We are all thankful. We’re thankful for family, for friends, for all the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. But this time of year, sometimes being thankful is more of a duty—an expectation—than a truly genuine sentiment.
We know we’re thankful and we can dutifully list off the things that we’re thankful for, but sometimes fully understanding the depth and breadth of our blessings can be difficult when life gets in the way.
In a very real sense, though, we owe nearly all our blessings and thus our thanks to the people who celebrated the first Thanksgiving; not for the holiday they unwittingly created, but for the bedrock on which this country still stands.
After the settlers of Plymouth Colony made it through the first devastating winter in the new world and learned to farm the land of their new home, they celebrated with the natives who had taught them how to survive.
The real story of Thanksgiving, however, came the following year.
The colony did not, as we were taught, suddenly prosper. In fact, the first years after the first Thanksgiving were nearly as bad as the first year in Plymouth. Quite simply, the Pilgrims didn’t know how to run their colony.
They knew they wanted to avoid the sort of economic serfdom they had fled in England, but beyond that they weren’t quite sure how to govern themselves.
No one did; what they were doing was essentially unheard of in human history—leaving the comfort of modern civilization for the untamed wilderness.
So they did the only thing that they felt would be fair—they decided to share equally among themselves everything they were able to produce.
But the two following harvest seasons were nearly as barren as the first.
Why? Because the pilgrims didn’t factor in human nature. As Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford noted:
For the young men that were 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 recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.
The men who could produce the most food didn’t, because they didn’t think they should have to feed other families. The men who couldn’t produce as much didn’t bother because they assumed they would be taken care of.
“And,” Bradford wrote, “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.”
Thankfully, Bradford did what leaders today often have a difficult time doing: he admitted that he was wrong.
Two years after deciding to share their harvest, the Plymouth colonists decided to parcel out the land they had settled and keep what they grew for their own families. Whatever was left over could be bartered with other families.
Plymouth government would have nothing to do with this, and step in only to settle disputes that arose.
They didn’t know it, but they had created the model of government, industry, and, well, life, that much of the rest of the world would follow for the next 400 years.
And the Pilgrims prospered. Governor Bradford wrote:
This had a 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.
For the next 400 years, that simple idea was able to fight off tyranny and oppression in every form they took because that simple idea empowered every man, woman, and child to produce whatever they were able, reap the benefits of their hard work, and then sell it to the rest of the world.
At no point in world history were common people more powerful because at no point in world history did they control their own destiny to the extent that they did in Plymouth. A new world was fully open to them.
That world is our world, and we are still reaping the bounty of the world they created for us. It hasn’t been perfect, of course, but it has given each and every one of us the most valuable of gifts: opportunity.
We have the opportunity to work how we want, live where we want, and love who we want because of that simple idea 400 years ago.
And for that we are thankful; for family, for friends, for all the blessings that God has bestowed upon us—and for the freedom to enjoy those blessings however we see fit.