The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part One


The "People-to-Land Proportion" Problem

I'd like to discuss the American Revolution of 1776-1783 as an expression of something I will call the People-to-Land Proportion problem; and I would like to place that within the context of the five hundred year history of capitalism.

There is no better expression of this, that I know of, than that set down by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman in their book about China. They talk about the heavily manpower-reliant system of agriculture that has prevailed in China throughout its history and well into the twentieth century.

We read: "The heavy application of manpower and fertilizer to small plots of land has also had its social repercussions, for it sets up a vicious interdependence between dense population and intensive use of the soil whereby each makes the other possible. A dense population provides both the incentive for intensive land use and the means. Once established, this economy acquired inertial momentum --- it kept on going. The backbreaking labor of many hands became the accepted norm, and inventive efforts at labor-saving remained the exception. Early modernizers of China, in their attempts to introduce the machine, constantly ran up against the vested interest of Chinese manpower, since in the short run the machine appeared to be in competition with human hands and backs. Thus railways were attacked as depriving carters and porters of their jobs, and there was no premium upon labor-saving invention" (1).

Fairbank and Goldman call this state of affairs the "unfavorable population-land balance" (2).

All of this reminds us, or enlightens us to the fact that ideas often need both literal and figurative space to be tried out, implemented, and realized.

For example, it is all well and good if someone invents the automobile, the originally so-called "horse-less carriage." But if the state does not step forward to provide the infrastructure by which this machine can be operated to its full potential (with paved roads, highways, and bridges, traffic lights, etc.), then the auto does not go anywhere. In that case, we might have had "horse-less carriage," but they would have been little more than go-carts, chugging along over hilly, gravelly, dirt roads; and in that case, the horse and buggy would have indeed remained a viable transportation option to this day.

So then, when I read that bit about China by Fairbank and Goldman, I thought to myself: This really is nothing new or unique in world history.

All free nation-states, during the past five-hundred-year history of capitalism has come across this problem.

With all of those that have successfully modernized on an industrial basis, seem to always start with agriculture. They tend to have the ability to implement labor-saving farming techniques, by clearing away both the figurative and literal space (in the form of land and moving people off of the countryside) in which to implement these ideas.

A new tool or machine is conceptualized, then produced. Its tried out and if it works, you want to mass produce it and disseminate it all over the country. In order to do that, you need land, upon which to put the factories, which will produce said implement or machine; and things tend to take off from there.


The Urban Road To Industrial Modernization

Once the powers-that-be can assure themselves that their population can be fed with only, say, thirty percent of the population doing farming as opposed to the previous eighty percent, then, later, those nations take the next step.

At some points, free nation-states of the capitalist era, inevitably make the decision that the road to modernization leads through urbanization. That is to say that the leaders want to move more and more people off their farmsteads in the country, transplanting them to the "cities," thereby freeing up more land---space both figurative and literal---upon which ideas other than farming can be exercised, which, in total, generalize into the industrial modernization.

We all see, today, that China's leadership is urbanizing and industrially modernizing the country like crazy, with visible environmental consequences. We all recall seeing, on the news, images of Chinese citizens having to wear masks during the daytime because of the heavy levels of industrial smog. The difference between China and what England was able to do in its heyday, is that the latter was able to also send out millions upon millions of its people to overseas colonies. China, of course, has never had that luxury, as you know.

As you also know, England did this, perhaps more prolifically than any other country, ever, perhaps with the possible exception of ancient Greece.

The country that became the United States of America was one of those colonial projects. Obviously, England never intended that any of its colonies become separate, independent countries---much less separate, independent countries that could, dreadfully from the point of view of London, compete on a capitalist basis. This, very naturally, makes the mercantilist policies such as the Navigation Acts perfectly comprehensible.

The Navigation Acts provided that all goods shipped to or from the colonies be carried on English or colonial ships manned by English or colonial crews; and that, although the colonials had the necessary raw materials, they were forbidden to produce their own caps, hats, and woolen, and iron goods. Raw materials were shipped from the colonies to England for manufacture, and the finished products were returned to the colonies (3).

But of course. It had never been England's intention to spawn competitor nations. England exported millions of its people and continued moving people off the countryside into cities, at home, for the purpose of opening up the land (space both figurative and literal), which could be used for other things aside from farming. England wanted to modernize itself, not spawn separate modernizing entities, which would have defeated the very purpose that England had had in sending its citizens overseas. Do you follow me?

The Netherlands

Holland did its version of industrial modernization in a different way from England; but interestingly enough, it still involved the acquisition of land.

During the seventeenth century, the Dutch managed to 'reclaim' hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the sea. Historian Simon Schama called this a triumph of 'moral geography,' a triumph of people over the sea, which turned 'infirmity into strength, water into dry land, mud into gold' (4).

It would not be an overstatement to say that people at the time saw this as a 'miracle,' and some did indeed describe the process in religious terms. One sixteenth century hydraulic engineer put it this way: 'The making of new land belongs to God alone, for he gives to some people the wit and strength to do it' (5).


The Originally Intended Temporary Sojourn

What we must understand is that England---Great Britain, if you will---obviously never intended to spawn independent, separate, modernizing nation-states that could, conceivably compete with the mother country on a capitalist basis. This would have quite defeated the purpose of the mass (but temporary) "deportation" of millions of its citizens.

England just wanted them "out of the way" for a little while, so that space, both figurative and literal, at home, could be maximized, over which ideas could be played out, generalizing into the industrial modernization of the home country itself. Do you follow me?

The exercise had been meant to be temporary. What's more, the original settlers seem to have understood their errand to America this way as well (6).

Another indication of this is the fact that the colonists (at least the northern colonists) remained very much plugged into the political and religious intrigues of England, in the seventeenth century.

For example, the political-economist Kevin Phillips has pointed out that the "Cavalier/Roundhead" divisions in England were heartfelt in the American colonies. In the 1640s hundreds of men from Massachusetts and Connecticut sailed back to England to fight on the Puritan side against Charles I. Royalist Virginia welcomed "Cavalier" émigrés and expelled its Puritans (7).

Fighting took place in the colonies as well. For instance, in 1655, Anglican-Catholic forces in Maryland were defeated by their Puritan enemies in the Battle of Severn, near Annapolis, Maryland. These very divisions almost thwarted the project of the American Revolution (8).


The Pragmatism of London

It is obvious, then, that London would not have wanted the settlers to do anything that might have expanded the "American" territory under their own control.


Because if you get more and more land, you start to get more and more ideas about what to do with it besides farming, which may then generalize into a burgeoning industrial modernization, and an economy which may be able to compete with England.

England would have been, as a matter of course, then, against any moves that threatened to bring about this unthinkable chain of events. Those would include encroaching upon the Indian lands.

England would not have been happy with what they saw as the settlers relentless push westward. Mind you, it is not because they are saints in London. Its not because they are nice guys in London, who have an excessive humanitarian concern for the Native Americans. It is because the settlers' acquisition of land beyond the territory on the eastern seaboard they have been restricted to, is contrary to the strategic plans of London.

Still, the settlers are British citizens; and when they got themselves into hot water with the Indians and the French and Spanish too, what else could Mother England do but provide all military assistance?

I'm speaking of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), for example. The cost of defeating the French, on behalf of the American settlers, just about doubled British debt. Great Britain's expenses on the 13 colonies between 1754-1763 may have totaled three million pounds (9).

As you know, London, naturally, came to think that it was only fair to ask the colonists to help defray the tremendous costs that the mother country had incurred, in defeating various external threats on their behalf (10).

As you know, this led to a series of taxes that London tried to impose upon the American colonists. The colonists, of course, balked; and this led to the No Taxation Without Representation routine.

Frederick Douglass: former slave, abolitionist, newspaper man, U.S. ambassador to Haiti
Frederick Douglass: former slave, abolitionist, newspaper man, U.S. ambassador to Haiti | Source

What About The Role of Slavery in the American Revolution of 1776-1783?

What was England's, shall we say, disposition on the matter of slavery?

Well, as you know, we are operating within the "People-to-Land Proportion" conceptual paradigm.

As you are moving people off the land of the countryside, in pursuit of a vision of industrial modernization, it would really help if you at least have somewhere for them to go, and something else for them to do.

But I suppose things are only so completely planned out in advance in a perfect world. England in the sixteenth century was certainly no microcosm of a perfect world.

We do know that the central government of England instituted an "enclosure" program---the privatization of the common lands---sometime in the early sixteenth century (11).

This seems to have led to a crisis of the 1530s, in which, "the countryside swarmed with vagrants, sturdy beggars, rogues, and vagabonds, with men who could but would not work," wrote historian Winthrop D. Jordan in 1968. "They committed all manner of crimes, the worst of which was remaining idle. It was an article of faith among Tudor commentators (before there were 'Puritans' to help propound it) that idleness was the mother of all vice and the chief danger to a well-ordered state" (12).

Dr. Jordan continued: "Tudor statesmen valiantly attempted to suppress idleness by means of the famous vagrancy laws which provided for houses of correction and (finally) for whipping the vagrant from constable to constable until he reached his home parish. They assumed that everyone belonged to a specific social niche and that anyone failing to labor in the niche assigned to him by Providence must be compelled to do so by authority" (13).

In 1547, shortly after the death of Henry VIII, Parliament passed a law that allowed for any able-bodied person, judged to be a 'vagabond,' upon presentment to two justices of the peace, to be branded with a 'V' on the chest and made a 'slave' for a period of two years to the one who had presented him (14).

Winthrop D. Jordan: "These provisions reflected desperation. Fully as significant as their passage was their repeal three years later by a statute which frankly asserted in the preamble that their 'extremitie' had 'byn occation that they have not been putt in ure [use]' (15).

So, a slavery law had been passed, in England in 1547; and the same law had been repealed in 1550. Not only that, if I may try to interpret that Middle English, there seems to have been some recognition that provisions in the original law had been so harsh, that they had not been generally put into use.

I raise this issue only to say that by the time of the American Revolution of 1776-1783, actual slavery had been against English common law for two-hundred-twenty-six years.

As you know, initially, the main form of compulsory labor used to settle the America had been something called indentured serviture. This was a bond-labor arrangement usually lasting seven years, or so. This was quite harsh. Those bonded laborers often did not survive their terms of service, as is well known (16).

Indentured serviture, under English law, was okay, perfectly legal.

Africans and their descendants had been marked for different treatment, virtually from the very start, in the seventeenth century. It had become clear to London, by the 1640s, that settlers were holding Africans and their descendants in perpetual servitude, that is, for life (17).

This form of compulsory labor---perpetual enslavement---was illegal under English law. The colonists had been breaking English law---which they had been bound by as subjects of the Crown---in practicing slavery.

Dr. Jordan: "In the last quarter of the seventeenth century the trend was to treat Negroes more like property and less like men, to send them to the fields at younger ages, to deny them automatic existence as inherent members of the community, to tighten the bonds on their personal and civil freedom, and correspondingly to loosen the traditional restraints on the master's freedom to deal with his human property as he saw fit" ((18).

Harriet Tubman: "conductor" of the Underground Railroad.
Harriet Tubman: "conductor" of the Underground Railroad. | Source

Slavery and the Creation of American 'Otherness'

There seems to be an unresolved question as to why English authorities did not intervene when they became aware of the fact that the American settlers were breaking the law, with respect to their treatment of Africans and their descendants (19).

If I am saying---as I am---that London would have been wary of any activity the settlers might have carried out, which would lead to their territorial expansion on the American continent---for the reasons of the population-land balance equation---then why didn't they move against slavery in the seventeenth century?

1. I think that in the seventeenth century, it would not have been at all clear to London how to respond to those developments.

2. In the 17th century, settler expansion may not have seem all that serious or noticeable.

3. America was sort of a 'backwater,' certainly in the seventeenth century, as far as the British empire was concerned. If anything, India, was the jewel in the crown of the imperium.

The rights of slaveholders

It seems fairly clear that the settlers adherence to the institution of slavery created a sense of 'otherness' on the part of themselves with respect to London and the British, from which they sprang.

One indication of this is the ferocity with which slaveholders guarded their rights as slaveholders. That is to say, they were very sensitive and wary about any idea that came along that might upend the system and deprive them of their slaves.


As you know, there had been a kind of longstanding 'gentlemen's agreement,' you might say, that Christians should not enslave fellow Christians.

In 1643 Governor Philip Bell set free fifty Portuguese sailors who had been captured in Brazil and then offered for sale to Barbadians, by a Dutch ship. The governor seems to have horrified by the proposed sale into slavery of white Christian men (20).

When it came to enslaved Africans, however, slaveholders wanted their rights protected, even in the face of the theoretically liberty-endowing light of Jesus Christ. By about the end of the seventeenth century, several states---Maryland, New York, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and New Jersey---had all seen fit to pass laws that reassured masters that the conversion of their slaves did not at all even suggest manumission (21).

Winthrop D. Jordan: "These acts were passed in response to occasional pleas that Christianity created a claim to freedom and to much more frequent assertions by men interested in converting Negroes that nothing could be accomplished if masters thought their slaves were about to be snatched from them by meddling missionaries" (22).

Fear of Abolition

One event that may have stoked the abolition nightmares of slaveholders was a court ruling on the Somerset case. James Somerset was a Boston slave in 1770. He had been transported to London by his master Charles Stewart. Two years later, Somerset escaped, recaptured, and ordered sold into slavery in Jamaica. A British abolitionist effort won a lawsuit which prevented Somerset from being taken out of England in June 1772 (23).

Now, the British court under London's Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, had only ruled that Somerset could not be forced to return to slavery in the colonies. He was still, technically, a slave in Britain. But many people, including British slaves, over-interpreted this decision to mean the end of slavery in England (24).

Historians James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton: "Slaves in Britain, particularly in London, walked away from their masters, and many masters, who believed that the government had effectively abolished slavery, made little protest. As historian Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina concluded, 'England took on the aura of a land whose soil was too free to abide slavery, and whose air was too free to breathe it'" (25).

James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton again: "Although the British court ruling was not a clear-cut denunciation of slavery, apparently some American slaves were aware of and even acted on the news of the Somerset decision. When one Virginia slave fled his master, some speculated that he would probably 'board a vessel for Great Britain... from the knowledge he has of late Determination of the Somerset Case.' Another master believed his runaway slave couple was on the way to Britain 'where they imagine they will be free,' he said, adding, 'a Notion now too prevalent among the Negroes'" (26).


Slavery and the Population-to-Land Problem

In the eighteenth century, as the American settlers were trying to become a separate, independent country, and modern, industrialized, capitalist economy, the institution of slavery would have seemed like a useful shortcut to them, in accordance with the development thesis I have offered in this essay.

Slave labor has advantages over free and even indentured labor.

1. You can do what you want with slaves, limited only by your imagination.

2. This means, obviously, that you can work them 20-hours a day, if you want to.

3. Under these circumstances, you can get a lot more work done over a much shorter period of time.

4. In addition to growing crops, you could, conceivably, use that same slave labor to bring under development large tracts of land very quickly---much of which can be used for purposes other than farming, which serve both the figurative and literal ends of providing the means to play out good ideas, which may generalize into industrial modernization.

If we knew that the settlers saw the institution of slavery this way---as a useful shortcut to industrial modernization (27); and if we knew that London knew the settlers saw it this way, then we might wonder if this was an axis around which the war of 1776-1783 was fought.

That is to say, that perhaps London, as a matter of pragmatism, would have wanted to strike at the institution of slavery (illegal under English common law), which seemed to mean so much to the settlers (as a shortcut to industrial modernization). The settlers, also as a matter of pragmatism, then, would have wanted to prevent the erosion of this structure.

To that end, as a matter of pragmatism, the royalist governor of Virginia, one Lord Dunmore "recognized the slaves' desire for freedom and realized the strategic advantage to be gained by attracting slaves and indentured servants to the British cause" (28).

You know what? Let's call that the end of part one.

We'll pick this up in part two. We have a bit more to do.

Thank you for reading!

References and Notes

1. Fairbank, John King & Goldman, Merle. China: A New History. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. 16

2. ibid

3. Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World. Berrett-Koehler & Kumarian Press, 1995. 55

4. Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril And Politics Of Radical Religion, Oil, And Borrowed Money In The 21st Century. Viking (Penguin Group), 2006. 12

5. ibid

6. Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Yale University Press, 2009. 1-6; Kagan, Robert. Dangerous Nation: America's Place In The World from Its Earliest Days To The Dawn of The Twentieth Century. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 7-8.

To give you a little flavor of what we're talking about here, let me quote from Mr. Kagan

Robert Kagan wrote: "Misperceptions about the history, traditions, and nature of American foreign policy begin with the popular image of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s."

The misperceptions: "This picture of Puritan America as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world, is misleading. For one thing, Winthrop's Puritans were not isolationists. They were global revolutionaries. They escaped persecution in the Old World to establish the ideal religious commonwealth in America, their 'New Jerusalem.' But unlike the biblical Jews, they looked forward to the day, they hoped not far off, when they might return to a reformed Egypt. Far from seeking permanent separation from the Old World, the Puritans' 'errand into the wilderness' aimed to establish a base from which to launch a counteroffensive across the Atlantic. Their special covenant with God was not tied to the soil of the American continent. America was not the Puritans' promised land but a temporary refuge. God had 'peopled New England in order that the reformation of England and Scotland may be hastened.' As the great scholar of Puritan thought Perry Miller explained many years ago, the Puritan migration 'was not retreat from Europe: it was a flank attack.' The 'large unspoken assumption in the errand of 1630' was that success in New England would mean a return to Old England."

7. Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril And Politics Of Radical Religion, Oil, And Borrowed Money In The 21st Century. Viking (Penguin Group), 2006. 134

8. ibid

9. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 10

10. Harman, Chris. A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. Verso, 2008. 267

11. Fairlie, S. (2009, January 1). A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

12. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 51

13. ibid

14. ibid

15. ibid

16. ibid, 52; Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 40-42

17. Jordan, W.D. White Over Black. 62

18. ibid, 82

19. ibid, 85

20. ibid, 65

21. ibid, 92

22. ibid, 92-93

23. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 56

24. ibid

25. ibid, 56-57

26. ibid, 57

27. Jacobsen, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America. Little, Brown, and Company, 2014. There is no question, as her research has revealed, that the Nazis had used slave labor as a shortcut to making great strides in the fields of missile technology and "space medicine," the results of which the United States availed itself of.

28. Horton, J.O. & Horton, L.E. Slavery and The Making of America. 59

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