Special Report

The Pilgrims’ Financial Crisis

A Thanksgiving lesson in economic survival and progress.

By 11.26.08

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The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were an idealistic lot. They were part of the broader Puritan movement believing that the Anglican Church, recognized in law as the official church of England, had strayed from true Christianity. The Puritans were devoted to the Bible as the only true source of Christian doctrine and practice and objected to Anglican traditions and practices that had been added over the years from outside of the Bible.

The Puritans more generally wanted to reform and purify the Anglican church from within. But the Pilgrims were a subset of Puritans that wanted to separate themselves from the Anglican church entirely and practice their own true form of Christianity on their own. The Anglicans in turn persecuted the Puritans as heretics rebelling against the officially recognized Church of England and their obligations to it under the law.

This is what led the Pilgrims to leave England seeking full religious freedom. First they migrated to the Netherlands, which practiced religious tolerance of alternative religions. But the English Puritans wanted their children to grow up in an English culture, not as Dutchmen. That is why after a few years they sought to establish their own colony in the New World, where they could control their own government, religion and culture.

Due to unexpected delays, wandering off course, and searching for the best settlement site, the Mayflower, carrying 102 settlers, finally anchored at what was to become the settlement of Plymouth on December 21, 1620, the dead of winter. William Bradford, destined to become the second governor of the colony and the longest serving, wrote in his diary while still on the ship and contemplating "this poor people's present condition":

Being thus passed the vast ocean, they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, or to seek for succor….And for the season it was winter, and they know that the winters of that country [are] sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they know not….If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world….What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace?

In these precarious conditions, it was natural for them to work together and share their food and shelter. Even so, 45 of the original 102 died that first winter, including 13 of the original adult women, with one more passing away in May. During 1621, they discovered a couple of English speaking Indians, who had learned the language from fishermen hauling off fish from the New England coast, but who had not settled. This included the famed Squanto, who showed the settlers how to best hunt, fish, plant, and mine essential commodities in the New World, served as their exploration guide, and developed their relations with the surrounding Indian tribes.

By 1623, four additional ships of settlers had arrived. The colony had initially prospered just collecting wild growing food, and securing plentiful game such as turkeys and deer providing venison, supplemented by their own agriculture. Given their religious devotion, their concern for personal wealth was not a top issue for them, and even in that time idealistic notions of communal property and sharing communal resources as offering an ideal society of happiness had a strong appeal for those striking out to start a new civilization from scratch.

But as the colony grew, this initial quasi-socialist community of share and share alike was not working to produce enough for essential basic needs, let alone the prosperity that was expected in the new world. Available wild supplies of food, in particular, were no longer enough. Bradford again wrote in his dairy,

All this while no supply [of wild corn] was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. 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 thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefist 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 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….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.

As indicated, this experiment in private agriculture was hugely successful, with the colony's agricultural output soaring. But the settlers still increasingly complained that the colony's remaining communal practices and lack of complete private property were constraining and unfair. Bradford wrote further in his diary in 1623,

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's and other ancients applauded of 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…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. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice….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….Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course [meaning communal policy] itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Thus was capitalism born in America, sentimental notions of socialism having been tried and failed, not only as a matter of economics, but also because it was seen as a regime of unjust restrictions on personal liberty. The colony adopted private property and free trade, ending its own critical financial crisis, and creating the trademark bountiful American prosperity, which drew waves of new settlers seeking the American dream that had already been born.


THE COLONY OF JAMESTOWN, established even earlier in Virginia in 1607, was quite different. Its settlers were not idealistic separatists seeking religious freedom, but entrepreneurs seeking riches. The English government wisely contracted out settlement of the New World, in this case chartering the Virginia Company of London in 1606 to finance and maintain settlements in Virginia, through funds raised from private investors. The company obtained and fitted out three ships carrying 105 passengers, which departed England for the New World in December, 1606.

Arriving in the more hospitable spring season of 1607 in the more friendly Virginia climate, its venturers immediately started searching for the gold and other easy riches the Spanish had so readily found in their New World explorations. But Virginia did not offer such quick riches. With the settlement party composed more of businessmen and aristocrats not accustomed to the manual labor necessary for survival in the New World, the settlement was soon in danger of failure. The aristocrats expected others to provide for their basic needs. Those capable and willing to build shelter, hunt for game, and raise food were not willing to yield to the heavy effective taxation that would be needed to provide for the entire settlement through their own work alone. Thus Jamestown faced a similar financial crisis as the later Pilgrims.

Fortunately, the renowned and practical adventurer Captain John Smith was elected President of the colony in 1608. His focus was survival for the colony and its settlers, rather than quick riches. He established extensive relations with the surrounding Indian population to gain a quick source of food. This led to his celebrated romance with the Indian princess Pocahontas.

Then, to deal with his non-working aristocrats, Smith adopted as Colony policy the principle of "He who does not work does not eat." With the resulting newfound incentives, colony productivity and output soared, along with the survival rate among the settlers, which climbed to over 90%. This brings to mind the workfare Reagan sought to establish in California and Washington, which saw fruition in the welfare reforms the Congressional Republican majorities adopted under Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1996.

This new capitalist policy solved the financial crisis of Jamestown as well. By 1613, enterprising colonist John Rolfe, who later married Pocahontas, introduced tobacco farming. This proved to be "black gold" for the colony, with a lucrative market for the crop quickly developing in Europe, which led to an explosion of prosperity in Virginia. Waves of new settlers flowed in here as well, seeking again the new American dream of prosperity and freedom. In his later writing promoting settlement of the New World, Smith wrote, "Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labor and land….If he have nothing but his hands, he may…by industrie quickly grow rich."


TODAY, WE KNOW as well how to solve our own financial crisis and restore American prosperity. Besides the experience of the early colonists, we have the more direct recent experience of the historic Reagan economic boom. If we cut tax rates for workers, corporations, investors and entrepreneurs, we increase the reward and consequently the incentive for productive activity, as in Plymouth and in Jamestown. If we reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, then we reduce costs on the economy, and so also increase the reward for pro-growth engagements. Removing regulations in particular that prevent production of oil, gas, and nuclear power would provide a reliable supply of low cost energy also stimulating economic growth. We also need stricter anti-inflation monetary policies for the Fed, whose loose monetary policies in recent years was the fundamental cause of the housing bubble, that lies at the root of the meltdown of major financial institutions we are suffering now. Reduced government spending burdens also reduces unnecessary costs for the economy. Free trade further promotes prosperity for all.

This is all simple, direct, undeniable logic, proven by thousands of years of human economic experience. The bigger problem for America now is not the financial crisis, but that our political fashion is stuck on stupid, wanting to take us in exactly the opposite direction of where we need to go to restore our prosperity. Instead of Reaganomics, our new political leaders want to pursue Hugo Chavez economics. Their badly misled followers are lost in a soft-headed dreamworld. But their leaders know where they are going. What they are after is not maximum prosperity for all, but voter dependency to cement their political power.

The American people will eventually figure this out, rediscover the timeless principles of human economics, and reject the comparative poverty of government redistribution in favor of the traditional American prosperity and freedom established by our nation's founders. The real question is how much the America people will have to suffer until that happens.

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About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.