Sometime in the coming week, President Biden will follow his predecessors in a ceremony that spares a life. But little notice will be given, since the presidential pardon will be granted to a domesticated turkey. Even so, this ritual is part of America’s Thanksgiving, a holiday redolent with tradition and pregnant with important lessons that can guide us all in times of global economic turmoil.
It all starts with globalization. Like many holidays, Thanksgiving has become internationalized. For whatever reason, people around the world celebrate this distinctly North American feast day on the fourth Thursday of each November.
A popular misconception is that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, since the first celebration involved worshipful praise by a colony of devout Christians after an abundant harvest. Yet this day has broad secular appeal and unites all people of all faiths or those with none at all.
In all events, divine intervention had less to do with the celebration associated with this day of feasting. Instead, it was worldly changes in the economic system followed by the colony of Pilgrims that led to the successful harvest and prompted the first Day of Thanksgiving.
A full understanding of this assertion requires clarity in the account of the Pilgrim’s progress. Every American schoolchild knows that the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and founded New Plymouth in November 1620.
It is erroneously reported that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving, soon after their arrival, with some Native Americans. Although the Pilgrims were indebted to locals for teaching them indigenous practices, like fertilizing corn with fish, the original Thanksgiving did not include any American aborigines.
While a 3-day feast that took place after a shooting party in the fall of 1621, it was not the first Thanksgiving Day. The harvest celebrated at the first Thanksgiving occurred later, after the Pilgrims abandoned a form of agricultural socialism they had followed since arriving in the New World. In large part, the first Thanksgiving celebrated a dramatic increase in output arising from the pursuit of individualism and incentives associated with free markets.
Historical background about Thanksgiving Day can be found in records kept by the Governor of the colony, William Bradford. He informs us that the Pilgrim’s English sponsors wished that crops and trade goods be held “in the common stock,” and parceled out along the lines of the religious beliefs of the colony.
Bradford wrote that this experiment in common ownership of property was intended to allow the colony to flourish. Like other applications of communalism it led to disastrous results. The Pilgrims, as the Soviets discovered several centuries later, found that individuals work harder and better when there are incentives that allow them to maintain and enjoy the fruits of their efforts.
And so, facing impending famine in the early months of 1623, the Pilgrims called a meeting to try to escape near-certain death by starvation. (Indeed, the initial experience of the Pilgrims mirrored an unfortunate earlier colonial-era experiment in Jamestown, where half the original settlers either starved or fell victim to disease.)
In turn, they decided to abandon their communal arrangement for distribution on the basis of “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.” Instead, according to Bradford, from then on, “they should set corn every man for his own particular need.”
The new arrangements involved a limited form of private property rights, even though land continued to be held commonly. But each family cultivated their own parcel of land and could keep what they grew, even if they could not deed the land to their heirs. (Similar agricultural reforms were initiated in China in 1978 under the direction of Deng Xiaoping. After centuries of cycles of famine, China is now self-sufficient in many foods and a net exporter of others.)
The colonists dramatically increased their industriousness, but the following summer found them in the throes of a drought. In keeping with their religious beliefs, they offered appropriate contrition for their sins.
When the drought broke and their harvest was saved, the Pilgrims viewed this as an act of divine Providence. In all events, their new economic system based on individual efforts ensured they could produce enough food for the future.
And so, Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity to praise the institutions of individualism, private property, and liberty. Despite recent disappointments in the performance of the global economy, the system of freedom enshrined in America’s national heritage made it a rich and welcoming country. In fact, countries with similar institutional arrangements are most likely to be wealthy and enjoy the most freedoms. And for that, they should all be thankful.