Thanksgiving Reflection: The Pilgrims Were Communists!

Here’s a Thanksgiving riddle: Why do conservative intellectuals and pundits insist that America was founded by communists?

Over the past several years, this idea has become a common theme among conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, has explained that the real story of the Pilgrims might surprise many people duped by mainstream histories.  After all, Limbaugh concluded, “It was a commune, folks.”

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Similarly, the Heritage Foundation explains that the Pilgrims practiced what early governor William Bradford called “communism.”

Libertarian John Stossel reminded readers recently of the Pilgrims’ communist beginnings:

The Pilgrims started out with communal property rules. When they first settled at Plymouth, they were told: “Share everything, share the work, and we’ll share the harvest.”

The colony’s contract said their new settlement was to be a “common.” Everyone was to receive necessities out of the common stock. There was to be little individual property.

That wasn’t the only thing about the Plymouth Colony that sounds like it was from Karl Marx: Its labor was to be organized according to the different capabilities of the settlers. People would produce according to their abilities and consume according to their needs.

It would seem that conservatives would hate this conclusion.  After all, the notion of the greatness of the American founders has long been a centerpiece of conservative thought.

So why do conservatives insist that the original settlers were communist?

For most conservatives, the communist experiment of early settlers is used to prove the superiority of private property and market principles.  In most tellings, early communism proved disastrous.  As a corrective, leaders such as William Bradford in Massachusetts introduced radical market-oriented reforms.

The original founders may have been communists, the story goes, but they quickly learned the error of their ways.  Capitalism and private property triumphed.

Is it true?

Ironically, unlike the normal historical back-and-forth, in which conservative historians insist that America’s founding was glorious and other academic historians point out the many flaws in that tale, in this case mainstream historians have argued that the early settlers were not really as communist as conservatives say they were.

Speaking to the New York Times a few years back, for example, Richard Pickering of the living-history museum Plimouth Plantation explained that the early Pilgrims did originally hold property in common, but the end goal was private profit.

In Jamestown, the charge of collectivism is even more tenuous, according to some historians.  Karen Kupperman of New York University concluded, “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate.”  Kupperman explained that the entire settlement was part of a joint-stock company, one from which each settler hoped to reap a private, and hopefully enormous, profit.  Kupperman asked, “Is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

So here’s one for your Thanksgiving diary: When it comes to the historical memory of America’s early founders, we see a perplexing reversal.  Conservative pundits insist that America was founded by communists, and mainstream historians rebut that the free-market has always been America’s true guiding star.

Still left unclear: Did the Pilgrims play football?

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for writing this one.

  2. How can a private individual reap huge, personal profits in a society where property is considered communal? Wouldn’t everything one produced simply be thrown into the communal pot? Where are the private profits to come from in such a situation? I would suggest that the plan was for the Virginia Company and the London Company to line the pockets of King James, more so than those who actually settled the new land.

    I particularly like this statement…”mainstream historians have argued that the early settlers were not really as communist as conservatives say they were.” Not really as communists…hmm, but communist just the same.

    Private property is the cornerstone of free-market capitalism. A rejection of that principle demands that the resulting social economic structure is not a free-market.

    Halliburton! Please. Halliburton is the poster-child for the Bush-Cheney era of crony capitalism – hardly free-market.

  3. Here is a great article on this topic

    THE PILGRIMS & CAPITALISM, PART I: What to Remember Every Thanksgiving

  4. There are definitely more “collectivist” aspects to early modern communities, but they —especially the Protestant ones — were also very market driven. Just like small tightly knit towns today. Speculation, interest, privatization of the commons, serfdom, rentier economics, and the alienation of labor were all controversial and resisted as disruptive aspects of capitalism, as they are today, but the resistance has never been very effective.

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