America: The Story of Whom?

History is one of those subjects that, depending on the topic and the observer, can change significantly. The amount of time and care an observer decides to spend on any historical topic is important. For this reason, one should always take any representation of history with a grain of salt. It's safe to assume that license has been taken for the sake of brevity at best or ignorance at worst.

Recently watching "America: The Story of Us" on the History Channel, I became engaged in the segment on Jamestown and Plymouth. Always a fan of pre-American Revolution history, I was excited to see how they might relate the plight of the early Americans.  Residents of Jamestown and Plymouth faced similar problems in maintaining enough food to feed themselves.

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Jamestown was founded in 1607 as a product of the Virginia Company.  The segment in "America" picks up where John Rolfe, the pioneer in tobacco production, arrives. According to the show, "Rolfe finds at Jamestown Hell on earth. More than 500 settlers made the journey before Rolfe.  Barely 60 remain.  It's called the 'starving time'...The English arrive unprepared for this new world, and unwilling to perform manual labor.  Instead of livestock, they bring chemical tests for gold." The program fails to address though why the Englishmen, who had risked their lives in the trans-Atlantic trip, could not be compelled to work, despite George Percy's 1607 account that the land was "good and fruitfull."

According to Tom Bethell's seminal work on historical property rights, "The Noblest Triumph," the "colonists were indolent because most of them were indentured servants, expected to toil for seven years and contribute the fruits of their labor to the common store before becoming freemen." This communal property system inhibited the efforts of all the individuals in the camp. This true race to the bottom for ambition created massive shortages of food. 

Sir Thomas Dale rectified this problem upon his arrival in 1611. He immediately split up all the land, giving each man three acres to use to his own ends. The only requirement on the property was that the man devote one month in community service and deposit two and a half barrels of corn to the store house every year.

What was the result of letting individuals be largely responsible for their own fortunes? Bethell recounts, according to John Rolfe in 1616, "Whereas heretofore we were constrained yearly to go to the Indians and intreate them to sell us the case is altered; they seeke to us come to our townes [...] to buy corne."

How does this differ from the narrative of the "America" project? The portrayal is that John Rolfe had come into town, planted black market tobacco seeds, and the colony's fortunes took off.  Needless to say, a family can't sustain itself simply off of tobacco. With the irregularity of new shipments, the colonists couldn't depend on trading tobacco for the products imported. It was the distribution of property to individuals, rather than public ownership,  which allowed Jamestown to feed itself.

The story of property rights in Plymouth isn't much different. At the end of seven years, the property would be equally distributed between the investors in England and the Pilgrims working the land. From the start, the workers disagreed with the communal property stipulation, but the investors demanded it. Here again, we see that these individuals felt unmotivated to be productive.

When the governor decided after years of failure to split the land, the scene changed dramatically. Bethell writes of William Bradford's account of the Pilgrims before and after the transition: "the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice.  And this among 'godly and sober men.' Therefore the land they worked was converted into private property, which brought 'very good success.' The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions."

How does this compare to the "America" narrative again?

The program does a good job showing the dynamic between the Indians and the Pilgrims. It puts a heavy emphasis on the sense of community between these two groups. (The Indians, wanting their own expansion of lands, bartered their knowledge of fertilization in the poor soils of Plymouth for weapons to fight a rival tribe). This is likely accurate, but misses the point of receiving the knowledge of fertilization. Even after this knowledge was disseminated, the colony could not feed itself until private property was introduced. The effect in "America" is accurate, but the cause shown ignores all besides the glossy Thanksgiving report we all learned in grade school.

The moral of Jamestown and Plymouth is that, left to their own devices, people must and choose to take care of themselves.  The moral of this essay? History must be told from the eye of the beholder. When looking at any topic, look for many beholders.




Christopher Deming is director of campus leadership for Students for a Free Economy, a nonpartisan student group sponsored by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.