Steven Malanga argues that the real lesson we should learn from the experience of the Pilgrims may be overlooked on Thanksgiving. The traditional communal feast doesn’t quite capture what really allowed the Pilgrims to thrive: capitalism.
Through the spring and the summer the Pilgrims nursed each other back to health, built their settlement, made friends with local Indians, and planted both native English crops and American seeds provided them by the local natives. That fall, as Plymouth Harbor attracted hordes of migratory birds, the Pilgrims went hunting, accumulating enough meat for a big celebration. When a hundred or so Pokanokets Indians showed up with freshly killed deer to add to the plenty, what started as a traditional European harvest festival became a feast of mythic significance, especially after Bradford and Edward Winslow ended their account of the Pilgrim’s first year at Plymouth with the story of that Thanksgiving..
But mythic celebrations aside, the Pilgrims would struggle at Plymouth for two more years, never quite securing their freedom from worry and want until Bradford reorganized their tiny economy. For three years Plymouth had operated like other English colonies such as Jamestown, on a communal system where everyone worked the land and shared the fruits of labour. Now instead, in 1623, Bradford decided that each family should have its own plot of land to cultivate and would get to keep what it produced. By rights, this shouldn’t have mattered much to the God-fearing Pilgrims. After all, they were engaged in a heroic endeavour to create a new life for themselves in America and all of them were presumably working as hard as possible to achieve that.
Still, as Philbrick writes, under Bradford’s new regime, “the change in attitude was stunning.” While previously men had tended the fields while women cared for the children, Bradford wrote that now women and children took to the fields, too, and the colony’s output increased sharply. “The inhabitants never again starved,” Philbrick relates, and eventually Winslow described Plymouth as a place where “religion and profit jump together.”