A common story of the Pilgrims is that they came to these shores to form a communistic society. 

“They wanted to erect a new Jerusalem in the new world, a new Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout but would be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism,” Richard M. Ebeling wrote in a 2022 article for American Institute for Economic Research. “Their ideal was the communism found in Plato’s Republic. All would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.” 

Beautiful, eloquent, but false. The Pilgrims did not choose a communal living experiment; it was forced upon them just before their voyage by the Merchant Adventurers whose venture capital financed their passage to the New World. To maximize their profits, the Merchant Adventurers required that the colonists work entirely for the Adventurers for the first seven years, after which their debt would be paid. During those seven years, the colonists would hold all houses, land, fields and gardens in common, probably to discourage them from seeking personal profit.  

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, Gov. William Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims did not want this arrangement, but reluctantly agreed to it, “seeing … all was like to be dashed and the opportunity lost.” But they inserted a clause in the agreement saying they would follow this communal living arrangement “except some unexpected impediment, do cause the whole company to agree otherwise.” 

As with socialism and communism everywhere, the result was disaster, bringing crop failure, economic privation, starvation and death. Bradford wrote: 

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times—that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. 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. … And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery; neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set among men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. 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.” 

What Bradford is saying is that even among honest, hard-working people like the Pilgrims, communal living did not work; and even more will it fail with the general population. Without a profit motive, people don’t work industriously. That is just human nature. Therefore, “Seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” God did not intend communal living, communism, or socialism. 

Compare Bradford’s words to those of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12: 

“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.  

For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. 

Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”

Notice that neither Paul nor Bradford opposed help for those who need it. Paul didn’t say, “he that cannot work, neither should he eat.” Paul distinguished between the deserving poor – those who cannot work – and the undeserving poor – those who can work but refuse. 

God’s Word endorses private property. The commandment Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) implies private property, especially in conjunction with the last commandment, “Thou shalt not covet … any thing that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).  

Free enterprise is consistent with the biblical view of property rights and the biblical view of human nature. The commissar can visit the commune and give a rousing oration about working for the socialist motherland, potentially firing up the workers for half an hour; but we need the profit motive that free enterprise provides to get people to work and produce over the long run. 

And so, they invoked the “unexpected impediment” clause and changed to private ownership and enterprise, prospering thereafter. As Bradford wrote: 

“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 tyranny and oppression.”  

Besides trading their locally-grown products with the Native Americans and with the Dutch, they also traded in lumber, fish, crops and beaver pelts, founding a trading post in Kennebec, Maine, as early as 1625. 

The Pilgrims did not abandon their ideal of a Christian colony; they embraced it. They abandoned an imposed system contrary to the laws of God and the nature of man, embracing instead a system consistent with biblical principles and human nature. 

They paid off all their obligations to the Merchant Adventurers, but more importantly, they kept their covenant with God. 

May future generations say the same of us. 

Colonel Eidsmoe serves as Chairman of the Board for the Plymouth Rock Foundation (plymrock.org), as Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy (www.obcl.edu), and as Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law (www.morallaw.org). He may be contacted for speaking engagements at (334) 324-1812. Those with constitutional issues may contact the Foundation at (334) 262-1245.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.