The great American celebration of productivity and abundance known as Thanksgiving is upon us. While the essential requirements for our affluence are personal liberty and self-discipline, they originally needed an incubator for human nature’s chain reaction to take hold. That incubator was pre-Revolutionary War America – defined by President John Adams as a “revolution of the mind.” To wit, Americans rejected submission to arbitrary rulers as a requirement for civilized human life. This intellectual achievement cannot be underestimated; it is a singularity in human history, and is still under attack.
The chain reaction begins with the Law of Identity – existence exists, and America’s early colonists had one choice, transform nature or perish. Because they had fled Europe for religious and economic freedom, self-reliance became imperative. Faced with an environment hostile to human life, cooperation and self-government also became imperative. Upon arrival in Massachusetts, the Mayflower’s passengers, a diverse group of religious Separatists and “Strangers,” crafted America’s first document establishing democratic principles and objective law. We know it as the Mayflower Compact.
As human nature requires, and poetic justice would have it, the next link in this chain reaction was property rights: everyone has the right to property legally acquired, and to use and dispose of what they own or create. On this Thanksgiving we honor the grandfather of property rights in America, Poetic Justice Warrior William Bradford.
The Mayflower Compact
As a teenager, Bradford escaped to The Netherlands with other members of the English Separatist Church in 1607, and three years later to the New World aboard the Mayflower. Of its 102 passengers, Bradford was one of about 40 members of this radical Puritan faction. The others were merchants, craftsmen, and children, and later known collectively as the Pilgrims. It is important to know that during this time in England, anyone considered an enemy of the crown or its church could be arbitrarily imprisoned, or on a bad day, hung, drawn, and quartered. America’s colonists knew this very well.
Due to adverse weather while crossing the North Atlantic in November 1620, the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts instead of their Virginia destination. The new colonists named their new home Plymouth after the English port from which they had set sail. During their first winter they began construction of a settlement. While some of them lived ashore, others stayed aboard ship and ferried themselves back and forth to help build, and nearly half lost their lives to disease, starvation, or exposure. The resolve of the survivors has been attributed to their mutual commitment to the democracy of equals memorialized in the Mayflower Compact. It reads in part,
Do by these presents, for our better ordering, and preservation; enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony . . .
While this document may have been essential for the surviving colonists, it included a recipe for failure. The Mayflower Compact ended with the words ” . . . unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” The understanding among the colonists, what Bradford called communism more than 200 years before Karl Marx, was tantamount to the Marxist credo “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” with the same horrific results.
Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty
The establishment of Plymouth colony occurred on the cusp of the Age of Enlightenment, the successful prosecution of America’s intellectual and kinetic revolutions, and the critical mass of moral, economic, and artistic achievements of the 19th century. Yet 400 years after Bradford, today’s progressives are steering America toward anti-conceptual tribalism, and leading Christian conservatives like Sohrab Ahmari are writing in First Things magazine,
Restoring Western freedom requires us to rebind liberty to legitimate authority, to return the individual to his place as a member of the political community. Man is made for more than this world, and his final destiny is in the hands of the Almighty.
The enemies of the Enlightenment’s individualism, and champions of mystical authority, are everywhere today. In First Things, Ahmari claims Enlightenment ideals have led to “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and the cult of competitiveness.” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness be damned, submission to “legitimate” authority, whatever that means, must be restored. This denies natural law and the historical record.
Fortunately, we can also celebrate the insight of freedom activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped submission to Islamic totalitarianism,
Four hundred years ago, the Enlightenment cut European culture from its roots of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule.
Vigilance means knowing that the likes of Ahmari favor 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke‘s longing for religious dogma and social hierarchy; aka their “decent drapery of life.” Hirsi Ali however, is a shining beacon of what Burke derides as the Enlightenment’s “empire of light and reason.”
William Bradford’s Epiphany
Upon the death of their first governor in 1621, Bradford was elected to lead the Plymouth Colony, whose original mission, according to economist Richard Ebeling, was “to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism.” In his diary Bradford recounted,
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. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, they deemed it a kind of slavery.
The results of this are easy to predict. As Ebeling explains, “Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death.” Faced with the evidence of communal living, Bradford’s creative mind changed course, continued the fledgling American experiment, and –
Assigned to every family a parcel of land. This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been. The more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.
Such are the laws of human nature, and the nature of entrepreneurship. The Pilgrim’s bountiful harvest of 1623 was the first great success in the New World, and cause for a Thanksgiving celebration. Poetic Justice Warrior William Bradford’s epiphany was the triumph of capitalism over collectivism, and it completes the chain reaction – freedom, responsibility, self government, capitalism, abundance, and the enjoyment of values won. The empirical evidence is conclusive – the human creativity unleashed by personal liberty is primary for human flourishing.
As constitutional scholar Timothy Sandefur observes,
Enjoyment is a particularly Enlightenment concept. Previous generations had not held that enjoyment was a significant value in human life. The Enlightenment ideal of enjoyment is a tranquil sense of self-sufficiency. When the Constitution speaks of “domestic tranquility,” it is referring to this fundamental Enlightenment vision.
Tomorrow is the day for Americans of all nationalities to enjoy the people they value, take pleasure in the banquet afforded by their enterprise, and be grateful for humanity’s newly discovered lives of reason, purpose, and pride.