Painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood
The 102 men, women, and children who set out from Plymouth to sail west across the Atlantic crowded into the Mayflower with clothing, food, ploughs, guns, and two dogs, a spaniel and a mastiff. It was September 1620. Their ship was just 10 feet long, and hurricanes awaited them. Millions of people who have escaped from oppression since then, and have reached America, can be thankful the pilgrims had the nerve and vision to go.
Many of the men slept on the ship's deck, sheltering under rowboats as they headed into the Atlantic's equinoctial gales. Halfway across, storms cracked a main beam, and almost sank them. They made the necessary repairs, and plowed on toward a wild, unknown land.
They had decided to fling themselves on the mercy of the waves, and sail to America because they wanted something they could not live without. They wanted England's ancient rights and liberties. Recently those liberties had come under attack.
The ancient liberties, customs, and ideals they loved were
Freedom of speech and action
Magna Carta, designed to protect the individual from the tyranny of government, and
Common Law, intended to defend every person's rights under the law
The right to worship God as they chose.
By late November, the Mayflower pilgrims had been wracked by the seas for two months. Nearing America they decided to land wherever they could. But sailing close to the wintry wilderness of Cape Cod on America's eastern seaboard took them aback. They realized they had to make a plan of action if they were going to survive.
On deck they drafted an agreement with three long sentences. They didn’t churn out turgid pages. They already knew they had to try to live according to the Ten Commandments and Christ's teaching to love God and each other.
So they simply bound themselves to cooperation and self-government under majority rule. Their agreement to make decisions democratically was remarkable. It's still remarkable today.
Their good intentions were not enough. Half of them died from malnutrition and exposure. They had been honest and they had lived peacefully together, and those qualities would prove essential in the future, but they had ignored a fundamental fact of human nature and an essential freedom --
After they landed on the Cape, the pilgrims fished and hunted for food with the help of the spaniel and mastiff. The native peoples shared corn. Their generosity is remembered every Thanksgiving in America.
Everyone shared everything, but the pilgrims died because they had turned their backs on a source of English and American strength. It's the least-known aspect of their story, and one with familiar modern echoes .
The pilgrims suffered because they tried to create a system in which no one owned property, and everything was shared. It sounds so wonderful! But as we have seen in countries the world over, the theory doesn't work. People become poor and miserable. They starve. Their creativity is lost.
Rather than resisting reality, the pilgrims made changes. In 1623 they returned to an English economic system based on incentives, freedom, just law, and private property. They turned to the individual and collective energy of the free market.
Writing in England a century later, Adam Smith pointed out that honesty and peace, keeping your promises and having a voice in your community are essential to a prosperous economy.
Over the centuries this great experiment continued, and America became a place where desperately poor people from all over the world could make a living.
So what was the role of government?
Government didn't tell people how to make a living, didn't insert innumerable regulations as stumbling blocks in their way, and didn't seize the hard-earned fruits of their labour in high taxes. Government upheld just law, built roads and bridges, and protected citizens from attack. Many citizens who prospered helped those with less to do better.
America was not perfect, but as Judge Thomas recently observed, it was "perfectible".
By 1640 there were 20,000 Brits in New England, and they were flourishing. Despite death and loss, and sometimes despite themselves, they and their descendants would help to plant freedom in their newfound land.
Thanking that glorious Being
In 1619, British settlers in Virginia celebrated “a day of thanksgiving to God”. In 1621, the Mayflower pilgrims thanked God and their neighbours. They held a three-day feast with the Wampanoag people.
More than a century later, in the darkest, most miserable days of the American Revolution, a great victory was won at Saratoga, and Congress declared "a day of Thanksgiving" to God. That thanksgiving was accompanied by the prayer that all people under the yoke of tyranny would become free.
After the Revolution, in 1789, President George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation -
“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. . . .”
Today we give thanks to the Lord and His teachings of love, to all those who persevere in the face of adversity and fear, summoning their courage to defend justice and liberty, and to our family, friends, and neighbours who contribute to us and their communities in a multitude of ways and share their blessings. We thank them. We thank you.
Thanks to Instapundit for the link.
This post is revised and republished every year.