Original Redemption

What’s the opposite of original sin? Original redemption?

I thought of this when I read a fascinating article by Andro Linklater, promoting a new book on the history of private ownership of land, about the rejection of collectivism by the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony.

The 102 Pilgrims who sailed to the New World in 1620 were destined to be communists. Under the terms of their agreement with the Plymouth company, they were to work communally for the first seven years, “during which time, all profits & benefits that are got by trade, traffick, trucking, working, fishing or any other means…remaine still in ye comone stock.” After that time the proceeds would be shared with the investors in England….

A rift opened between those who thought it an injustice that a hard worker should receive no more food than a feeble one and those, like Cushman, who denounced anyone who worshipped the “belly-god” of selfishness instead of seeking “the good, the wealthe, the profit, of others.”…

Beset by quarrels and threatened by starvation, the colony struggled on until the spring of 1623. With a new planting season at hand, the majority decided to change the company rules. They persuaded the governor that “they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves,” Bradford noted in his history of the Plymouth colony. And so each family was assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”

This decision, Bradford added, “had very good success for it made all hands very industrious.”

This is a story I’m very familiar with, and John Stossel does a nice job of running down the details, including an earlier experiment with collectivism at Jamestown in Virginia. (The Old Dominion, by the way, has a prior claim to this week’s holiday, having held the real first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation in 1619.)

But Linklater puts the story of the Pilgrim’s rejection of collectivism in a context I hadn’t quite thought of before: “that this, the first major democratic decision taken on American soil, should have been in favor of individual ownership carried a symbolism that echoes down the centuries.”

Linklater explains that the Pilgrims did more than just reject collectivism as a pragmatic expedient. The next wave of settlers sought a theoretical foundation for private property.

The experience of the Plymouth colony played heavily on the minds of the 700 Puritans who assembled in Southampton in March 1630 to take ship to Massachusetts Bay. Many, including their governor, John Winthrop, had left comfortable homes that were furnished with fireplaces and private bedrooms and surrounded by enclosed fields….

To reassure them, Winthrop put forward a revolutionary proposal, usually ascribed to John Locke half a century later. In a pamphlet published in 1629, he argued that private ownership of the earth did not depend upon the law, but was created by human toil…. Winthrop was breaking new ground when he asserted that the purely English civil or legal right to own land as private property came about when men enclosed and improved that land. The natural right was established by use and occupancy.

This proto-Lockean defense of property rights was also given a religious imprimatur in a sermon delivered to Winthrop’s group by the Reverend John Cotton.

Cotton’s sermon was based on a passage in the book of Genesis about Abraham’s search for a place to settle among the Philistines. When he was prevented from using a well he had dug in the dry land of Beersheba, Abraham appealed to the Philistine king, Abimelech, claiming that he had the right to draw water because he was the person who had sunk the well. In Cotton’s sermon, however, Abraham also made a specific claim of individual ownership, based on “his owne industry and culture in digging the well.” In other words, there was biblical evidence to reassure the new Americans that their right to individually owned, landed property depended on their own efforts in improving the ground, and not on English law.

All of this explains a lot about the enduring resistance to collectivism in American politics, doesn’t it? It is our original redemption, that from the very beginning we were able to reject failed experiments with collectivism. Keep that in mind during the continued fight to repeal ObamaCare: we are merely trying to uphold an American tradition that goes back 400 years.

Now that is something that just might be worth talking about at the Thanksgiving table.

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