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Many of us think we know the story about Thanksgiving. Some starving Pilgrims meet some generous Indians and somebody cooked a turkey, corn and cranberry sauce. Instantly, everyone became good friends and two hundred years later, America became  the most wealthy, healthy and wise country mankind has ever known.

But have you ever wondered why the Pilgrims almost starved to death?

America has always been the land of opportunity. For centuries, people have came here in search of a better life, where they could control their own destiny. The history of America is one of hard work, opportunity and success. It’s a story of achievement, reaping the rewards of one’s own efforts. And something else. Even today, after a century of altruism training that has taught some of us to expect something for nothing, most Americans are more thankful when they enjoy the fruits of their own efforts.

Despite modern burdens, like government health care; financial bail outs; humiliating airport security and an FDA that only approves lifesaving drugs after thousands of patients have died, most Americans remain thankful.

Most especially, we are thankful to have a roof over our heads.

Unlike the Pilgrims, today we take it for granted that we should have a roof over our heads. Even those who don’t pay their mortgage expect to keep their homes. Property is at the center of the American dream. It is the basis of our wealth. It forms the foundation of our families, businesses and societies. Private property is the central concept around which the Constitution was written.

Yet private property didn’t always exist in America. That’s the real miracle of Thanksgiving.

Owning private land – and a home on it – wasn’t part of the original plan for Pilgrim settlers in America. Their “communal” theology centralized ownership of the land in the community, managed by the political elders, who required every settler to work it as a group. Pilgrim communism predated Marx, Fannie Mae and the Kelo case by nearly two hundred years, but its effects were just the same as in our time.

The communal Pilgrims starved. By design.

A few years ago, Thomas DiLorenzo wrote How Capitalism Saved America. As a professor at the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola College in Maryland, DiLorenzo has studied the Pilgrim period from an uncommon perspective: economic individualism. DiLorenzo forgoes the usual handwringing over Indian maltreatment, and focuses instead on the Pilgrims own societal organization as the source of their plight. Even without Indian raids on their towns, the Pilgrims would likely have starved to death if left to their own devices. The question rarely asked is why?

Most people today erroneously believe that the Pilgrims suffered from harsh weather or difficult-to-cultivate land in the Northeast. We are even led to believe that diseases and dangerous animals threatened their survival. But thriving Indian communities througout the same region – for centuries before the Mayflower landed – discount such explanations. Instead, Pilgrim records and journals tell of a clear policy problem that nearly destroyed their society.

Pilgrims believed in communal land ownership. They preached that everyone would work the land collectively; but each would take from the total only what he needed. A family of six would therefore receive a greater share than the childless-couple expected to work the commons just the same. This property policy – a feudalism-remnant – seriously demoralized the Pilgrims and led to a reluctant, if any, work ethic. The myth of the so-called Protestant work ethic was yet to be born. Like everyday Americans today, Pilgrims came to begrudge their neighbors’ “mortgage” on their work simply because some neighbors were  more “needy” than others.  On the same land that yielded bountiful crops for the Indians, Pilgrims could barely feed themselves.

The difference wasn’t knowledge, but policy: Indian private property rights were the norm. It is hard for modern Americans to believe this, after so many Hollywood depictions of nature-loving-living-in-harmony portrayals of natives and wolves. Yet research as early as the turn of the last century uncovered the systematic organization of private property rights, rules and regulations amongst Indian tribes across the Continent (see for references). It was only the collectivist policy of Pilgrim leaders that advocated communal land management – not unlike the modern politician’s efforts to develop affordable public housing by mortgaging everyone’s tax money through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Obviously, both were a failure.

Not until the 1620s – when the Pilgrim’s changed the land ownership law – did things turn around:

The 1623 Division of Land marked the end of the Pilgrims’ earliest system of land held in common by all. Governor Bradford explains it in this way:

“And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York : Knopf, 1991), p. 120. (cf,

Unfortunately, there were few advocates of private property rights in Pilgrim America. Had there been a agent present, perhaps fewer would have starved. Even after the Pilgrim leaders admitted philosophical defeat of communal land and allowed individual families to manage private plots of land – which quickly grew to surplus abundance and created trade opportunties with Indians – private property was tolerated as an “unavoidable, acceptable evil” at best.

It would take almost four more centuries before private property would become the norm – not the exception – in the mind of everyday Americans. And then, only barely. Not until the last century would serious private property advocacy be organized – by businesses, local societies and national associations. Mindless of private property’s success, private property supporters would sustain continued challenge as neo-progressives revived attacks on the evils of private property. The new high priests of communal property – Marx, Engels and even President Roosevelt – would take up the call for communal farming. Some countries would try it, mostly those that did not have a professional real estate sector to  advocate for individual ownership. And all around the modern world, just like the Pilgrims, people would starve. A United States President would have to secretly send its communist enemy shipments of grain at the height of the Cold War.

Today’s REALTORS are the intellectual inheritors of the 1623 Division of Land. Real estate every day must defend the “private property” grudgingly divided by government leaders. The recent U.S. Supreme Court Kelo case, permitting the transfer of private homes from one owner to another, harkens us back to the days of forced land re-settlements of Native private property owners. The inflationary devaluation of the dollar in which private property is almost exclusively traded has undermined land ownership quietly, insidiously. Even the use of tax dollars to bailout squatters – strategic speculators who don’t pay their loans but refuse to leave – erodes the lessons of the first Thanksgiving.  This political cartoon from Cox and Forkum sums it up best:

Four hundred years ago, colonial Americans learned that the road to prosperity – away from starvation, towards surplus – was rooted in the individual’s freedom to own private land. History shows us that commons-farms are far less productive than private ones, private homes and businesses contribute more to the society than community housing, and the work ethic comes from the desire to own, not to toil. Thankfully, it remains the job of the private property advocates – the professional real estate broker – to continue this fight, and honor the real meaning of Thanksgiving every day.

– Originally published November 26, 2008 as “Real Estate Brokers Honor Thanksgiving Every Day.” It has been edited to remain relevant with the changing times. MF.