By David DeAngelo
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
No, the colony of Pilgrims in what is now Massachusetts was not an example of a failed socialist experiment. I mention that because it’s Thanksgiving week and that means it’s time for that stinky rightwing landfill gas (that the Pilgrims were socialist failures) to burp up into the conversational air that everyone else has to breathe.
Most every year for decades, our radio-friend Rush Limbaugh has delivered this stinker. It’s what’s known in the biz, as a “zombie” story. It’s a story that will not die, no matter how often it’s debunked.
But debunk we must, so that when the MAGA hatters at your Thanksgiving table pause between shoveling down moist forkfuls of your turkey and stuffing in order to educate you on the “real” American history, you’ll be ready.
We get a good idea of the story from a transcript from Limbaugh’s website last year. After giving a strawman argument over what’s “really” taught in the nation’s schools about Thanksgiving, he sets up the discussion with a description of the Mayflower Compact:
Here is the part that has been omitted: The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into,” the Mayflower Compact, “with their merchant-sponsors in London…” They had no money. They had to have people help them here.
The original contract … called for everything they produced to go into a common store,” a common account, “and each member of the community was entitled to one common share.” In other words, everybody got the same as everyone else. That’s the way it was set up. It was fairness and it was equality. “All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community,” not to the people personally. “They were going to distribute it equally. All of the land they cleared… Nobody owned anything.
“They just had a share in it. It was a commune,” pure and simple. “It was the forerunner to the communes we saw in the ’60s and ’70s out in California — and it was complete with organic vegetables, by the way.
And for Rush Limbaugh that means it was collectivism; that it was socialism. Something, he added, that always fails. For Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing noise machine, the real story of Thanksgiving, the one that’s being hidden from our view, is that it should be seen as a celebration of capitalism over the Pilgrim’s failed socialism of the early 1620s.
Here’s the thing. Rush got a tiny but central fact wrong. If you were to actually look at the text of the Mayflower Compact, it says nothing about “a common account” or anything in the way Limbaugh describes it. It does say:
We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of …Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.
Perhaps he’s thinking about the contract between the pilgrims and the English landowners who made up the Plymouth Company – the business enterprise in England that invested a thousand or so pounds in the journey before anyone set sail. The settlers were expected to pay that money back (with interest) over the course of seven years.
Sounds like capitalism to me. But what do I know? I’m not a conservative radio talk show host.
The point here is that we’re not really talking about a proto-hippie socialist commune, are we? The land and everything on it was, by virtue of the contract, owned by the joint-stock company. A very important fact omitted by our good friend Rush, don’t you think? As Nick Bunker, a real-life Pulitzer nominee for his book on George Washington wrote in 2011:
Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.
Indeed as William Bradford (our source for the Mayflower Compact) wrote in July of 1620:
The persons transported and the adventurers shall continue their joint-stock and partnership together; the space of 7 years, (except some unexpected impediment do cause the whole company to agree otherwise,) during which time, all profits and benefits that are got by trace, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in the common stock until the division. [Modernization of spelling, punctuation mine.]
Beyond this, the zombie story says that the first (“socialist”) years of the colony were such a failure that Bradford shut it down and then doled out personal property to every family. From that point, the colony flourished.
Yay, capitalism! Down with socialism!
Bradford shut down the “socialism” in 1623, two years after what some have called the first Thanksgiving in July of 1621. If the “socialist” system failed then how was there enough food to celebrate in the summer of 1621?
Let me state it yet again, everything in that colony was owned by the joint-stock company and would remain so until the company’s investment was paid back.
That’s some serious capitalism, my friends.