June 28, 2009
America’s Socialist Past
By Ryan Siefert
There seems to be a need in American society to have to relearn the same hard lessons over and over again, regardless of whether the results were seen on the other side of the planet or suffered through by our own people.
We’re living in a country that elected a President that believes in redistributing wealth. He’s mentioned this himself, from the “Joe the Plumber” incident[i] to his critique[ii] of the failures of the civil rights movement. Whether you call it Socialism, Communism, Marxism, or by its simpler name, theft, they are all part of the same economic system that destroys private property and puts everything in central control of the state.
The lesson we, and the rest of the world, seems to fail to learn is how socially and economically destructive this sort of system is. The problem is, these lessons don’t have to be learned from studying the histories of far off lands, for we have numerous examples of collectivist/socialist experiments here at home.
In Jamestown, there was no welfare state. Originally meant to be a trading colony, too many of the original inhabitants were adventurers or people seeking to gain wealth through the export of things they could find in the new world. Preoccupied with their own ideas of fortune, they found that in the wilderness of what was North America their habit of avoiding physical labor meant life or death. It was here that John Smith proclaimed, “He who will not work will not eat.”[iii] It worked…sort of. While success still eluded the colony, the mortality rate did go from 60 percent to 15 percent.
Imagine a politician on any level making Smith’s proclamation today. Cities would burn. Of course, when Sir Thomas Dale arrived there in 1611, he saw “where the most company were, and the daily and usual workers, bowling in the streets.”[iv] Apparently Smith’s proclamation had only motivated the people enough to do the minimum. Sir Dale had to motivate the people to fix up their houses, plant corn, and secure the defenses of the fort.
Lord De La Warr, the first official governor of Jamestown, continued with the communal storehouse practice. This meant that no matter how hard one worked; everyone was entitled to food so nobody would (in theory) starve. It only prolonged the hardship. Seeking a way around this, the administrators began using the incentive approach (as opposed to Smith’s harsh approach) and privatized land ownership. With tobacco finding a market back in Europe, the private property incentives mixed with trading allowed Jamestown to finally get over the hump and begin to prosper.[v]
The Pilgrims sought to live in a society that promoted “just and equal laws.” Their first year saw the death of half of their population through disease, starvation, and malnutrition (again, thanks to communal farming). In a story that’s getting more and more circulation in today’s internet age (and thanks to Rush’s yearly reading of the story of Thanksgiving), we learn that only when William Bradford instituted private property that people began to work harder and innovate more.[vi] Even women and children went out to the fields with their husbands, which meant more crops were planted and ultimately harvested. This led to more trade with the local tribes, earlier repayment of debt to the English sponsors, and overall prosperity of the colony.
Let’s fast forward a bit.
The date is January 1, 1816, and a man named Robert Owen proposed a new type of model society. In his plans, each of these communities of 2,500 individuals would “be self-governing and hold its property in the common.”[vii] So popular was Owen that when he reached America from Britain, President John Quincy Adams displayed one of Owen’s architectural models for this ideal community. He established his community in Indiana, christening it New Haven in 1825. In New Haven, “not only work, but also recreation and meditation were communal and regimented.”[viii] Everything was collectivized, including “cooking, child care, and other domestic work.”[ix] Ironically, at least by today’s “Liberal” standards, it was women that were relegated to these chores. The community lasted two years.
The term “socialism” was actually coined by Owen’s followers around the time New Haven failed.
Eighteen other communities were established on the Owen collectivized model across the United States. Modern Times, the name of the community established on Long Island, was the last to fail. This was in 1863.
Charles Fourier, a French social theorist, came up with the solution to the problems associated with collectivized living: It should be done on a smaller scale. He calculated that 1,620 was the ideal population and that they should live on 6,000 acres. These were called phalanxes. In the 1840’s, a man named Charles Brisbane decided to implement this idea, ultimately establishing 28 of them. All failed within 12 years.[x]
In 1804, George Rapp and six hundred of his followers came to America. They set up a community in Pennsylvania called Harmony where communal farming was practiced, but they were expecting the second coming and left for Indiana in 1814 before it could be deemed a success or failure. While in Indiana, they established another community and named it (again) Harmony, but sold it ten years later to Robert Owen (who set up New Harmony there) and moved back to Pennsylvania. These people began the petroleum industry in Pennsylvania (a move to capitalism), but eventually died out due to their celibacy and lack of recruits.[xi]
In 1841, Humphrey Noyes started the “Perfectionists”, and wrote a book on his theories titled Bible Communism in 1848. Noyes took collectivism to the next level; not only was all property communal, but so were spouses. The term for this was “complex marriage” and in practice it meant, “all the men in the Perfectionist community considered themselves husbands to all the women, and each woman the wife of every man.”[xii] Before coitus, and even conception, people had to have consent granted by the whole community. Economically, and with a hint of irony, they flourished by building and marketing animal traps. However, this particular communist experiment ended when they established a joint-stock company called Oneida Community, Ltd.
In showing what a great social and economic model Communism is, Harrison Berry likened it to slavery by stating in a that “a Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism; it is a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master…and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure of support.”[xiii]
George Fitzhugh, an influence on Berry, actually argued that slave labor was preferable because the slaves were ultimately free. It was property owners and free laborers that were the slaves. He advocated that taking decision-making out of the hands of individuals made the African slaves better off than free whites and claimed that not only all blacks, but most whites too, should be slaves.[xiv] His theory was ultimately squashed with the support and ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments, which not only freed the slaves but also established they had constitutionally protected private property rights.
These few examples, and there are more out there, show how American culture even before the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on your location) tried communal living and centrally planned economic models. Despite the good intentions of the people involved, they always fail because of the inherent flaws in Socialism. Unfortunately, given the reach of the federal government and current make-up of the executive and legislative branches, we are set to learn this lesson the hard way. Again.
[i] Francis, David R., How Obama’s tax plans would ‘spread the wealth around.’ Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 27, 2008.
[ii] Calabresi, Steven G., Obama’s ‘Redistribution’ Constitution. Wall Street Journal, Oct. 28, 2008.
[iii] Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 17.
[iv] Ed Southern. The Jamestown Adventure (John F. Blair, 2004), 202.
[v] Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 18.
[vi] See William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation: Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650 (San Antonio: The Vision Forum, 1998, 2002), 115-117,125-126.
[vii] See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought? The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 293.
[viii] Ibid. 294
[ix] Ibid. 294
[x] Ibid. 296
[xi] Ibid. 298-299.
[xii] Ibid. 302.
[xiii] Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 261.
[xiv] Ibid. 261.
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