The Pilgrims, Thanksgiving and the common good

November 25, 2007 | Filed Under 00Publius Contributor, Democrats/Leftists, History, News, Patriotism, Religion, Security/Safety, Society/Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

-By Michael M. Bates

The notion of a common good has traditionally been popular in this democratic Republic. In recent years and among certain public figures, however, the expression has taken on a more collectivist connotation.

When Senator Clinton said, “We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good,” we knew she meant the government would do the taking as well as the determining of what is defined as the common good. Decision making by individuals would be replaced with state edict.

Last year Mrs. Clinton’s husband gave a speech on the common good. Using the term no fewer than two dozen times, he said it means a covenant for equal opportunity, shared responsibility and an inclusive community.

He went on: “We believe in mutual responsibility. They believe that in large measure people make or break their own lives, and you’re on your own.”

Other deep thinkers such as John Edwards and Barack Obama have hailed the concept of a common good. We know from their track records that they, like the Clintons, view this primarily in terms of forced economic redistribution.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we’re reminded that the Plymouth Colony’s Pilgrims gave their own form of the liberal common good theory a try. It failed miserably.

All goods were placed in a common storehouse by the colonists. They were then distributed as required. If this suggests the Marxian (Karl, not Groucho) dictum of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, that’s because the Pilgrims’ arrangement indeed was analogous to communism, but without the murdering of tens of millions of people.

Human nature being what it is, serious problems with the system were inevitable. Hard workers realized that their industriousness granted them and their families no more than the slackers received. The indolent readily recognized they need not change their ways to benefit from the productivity of others.

Some Pilgrims began thinking of themselves as slaves. Diligent workers became slothful as they realized their reward would be the same regardless of what they did or didn’t do. The common storehouse model was not working.

Colonists began stealing provisions from one another. Strife and distrust spread among these people joined together by religion.

Their governor, William Bradford, wrote: “For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte . . . The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and cloaths, than he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.”

This perceived injustice was also the experience of English settlers in Virginia just a few years earlier when they aimed to achieve the common good by socialist means. Captain John Smith described what happened:

“When our people were fed out of the common store and labored jointly together, glad was he who could slip from his labor, or slumber over his task he cared not how; nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week as now for themselves they will do in a day.”

The way out used by both Plymouth and Virginia to surmount these serious deficiencies was to convert to a system of private ownership. Families were allowed to have their own crops, and land was parceled out to individuals. Private effort was rewarded.

Unlike the Clintons and others who speak of a vague common good that they will be the interpreters of, our earliest settlers learned that in large measure people do in fact make or break their own lives. Moreover, they considered that just. They believed private effort deserves remuneration and this belief facilitated their survival.

The right of citizens to make their own decisions and profit from their own labors spurred the growth of this country, not a fruitless attempt at redistribution characterized as the common good.

I’ve said before that many times I think of how fortunate I am to live in the United States. For those who share that blessing, every day should be, as Abraham Lincoln called for, “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

(This Michael Bates column appeared in the November 22, 2007 Reporter Newspapers)
Michael M. Bates has written a weekly column of opinion – or nonsense, depending on your viewpoint – since 1985 for the (southwest suburban Chicago) Reporter Newspapers. Additionally, his articles have appeared in the Congressional Record, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Mensa Journal. He has been a guest on Milt Rosenberg’s program on WGN Radio Chicago, the Bruce Elliott show on Baltimore’s WBAL, the Jim Sumpter show on the USA Radio Network and the New Media Journal’s Blog Radio. As a lad, Mike distributed Goldwater campaign literature and since then has steadily moved further to the Right. He is the author of “Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths.” In 2007, he won an Illinois Press Association award for Original Column.

His presence on the web can be viewed at And he can be reached at



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