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Happy Thanksgiving! Old teachings made new


Painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood. This post is revised and republished every year.

The 102 men, women, and children who left Plymouth in 1620 to sail west across the Atlantic crowded into a small boat with their ploughs, guns, a spaniel and a mastiff. Many of the pilgrims slept on the Mayflower's deck, sheltering under rowboats as they headed into the equinoctial gales of the Atlantic. Halfway across, storms cracked a main beam, and almost sank the ship, but they made the necessary repairs, and sailed on, not toward civilization, but toward a wild, unknown land. They had their reasons.

A Compact

According to their journals, they decided to go to America because they wanted to share Christ's Gospel and worship as they pleased and because they longed to retain their English language and customs.

In their minds these included local governance and a common law that was just to everyone. These ideals had not always been perfectly realized in England, but they had their birth there.

By late November, they had been sailing the Atlantic for two months, and they decided to land wherever they could. But desperate though they were, the wintry desolation of Cape Cod on America's eastern seaboard, took them aback. They realized they had to make a plan of action if they were going to survive.

On deck the men drafted an agreement. They bound themselves to cooperation and self-government under majority rule. Their agreement to make decisions democratically was remarkable then. It is still remarkable today. The Mayflower Compact they wrote was just three sentences long. Their brevity was unusual, too.

The Covenant

They didn’t churn out turgid paragraphs because they knew they had to live according to the Ten Commandments and Christ's teaching to love God and each other. They were not in any doubt about the honesty, respect and love which they were called to. Not surprisingly, they failed.

This was not because they were not good enough - who, we humbly ask, is good enough? - but because in trying to be good they ignored a fundamental fact of human nature.

After they landed on the Cape they fished and hunted for food with the help of the spaniel and mastiff. They owned land together. Everyone shared everything. The Indians brought them corn. Nevertheless half the pilgrims died of malnutrition and exposure. The Indians also suffered, many because they had no immunity to new infectious diseases.

The pilgrims had such a difficult time because they had turned their backs on a source of strength. It is the least-known aspect of the story.

A turnaround

They had tried to create a system in which no-one owned property, and everything was shared. Alas! Those who worked hard supported those who were willing to sit back. This created problems. Survival was an incentive, but it wasn't good enough. They need the fuel of competition and individual gain. They were human.

Rather than resisting reality, they made adjustments. In 1623 they established a 'new' economic system based on incentives and private property. America became a place where desperately poor people from all over the world could make a living. Government did not them how to make a living, did not insert innumerable regulations as stumbling blocks in their way, did not seize the hard-earned fruits of their labour in high taxes. Government upheld just law, and in time, with the growth of the economy, would protect citizens from unfair and unjust business practices.

By 1640 there were 20,000 Brits in New England, and they were flourishing. Despite death and loss, and sometimes despite themselves, they and their descendants would help to plant freedom in their newfound land.

Thanking that "great and glorious Being"

In 1619, British settlers in Virginia celebrated “a day of thanksgiving to God”. In 1621, the pilgrims thanked God and their neighbours with a three-day feast with the Wampanoag people.

More than a century later, in the darkest, most miserable days of the American Revolution, a great victory was won at Saratoga on 31 October 1777, and Sam Adams led Congress in declaring "a day of Thanksgiving" to God. Those thanksgivings were accompanied by the prayer that all people under the yoke of tyranny would become free.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation -

“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….”?

To all those who defend justice and freedom today, thank you. For all who worked for tea parties and a return to limited, accountable government, thank you. For America, thank you. For all that we have been given, thank you.

Thanks to Instapundit for the pilgrim link.

Comments (1)


Thank you for drawing the line from the Mayflower to communal economics and then to private enterprise. It is a distinction about the life in Plymouth Colony that I have seen in two other places this year, and for the first time I can remember. Perhaps this is an auspicious time for us to be reminded of simple truths in the midst of complex and bewildering structures teetering around us.

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