Learning from the Past

Irish born political thinker and British statesman Edmund Burke said:  “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

King George III should have listened to Mr. Burke, who questioned Britain’s policies for its American colonies.  Neither the King nor Parliament listened, which led to American independence.

Consider our earlier history.  In 1607, a small group established Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement.  They formed a government, built a fort, and sought food.  The land was said to have “good and fruitful” soil, with abundant deer and turkey, and “strawberries, raspberries and fruits unknown” growing wild.

The Jamestown settlers kept crops and game in a communal storehouse.  No matter how much or how little you delivered to the common store, you were entitled to eat.

Unfortunately, this experiment failed.  Within a few months, most settlers died from famine, which led Captain John Smith, governor of the colony, to declare:  “He who shall not work, shall not eat.”  Smith’s decree had a dramatic effect:  the death rate declined markedly.

But, Jamestown’s problems continued.  The worst was the “starving time”, leading settlers to institute a system of private property, which helped them to survive and prosper.  John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, said once private property was introduced, men could engage in “gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.”

A Massachusetts settlement established further north in 1620 had similar issues.  Pilgrims and Separatists seeking to live in a society of “just and equal laws” called the place they landed “Plymouth”.  Their goal was to live and worship God according to their conscience, signing a contract with one another named after their ship:  the “Mayflower Compact”.

While Jamestown was becoming more entrepreneurial, the Plymouth Colony relied upon joint ventures:  communal farming, common stores, and shared property (hence the name “Boston Commons”).  People were expected to put into the common stock all they could and take only what they needed.  Everyone contributed to the common store and each member of the community was entitled to an equal share from it:  “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” be placed in the common stock of the colony and “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”

Similarly, all the land cleared and all the houses belonged to the community.  No one owned anything.  Everything was owned by the community.  Everyone shared equally and all received equally.

These policies had the same results as Jamestown:  half the settlement died the first year from sickness, disease, starvation, malnutrition, or exposure.  Settlers began to question this system:  “to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.”

The Massachusetts colonists – unaware of their southern neighbors’ actions – took similar corrective measures.  While the goal of a “common wealth” remained, they moved away from common storehouses, common stock, and communal lands and embraced free enterprise and private property.

People were allowed to raise their own food and build their own homes.  Colonists challenged themselves to advance themselves, innovate more, and acquire property of their own.  These free market principles not only increased production, they produced surpluses, leading the Massachusetts governor to write:  “instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.  Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

Hopefully, we’ve learned from our history.