced in the region from which the leaders came (northern Nottinghamshire and adjacent parts of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire). Dissatisfaction with this system (unfamiliar to some of the colonists) led to the decision to make unchanging assignments of field use after 1623, so that farmers could expect to use the same land from one year to the next; but this did not involve any property in the land, all of which was still to be liquidated at the end of the seven-year term. Thus scholars who identify the early system as a form of capitalist incorporation are correct, and no political agenda is implied by making this observation. Further, the early reports by Winslow and Bradford mention a bounteous harvest the first year. Scarcity the second year was the result of the arrival of thirty-five more colonists who came without supplies – not the result of poor harvests. This plenteousness is also reported in a letter by a visitor to the colony writing in 1621 (William Hilton). Winslow wrote that wheat and Indian corn had grown well, barley not very well, and peas not worth gathering. Bradford comments on a “great store of wild Turkeys, of whih they took many, besides venison, etc.”

Writing around a quarter century later, Bradford gave a different story – the anti-communalist version that has attracted the attention of Libertarians and others who fantasize about the Pilgrims’ discovering capitalism after experimenting with communalism. Tom quotes from that description. What is Bradford’s agenda, that inspired him to misrepresent the economic circumstances of the past? (As I have commented in my article, “A Level Look at Land Allotments, 1623”) Bradford wrote that part while confronting the social unrest arising from the actions of Samuel Gorton, John Lilburne, and the Levellers. Gorton had been troublesome in Plymouth before causing serious unrest in Rhode Island, where his opposition to taking oaths in court or as part of legal business contracts was abhorrent to representatives of established government. Gorton in New England and the Levellers in England preached a far-reaching equality that was thought to threaten society's stability by abolishing what Bradford and many others thought were divinely ordained differences of social standing and responsibility expressed in wise government. In the mid-1640's, Bradford used his recollection of this administrative shift (regarding land use) as the base upon which he could construct a propagandistic comment aimed at the social circumstances of the later period. In 1646 it was important to oppose Gorton and the Levellers' threat from England, important to consider that practical experience of human nature had disproved idealistic theory — "the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God." Bradford ends his memoirs by noting that Edward Winslow had been sent to England in 1646 to defend New England against complaints of mistreatment lodged in London by Samuel Gorton.

Recent writers who emphasize the year 1623 rather than 1621 when writing about the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving have made a choice that is obviously driven by a political agenda. And simply telling the story is not what concerns them.

10 comments:

Paul M. at: November 27, 2010 at 9:13 AM said...

Jeremy, thanks for clarifying the Pilgrims' communalism/corporatism.

I wonder if their system - corporate shares of profit with communal ownership of property - might have been subject to a variation of what Garret Hardin called the "tragedy of the commons." Garrett Hardin coined the phrase to describe the economic ill effects of a system predicated upon common property but individual profit. In the classic tragedy of the commons, unsustainable exploitation occurred because individuals received maximal personal gain from their actions while their costs were minimized by being spread across the community as a whole.

The Pilgrims' situation was constructed differently. Individual labor on the land produced less individual profit because any gains were spread among corporate shareholders. The individual incentive to farm efficiently and maximize productivity was thus lessened. I suppose the difference would be that while Hardin was describing the over utilization of land, we are trying to describe the under utilization of labor by the Pilgrims.

This seems to fit the data, in particular the agitation among Pilgrims for increased number of days for private labor for which the profits were entirely personal.

Tom Van Dyke at: November 27, 2010 at 3:40 PM said...

Thank you, Jeremy.

First, some housekeeping:

I acknowledged infra that land allotment was not the question, and indeed that Bradford's view was a limited redistribution at best.

I certainly didn't deny that those who emphasize 1623 [conservatives, libertarians] have no political agenda. They are not historians.

What I did say is that history scholars who smack them down have an agenda, smacking down down their partisan opponents being the priority, not sorting out the whole story.

You indicate here that Bradford's later account of personal initiative and a level of free enterprise "misrepresent[ed] the economic circumstances of the past."

Perhaps this is so---I'm unqualified to comment. However, those who were interested in smacking Limbaugh, et al., down could and should have made that argument, that these conservatives and libertarians were---innocently and through no fault of their own---citing a discredited text.

Had I read that in the New York Times, I'd have been complimentary rather than irked at the author, the scholars quoted, and those who passed on the NYT article without comment or clarification.

For the record, are you saying the later Bradford account of 1623 is a lie? For if it isn't, despite their conflation of 1623 with 1621, their larger point holds.

Which was my very first comment, and which renders the NYT article more quibbling than history.

Again, thank you. It is nice to hear from you again.

Jeremy Bangs at: November 28, 2010 at 9:22 PM said...

Paul and Tom –
Land allotment is the question that led to a change in 1623. I’m not sure how a term like “under utilization of labor” connects with the situation. Farmers complained that annual rotation meant that their work preparing fields for the next season was labor that they themselves would not benefit from, and that they might have to plant in fields that had been less well prepared. Pride in professional competence was thus an aspect that doesn’t seem to fit in the slogan “tragedy of the commons.” Single young men also complained that their farm labor was going to support the wives and children of other men, evidently wanting to work for themselves alone outside the traditional family structure. But in 1623 no change was made to the rule that single young men were assigned to live as part of family units, even if they were not related by kinship. The adjustment of land allotment did not grant private property in the land or in the labor, all of which was still part of the common colony assets that were to be liquidated at the end of the seven-year term. How this worked is explained in my books Strangers and Pilgrims (2009) and Pilgrim Edward Winslow (2004).

There was no shift from socialism to private enterprise; instead, there was an adjustment to a capitalist corporation and how it managed its assets. The Pilgrims had objected to this complete corporate control when it was insisted upon by the London investors, angrily claiming that this was a system that was “fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.” They had wanted two days for their own labor and profit each week, and they had wanted to keep their houses out of the common property that was to be liquidated. They did not in fact sign the contract in 1620, leading to further argument in 1621 and insistence that the contract be signed then. The corporate ownership of the land had to be followed, and an attempt was made to work within this totally capitalist arrangement. The original proposal for two days of individual labor and profit was not granted.

Jeremy Bangs at: November 28, 2010 at 9:22 PM said...

It is from material that Bradford and Winslow provide (some of it in the form of other people’s letters incorporated in Bradford’s journal and letter book) that we know the details of the negotiations and arguments in 1620 and 1621. When Bradford returned to the topic of the 1623 change later, in the context of Gorton and the Levellers in the 1640s he was with hindsight drawing conclusions about human nature that were not matters of discussion (as far as we can tell) in 1623. Unlike modern historians, he was not examining his own earlier material in order to attempt a balanced history of the events. So I would not say that his account is a lie, but I think Bradford’s analysis served his purpose in the 1640s without being accurate about the circumstances of 1620-1623. Because there was no shift from socialism or communalism to capitalism, I cannot agree that “their larger point holds.” (their – referring to various people making that particular claim).

In the 1980s Jame Deetz (professor of anthropology, University of Virginia) made the claim that because Winslow’s description does not use the word “thanksgiving” to describe the Pilgrims’ 1621 event it was not a Thanksgiving but was instead an attempt to recreate a secular English harvest festival. This view was adopted for a while by Plimoth Plantation and emphasized in a popular children’s book published by the National Geographic Society. (I have objected that Englih harvest festivals were not secular, that Winslow composed his description with partial Bible verses the remainder of which includes “thanksgiving” and so would have been understood by his biblically literate readers, and that the Pilgrims were attempting to follow biblical and Reformed precedent for their lives, not traditional Church of England customs.) One reaction was to reclaim the religious nature of the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving by inventing a fake proclamation for a religious thanksgiving in 1623. This appeared in William J. Federer’s America’s God and Country (1994), citing David Barton’s The Myth of Separation (1991), from whose later editions the text has been dropped. The 1623 event was, however, adopted for a non-religious claim: Fred E. Goldvary (1998) wrote about 1623 that “It is logical to surmise that the Pilgrims saw this [rain that saved the harvest] as a sign that God blessed their new economic system, because Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving.” In 1999 the Ludwig von Mises Institute republished Richard J. Maybury’s 1985 article “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax.” According to Maybury, “In 1623 Bradford abolished socialism ... he replaced socialism with a free market, and that was the end of famines. ... Before these free markets were established, the colonists had nothing for which to be thankful ... Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

For more on this, besides the books, see my online article, “Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce.”

The repetition of this interpretation of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, emphasizing 1623, goes back to Maybury and Goldvary. Conservatives and Libertarians are, as you say, Tom, “citing a discredited text.” But it is not Bradford who is discredited (if read in context), it is the version publicized by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Whether “Limbaugh, et al.” are making their arguments “innocently and through no fault of their own” (as you suggest) is a historical moral judgment that would probably require a study of their other writings to determine from context whether or not such a generous characterization is likely to be valid. I am not familiar with them.

Jeremy Bangs at: November 28, 2010 at 9:24 PM said...

It is from material that Bradford and Winslow provide (some of it in the form of other people’s letters incorporated in Bradford’s journal and letter book) that we know the details of the negotiations and arguments in 1620 and 1621. When Bradford returned to the topic of the 1623 change later, in the context of Gorton and the Levellers in the 1640s he was with hindsight drawing conclusions about human nature that were not matters of discussion (as far as we can tell) in 1623. Unlike modern historians, he was not examining his own earlier material in order to attempt a balanced history of the events. So I would not say that his account is a lie, but I think Bradford’s analysis served his purpose in the 1640s without being accurate about the circumstances of 1620-1623. Because there was no shift from socialism or communalism to capitalism, I cannot agree that “their larger point holds.” (their – referring to various people making that particular claim).

In the 1980s Jame Deetz (professor of anthropology, University of Virginia) made the claim that because Winslow’s description does not use the word “thanksgiving” to describe the Pilgrims’ 1621 event it was not a Thanksgiving but was instead an attempt to recreate a secular English harvest festival. This view was adopted for a while by Plimoth Plantation and emphasized in a popular children’s book published by the National Geographic Society. (I have objected that Englih harvest festivals were not secular, that Winslow composed his description with partial Bible verses the remainder of which includes “thanksgiving” and so would have been understood by his biblically literate readers, and that the Pilgrims were attempting to follow biblical and Reformed precedent for their lives, not traditional Church of England customs.) One reaction was to reclaim the religious nature of the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving by inventing a fake proclamation for a religious thanksgiving in 1623. This appeared in William J. Federer’s America’s God and Country (1994), citing David Barton’s The Myth of Separation (1991), from whose later editions the text has been dropped. The 1623 event was, however, adopted for a non-religious claim: Fred E. Goldvary (1998) wrote about 1623 that “It is logical to surmise that the Pilgrims saw this [rain that saved the harvest] as a sign that God blessed their new economic system, because Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving.” In 1999 the Ludwig von Mises Institute republished Richard J. Maybury’s 1985 article “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax.” According to Maybury, “In 1623 Bradford abolished socialism ... he replaced socialism with a free market, and that was the end of famines. ... Before these free markets were established, the colonists had nothing for which to be thankful ... Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

Paul Harvey at: November 28, 2010 at 9:24 PM said...

Dear all: Yikes! In trying to delete a repeated comment, the blog program deleted an entire comment by Jeremy. So I'm going to cut and paste it here, sorry about that Jeremy, that was a miscue on my part. Anyway, here is the first half of Jeremy's comment:

Paul and Tom –
Land allotment is the question that led to a change in 1623. I’m not sure how a term like “under utilization of labor” connects with the situation. Farmers complained that annual rotation meant that their work preparing fields for the next season was labor that they themselves would not benefit from, and that they might have to plant in fields that had been less well prepared. Pride in professional competence was thus an aspect that doesn’t seem to fit in the slogan “tragedy of the commons.” Single young men also complained that their farm labor was going to support the wives and children of other men, evidently wanting to work for themselves alone outside the traditional family structure. But in 1623 no change was made to the rule that single young men were assigned to live as part of family units, even if they were not related by kinship. The adjustment of land allotment did not grant private property in the land or in the labor, all of which was still part of the common colony assets that were to be liquidated at the end of the seven-year term. How this worked is explained in my books Strangers and Pilgrims (2009) and Pilgrim Edward Winslow (2004).

There was no shift from socialism to private enterprise; instead, there was an adjustment to a capitalist corporation and how it managed its assets. The Pilgrims had objected to this complete corporate control when it was insisted upon by the London investors, angrily claiming that this was a system that was “fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.” They had wanted two days for their own labor and profit each week, and they had wanted to keep their houses out of the common property that was to be liquidated. They did not in fact sign the contract in 1620, leading to further argument in 1621 and insistence that the contract be signed then. The corporate ownership of the land had to be followed, and an attempt was made to work within this totally capitalist arrangement. The original proposal for two days of individual labor and profit was not granted.

It is from material that Bradford and Winslow provide (some of it in the form of other people’s letters incorporated in Bradford’s journal and letter book) that we know the details of the negotiations and arguments in 1620 and 1621. When Bradford returned to the topic of the 1623 change later, in the context of Gorton and the Levellers in the 1640s he was with hindsight drawing conclusions about human nature that were not matters of discussion (as far as we can tell) in 1623. Unlike modern historians, he was not examining his own earlier material in order to attempt a balanced history of the events. So I would not say that his account is a lie, but I think Bradford’s analysis served his purpose in the 1640s without being accurate about the circumstances of 1620-1623. Because there was no shift from socialism or communalism to capitalism, I cannot agree that “their larger point holds.” (their – referring to various people making that particular claim). . . . [see next comment]

Jeremy Bangs at: November 28, 2010 at 9:24 PM said...

. . . For more on this, besides the books, see my online article, “Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce.”

The repetition of this interpretation of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, emphasizing 1623, goes back to Maybury and Goldvary. Conservatives and Libertarians are, as you say, Tom, “citing a discredited text.” But it is not Bradford who is discredited (if read in context), it is the version publicized by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Whether “Limbaugh, et al.” are making their arguments “innocently and through no fault of their own” (as you suggest) is a historical moral judgment that would probably require a study of their other writings to determine from context whether or not such a generous characterization is likely to be valid. I am not familiar with them.

Tom Van Dyke at: November 29, 2010 at 7:43 PM said...

I seem to have stepped into a scholarly hornets' nest.

Regardless, Dr. Bangs---Jeremy---the fulcrum of your argument here is rejecting Bradford's 1647 [date?] account as revisionism against Leveller troublemakers and the like.

I think that's fine, interesting, and a valid argument. However, it's not unreasonable for others to still accept the uncontemporaneous account. Your position is not scholarly consensus; it is still scholarly opinion.

Neither is it reasonable to expect these partisan advocates [that's what they are] to get their history from anywhere but secondary sources. They comment on a worldful of things and have not devoted large chunks of their professional careers to this particular pocket of history, as you have, consulting and evaluating the primary sources.

So, charitably, mercy! I do not expect any partisan to use the history scholar's fine-tooth comb. But I do expect history scholars to at least acknowledge that there is a fine-tooth comb, and that when it comes to the culture war issues like this, the New York Times is a tertiary source at best, and is as suspect as any non-primary source.

To business, then, in my next comment, as I shall exceed the character limit if I continue here.

I won't ask Paul or Randall for equal time on this estimable blog's mainpage, although I fear I came off looking rather the dullard. My interest is simply in clarity, and as the Pilgrim era is not an area of my expertise or even great interest, I have no facts to add.

However, you have sent me to the books [and to your past writings on this subject] and would like to continue the conversation, as I've found it interesting and nourishing.

But first things first, since what I've learned is that our current crisis is not over the historical facts or even their interpretation, it's one of epistemology.

And then, semantics. The terms, o Lord, the terms!

Tom Van Dyke at: November 29, 2010 at 9:22 PM said...

To business, then, Dr. Bangs, as threatened:

Excluding the later Bradford account leaves us with how to regard the harvests of 1621 and 1622. You use other sources like Winslow to indicate that they were somewhat satisfactory.

(The later Bradford account finds them small and wanting, that there was enough to eat during summer and fall, but hunger during the winter and spring. He also uses the word famine in reference to these. Further, that in 1622, there was theft from the food stores [punished by whippings!], and half-heartedness of effort at farming if not downright shirking.)

But let's disregard the Bradford enclosed in the parentheses, and stipulate your argument.

We should agree that the 1621 season had all hands on deck, everyone doing the best they could, all for one, one for all---what we might call "lifeboat rules."

"Socialism" is such a loaded term. I think it applies here, but pick another, Jeremy. Terms should be bridges, not obstacles, to understanding, and should be ditched when unhelpful.

In 1622, you argue that 35 arriving mouths to feed created a problem, no doubt true. But that alone cannot account for The Winter of Our Discontent of 1622-23.

This discontent was manifested in what we might call "whining," but that's what men [and women in no small part in this case] do when faced with unfairness/injustice once not everybody is observing the lifeboat rules.

It's a human thing to observe lifeboat rules in the short term; also a human thing to chafe at them after the crisis is over.

Therefore, Bradford's use of the term "famine" is likely overstated, a term of art rather than precision; on the other hand, we might take it as a "lack of plenty."

And so, even discarding Bradford---and your argument looks better here, Jeremy, as surely they would have continued under lifeboat rules had the situation been truly desperate---we know that something happened in 1622, and that in that winter, they came up with this, an acre per person:

http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/PrimarySources/DivisionOfLand.pdf

It's really interesting to look at. And yes, I/we acknowledge that this division was for working the land, not owning it, as Jeremy Bangs chronicles here:

http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/123-land-allotments.html

As I'm no scholar or expert on this, and what the results were, I'll leave off here. I'm tired of this kind of douchebaggery:

http://mediamatters.org/blog/201011240034

where 4th-hand sources are tossed as grenades at 3rd-hand sources by people who have zero interest in the truth. I just want the truth, or at least a clarity as close as we can get, as much as distilling down [excluding Bradford if need be] whatever happened in that winter of 1622.

Because something happened.

I don't know if Dr. Bangs accepts these figures, but it's alleged that in 1621, 26 acres were put under cultivation. In 1622, 60.

In 1623, 184.

It's also alleged that by 1624, the colony was exporting grain.

Next: Terms, o Lord, those bloody terms.

Tom Van Dyke at: November 30, 2010 at 3:49 AM said...

Part Three, the dreaded "terms," hopefully merciful and quick:

"Socialism" is still a pejorative in America, which I confess I'm glad about.

We can call the Mayflower Colony's 1621 scheme anything more delicate. I've offered "lifeboat rules."

"Capitalism" builds, but it also dehumanizes. Even its admirers tend to admit that.

The Mayflower enterprise was capitalistic---at least on the investor side. But these were the early days of capitalism, let us keep in mind.

On the colony's side, it was simply a contract between corporations---the investors were a corporation, the colonists a corporation themselves when viewed from the outside, but operating under different internal rules, their own rules which were not capitalistic.

As you note in your article here, Jeremy

http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/93-roast-bull-cranberry-sauce.html

"The colony as a whole and its colonists were indentured."



What jumps out at me is that the colonists originally agreed to function like a ship's crew of that time, and by the conventions of capitalistic adventures of that time:

The capitalists invest in the ship and provisions, the crew go out and try to stir up some wealth. The capitalists split up their share of the proceeds according to their internal rules, the crew splits up theirs according to theirs---a share for each.

On a ship, the captain rules, and those who shirk or are derelict in their duty are flogged or thrown overboard as necessary. Survive the voyage, you're paid your share, same as everybody else.

These ship's rules---or lifeboat rules---don't carry over to land so well.

We can call the new system of 1623 anything we like, "free enterprise" or "keeping the fruits of your labor," even "sharecropping."

Still, even if we view Bradford's later account as a polemic against a later group that wanted to restore a total "communitarianism," 1623 was a Rubicon that would not be recrossed.

No doubt the accounts by the "advocate" types are overheated, and they overlook that the land was not given as property, only "alloted" on a rotating basis.

I was particularly struck by your graf,

"Moreover, in the summer of 1623 the Pilgrims held another special day of thanksgiving to God when they considered that their prayers for rain were answered, a drought ended, and their crops were saved."

As good and important as the 1623 scheme was, man proposes, but God disposes. Had the drought not broken, the colony would likely have failed, as many others indeed did. This remains the true lesson of Thanksgiving.

Thank you for your time and helpful articles, Dr. Bangs. I meself was and am just interested in getting to the bottom of this mess.

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