Talking Turkey

Monday - 11/24/2008, 2:07pm EST

Americans know the story of the first Thanksgiving and the handouts from Squanto and his tribe that saved the Plymouth Colony. But do you know anything about the second Thanksgiving?

The second Thanksgiving, about 387 years ago, was the result of our nation's first multi-cultural, non-partisan, equal opportunity, laissez-faire experiment in free market capitalism. William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony, had proposed a "communal" work environment, in which every settler could partake of the colony's food stores, regardless of the settler's previous contribution to those supplies.

Bradford's goal of creating a hard-working, collaborative, mutually beneficial environment, failed miserably. Many settlers refused to work. Some didn't have the skills to produce. And some were just plain greedy and took more from the colony's supplies than they had contributed. The Plymouth Colony was going down, and going down fast.

Two things happened that turned everything around. Learning from the history of the Jamestown settlement, Bradford immediately implemented John Smith's, now legendary, corollary of free market philosophy: if you don't work, you won't eat. The second change was Governor Bradford's decision to rely on the power of enlightened self-interest.

Settlers were allocated plots of land. Whatever they produced, they could keep. Whatever produce they didn't need, they could sell. This was free market capitalism at its most basic. And the colony thrived. The colony thrived so well, that the next year, the pilgrim settlers were able to invite their Indian neighbors to partake in the feast. And, so, with its second Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims celebrated the pride of accomplishment and the appreciation of bounty. (Some of them, it would seem, celebrated a bit too hard, buying spirits on a Sunday from one of my husband's ancestors, John Doane, who was the Assistant governor of the Plymouth colony at the time. But that's a story for another time.)

As another Thanksgiving approaches, I hear grousing about the terrible condition of American life, the decline of our society and the end of our free market system. What nonsense! Despite our recent challenges, this is still a great time to be an American.

Here are four of the things I am thankful for this week.

First, I am thankful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I am very optimistic about the future. I believe there is no better place to live and that anything is possible if you are willing to work hard. America is still a nation of the dreamer, where the entrepreneur is constantly looking for better ideas. And, I am confident that in a million garages and small shops across our country, American entrepreneurs are busy working on the next big thing.

Second, I give thanks for the common sense and inherent wisdom of Americans. Despite the initial panic about our financial problems, I see Americans asking the hard and honest questions that our republic demands. Certainly, more companies will come to Washington with hat in hand, asking for a huge taxpayer bailout to save them from poor leadership decisions. But, I get the feeling that those pleas are going to meet with less success as we increasingly start to ask ourselves: Who and how are we to pay for all this?

Third, I give thanks for American resiliency. No one promised that life in America would be easy. It wasn't easy for the pilgrims and it isn't easy now. It's painful to watch our big auto companies and large financial investment firms floundering. And one certainly feels sorry for the employees that have had their lives disrupted. But, painful as it may be, our system is the most efficient at quickly forcing weak enterprises to take their medicine or be replaced, by enterprises that are more nimble, better led, and better focused on the future. Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is never easy, but it is better than a handout from congress which can only keep the patient on short term life support system.

Fourth, I am thankful that the decision for a second economic stimulus package hasn't yet been approved. I remain optimistic that there is still time to discard a proposition that borrows another few hundred billion dollars from future generations, your kids and mine, to prop up more dubious efforts. The first stimulus has not had the desired effects, so, why should the American taxpayer trust that congress can make a second stimulus work? Americans are practical people. We are willing to abandon a plan when it has proven ineffective and open our minds to other possibilities that will work.

The lessons we can learn from the history of the Plymouth Colony and the Second Thanksgiving are that Americans are made of tougher stuff than our leaders in Congress sometimes understand. Americans are inherently self-reliant, entrepreneurial and optimistic, that with hard work and patience, we can weather any challenge. And for that, I am truly thankful.


Lurita Doan is the former Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.