The Puritan Experiment in Common Ownership
APRIL 01, 1974 by GARY NORTH
Dr. North, economist, lecturer, author, currently is an associate of Chalcedon, an educational organization dedicated to Christian research and writing. His latest book is An Introduction to Christian Economics, Craig Press, 1973.
One of the more familiar incidents in American history, at least within conservative circles, is the disastrous experiment with a common storehouse in the Pilgrim colony in 1621-23. Governor Bradford describes in some detail in his history of the colony how young men refused to work in the common fields in order to lay up produce for a common storehouse, only to see all goods divided equally among families. Upon petition of the planters, the Governor and his council decided to follow their advice: assign families their personal plots of farm land (according to family size) and abolish the common storehouse. Immediately, men and women returned to the harvest fields.
What is less known about this incident is how the little colony ever made such a disastrous decision in the first place. The fact of the matter is that the colonists had never wanted to inaugurate a system of totally common property. The group of British "adventurers" that had supplied the Pilgrim exiles in
In the original negotiations, it had been understood that profits would be shared by all members of the company, but the colonists had not agreed to the sharing of houses, gardens, and other improved land. They were informed of these terms only as they were about to leave for
The story did not end in 1623, when necessity forced the hands of the colonists. In 1627, the bickering British directors sold out their interests in the colony to the settlers for £1800. The settlers were to spend a decade and a half in paying off their debt, and at times had to borrow extra time at rates of 30 per cent to 50 per cent. Nevertheless, they persisted and finally repaid the debt, in 1642.
In 1627, shortly after buying out the British directors, Governor Bradford supervised the division of the colony’s assets among the settlers. First, they divided livestock. There were few animals, so the 156 people (less than 40 families) were divided into a dozen companies; each company received a cow and two goats. In January of 1628, the land was divided, this time by random lot. Complaints about unequal housing were forestalled by requiring those who received better housing to make an equalizing payment to those receiving poorer housing. Peace was preserved.
There was one decision, however, which was to prove costly. Meadow was in short supply, so it was kept in common ownership. Furthermore, fishing, fowling, and water remained "open" to all settlers.3 The Pilgrims were to have the same difficulties with the administration of these common fields as their neighbors, the Puritans, were to experience. Only after 1675, when the "commons" throughout
Varying Concepts of Ownership
In order to understand the thinking of the first half century of New England settlers, we have to realize that these immigrants did not bring over from
The open field system stressed the community administration of land. It is this system which we generally associate with the word "medieval," although the Middle Ages saw many systems of land tenure. Sumner Chilton Powell has described these systems in some detail in his fine study,
Extensive Trading of Land in Berkhamsted
Quite different was an English borough like Berkhamsted. In the early seventeenth century, over one thousand acres "were opened up, bought, or traded, in countless individual transactions. If the men of Berkhamsted were doing nothing else, they were trading land."5 The legend of the Yankee trader was rooted in this sort of English inheritance. There were some enclosed lands, but most of the farmers were shifting as rapidly as possible to a system of individual farm management.
A third system was a sort of combination, the closed field system of
The towns and colonial governments of seventeenth-century
It is significant that in the final quarter of the century, these religious restrictions were generally dropped. Instead, a new requirement — in fact, a new emphasis on an old requirement — appeared: restrictions on immigrants who might become a burden on the welfare rolls. The towns had steadily become more pluralistic theologically, but the fear of an increase in tax rates was a truly ecumenical device. By offering economic support to local indigents, the townspeople were afraid that outsiders might take advantage of this legal charity. Barriers to entry followed in the wake of "free" goods, however modest — and they were very modest — the size of the public welfare allotments.7
Pressure on the Commons
The fear of increased welfare burdens was not the only economic issue confronting established communities every time a stranger sought admission as a resident of some town. In the early years of settlement, each town had considerable land — six to eight miles square — and relatively few inhabitants. Each resident had legal access to the common pasturage and to any future divisions of land from the huge blocs owned to no avail. "Free" land meant strong demand for its productivity, and town leaders never were able to find a rational, efficient means of restricting uneconomic uses of the town property. Men had a strong incentive to further their personal economic ends, and far less incentive to consider the public’s position. The commons served as incentives to waste, for without a free market and private ownership, it was impossible to calculate accurately the costs and benefits associated with the use of the land. This is the chief economic flaw of all socialist systems, and the early settlers of
The Eternal Problems of Supply and Demand
Someone who has only a superficial knowledge of the history of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony tends to see them as men obsessed with imposing religious restraints or moral restraints on private activities. They were concerned with such questions, as the records indicate, but from the bulk of the legislation, two problems were eternal, unsolvable, and endlessly bothersome to Puritan leaders: pigs without rings in their noses running through the town, and midnight tree cutters on the commons. The tree cutters, like the pigs, insisted by the town. But as the number of inhabitants increased, and as more and more distributions of town land reduced the available source of unowned land, the per capita supply of land began to shrink. Those inhabitants who had a share in the common pasture and the common lands sought to protect their control over further use and distributions of such property. In town after town, a new rule was imposed: outsiders had to purchase access to rights in the common property from local inhabitants. The result was a new appreciation of private ownership and private control of property, even among men who had grown up in English communities that had used the open field system of farming. The land hunger of
There was another incentive to reduce the size of the community-owned property: bureaucratic wrangling. Page after page of the
The commoners — those who had legal access to the common fields and meadows — were too often involved in what today is known as "free riding." They planted crops in the common property, but neglected to keep their portion of the commons properly fenced. It was almost impossible to keep track of who was responsible for which plot. Towns had to intervene and assign plots, thus creating opportunities for local political dissension. Animals that wandered around the fenced land often broke down unrepaired fencing between plots, getting into someone else’s crops. Tension here was continual.
Fencing inspectors were important officials in every town. Conflicts over responsibility were endless. Without private plots privately repaired, such conflicts were inevitable. In the early decades of
The problem facing every selectman in every
There is an answer to the tragedy of the commons, at least where it is inexpensive to assign property rights. As C. R. Batten has argued, the transfer of ownership from an amorphous common group to individual citizens provides an incentive to reduce the demands made on the land. Private owners have to assess both costs and benefits of any activity, seeing to it that costs do not outrun benefits. By the end of the seventeenth century, Puritan leaders — or at least leaders who were the descendants of Puritans — reached a similar conclusion.¹º
With each piece of legislation, another problem or set of problems appeared. First, only actual town commoners could run their animals in the common meadow or in the outlying common lands. Only local residents could cut the trees. Later, the selectmen had to impose limits on the number of cattle that could be run, frequently on a "one cow per man" rule. Each man was assessed a few shillings per year for this right. Some people brought in horses;
Corrected Over Time
The confusion reigned for decades. As the Watertown records report so eloquently, "there being many complaints made concerning the disorderliness of cattle and swine and the multitudes of sheep in the town, it was voted that the matter above mentioned is left with the selectmen to consider something that may tend to reformation and to present what they shall do to the town to be confirmed."14 Needless to say, the selectmen could not do anything about it, any more than half a century of Puritan town governments before them. The only solution was the distribution of the commons to local inhabitants — the demise of the commons.
Traditional patterns of life do not die out overnight. Men are usually unwilling to change their way of life unless forced to do so, either by economic circumstances or by direct political pressure. The little town of
Factional strife was not a part of the original goals of the founders of
The town of
One of the original goals of the founders of
Even before the market of
Despite the efforts of ministers and local selectmen, the population spread out; decentralization, when not political, was at least social. You could not examine your neighbor’s intimate affairs when he was three miles away. The market for land was an agent of social decentralization.
The Urge for Privacy
The experience of the isolated little town of
If the corporate unity of the village was slowly eroding, so was its physical coherence. The common field system began disintegrating almost from the day of its inception. Already in the 1640′s the town permitted men to "fence their lots in particular" and presumably to grow in these lots whichever crops they wished. By the 1670′s it had become usual for men to take up both special "convenience grants" and their usual shares of each new dividend in locations as close as possible to their existing lots, practices which aided the consolidation of individual holdings. The process encouraged by public policy was completed by private transactions, for an active market in small parcels soon emerged, a market in which most farmers sought to sell distant lands and buy lands closer to their main holdings. The net result was the coalescence of private farms. From here, it would be but two short steps for farmers whose holdings were centered in outlying areas to move their barns and then their houses from the village out to their lands. As of 1686 few seem to have taken these steps, but the way had been prepared and the days of a society totally enclosed by the village were numbered. In any event the common-field system was gone, taking with it the common decisions and the frequent encounters of every farmer with his fellows which it entailed.16
The closer to
A Typical Development
The demise of the commons in
The final impetus to private ownership came in the 1680′s. James II, after coming to the throne in 1685, sent Sir Edmund Andros, the former Royal governor of
By 1685, there were four New England colonies,
In 1686, the
The Market Process
Step by step, individual men asserted their sovereignty over land; the proprietors of the commons steadily transferred the unoccupied land surrounding the village, as well as the land in the more central common fields, to the citizens of the town. While they did not ask for competitive bidding as a means of distributing this land, the officials did effect a continuous transformation of ownership. In doing so, they established a break from the historical inheritance of many towns, the old medieval open field system of common ownership. The continual bickering over the allocation of timber, fallen logs, tree cutting by moonlight, town herds, herdsmen’s salaries, fence mending, planting in the common fields, and policing everyone to see that these laws were obeyed, finally broke the will of the town officials. It was easier to give the land away; it was also more profitable for town residents, in most cases.
The tradition of the independent yeoman farmer so impressed Jefferson that he built an entire political philosophy around it. The idea that individual men are more responsible for the administration of property than boards of political appointees or even elected officials became a fundamental principle of eighteenth and nineteenth century American life. The concepts of personal responsibility and personal authority became interlocked, and the great symbol of this fusion was the family farm. The endless quest for land by American families is one of the most impressive tales in American history. It began as soon as the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower and their Puritan neighbors stepped off the Arabella a decade later. The experiment in common ownership in village after village over half a century convinced ministers, laymen, and political leaders that the private ownership of the means of production was not only the most efficient way to get Christian goals accomplished, but also that such a form of ownership was economically profitable as well. They saw, almost from the start, that social peace is best achieved by means of the private ownership of the tools of production, especially that most crucial of tools, land. The lessons of that first half-century of New England Puritan life is one of the most important heritages of American life. Without it, indeed, American life would be impossible to interpret correctly.
1 George D. Langdon, Jr.; Pilgrim Colony (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 9.
² Ibid., p.26.
3 Ibid., p. 31.
4 Sumner Chilton Powell,
5 Ibid., p. 26.
6 Ibid., p. 72.
7 On the size of local town charities, see Stephen Foster, Their Solitary Way: The Puritan Social Ethic in the First Century of Settlement in New England (Yale University Press, 1971), p. 137.
8 William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of
9 Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science (13 Dec., 1968); reprinted in Garrett de Bell (ed.), The Environmental Handbook (New York: Ballantine, 1970), p. 37.
¹º C. R. Batten, "The Tragedy of the Commons," THE FREEMAN (Oct., 1970). 11 The Records of the Town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1703 (1901), pp. 28, 39.
1² Ibid., p. 72.
14 Ibid., p. 142.
16 Kenneth Lockridge, A New England
18 Philip J. Greven, Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover,