As I recover from my annual Turkey coma (prolonged by leftovers) I recall that the Pilgrims are often remembered for their “Protestant Work Ethic.” I think it’s fascinating that they didn’t start out that way. You see, for the first few years in the wilderness that would become the United States of America this important bloc of our founding fathers were—Socialists.
As a young Air Force ROTC cadet I read Mig-Pilot, the autobiography of Victor Belenko, a Soviet Air Force Officer who defected to Japan in 1976 with his Mig-25. One of the fascinating aspects of Belenko’s book was how messed up the Soviet Union, and their centrally planned Socialist based system, really was. Without the Capitalist incentive a work ethic was lacking and the big, bad Soviet Union was rotting from the inside.
I remember thinking at the time that the country described in Mig- Pilot couldn’t last and would eventually implode. Less than a decade later my unspoken prophecy came true. I was blessed to stand on the Berlin Wall while the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc minions collapsed.
The early struggles of the Pilgrims and how local Indians helped them survive are a part of American folklore. What is not so well known is one of the key elements of how they turned the corner: they stumbled upon—capitalism.
In his outstanding book, Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick writes:
The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. 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 needed to be done to increase the annual yield.
In April, 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. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.
Capitalism certainly has its shortcomings but at least it has a work ethic and the promise of personal success as an incentive. Thank God the Pilgrims stumbled upon the “Protestant Work Ethic” and didn’t expire. Otherwise this great nation, and the annual tradition of the turkey coma, might never have come to be.
The best history of the Pilgrims and their struggles that I’ve ever read is Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book covers the good , the bad, and the ugly side of our founding fathers in New England.
Mig-Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko is an inside look about how messed up Soviet Life was from the viewpoint of a member of the Soviet Elite