Communism and Starvation in Early America

On June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate, President Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall!” And, Reagan proceeded to disable the Soviet Union when he forced Soviet Communism to fall of its own weight. Few realize, however, that Reagan was beaten to the punch by our first colonial settlements some 380 years earlier.

After landing on a Virginia beach in 1607, the first Jamestown settlers made plans for organizing themselves for self-preservation. Among their plans was a communist system of production and distribution.

Each settler was to put his tools and whatever he produced (there were no women at first) into a central warehouse. Then, each was free to take from the warehouse whatever he needed to live. In went fruit, game, lumber, pelts, axes, saws, hammers, cloth, and out went…everything. Even their Powhatan Indian neighbors walked in and took things, once they discovered that they wouldn’t be stopped.

The settlers had chosen Thomas Studley to run the warehouse. He proved able to talk his way out of blame, but not prevent the outflow. And, he could do nothing about the settlers who stopped working once they learned that they didn’t have to. Then, the starving began.

It wasn’t until Studley died in 1608 (probably of malnutrition), that the settlement came to its senses. Capt. John Smith (yes, that Capt. John Smith) was appointed to replace him and what he found when he entered the warehouse shocked him. The supplies were gone, the tools had been traded by the indolent to the Powhatans for food and the warehouse was in total disarray. What was left had become infested with rats.

Capt. Smith wasted no time in setting things right. In the short run, he made rules for taking things from the warehouse and enforced them with armed guards, but he knew that that system alone would not last. After his election as Jamestown’s Governor, he did away with the communist system altogether.

Smith issued a proclamation: “…he that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled), for the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine an hundred and fiftie idle loyterers…There are now no more counsellors to protect you…”

It worked. Those who had not worked either started voluntarily or responded to necessity. In less than six months, twenty houses were built, a freshwater well was constructed and forty acres of fields were put under cultivation. The settlement no longer starved, as each settler fended for himself. In addition, they created a simple free market in which each bought and sold or bartered what he couldn’t or hadn’t provided for himself.

The same thing happened in the Plymouth settlement, thirteen years later. Shortly after landing at Plymouth in 1620, the Pilgrims set up a storehouse of supplies in which all were to share. Although the supplies were meager in that first winter, each person was free to take from the storehouse at will. The food ran out within weeks and nearly half of the settlement died of sickness and starvation.

The following spring, the survivors were shown by Squanto, their Indian interpreter, how to plant and grow corn and how to fish and hunt game. In the words of their Governor, William Bradford, “All the summer there was no want;” as they “took good store, of which every family had their portion…Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England…”

But, as the year before, it was not to last. By winter, the settlers had taken freely from the supplies until the storehouse was empty…and they starved for a second time.

In the spring of 1622, Governor Bradford returned to the village from a trip only to see a group of able-bodied young men playing a game in the square when they should have been working in the fields. He had seen enough. He chased them off and called for a meeting with the other leaders.

Their solution was to abandon communism and to make each family responsible for themselves. Again, in the Governor’s words, “…and so assigned to every family a parcel of land, …that they should set corn every man for his own particular…This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted.”

He concluded, “The experience … may well evince the vanity… that 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 and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”

It has been said that socialism or communism only works until the money runs out. Our earliest settlers proved that even that isn’t true. The productive people will resent the unproductive takers long before the money runs out. That resentment will build until their incentive to produce is weakened and production goes down, while the unearned taking runs amok. It happened in our earliest settlements, it happened to the Soviet Union and it happens every time such a scheme is resurrected.

Must every such scheme run until it falls of its own weight, or might we learn to reject it in the first place? Governor Bradford thought it was part of the human condition: “Let none object this is men’s corruption, and…seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” Let us take heed and follow the course fitter for us, before we, too, as a nation fall of our own weight.

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