The meaning of Thanksgiving

Dateline: 29 November 2006

The conflict has been there since the beginning of America’s first colonies, and it rages still. It is why Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania are called ‘commonwealths’ not states and it is why people across America have resorted to legislative initiative to tame executives and judiciaries that are out of control. It is a fight for a freedom more fundamental than those guaranteed by the Bill of Rights: the right of people to the fruits of their labor. The ultimate guarantee of individual freedom and sovereignty: property.

It is a tale which saw America divided by a civil war: one which firmly established that people own property. People cannot be property. But it is a much older tale than that, and began with the first Thanksgiving.

America’s conflict between liberty and communism did not begin with Joe McCarthy, it was always there. The United States may have been founded on liberty, but the colonies which preceded it were founded on communal ownership of property. Why is this history not better known? Because the experiment was an abysmal failure which lasted only three years.

The Pilgrims traveled to America to make a new sort of society. They were as starry-eyed as any campus communist, but more willing to learn. The first settlements housed between 100 and 200 people – most were hungry and some were starving. This, in a continent-sized country blessed with more natural resources than any other.

And this is the true meaning of Thanksgiving. Governor William Bradford rightly saw that collectivized production of corn was failing. So he changed the policy. People were allowed to keep the corn that they grew for themselves and their families. The effects were startling and immediate. “It made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise ”.

Recall that this was a small society of deeply religious people. All the families knew eachother and worshipped together. If communism could work – by motivating people to work for the common good – in any society and at any time, this would have been it. It still failed.

The lessons of Thanksgiving were well-learnt by some. Alexander Hamilton called the security of private property one of the great objects of government.

And yet, the Supreme Court 2005 approved a measure which would have horrified William Bradford. In the case of Kelo vs the City of New London the judges approved a decision to seize property from private owners and pass it to other private owners for the convenience of local governments. As Justice O’Connor pointed out in her dissent, if “public use” is deemed to include any possible benefit to the local government, such as higher taxes, no-one is safe in their home. If a developer wants to demolish your home and build a larger one, on which higher taxes would be paid, move over. It’s a done deal. The Supreme Court says so.

Perhaps that is why of the ten states where voters were given the chance to vote on a stand alone measure to restrict this abuse of eminent domain, all ten agreed. In one case, New Hampshire, the measure secured 86% support. The Granite State certainly learned the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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