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Mayflower Compact, The Puritans Experiment with Socialism

Leading up to 1620, the religious climate of the world was changing. The Protestant Reformation in Europe was a reaction to the corruption in the Catholic Church. For political reasons and the fact that King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon and the fact that the Pope would not grant an annulment, King Henry declared himself head of the national Church of England.  Those who objected to both the Catholic Church and the new Church of England became known as ‘Separatists or Puritans.”

To maintain their religious faith several of the Separatists moved to Amsterdam. The fear that the end of a truce between Spanish Catholics and Dutch Protestants was emanating, the Puritans negotiated a contract with the Virginia Company to establish a colony in the Hudson River Valley.  A businessman, Thomas Weston and other venture capitalists would finance the transportation to the new world in exchange for furs and other commodities the Puritans could produce and send back to England.

The original plan called for two ships, but one ship was not sea worthy and all 101 Puritan passengers crammed onto the Mayflower.  After a difficult 65 day journey across the ocean, the Mayflower arrived in Cape Code in November 1620 far north of their intended destination, a place called Plymouth.  On the deck of the Mayflower they wrote and signed and a collective economic agreement called the Mayflower Compact.

It was a terrible first winter where over half of the colonists died within the first six months of landing in America.  After a couple of months the Mayflower returned to England with an empty cargo hold much to the disappointment of the businessmen who underwrote the venture.

Rather than being entrepreneurs like the settlers in Jamestown, Plymouth Colony was a collective economic system. The settlers, who later became known as Pilgrims, worked for joint partnership or common-stock and were fed out of the common stores. The land and the houses were joint property. For seven years the venture capitalists in England and Pilgrims would work and then what was produced would be divided equally.

The theory of using a common-stock for the profitable operation of colonies was an accepted practice of the day, in spite of repeated failures due to human nature. The failure of this collective system was as evident in Plymouth as it was in other colonies where it had been used. Young unmarried men objected to having the fruits of their toil go to support other men’s wives and children. Married men disliked having their wives sew, cook, and wash for the others. Hard-working men thought it unfair that they should support the more idle or incapable. The older men, or those of the better class, declined to work for the younger or meaner. Because of severe famine in 1623, the colonists decided to set aside their collective agreement and allow everyone to raise their own food. The immediate result was a greatly increased production, so that many had a surplus and trading began among themselves, with corn as currency.

After the death of the first leader, Deacon Carver, William Bradford became governor.
Seeing the failure of communal farming, the colony instituted a free enterprise system. Each colonist was given ownership to one acre of land and each colonist was challenged to better themselves and their land by working to their fullest capacity. The colony began to flourish. Many Christian historians and economists point to this fundamental economic change as one of the key reasons for the success of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

Communal living and the common stock economic model had been a disastrous failure. Not only had the London capitalists received almost no return on their investment, but it became evident that the principal of socialism itself was lost. By December, 1624, some of the English businessmen had decided to abandon the venture and lose what they had already expended rather than risk any more, suggesting that the Pilgrims send over what they could to pay off their special debts.

Capitalism was birthed out of an earlier failed socialist experiment as far back as the Mayflower. The capitalistic economic system is as American as the 4th of July.

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  Edmund Burke, 1729-1797

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June 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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