The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) has republished an essay from the 1950s by economist, lecturer, and writer, Sartell Prentice, Jr. about the first Thanksgiving. Three years after arriving at Plymouth Rock and enduring near starvation under the European scheme of "farming in common," the Pilgrims “set apart a day of thanksgiving.” With the plentiful harvest of 1623, Governor Bradford later noted, “Any general want or famine has not been among them since to this day.”
Here's a truffle passage from the essay that could be a case study as to why we must study natural law:
Three years of near starvation—and then decades of abundance. Was this a miracle?
Or is there a rational explanation for this sudden change in the fortunes of our Pilgrim forefathers?
Describing events that took place in the spring of 1623, Governor Bradford answers our questions, in eloquent words that should be engraved on the hearts and minds of all Americans:
All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Gov. (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular [private use], and in that regard trust to themselves . . . . And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Gov. or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing;—as if they were wiser than God.
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 the 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, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them.
And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of those relations that God hath set among men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of the mutual respects that should be preserved among them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition.
Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.
This new policy of allowing each to “plant for his own particular” produced such a harvest that fall that Governor Bradford was able to write:
By this time harvest was come, and 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. And the effect of their particular [private] planting was well seen, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine has not been among them since to this day.
Our first Thanksgiving should, therefore, be interpreted as an expression of gratitude to God, not so much for the great harvest itself, as for granting the grateful Pilgrims the perception to grasp and apply the great universal principle that produced that great harvest: Each individual is entitled to the fruits of his own labor. Property rights are, therefore, inseparable from human rights.
If man abides by this law, he will reap abundance; if he violates this law, suffering, starvation, and death will follow, as night the day.
This is the essential meaning of the two great Commandments, “Thou shalt not covet” and “Thou shalt not steal.”