Having to Relearn the Lessons Learned Throughout History


Given the season, currently up on my book-reading list is Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick — a book he started, according to the preface, while looking into the history of Nantucket, where he lived, and wondering why the Native American King Philip had traveled from his Bristol, Rhode Island, home (on the current map) to the island.  Two points that caught my attention around the middle of the book made me wonder why we have to keep relearning lessons, despite our historically unprecedented degree of education.

On page 165, Philbrick writes:

For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally — the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements.  But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In our times, most of us don’t have as direct a link between what we’re able to produce during one season and whether we’re able to eat during another, but considering that Rhode Island has yet to recover from the last recession even as it becomes increasingly likely that another one is somewhat closer than the horizon, perhaps it’s time for us to take drastic measures, too.  And those measures should be the same:

In April, [Pilgrim Governor William] Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with  the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew.  The change in attitude was stunning.  Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before.

Our modern parallel would be to get government off our backs with regulation and redistribution and start letting us keep more of what we earn, by reducing taxes.  We’ll produce more (goods and jobs), meaning there will be more to go around.

A few pages later (170 et seq.) we find the importance of the free market, again, on the topic of Pilgrim and Puritan purchases of land through barters that shock us now, like 200 square miles of land for a few tools, some cloth, and some furs.  One could note that you can’t apply the value of the land after the settlers had cultivated it as its fair value before, and one must leave open the possibility that the sellers valued what they acquired more than we think they should have, but more germane at the moment is this:

From the start, Plymouth authorities insisted that all Native land purchases must have prior court approval.  By maintaining control over the buying and selling of Indian land, the colony hoped to ensure clear titles while protecting the Natives from unscrupulous individuals who might use alcohol and even violence to part them from their property…

… In reality, the system cut the Indians out of the emerging New England real estate market. By monopolizing the purchase of Indian lands, Plymouth officials kept the prices they paid artificially low.  Instead of selling to the highest bidder, Massasoit was forced to sell his land to the colonial government — and thus was unable to establish what we would call today a fair market price for the one Native commodity, besides the ever dwindling supply of furs, that the English valued.

In other words, an agreement made between the Native government (such as it was) and the Pilgrim government may have served the interests of the leaders, but it arguably makes the notion of “fairness” impossible, because people are forbidden from developing any point of reference outside of governments’ interests.

Although I’ll leave it for a later post to explore, another relevant observation is that it misses a great deal of history, and of real humanity, to present that period as if a field of innocent indigenous people was tricked and slaughtered by European interlopers. Such a narrative is only made possible by defining one group according to its best representatives while defining the other according to its worst. Sitting here, almost 400 years later, with the lessons then and now seeming obvious, it’s difficult not to feel as if they’ve been deliberately mis-taught.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    That the Pilgrims experimented with communism, which failed, and switched to a free market is widely known. However, it is not widely taught. The primary source is Gov. Bradfford’s diary. Much “Pilgrim history” is fabrication.