Tuesday, November 24, 2020

But For 400 Years Ago

During this Thanksgiving week of 2020 we should stop and give thanks to those intrepid Pilgrims who landed on our shores 400 years ago this month.

2020 has been a difficult year but it is embarrassing to compare our current troubles with those hearty individuals who arrived on the Mayflower after a 66 day journey across the North Atlantic in the Fall of 1620.

I recently read Rush Limbaugh’s book on those Brave Pilgrims to my 6 and 9 year old grandsons.

I also took the time this week to view the PBS documentary film on The Mayflower to pay further homage to these people of indomitable spirit and perseverance.

I was fairly familiar with most of the Pilgrims story but the book and documentary introduced me to a couple of new historical facts I was not aware of.

I knew the names of the key leaders of group on the Mayflower who included William Bradford, William Brewster and Myles Standish.

I was not familiar with the story of John Howland who was a young servant to John Carver who became the first governor of the New Plymouth Colony.

Howland was swept overboard in the midst of a North Atlantic gale in high seas on the crossing but was able to grasp a trailing rope from the Mayflower as he went into the water. That allowed the crew to pull him back aboard.

Grasping that rope was an act of great Providence as Howland went on to later marry a 13-year girl who was on the Mayflower with her parents. Her name was Elizabeth Tilley and she was later orphaned when her parents died after arrival in the New World that first winter which claimed the lives of about half of the colonists. Howland married Tilley in 1623.

John and Elizabeth went on to have 10 children and more than 80 grandchildren.

An estimated 2 million Americans can trace their lineage back to this union. A union that would not have occurred but for that grasp of a rope in the middle of an Atlantic storm.

Who are some of those who were in that 2 million? Who might we have never known but for that length of rope dandling over the side of the Mayflower?

Howland's direct descendants include three presidents — Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — as well as former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin; poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; actors Alec Baldwin, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lloyd; Mormon church founder Joseph Smith; and child care guru Dr Benjamin Spock.

My grandsons (via my son-in-law), who I read that book to, are descendants of Wlliam Brewster who was also on the Mayflower.

We truly owe a lot to the shoulders of those giants we sit on who went before us.

The other historical fact I learned recently is that the Pilgrims took well over a month after reaching the New World to determine where to place their settlement. They did not spy Plymouth Rock and immediately set about settling into their new home.

Small search parties left the Mayflower to try to find a suitable location for their new colony in and around Cape Cod Bay.

They found a near perfect location in Plymouth in that it had a sheltered bay, nice hills surrounding it for defensive purposes, and ground that had already been cleared for crop planting. They even found buried corn seed stored underground. In fact, it was the site of a former Indian settlement of nearly 2,000 that had been decimated and abandoned a few years earlier by a plague.

Although they arrived at the tip of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 it was not until December 21, 1620 that the first landing party arrived at Plymouth to begin construction of the colony.

Most of the inhabitants of what was called Patuxet by the Indians had died and those that survived had fled. The plague had been introduced to the Indian population by fisherman from Europe who had come ashore to trade with the Indians. 

The Pilgrims would never have gotten the assistance they got from the Indians that they did but for the fact that the Wampanoag tribe realized that they needed to strike a strategic alliance with the Pilgrims. The plague had severely weakened their numbers and standing in the power structure in the area. In order to protect themselves from competing tribes who wanted their land they knew they had to do something to protect themselves. The muskets and other firepower the Pilgrims brought with them was very helpful in that regard.

Both the Pilgrims and Indians had a lot to be thankful for at that first Thanksgiving in 1621. However, actual history shows that the Indians had not been invited to the festivities. They showed up on their own uninvited. They must have smelled the food. Something that has not changed much in 400 years.

Is it not interesting that a pandemic also played such an important part in shaping our history in 1620 as it is doing in 2020?

However, again, if I would have to pick a pandemic to face it would seem that one that has an overall survival rate of over 99% in 2020 is a whole lot better than one that was under 10% in the 1600’s.

We do have much to be thankful for.

If you want to learn more about the Pilgrims story I recommend you read the blog post below on how socialism almost did the colonists in before William Bradford discovered how property rights, a profit motive and the incentives around both turned a failing Plymouth Colony into a success.

400 years later and we still seem unable to understand this?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pilgrims, Prosperity And Poverty
(originally posted November 28, 2013)

I am thankful for many things.  My family. My friends. My job. I could go on and on. The list is very long.

I am most thankful I was born in the United States of America.  A country founded on the concept of individual rights and freedom.  A country that has embraced the idea of economic freedom, property rights and capitalism since its founding.

Of course, I was born at a different time than where we seem to be today in our attitudes about some of these ideals. Will our young people be as thankful as I am about their country of birth? I certainly hope so. However, it amazes me how we fail to accept the reality of the failings and foibles of the human condition throughout history. As a result, the same mistakes and missteps plague us no matter how many times the history lesson is taught.

Look no further than Venezuela. What was once the one of the most prosperous South American countries now languishes under a socialist regime despite rich natural resources.  Communist North Korea can't feed its own people while South Korea is giving a tablet computer to every school child. Taiwan flourished in freedom while Red China floundered for decades before its leaders embraced capitalist-based economic reforms. The same was true for East and West Germany.  In all of these cases there was no difference in the people. They were literally blood brothers and sisters. It was the governmental system and philosophy that made the difference between prosperity and poverty for the people of these nations.

Speaking of history, let's revisit the story of the Pilgrims and the origins of Thanksgiving Day. The story as I learned it in school was about a group of rugged individuals who set sail on the Mayflower in 1620 seeking religious freedom in America. They encountered many hardships that first year but thanks to help from Indians and the Grace of God (I am sure this is no longer mentioned in the textbooks) they reaped a bountiful harvest in the following year and gave thanksgiving with a giant feast.

The First Thanksgiving At Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

The real story is much more enlightening.  It also shows that there is absolutely no question about which system works best to provide the most prosperity for the most people and limits poverty. There should be no debate. It has been shown to be true over and over again in human history. However, over and over there are those who persist in thinking there is a better, more humane way to best provide for people in a society.

The real story of the Pilgrims was written by William Bradford who was the leader of the Plymouth Colony from 1621-1657.  He wrote "Of Plymouth Plantation" to chronicle the story of the Pilgrims and it is recognized today as the most complete and authoritative source on the subject.

One of the best summaries I have seen about the Pilgrim story was written by Dr. Judd W. Patton, "The Pilgrim Story: Vital Insights And Lessons For Today".

Let's start at the beginning. When the Pilgrims decided to go to America they had a problem not uncommon to many of us. They did not have enough money. They lacked the funds to sail to America, equip and establish their colony. As a result, they got financial help from some investors who financed New World adventures in return for a share of what the colonists made through farming, fishing, trade and other working endeavors.

The contract between the Adventurers (Investors) and the Pilgrims consisted of ten points. The most critical of which stated, “That all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony.”
Today we would call this a socialist commune. In other words, the Pilgrims accepted the socialist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Each person was to place his production into the common warehouse and receive back, through the Governor, only what he needed for himself or his family. The surplus after seven years was to be divided equally, along with the houses, lands, and chattels, “betwixt the Adventurers and Planters.”

The first year after they set sail for America was particularly difficult. The voyage itself took sixty-six days. They landed first on Cape Cod even though they had intended to reach the mouth of the Hudson River. They spent another month sailing the coast of Cape Cod until they finally decided to settle in Plymouth at the site of an old Indian village on December 21, 1620.

Within two months, half of their numbers died. Of the 24 families who had set sail, only four were untouched by death that first year.  Four other families were wiped out completely.  Those that made it to that first Thanksgiving were thankful.  However, it wasn't necessarily because of a bountiful harvest. They were just happy to have survived.

Contrary to legend, the harvests were extremely poor in 1621 and 1622. It was normal to be hungry. Governor Bradford referred to 1621 as the “the small harvest” year. Yet he notes that in “the summer there was no want.” Thankful for what God had given them, Governor Bradford declared a three-day feast for the purpose of prayer and celebration. We all know it as the first New England Thanksgiving – apparently observed in late summer.

Things were marginally better in 1622. The harvest was a little better but many Pilgrims held back and did not work as hard as others. There was stealing and hoarding. Bradford and the other Pilgrim leaders recognized that this would continue unless they changed the system.  What could they do to prevent another poor harvest?

This is how Governor Bradford tells it in "Of Plymouth Plantation".

“So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) 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…This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise…The women now went willingly into the field, and took the little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

The socialist system was discarded and replaced with a system that was built on individual property rights that put the trust in individual initiative to take care of the common good of the colony.

How did that work out?

In 1621, the Pilgrims planted only 26 acres. Sixty acres were planted in 1622. But in 1623, spurred on by individual enterprise, 184 acres were planted! Somehow those who alleged weakness and inability became healthy and strong. It’s amazing what incentive will do to improve bad attitudes!

However, the Pilgrims still had their challenges. The summer of 1623 was hot and dry. For almost two months there was no rain. Their crops were in jeopardy. Governor Bradford did not lose faith.

Governor Bradford then set a “solemn day of humiliation (fasting) to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer in this great distress.” Their prayers were answered. By evening it began to rain. It revived the corn and other fruits. Even the Indians were astonished. The soft showers continued along with beautiful fair weather. The result was a “fruitful and liberal harvest …for which mercy they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.”

By the fall of 1624, the colonists were able to export a full boat load of corn! And the Pilgrims settled with the Adventurers. They purchased the Adventurers stock in the colony and completed the transition to private property and free markets.
The rest is history. The experience of the Pilgrims went a long way to forming the values and principles upon which our Founding Fathers created a new nation unlike anything the world had ever seen before. It came to be the most prosperous and powerful country ever known to mankind. For that I am forever thankful to the Pilgrims and the others who endured trials and tribulations to give me the life I have today.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving it is useful to remember the Pilgrims and what their experience can teach us. I think Dr. Patton summarizes the lessons pretty well.

The Pilgrim experience dating from 1623 was and is yet a prototype for the United States of America. They learned the hard way that: (1) Socialism does not work; it diminishes individual initiative and enterprise; (2) Socialism is not a Godly economic system; and (3) Famine and drought can be used by God to humble a people and set them on a proper course. The Pilgrims responded. The real question today is: Can Americans learn these vital insights from the Pilgrims or must we too face famine and drought in the coming years?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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