Thanksgiving: The Culture of Freedom and Individualism

Jennie Brownscombe, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914.

Jennie Brownscombe, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914.

  • NOTE: This article was first posted on my old site on Nov. 25, 2010. 

Thanksgiving, the most widely celebrated holiday in the United States, is essentially part of the culture of free-market capitalism. The idea of thanksgiving is that an individual is morally entitled to celebrate his personal success, his achievements, his harvest, and most especially his values. The morality of this culture is that of self-interest. It tells the individual that he owns his own life, that he is a free man, and that he is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. It tells the individual that it is moral to commemorate one’s personal achievement and to honor one’s moral values.

Thanksgiving is only for individuals who believe they are free and that they are morally entitled to the products of their own labor. It does not demand that every individual serve the welfare and interest of others. It does not demand the immolation and the sacrifice of an individual to society or to any group of people. It tells every individual that he has an inalienable right to his own life, to the products of his productive mind and the fruits of his labor, to liberty, and to his pursuit of happiness.

The strongest defender and advocate of reason, individualism and free-market capitalism, philosopher Ayn Rand, wrote several decades ago:

“Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form (giving thanks to God for a good harvest), its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production. Abundance is (or was and ought to be) America’s pride—just as it is the pride of American parents that their children need never know starvation.” “Cashing in on Hunger,” The Ayn Rand Letter, III, 23, 1.

This pro-individual liberty and pro-property rights American holiday can trace its history to the creation of a colony at Plymouth Plantation nearly 400 years ago. In 1920, the Pilgrims, a name commonly applied to early settlers of the Plymouth colony (now Plymouth, Massachusetts), established a social system of communal property wherein every community member was obliged to contribute to the common good or the greater good, following the “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” precept. In today’s terms, what the Pilgrims established was the system of communism, with all property and the fruits of all labor contributed to a common pool to be divided equally among the community members. The Pilgrims called this social experiment a “commonwealth”, because all goods and wealth was held in common, and they had no concept of private property.

However, within three years the Pilgrims had abolished the system, instituting private property instead. This is because the results were disastrous, as the colony suffered serious losses by 1963.

In his diary, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Plantation, wrote his only commentary on the first Thanksgiving (Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647):

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterwards decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

A Pilgrim named Edward Winslow, wrote to a friend in England describing the celebration of that first harvest, by letter dated December 11, 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.

In 1623 governor Bradford wrote a lengthy passage into his diary describing their decision to establish a system of private property as he put it, every man to work “for his own particular”, to work his own crops on his own land:

“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 Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves … 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 Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willinglyinto the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before wouldallege 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 amongst Godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God. For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent andretard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without 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. … 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 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 off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.”

More than a century and a half later, in 1790, James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, wrote the following in his treatise titled “Lectures on Law”:

“…all commerce [in Plymouth] was carried on in one joint stock. All things were common to all, and the necessaries of life were daily distributed from the public store… . The colonists were sometimes in danger of starving; and severe whipping, which was often administered to promote labor, was only productive of constant and general discontent… . The introduction of exclusive property immediately produced the most comfortable change in the colony, by engaging the affections and invigorating the pursuits of its inhabitants.”



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