San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The True Origin of Thanksgiving

For some strange reason the true source of the bountiful harvest celebrated by Thanksgiving has not been widely publicized. It was the shift from communal farming to private farming in which the people in the Plymouth Colony got to keep the benefits of their own efforts instead of sharing in a distribution of the communal effort. The passage below from the memoirs of William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, shows he was well aware of the extraordinary efficiency of individual initiative. Bradford was not the governor who implemented the shift to private farming but the one who followed that governor. Note that the land was not privatized; families had the use of the land but not its ownership.

William Bradford, of Plymouth Plantation (New York, Capricorn Books, 1962), pp. 90-91.

Note: The original spelling has been converted to the modern American form.

So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery: At length, after much debate of things, the Governor . . . gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyrany and oppression. The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince 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 comonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this comunity (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent.... 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. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.... Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

More on the economic history of the Plymouth Colony.

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