Four hundred years ago last month 105 men and boys disembarked from three ships and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They built a fort along what they called the James River, in honor of their king.
The land was lush and fertile, yet within three years most of the colonists died during what came to be known as “the starving time.” Only the establishment of private property saved the Jamestown colony.
What went wrong? There were the usual hardships of pioneers far from home, such as unfamiliar diseases. There were mixed relations with the Indians already living in Virginia. Sometimes the Indians and settlers traded, other times armed conflicts broke out. But according to a governor of the colony, George Percy, most of the colonists died of famine, despite the “good and fruitful” soil, the abundant deer and turkey, and the “strawberries, raspberries and fruits unknown” growing wild.
The problem was the lack of private property. As Tom Bethell writes in his book, “The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages,” “The colonists were indolent because most of them were indentured servants, expected to toil for seven years and contribute the fruits of their labor to the common store.”
Understandably, men who don’t benefit from their hard work tend not to work very hard.
Over the first two years, more colonists arrived from England, including women. By 1609, there were 500 settlers. And within six months fewer than 100 were still alive. People were desperate. They ate dogs and cats, then rats and mice. They apparently ate their deceased neighbors. And some said that one man murdered and ate his pregnant wife.
By the spring, they had given up. They abandoned the fort and boarded ships to return to England. But miraculously, as they sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, they encountered three ships with new recruits, so they turned around and tried to make another go of it. The additional settlers and supplies kept them alive.
But when a new governor, Thomas Dale, arrived a year after the starving time, he was shocked to find the settlers bowling in the streets instead of working.
Dale’s most important reform was to institute private property. He allotted every man three acres of land and freed them to work for themselves. And then, the Virginia historian Matthew Page Andrews wrote, “As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans — an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.”
John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, said that once private property was instituted, men could engage in “gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.”
The Jamestown colony became a success, and people from all over Europe flocked to America.
Private property is essential for economic growth; people don't work and invest if they can't reap the fruits of their labors. Property ensures that people will work to better their own condition and that of their families. And that work and investment then benefits the whole society, much more so than the attempt to force people to work directly for the common good.
But property does something else. As the American Revolutionary Arthur Lee, great-grandson of a Jamestown colonist, wrote, “The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive a people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.” Property is essential to making the government dependent on the people, not vice versa. It divides power, limits government, and protects freedom. No country has ever enjoyed freedom of the press, freedom of religion, or political liberty without secure property rights.
So on this 400th anniversary, let us remember the original Jamestown settlers, who demonstrated the failure of collectivism. Their suffering during the starving time did more than any book could have done to lay a secure foundation for private property rights and thus for the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today.
David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. This commentary is reprinted with permission by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.