One major aspect of Social Studies is the study of Economics.  Economic issues have played a major role throughout the course of history and are responsible for altering many historic events.  It is important to look at the role of economic issues to further understand the events of the past.  It is also important to understand the economic lessons of past to avoid the same pitfalls in the future.  The following activity deals with the Pilgrims and gives us a valuable lesson in economics for both the present and the future.


Part I: What are Economics Systems?

Economic systems are the manner in which a nation runs and controls its economy.  Throughout the course of history, nations have tried many different types of economic systems in order to create the best possible economic conditions within their borders.  Some of these nations have tried a system known as capitalism.  Capitalism is based on privet ownership of land, the means of production, the means of distribution, and all other economic aspects.  Under capitalism, every citizen must provide for their own basic needs by working.  People are rewarded based on the amount of work they produce.  People receive no help from the government, nor do they share what they have with the community. 

     Other nations have tried opposite economic systems know as socialism and communism.  Under these systems, citizens in the community share all of their basic needs with others and work for the common good of the nation.  Under these systems all land, the means of production, the means of distribution, and other economic aspects are controlled by the government and shared by the entire population.  There are no poor citizens and there are no rich citizens.  Food, housing, jobs, and other services are provided for all citizens.  Under these economic systems citizens share the rewards and fruits of their collective labor equally. 

     Over the years, a great debate as to which economic system works better has taken place.  There are many historical examples of both of these systems.  Today we will use one of these examples to try and determine which system works better.  The history of the Pilgrims first years at Plymouth Plantation can test which economic system is superior and offer us insight into how and why one system seems to work better than the others.     


Part II: A Brief History of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Plantation

     After the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England became the official religion of England with the king at its head.  No other religions were tolerated in England.  Members of other religions were often persecuted.  One of the groups persecuted in England were known as the Separatists or the Pilgrims.  The Separatists wanted to separate from the Church of England and start their own church based on their beliefs.  In the early 1600’s the Separatists left England to escape persecution and moved to the Netherlands.

     Although the Dutch allowed the Separatists to worship freely, they missed their English way of life.  They were also concerned that their children were growing up more Dutch than English.  After a few years, a group of Separatists decided to return to England and ask King James I for charter or permission to set up a new colony near Jamestown in Virginia.  The king was more than happy to see them leave England and the Separatists soon were on their way to the New World.

     In September of 1620, a group of Separatists now known as Pilgrims along with some others from England, set sail for the New World on a boat called the Mayflower.  After a long treacherous journey, the Pilgrims arrived along the shores of present day Massachusetts near Cape Cod.  Although they were not in Virginia, the Pilgrims decided to settle near were they had landed rather than continue down the coast to Virginia.  They

called their new colony Plymouth after the port from which they

had departed in England.

     Before going ashore, the Pilgrims realized that they needed to

establish a government within their new colony.  The Pilgrims

joined together to write a plan for governing the colony known as

the Mayflower Compact.  They agreed to make and abide by laws

 that insured “the general good” of the colony.”  Under the Mayflower Compact, adult male colonists would elect a governor and a council to run the colony.  The Mayflower Compact established an important tradition of government ruled by the people in America.

       At first life in the new colony of Plymouth was full of hardships.  During the first winter, the Pilgrims did not have enough food and struggled to survive.  They had arrived too late in the season to plant corn and other necessary crops.  The harsh cold winter was especially brutal in the hastily constructed sod homes the Pilgrims had built as shelter.  During the first winter at Plymouth near half of the settlers died of starvation and disease.  This difficult period even claimed the life of the colony’s governor.

     The Pilgrims welcomed Spring and began to clear land and plant

crops.  They also elected a new governor named William Bradford. 

Bradford’s leadership in the years to come would help Plymouth

survive and prosper.  The Pilgrims also received help from the near

by Native American tribes particularly a Wampanoag man named

Squanto.  Squanto, who spoke English, showed the Pilgrims how to

successfully plant crops such as corn, pumpkins, and beans.  In the

fall, the Pilgrims had a very good harvest.  They sat down to feast

with their Native American friends and gave thanks to God for their good fortune.  This dinner is what we celebrate each Thanksgiving!  After that year, Plymouth slowly started to grow and prosper.












Directions: The experience of the Pilgrims at Plymouth can provide us with a very valuable economic lesson that can still be applied today and in the future.  Follow the directions below to complete the activity.


Part III: Important Terms to Know:

Property Rights: The formal and informal rules regarding ownership, use, and transfer of property.


Common Property: Rights to property that are shared by all the members of a society.


Incentives: rewards or punishments that influence people’s behavior


Part IV: Pilgrim Economics

Directions: Read the following passage and answer the questions listed below.


Changing Course in Plymouth, 1623 Part I

     As it was practice, the Virginia Company specified that for the first seven years the Pilgrims should organize communally.  In good faith, the colony began as directed; the colonists worked the fields together, and each family received a share from the common larder.

     However, we know that not long before seven years had passed, the communal organization was abandoned and each family was given responsibility to provide its own food.  In his History of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford recorded this decision, reached after the dismal, and meager harvest of 1623.  Read an excerpt from Bradford’s account in the passage below.


      . . . So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a   

                          better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery.   

                          At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the

                         Chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his

                         own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on

                         in the general way as before.  And so assigned to every family a parcel of land,

                         according to theproportion of their number, for that end . . .


Directions: Answer the following questions listed below based the above passage.


1.  What does Governor Bradford’s history tell us about how the Pilgrims changed from a system

     of communal property rights to a system of private property?







2.  How did Governor Bradford make the decision to change?








3.  What property rights rules replaced communal ownership?  How was the land divided?








Directions: Read the following passage below and answer the questions listed below.


Changing Course in Plymouth, 1623 Part II

     It is hard to believe that people who had been through so much together and shared such deep commitment to common beliefs would reject community effort as the means for ensuring their very survival.  But they did, leaving us to puzzle out the problem.  Fortunately, the development of the economic understanding in the centuries since the Pilgrims struggle at Plymouth can help us with this task.  Hearing the words “communal property,” any economist worth his salt would quickly respond that the solution to the puzzle is that the Pilgrims were human!  Certain that, like all people, the Plymouth colonists responded to incentives in predictable ways, the economist would hypothesize that communal ownership turned many Pilgrims into “shirkers.”

     Today, we’d say “slacking off” or failing “to pull your own weight” instead of “shirkers.”  Regardless of what we call it, it’s easy to see that a significant amount of shirking would have stifled economic growth, kept the colonists on the brink of starvation, and fostered arguments and discontent.  What, you protest in disbelief: “The Pilgrims were shirkers?  Certainly not those hard working, dedicated souls!”


Governor Bradford’s words provide the evidence to test the economist’s


     For this community (common ownership) was found to breed much confusion

and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.  For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.  The strong or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was through injustice.  The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, though it some indignity and disrespect unto them.  And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.  Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.  And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition.  Let none object this is men’s corruption . . . God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them. 


Directions: Answer the following questions listed below based the above passage.


1.  Does Governor Bradford’s history support or undermine the economists shirking hypothesis? 

     Explain your answer.




2.  According to the governor what was the complaint of young unmarried men about the common  

     property rights argument?




3.  According to the governor what was the complaint of strong men about the common  

     property rights argument?




4.  According to the governor what was the complaint of older men with status about the common  

     property rights argument?




5.  According to the governor what was the complaint of married men about the common  

     property rights argument?



6.  According to the governor what was the complaint of wives about the common  

     property rights argument?




7.  How did governor Bradford think the above complaints impacted the colony?



8.  How did he explain the failure to make the system of common property rights work well?





Part V: Figure it out!

Directions: Complete the following activity by working with your partners to determine the correct answers.


*Now that we have discovered what happened in Plymouth, we can use economic reasoning to understand why the communal economy failed.  The economic concept that is the key to our understanding is incentives.  Incentives are rewards or punishments that influence people’s behavior.  In this activity, you will be comparing the types of behavior encouraged by the incentives in communal and private property arrangements.


Section A:

Directions: Suppose ten men leave Plymouth and start their own colony.  Read the situations below.



Situation A: All ten colonists are like Ed.  He is an average, hard working guy, willing to do his part to help the colony succeed.  His work produced about 50 bushels of corn.


Situation B: Of the ten colonists, 9 are like Ed - average, hard working men, willing to do their part to help the colony succeed.  They each produce about 50 bushels of corn.  Although pretty much the same age, size, and strength as the others, Ted is of noble birth.  It bothers him that he should be treated exactly the same as a common person, so he does not work as hard.  As a result he only produces 25 bushels of corn.


Situation C: Of the ten colonists, 9 are like ED - average, hard working men, willing to do their part to help the colony succeed.  They each produce about 50 bushels of corn.  But then there is Ned, the overachiever.  Although pretty much the same age, size, and strength as the others, Ned works harder and longer.  He is the first one in the field each morning and the last one to leave each night.  His work contributes 60 bushels of corn to the colony. 


Section B:

Directions: For each situation, calculate the total production of corn and each man’s share under both communal and private property arrangements.  Enter the results in the chart below.



































Section C:

Directions: Answer the following questions regarding the situations involving Ed, Ted, & Ned.


1.  In which situation(s) do the rules of property ownership make no difference?  Why?





2.  In Situation B, Ted produced less because of his snobbery.  List other reasons why a colonist  

     might not produce as much as the others.





3.  How much did Ted’s shirking reduce his output?





4.  How much was Ted’s share of corn reduced as a result?





5.  Is this a good deal for Ted?  Do the others like it?






6.  In Situation C, Ned produces more simply because he works longer.  List other reasons why a        

      colonist might produce more than the others.





7.  How much did Ned’s extra effort increase his output?





8.  How much was Ned’s share of the corn increased as a result?





9.  Is this a good deal for Ned?




*Incentives are rewards or punishments that encourage us to behave in particular ways. Suppose Ed and the other Pilgrims are looking at Ted and Ned.


10.  Does the system of common ownership have stronger incentives for being like Ted or being

       like Ned?

11.  What is the likely effect of common ownership on the productive efforts of the whole colony?





12.  Given what you have learned from Ed, Ted, and Ned, predict whether adopting property

       rights was successful in increasing production in Plymouth.





13.  How would private property rights change incentives and therefore change the Pilgrims





Part VI: Governor Bradford Has the Last Word

*Directions: Read the passage from Governor Bradford’s history below:


     This (granting of private property rights) had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saves 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 though great tyranny and oppression.

     The experience that was had is this common course and condition, tired sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; and that the taking away of property and bringing in he community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.


1.  What do you think the above statement means?









Part VII: Evidence that the economist’s theory is correct even today!

If we look around the world today we can see that the economists’ theory is correct.  Economic systems that are based on the entire population sharing both the work lode and the rewards do not seem to work.  It is clear that economic systems based on privet ownership work much better and even tend to flourish.  On the chart below we can see the difference between modern nations who use both types of economic systems.  Economists can measure the strength of a nation’s economy based on a measurement known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  GDP is the value of the total goods and services produced within the borders of a country.  The chart below indicates the GDP of several nations.  Some of these nations use an economic system based on privet ownership while the others use economic systems based on communal ownership.  The monetary value next to each country indicates the total production of each person within the borders of that nation.




Directions: Use the chart below to answer the following questions.


Per Capita GDP 1999 – United Nations figures

Nations that use economic systems based on privet ownership

Nations that use economic systems based on communal ownership

Japan - $34,276

                             China - $798

USA – $32,77

North Korea - $469

United Kingdom - $24,323

Vietnam - $373


1.  What is the GDP of Japan, USA, and the United Kingdom?



2.  What is the GDP of China, North Korea, and Vietnam?



3.  What is the average GDP of nations who base their economic systems on privet ownership? 

     What is the average GDP of nations who base their economic systems on communal

     ownership?  (add up the GDP of all three countries and divide by 3 to get an average GDP)




4.  Based the chart and on your calculations, what type of economic system seems to produce

     more for its citizens one based on privet ownership or one based on communal ownership?



Part VIII: Conclusions

Although the Pilgrim’s experience at Plymouth was over 380 years ago, we can still learn from their history.  The same economic principles of rewards and incentives hold true today just as they did at Plymouth.  The idea of communal societies that feature the sharing of both the work and the rewards is contrary to human nature and does not work.  Just ask the former Soviet Union.  It is easy to see the value of why we study history in order to create the best possible future and avoid the mistakes of the past.


 Directions: Answer the following questions.


1.  Based on what you have learned about privet vs. communal systems, would it be a good idea

     to have your class share the class average as a grade that everyone in the class would

     receive?  Explain your answer. 








2.  If you were starting a new nation what economic system would you use?  Would you base

     your economy on privet ownership or on communal ownership?  Explain your answer.