God, Thanksgiving, and Private Property

11-29-2020Weekly Reflection

The journey to the New World was a long and arduous one. And when the Pilgrims landed in New England in November, they found, according to William Bradford's detailed journal, a cold, barren, desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them, he wrote. There were no houses to shelter them. There were no inns where they could refresh themselves. And the sacrifice they had made for freedom was just beginning. During the first winter, half the Pilgrims – including Bradford's own wife – died of starvation, sickness or exposure.

When spring finally came, Indians taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod and skin beavers for coats. Life improved for the Pilgrims, but they did not yet prosper! This is important to understand because this is where modern American history lessons often end. Thanksgiving is actually explained in some textbooks as a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives, rather than as a devout expression of gratitude grounded in the tradition of both the Old and New Testaments.

Here is the part that has been omitted: The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store, and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well.

They were going to distribute it equally. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belonged to the community as well. Nobody owned anything. They just had a share in it. Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this form of collectivism was as costly and destructive to the Pilgrims as that first harsh winter, which had taken so many, lives. He decided to take bold action. Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage. Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? What Bradford and his community found was that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation! What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild's history lesson. If it were, we might prevent much needless suffering in the future.

"The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years...that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing – as if they were wiser than God," Bradford wrote. "For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most 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 any recompense...that was thought injustice."

Why should you work for other people when you can't work for yourself? What's the point? The Pilgrims found that people could not be expected to do their best work without incentive. Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products. And what was the result?

"This had very good success," wrote Bradford, "for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." In no time, the Pilgrims found they had more food than they could eat themselves. So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.

Catholic Social Teaching on Private Property

from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, USCCB

176. By means of work and making use of the gift of intelligence, people are able to exercise dominion over the earth and make it a fitting home: “In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property.” Private property and other forms of private ownership of goods “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom... stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty.”Private property is an essential element of an authentically social and democratic economic policy, and it is the guarantee of a correct social order. The Church’s social doctrine requires that ownership of goods be equally accessible to all, so that all may become, at least in some measure, owners, and it excludes recourse to forms of “common and promiscuous dominion.”

178. The Church’s social teaching moreover calls for recognition of the social function of any form of private ownership that clearly refers to its necessary relation to the common good. Man “should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.” The universal affirmation both of God’s full and perennial lordship over every reality and of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity. This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means.