Ideologies‎ > ‎Socialism‎ > ‎

The Starving Times

The Failure of Socialism

Due to the historic revision of many of our history texts at all levels of education, few Americans are acquainted with the near starvation of the early explorers that settled in America. They all nearly starved to death because they instituted socialism as their economic system. As a group, they were to equally share the food and supplies that sustained their lives in the wilderness.

This proved to be a fatal decision. There was no incentive for anyone to work and help to grow and harvest crops since everyone was equally entitled to the foods that were produced. As a result, little work was done in preparation for the approaching winter and the settlers found themselves in a starvation situation. The lesson they learned from experimenting with socialism was that it does not work. This system destroys the motivation for people to work and little gets produced as a result.

We would do well to learn from these settlers and steer away from a socialist state. The Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and modern day Europe are all examples of nations that fell apart because they adopted this form of economy. When the wealth gets redistributed, the non-workers realize they can freeload off the backs of the people that work for a living. History shows that this type of economy has never worked.

The following article gives a historic overview of the failed efforts by the early settlers to use socialism in order to survive their early days in the American wilderness and how it led to a complete failure.


Economic Liberty in America: ALegacy of the Pilgrims

ByDr. Paul Jehle


The Pilgrims, in their quest tobe stepping-stones forfreedom, had almost everything go wrong as they attempted to plant a colony inthe new world. By the time they reached the shores of New England, they werepoor, had barely enough provisions for the first winter, and began to die at analarming rate. With such beginnings, it is no wonder we don't associateeconomic prosperity with them.

Dr. Charles Wolfe, historian on the Pilgrims, makes theobservation that there were no less than six steps of freedom taken by thePilgrims. At the time, they were developed out of necessity, but with theadvantage of hindsight and providential insight, they are the consequences oftheir commitment to practice the simple truths of the Bible. Dr. Wolfe put itthis way:

[I]toccurred to me that they (the Pilgrims) had taken six bold steps to liberty,that these are steps which each generation of Americans must continue to take... that together these six aspects of liberty, result from the application of... Christian self-government.1

The steps Dr. Wolfe identifiesbegin with spiritual liberty, therecognition of personal sin and conversion to the Christian faith. The secondstep is religious liberty, wherethey withdrew from the state supported church and formed their own church covenant.The third is political liberty in writing the Mayflower Compact. Fourth, the defenseof liberty wasseen in their willingness to protect their lives by building a palisade wallaround the plantation.2 Dr.Wolfe highlights theireconomicliberty as thefifth step. The sixth, constitutional liberty (1636), was the writing of their Constitution, securingprotection for the freedoms they had begun to practice.

The Council of New England, the joint-stock company, representedbusinessmen willing to invest in planting a colony (called Adventurers). ThePlanters were those willing to go, including members of the Pilgrim Church ofLeyden. The economic contract was a bit one sided. It recognized the right to aprofit by the Adventurers but did not recognize such a right by the Planters.

The agreement between theAdventurers and Planters required the sharing of profits, but the Pilgrimsinsisted on privately owning their homes, gardens and lands they would develop.3 However, this agreement was changed at the last minute by ThomasWeston and Robert Cushman, the Pilgrim agent. William Bradford describes thisin Of Plimoth Plantation:


"[T]he chief and principaldifferences between these and the former conditions, stood in those two points;that the houses, and lands improved, especially gardens and home lots, shouldremain undivided wholly to the planters at the seven years' end. Secondly, thatthey should have had two days in a week for their own private employment, forthe more comfort of themselves and their families, especially such as hadfamilies."4


They were now being forced toshare their homes, gardens, and land in a communal arrangement as well as theirlabor. In essence, the redistribution of labor and wealthwas forced upon them. Though they did not like it, due to the time and theircondition, they had to accept it. Lands and labor had to now remain in a commonstorehouse until 1627, and instead of having two days for their privateemployment (and profit), six days a week was to be devoted to the common store.

The Pilgrims knew by theexperience of Jamestown (planted in 1607) as well as their experience inEngland that unless private property and labor were respected, there would belittle incentive to work. The prevailing notion in England was thatall use of land and labor was government-granted because the profit-motive wassinful. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620,there was no trust in a free market.

Bradford speaks frankly when hesays he retells these problems, "that their children may see with whatdifficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in theirfirst beginnings; and how God brought them along, notwithstanding all theirweaknesses and infirmities."5 Theypurchased a ship called the Speedwell, buthad to sell it for much less than it was worth when it proved to beun-seaworthy (due to being over-masted.)  Several returned, and extrapeople and supplies had to be crammed aboard the Mayflower,causing a loss of both time and money.6

After arriving at Cape Cod, they wrote the MayflowerCompact to govern themselves and preserve unity due to the fact that theywere off course from their original Patent. Then half the company died thefirst winter. The growing season became one of survival, and without theprovidential help of Squanto, who could speak English, and who taught them howto fertilize the corn in the sandy soil of New England, the small Pilgrim bandwould not have survived.7 ThePeace Treaty with the Natives was essential in protecting the relationshipswith the local inhabitants, and it was enacted by the Pilgrims as an extensionof the principles of covenanting they had practiced in both their church(Scrooby-1606) and civil (Mayflower-1620) covenants.

Even without much of afirst harvest, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 withninety of their Native neighbors. The Natives brought most ofthe food. During the next year, 1622, Mr. Weston proved to be unfaithful in hispromises or business priorities. When the Fortune arrived in the fall of 1621, it had thirty-six individuals withnot enough food to sustain them, let alone the others who were already there.Bradford summarizes: "[T]hey never had any supply of victuals moreafterwards (but what the Lord gave them otherwise), for all that the companysent at any time was always too short for those people that came with it."8

Bradford relates their condition of near starvation when he saysof the second harvest "[I]t arose but to a little ... partly because theywere not yet well acquainted with Indian corn (and they had no other), alsotheir many other employments; but chiefly their weakness for want of food, totend it as they should have done ... so as it well appeared that famine muststill ensue, the next year also if not some way prevented, or supply shouldfail, to which they durst not trust."9

The Pilgrims Embrace a FreeEconomy

In the Spring of 1623, Bradford, as Governor, and others withhim, realized that unless something was done to make them productive andself-sustaining, they would starve. Bradford's analysis, in counsel withothers, demonstrates Biblical reasoning and the application of Scripture.

"So they began to think how they might raise as muchcorn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that theymight not still thus languish in misery ... the Governor (with the advice ofthe chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for hisown particular, and in that regard trust to themselves ... And so assigned toevery family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number ...This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as muchmore corn was planted than otherwise might have been by any means the Governoror any other could use ...  The women now went willingly into the field,and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allegeweakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought greattyranny and oppression.

"Theexperience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry yearsand that amongst godly and sober men ... that the taking away of property andbringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy andflourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as itwas) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard muchemployment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the youngmen, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that theyshould spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and childrenwithout any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division ofvictuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter theother could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be rankedand equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner andyounger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men'swives 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 couldmany husbands well brook it.

"Upon the point all being tohave 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 thatGod hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off themutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have beenworse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men'scorruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have thiscorruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them."10

Bradford's "Ingredients"for a Free Economy

Bradford identifies several reasons why socialism (commonownership of labor) and elementary communism (common ownership of land) did notwork, even among the most godly people. We can deduce at least the followingfrom his discourse describing their 1623 decision.

1. In a common ownership of labor and land, people tend tobecome lazy, not wanting to work, thus private property must undergird a free and productive economy.

2. Under socialism, people tend to make up excuses whythey can't work, thus privateprofit is a key ingredient in a free economyas well.

3. Communal living breeds discontent, for all tend to wantwhat others have, but refuse to work for it; thuswelfare must be voluntary (privatecharity) rather than forced (government charity).

4. Socialism is built on pride and a presumed externalequality in an open or ignorant refusal of God's plan in the Bible so thatdifferences between the young, adult, or aged are not respected. A free economy is built, incontrast, on the respect and dignity of individual differences.

5. Though some look at the profit motive as corrupt, it isimperative to see that it is man's nature that is corrupt, including those whohold office in government. Thefree market, in contrast, is built on personal incentive and self-interest inorder to overcome one's naturally corrupt nature.

6.Ultimately, God's design for the economy rests on voluntary choice, which is far more productive than government force andthe redistribution of wealth.

Prayer: Key to the Success of aFree Economy

Bradford adds a seventh characteristic necessary for the successof a free economy. He states the Pilgrims had to "rest on God's providence...  (the) need to pray that God would give them their daily bread..."11 Inother words, without prayer even a good economic system will fail. Why did hemake prayer a key ingredient?

Immediately after they reapportioned the land and laboraccording to private family units, a drought ensued, threatening the very cropthey now planted under a free and voluntary system! "I may not omit how,notwithstanding all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of alarge crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threatenfurther and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued fromthe third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and withgreat heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away thoughit was set with fish ... Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation,to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress."12

This day of prayer was conducted on a Wednesday. Bradfordrelates that God "was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer,both to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them. For allthe morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot,and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began toovercast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle shower as gavethem cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunderor any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth wasthoroughly wet and soaked and therewith. Which did so apparently revive andquicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and madethe Indians astonished to behold. And afterwards the Lord sent them suchseasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through Hisblessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort andrejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day ofthanksgiving."13

The conversion of Hobbomock, a Native who lived near thePlantation, occurred after this day of prayer.14 Both Pilgrims and Puritans, by 1694, had traditional spring daysof humiliation, fasting, and prayer, followed by days of thanksgiving foranswered prayer in the fall. The topics of these annual proclamations includeda humble petition to God for economic prosperity of private businesses and as aconsequence, the community as a whole. This annual practice did not stop until1894.

As Dr. Wolfe so ably points out, the evidence of prayer is inits fruit."Each family was free at last to own its own land, and keep itsown production. The result, a tripling of the best previous output! Look at howmuch they planted year by year: in 1621, 26 acres; in 1622, 60 acres; in 1623,184 acres!"15 Thisexponential production continued and they were virtually without want, becominga community that lent to others in need rather than one being in need ofborrowing new supplies on a regular basis, just as God promises in HolyScripture.16

A Trading Post and Grist Mill asExamples of Economic Liberty

By 1627, when the original contract under which the Pilgrimsoperated was renegotiated, the Pilgrims had opened up trade with the Nativesand Dutch at Aptucxet. Bradford states "that they might better take allconvenient opportunity to follow their trade, both to maintain themselves andto disengage them of those great sums which they stood charged with and bondfor, they resolved to build a small pinnace at Manomet, a place 20 miles fromthe Plantation, standing on the sea to the southward of them ... all which tookgood effect and turned to their profit."17 This Aptucxet Trading Post has now been recreated and serves asa demonstration of the free enterprise economy which used wampum (from thecoahog shell) as a medium of exchange (money).18

Then, in 1636, John Jenney of Plimoth Plantation built a GristMill outside the palisade walls of the town, where he could enjoy the fruit ofhis labors. Bradford relates this fact in his work "how they did poundtheir corn in mortars; as these people were forced to do many years before theycould get a mill."19 Notonly did John Jenney construct a mill to grind corn and receive payment for hiswork, but he had a virtual natural monopoly on the production of corn. Hebecame a wealthy businessman.20

Experiments with the "JustPrice" and "Wage Ceiling"

To appreciate the bold decision by the Governor and his Councilwithin the Plymouth Colony to allow each family to produce "foritself," we must examine the government-controlled economy that wasinitially practiced by the Puritans (and the Pilgrims to some degree). ThePuritans did not tend to separate from the practices of England. As Gary Northobserves, "[T]he question of what constituted a truly godly economicsystem did not immediately disturb them ... what little economics their leadersbrought with them was basically the economics of the medieval schoolman ...Thus, it is not surprising that the first two generations of leaders in NewEngland should have fallen back upon ‘tried and true' medieval economicconcepts."21

Two such concepts brought bythe Puritans to New England and subsequently implemented by the Colonialgovernment was the just price and wage ceiling. Insuch an economic system, personal profit is viewed as sinful, and thus to curbthe corrupt sinful nature of man, the government, a presumed objectiveinstitution, was to set both the "just price" as well as the"wage ceiling" for various vocations. In essence, the wages ofvarious vocations (through licensing and inspections), along with the properprice of a commodity (profits could not exceed 33%), were set by, as well asregulated (with punishments), by the Colonial government.22

The Failed Example of the SaugusIron Works

The failed result of this socialistic system, inherited frommedieval times, can be seen in an analysis of the Saugus Iron Works, begun in1644 south of Boston. Government incentives for private investors were used tomake it work. But a government control of supply and demand will put even thebest business into extinction. The conclusion as to why the Saugus Iron Workswas finally abandoned, after nearly four decades of trying to make it work,were chronicled by historian E. N. Hartley.

In thetotal mass of data on the ironworks, it is a shortage of operating capital thatstands out above all else. The Undertakers, and those who followed them, alldecided in time that they would not or could not continue to advance money orsupplies ... For this, two key factors seem to have been responsible. One wasthe high cost of production ... In a normal situation high costs could havebeen absorbed in higher prices for the goods which were sold. This, however,was ruled out by the ceiling price imposed by the General Court. The secondfactor was the import of iron from England. Between the one and the other theproprietors were literally squeezed.23

Suffice it to say, that the "experiment" of thePilgrims and especially the Puritans with socialism, only enhanced the decisionof the Pilgrims early on to abandon it to survive. The Puritan"failure" of economic socialism was on a much larger scale. The onlyreason the Pilgrim colony implemented such radical measures as a free economyearlier was because they followed their "separatist" tradition,"reforming without tarrying for any." By the eighteenth century, thepractice of socialism was all but abandoned by everyone due to its dismalfailure.

In Conclusion

In modern terminology, within the first century of our nation'sexistence, the Pilgrims, followed by the Puritans, experimented with the forcedcommon ownership of property, price controls, and minimum wage laws. The resultwas a documented, dismal failure of such practices. The Pilgrims and then theirlarger Puritan neighbors discovered by experience that the free market, taughtin the Scriptures, was the best system, only to have it threatened again by themercantile trade laws of George III beginning in 1760-the result of which wasour War for Independence.

Though always small, and often only a footnote to the history ofAmerica, our Pilgrim forefathers had the wisdom as well as the fortitude andcourage to boldly go where no one was going either in England or in thewilderness. As a result, they opened up trade with each other and the Nativeswhich made all more wealthy. The increase of capital (wealth) was of greaterimportance than immediate profit (riches). This resulted in a legacy andinheritance that eventually led to full independence and freedom, secured underthe law of the Constitution of the United States.



1. Charles Hull Wolfe, PilgrimParadigm for the New Millennium, Letter from Plymouth Rock,Vol. 23, Issue 1, January/February, 2000, 2, Plymouth Rock Foundation,Plymouth,

2. Ibid., 2-4.

3. Gary North, PuritanEconomic Experiments (Tyler,TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1988), 8.

4. William Bradford, OfPlimoth Plantation, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York:  Alfred A.Knopf, 1991), 41.

5. Ibid., 46.

6. Ibid., 52-54.

7. Ibid., 81, 85.

8. Ibid., 102.

9. Ibid., 112.

10. Ibid., 120-121.

11. Ibid., 121-122.

12. Ibid., 131.

13. Ibid., 131-132.

14. Nathaniel Morton, NewEngland Memorial (Boston,MA:  Congregational Board of Publication, 1855), 64-65.

15. Wolfe, Paradigm, 4.

16. See Deuteronomy 28:12.

17. Bradford, 193.

18. See Percival Hall Lombard, TheAptucxet Trading Post (Bourne, MA: Bourne Historical Society,1968). See also wherethe recreated Post can be visited.

19. Bradford, 145.

20. The recreated Grist Mill, along with the John Jenney Housein Plymouth can be visited, see

21. Gary North, PuritanEconomic Experiments, 23.

22. Ibid., 24-40.

23. E. N. Hartley, Ironworkson the Saugus (Norman,OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), 270.