Friday, December 17, 2010

13 December 1621: The "Fortune" Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither "socialists" nor "capitalists")

As MassMoments tells the story:
On this day in 1621, the ship Fortune set sail from Plymouth Colony. The arrival of the vessel two weeks earlier — sent by the English investors who had funded the Mayflower colonists— should have been a cause for celebration. But for the Pilgrims, Fortune was poorly named. The ship brought 35 new settlers, but...
It's an important story in its own right, because it tells us what happened after that fabled "first Thanksgiving," and it indicates how difficult the lives of the settlers remained. But it's especially interesting this year because it helps to debunk the trending right-wing myth about the Pilgrims' economic philosophy.

As I noted in the Thanksgiving post: to believe the Tea Party movement and a host of like-minded critics, the Pilgrims began as idealistic (or was it: dogmatic?) "socialists," who agreed to share burdens and benefits equally, starved, saw the error of their ways, and then finally adopted a "capitalist" model based on private property and incentives. Voilà: problem solved, nation prospers, there's still a Massachusetts, in which I can live today. Whew.

There was a lot going on in that corner of Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century, but the character of the various groups and individuals in the Colony and the contractual terms that governed their relations to one another, the sponsoring body, and the homeland go a long way toward explaining the situation in simple historical terms.

As MassMoments reminds us, the Pilgrims first sought refuge in the Netherlands, and then, when dissatisfied with conditions there, decided to venture across the ocean, a move they had never originally contemplated:
But funding an overseas voyage and establishing a colony would be expensive. There were, however, a number of wealthy gentlemen, merchants, and craftsmen in London who believed that there was money to be made from exploiting America's natural resources. What they needed was a base for gathering and shipping furs, timber, fish, and other trade goods. A group of about 70 of these speculators, whom the Separatists called Adventurers, put up the money to transport and provision the colonists; in return, the colonists, or Planters, agreed to live communally, to work for the company, and to ship goods back to England for a period of seven years to repay their debt.

After several aborted attempts, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. It was bound for the area around Manhattan in the northernmost part what was then Virginia. No one knows whether the ship was blown off course or purposely headed to a location out of the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church, which was established in Virginia. In any case, the Mayflower anchored in Provincetown harbor on November11th. Some of the non-Separatists on board objected that since they had not gone to Virginia, as planned, they were not bound by their work contracts and needed to take orders from no one. After debating the issue, the group agreed "that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governours, as we should by common consent make and choose." All free adult male passengers signed the historic Mayflower Compact, the first document in the Americas to embrace the democratic principle of majority rule.
Only thanks to the help of Native Americans did they survive in the new land, but the margin was narrow, and they still expected help from home:
But when Fortune sailed into Plymouth harbor on November 10th, it brought only more mouths to feed. While the Planters were grateful for the additional workers, they were dismayed to discover that the men had been sent without provisions. The ship did not even carry food to sustain the crew on the return trip. The Adventurers also sent a letter castigating the Planters for the fact that the Mayflower had arrived in England with an empty hold and demanding that the Fortune return immediately filled with valuable goods.

The colonists complied. For the next six years, they sent sizable shipments, especially of furs, back to England. But the goods yielded far less profit than the Adventurers had anticipated, and as the seven-year mark approached, the colonists were still in debt. Finally, 27 of them pooled their personal resources and paid off the debt. Once free of the requirement to live communally and hold all property in common, the original settlers divided the land into private grants. The era of the "Old Comers" was over. 
So much for the morality tale or conversion narrative propagated by the right-wing ideologues.  News flash: there was no socialism in seventeenth-century New England to abandon.  To begin with, as James and Patricia Deetz point out, the Pilgrims "bridled at this arrangement [for holding property in common], and it had not been resolved in a satisfactory fashion at the time of their departure" (35). In any case, the Pilgrims had yoked their fate to a classical mercantilist undertaking rather than a proto-Bolshevist one.  Scholars still debate the precise place of mercantilism in the history of economic development, but although it was a certainly a commercial undertaking that generated merchant capital, it was not based on a "capitalist mode of production" in the strict sense. Indeed, as Karl Polanyi says, to the extent that mercantilism "thought of markets in a way exactly contrary to market economy" and was more concerned with regulation than commercialization, "there was no difference between mercantilists and feudalists."  So, not only was the original arrangement with the Virginia Company not "socialist":  it would be fairer to say that we are looking back to the sixteenth century then ahead to the nineteenth.  For that matter, even after the dissolution of the agreement, life in the colony was no laissez-faire paradise.

As Eugene Aubrey Stanton observes,
It would seem as it nothing was beyond the concern of the courts—elections, weights and measures, land grants, permits for ordinaries, excuses from military service, public and private purchases and other transactions, the levying of taxes and troops, fines for absence from church meetings, the recording of apprentice and servant indentures, divorce, regulation of prices and wages, the laying out of streets, the reaction against Quakers, and of course criminal trials.
Constant state meddling in all public and private affairs? Wage and price controls? Hardly the Tea Party's cup of tea, one would think.  Remember, these are the people who just got the rather timid health care package that they label "ObamaCare" provisionally declared unconstitutional. (Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett warned that, as a result of the mandate to purchase health insurance, "Americans will be demoted from citizens to subjects."  more: 1, 2 ).

On both sides of the caesura of 1627, then, the Pilgrims lived lives far removed from anything resembling modern laissez-faire capitalism, which lay over the horizon, and did not really exist even in England itself.  Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the their evolving social and economic arrangements, to pretend that any of this had anything to do with "capitalism" versus "socialism" is either ignorant or disingenuous.  Face it, that argument is a turkey.


The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

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