The Pilgrims sailed for America on the Mayflower 397 years ago on September 6, 1620. Despite difficulties, their ultimately successful colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, left an important legacy for the American colonies and the United States. Commentators often cite their example for religious and cultural reasons, but their impact on our country’s economic development also bears remembering.
Most Americans likely recall the Pilgrims as a Christian sect sailing on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Yet they could equally be recalled as America’s “original economic migrants” in search of a better life and greater opportunity, as observed by the PBS NewsHour in honor of Thanksgiving in 2015. Certainly the Pilgrims’ entrepreneurial, risk-defying spirit has been passed down throughout generations of Americans.
Moreover, their pursuit of economic flourishment and religious liberty are not as disparate as they might seem. Economic and religious freedom are “inextricably tied” and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as Catholic University Professor and The Stream Editor Jay Richards has observed.
The Pilgrims were not always proponents of capitalism, however. Although they lacked these categories, the Pilgrims essentially believed Scripture promoted socialist economic principles. Hence they initially implemented “forced common ownership of property, price controls, and minimum wage laws,” according to Plymouth Rock Foundation Director Dr. Paul Jehle. They quickly adapted, however, after poor planning nearly doomed their colony to starvation. These dire privations forced them to adopt greater economic freedom.
In addition to the Pilgrims’ practical reasons for allowing freer markets, their overarching theology also meshed with economic freedom. UC Berkley Sociology Professor Claud Fischer noted of their neighboring Puritans embraced a “religiously-based ideology of choice and contract,” ideas which influenced American culture in its formative stages. American capitalism would arguably not have developed without these principles.
Undoubtedly the Pilgrims’ theology, entrepreneurial spirit, and political experimentation shaped America’s cultural and economic future. Below are seven quotes from experts and prominent voices revealing seven important economic lessons for America provided by the Pilgrims.
“The pilgrims on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. To my knowledge, they didn’t wait around for a return trip to Europe. You settle some place with a purpose. If you don’t want to do that, stay home. You avoid an awful lot of risks by not venturing outward.”
“They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility. Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey.”
“They were living in deep privation and it was a way of escaping poverty. … There is a religious motivation in the desire to protect the church. But those that were living in Holland were safe, so that they could have remained and worshiped as they wanted, but it is an economic motivation to better the lives of their children and grow the number of church members.”
“In modern terminology, within the first century of our nation’s existence, the Pilgrims, followed by the Puritans, experimented with the forced common ownership of property, price controls, and minimum wage laws. The result was a documented, dismal failure of such practices. The Pilgrims and then their larger Puritan neighbors discovered by experience that the free market, taught in the Scriptures, was the best system, only to have it threatened again by the mercantile trade laws of George III beginning in 1760-the result of which was our War for Independence.”
“Recalling the story of the Pilgrims is a Thanksgiving tradition, but do you know the real story behind their triumph over hunger and poverty at Plymouth Colony nearly four centuries ago? Their salvation stemmed not so much from the charitable gestures of local Indians, but from their courageous decision to embrace the free-market principle of private property ownership a century and a half before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.”
“Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner. We are direct beneficiaries of the economics lesson the pilgrims learned in 1623. Today we have a much better developed and well-defined set of property rights. Our economic system offers incentives for us—in the form of prices and profits—to coordinate our individual behavior for the mutual benefit of all; even those we may not personally know.”
“[The Puritans] did leave us with an important legacy – an ideology of individual choice and social contract. Much of Puritan theology rested on the idea of covenants, one between God and man and one between man and man. Central to those covenants was the principle of free choice. … Americans have in the centuries since the first thanksgiving followed more the preaching than the practices of the early Pilgrims and Puritans.”