The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Eight (The Why? and Why Not?)
When we ask the question (Why did the English settlers on the North American mainland revolt against the Mother Country of Britain in 1776?), it may be the case that we are asking the wrong question.
Perhaps we should be asking why didn't Canada and Australia revolt.
Can we identify a single reason?
Perhaps not. People always seem to do, whatever it is that they do, for a variety of overlapping, interpenetrating, and interacting reasons.
We started this series from the year 1432, if you remember, which is the year England finally lost the One Hundred Years War against France. I mentioned that one of the consequences of the end of this war was the end of feudalism.
Perhaps that is true. Perhaps not. I asserted it because author Robin Neillands [The Hundred Years War. Routledge: 1990] wrote it. I am speaking specifically about the lord-vassal aspect of medieval feudalism. As I said, perhaps it is really true that that the end of the Hundred Years War brought about the end of feudalism.
But actually, when you think about it, the colonial regime was a revivification of the lord-vassal dimension of medieval feudalism. In the case of colonialism, the central government of England (both the Crown and Parliament) were the lord. The settlers, as a whole, were the vassal.
As in the days of old, it was formally and nominally understood that the settlers on the North American mainland, being British citizens, did not "own" those territories, possess them onto themselves. It was understood that they were managing and administrating them on behalf of the Mother Country, Britain. It was Britain that "owned" those lands. In other words, just as in the days of the old lord-vassal social structure, the settlers were serving England.
But one thing I took away from reading Neillands, is that whenever vassals in medieval feudalism, felt their positions were strong enough, they oftentimes succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to revolt against the authority of their lord, claiming as their own the lands that they initially contracted to manage and administrate in service of the lord who had bequeathed them.
If the gambit failed, the revolt was put down, and the vassal would be made to reassert his "loyalty" to the lord..
If the gambit was successful, that meant that the vassal had won his "independence."
This means that one way we might look at the American "Revolution" of 1776-1783, is as a fairly routine event in the history of successful vassal-rebellions.
If this is the case, we should not look for a "reason," other than the fact that the settlers decided that the time had come to take their shot. Maybe they came to appreciate what an enormous prize that the capture of the huge territory of what would become the United States of America, would be. It may simply be that when they felt the time was right, they made their move, letting the "chips fall where they may," as it were.
That's one motivation: The settlers simply revolted because they felt that their hand was strong enough to do so; and that the rewards for success would be incalculable---in the long, well-established tradition of vassal revolts against lords. We are talking about realpolitik, simple opportunism of a power play.
There is something else as well, of course. It is something we have been keeping in mind for the entire series. I'm talking about that the relentless grind machine ceaselessly churning back in England, which is the very reason the settlers were not back in England, which was the very reason---in my opinion---that Britain ever created overseas colonies in the first place.
I'm talking about the thing I have termed the overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, privatizing the commonly-held lands.
Everyone who settled in a colony overseas, was dispossessed by this process, in one way or another. As we established before, we know that from 1619-1776, at least half---and perhaps as many as two-thirds---of the immigrants to America, had come over as indentured servants. These were the directly dispossessed, you might say.
The descendants of those servants, lucky enough to outlive the terms of their service, would have carried around that painful family memory, there is no doubt.
But this class would not have been the only ones to have been dispossessed by the English government. There were others. They may not have been directly dispossessed in the same way that the social orders way down the ladder had been, but they would have felt themselves to be aggrieved parties.
What am I talking about?
Remember, England had the system of (male-preference) primogeniture. This means that the first-born son inherited everything, all the wealth the father and mother had to pass on---out of which the siblings are "taken care of," no doubt. The first-born son gets all the land, money, and all other assets. If there is a title, the first son gets that, and what's more, all of his siblings were legally known as commoners.
For example, a Duke with three sons and two daughters, leaves everything (land, money, other assets, and aristocratic title of "Duke") to the first-born son. The two daughters would be given something to serve as the dowry in marriage.
Now then, this process of primogeniture left legions upon legions of siblings (brothers primarily) standing around, like Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, saying, in effect: "What about me?"
It was, of course, the noble and gentry siblings which would have had the greatest power to squawk about it. And this segment would have constituted an enormous squeaky wheel requiring an enormous amount of figurative oil, which is, again, the very reason I believe that Britain ever created overseas colonies in the first place.
But before that phase and during the time when feudalism was ongoing, these siblings who had been cut out of inheritance due to primogeniture, would have had an outlet through which to try to get a stake for themselves, so to speak.
I'm talking about the act of pledging homage to a lord, so that you could become his vassal. He would give you a piece of land to manage and administer for him (could range from a small plot like a "neighborhood block," to a whole province or country.
Or, if you were further down the class ladder, you might be able to somehow train yourself to be a knight; and then offer yourself in service to someone who was a lord's vassal.
When feudalism went away, a major career opportunity outlet went with it.
When feudalism went away, along with the "career opportunity" that it afforded, the siblings (all those left out due to primogeniture) would have gone back to squawking ("What about me?") again. The noble and gentry siblings would have been squawking particularly loudly, in my opinion.
Starting sometime in the sixteenth century, the Agricultural Revolution begins. In short, this just means that an upgrade in technology and methods begins to necessitate fewer and fewer hands tilling the soil to feed the population.
When this ensues, the English central government was put in a position in which they could begin to provide a sop to the whining "Fredo Corleones" of the noble and gentry siblings, who were, of course, squawking the loudest ("What about me?").
Both the agricultural revolution and the enclosure movement, which the former facilitates, are processes that unfolded over a period of several centuries. This means that not all of the squawking siblings were immediately satisfied; again, we mean to put special emphasis on the noble and gentry squawking siblings.
It seems to me that these siblings went on squawking until they were satisfied.
And I bet they went on squawking even after they were "satisfied."
Let's turn our attention back to the colonies of the North American mainland.
Now then, since, as I said, the agricultural revolution and the enclosure movement which the former facilitated, were both processes that unfolded over several centuries, not all of the noble and gentry squawking siblings could be given immediate satisfaction. That is to say, as well, that lands did not open up fast enough in England itself to stifle their whining.
And so, it must have been the case that the English government gave plots of land overseas to the noble and gentry squawking siblings and their descendants.
For example, in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, we read: "New York in the colonial period was like a feudal kingdom. The Dutch had set up a patroonship system along the Hudson River, with enormous landed estates, where the barons controlled completely the lives of their tenants. In 1689, many of the grievances of the poor were mixed up in the famers' revolt of Jacob Leisler and his group. Leisler was hanged, and the parceling out of huge estates continued. Under Governor Benjamin Fletcher, three-fourths of the land in New York was granted to about thirty people. He gave a friend a half million acres for a token annual payment of 30 shillings. Under Lord Cornbury in the early 1700s, one grant to a group of speculators was for 2 million acres" (1).
Now then, let us focus on the friends of Governor Fletcher---those thirty people who ended up with three-fourths of the land in New York; and the one who got a half million acres for the token annual payment of 30 shillings---and the speculators, who, under Lord Cornbury, received a grant of two million acres.
Who were the people who got these astonishingly enriching land grants?
I could always be wrong, of course, but I believe that these people were a batch of the noble and gentry squawking siblings and their descendants.
You know, you and I look at those situations and think to ourselves something like: Wow! Those guys sure were fortunate and well-connected and all that! They must have been tremendously happy, getting such torrents of wealth showered down upon them! They must have felt indescribable joy at experiencing such good fortune, which their social class enabled them to partake of!
You and I look at situations like that, in early American history, and think that the recipients of such largesse must have felt and failed miserably to express the most profound gratitude. Perhaps words could not express their feeling of Thanksgiving. They must have fallen down on their knees and thanked The Good Lord, and England---Glorious England---for such a generous provision.
And so on and so forth. Etcetera, etcetera. Blah, blah, blah...
But given what we have been discussing in this essay, and the series, it is possible to imagine another reaction on the part of the squawking noble and gentry siblings.
1. The noble and gentry siblings would have felt ongoing resentment that a mere "accident of birth," had separated them from the family fortune, and left them with squat, to use a technical term.
2. They would have resented the fact that they had needed to leave England and Europe, in order to get their "stake."
3. They would have not only resented the fact of their having to leave England and Europe, but that they had needed to come to the then imperial backwater of America to get that stake.
4. What would become the United States of America was a backwater in the eighteenth century, as far as imperial Britain was concerned. The jewel in the crown of the empire was India at that time.
5. By the way, the resentment of the noble and gentry squawking siblings would have also been possibly fueled by the fact that England's rivals, Spain and France, did not have such a practice.
6. Don't forget that the squawking noble siblings were legally known as commoners. If you think of it, that had to sting, having been born "of the blood," and all that---so close yet so far---and then to be relegated, by law, to the status of a miserable "commoner."
7. The very fact of their presence in colonial America is a signal of the preexisting state of discontent that the noble and gentry siblings must have been marinating in all their lives.
8. And so, it may have been the case, that London thought it necessary to quell that discontent with huge awards.
Tell me, did you ever see The Godfather II? Do you remember the scene in which Michael Corleone, the Don, confronted Fredo about his betrayal?
This was after the assassination attempt on Michael, after the Cuban Revolution when all the mobsters have to get out of Dodge, after Fredo's period of hiding out.
Michael walks over to Fredo, a man beside himself with anguish with what he has unintentionally brought about. We are looking at a man who can barely hold it together.
We are looking at a man for whom a state of profound melancholy and extreme dread would be a lightening of mood.
We are looking at a man desolate of soul.
Fredo begins by saying that he didn't have a lot to say and how "they" had basically kept him "in the dark" about "things."
Fredo breaks down and says that "I swear I didn't know it was a hit." And so on.
The "it" was his meetings with one Johnny Ola, who is the Sicilian right-hand man of Jewish mobster, Hyman Roth.
Roth and Michael were trying to get past a sticking point in their negotiations for a partnership in the burgeoning Cuban hotel-casino industry.
Fredo explained that he was approached by Johnny Ola and company, in the hopes that he---the Mighty Fredo---could, somehow, "help with the negotiations."
Michael is incredulous. Could it be that Fredo was actually so stupid that he did not realize that such an approach could only mean that Hyman Roth wanted Michael killed?
Hadn't Michael warned Fredo, once before, to never "take sides against the family"?
What did Fredo think that going behind Michael's back to deal with Roth constituted?
Well, it turns out that the reason Fredo engaged in those secret talks, was because Johnny Ola had assured him that "there would be something in it for me. On my own." That is to say, Fredo would get control over some kind of typical Mob money-making scheme or some such.
To this Michael replies that he had always taken care of Fredo.
"Taken care of me? I'm your older brother and you take care of me?! You ever think of that? You ever once think of that?"
Then Fredo goes on to whine about how he had always been pushed to the margins as far as the "family business" was concerned. He was always given meaningless, peripheral tasks to attend to, including a meaningless, peripheral nightclub somewhere over the rainbow.
Blah, blah, blah...
"That's the way pop wanted it," Michael Corleone says.
Fredo: "That's not the way I wanted it. I can handle things. I'm smart---not like everybody says. I'm smart. And I want respect.
Let me leave you with a thought.
If England is Michael Corleone and the American settlers are Fredo, what is the "something in it for me, on my own" that older brother Fredo betrayed Michael in the hopes of getting?
We'll talk about it next time in part nine.
Thank you so much for reading.
1. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 48
More by this Author
This is a commentary of the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959.
We're going to address a question: Why did some blacks fight on the side of the Revolution and others fight for the British?
- 0On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective
What I want to try to do is to help us achieve clarity on just exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was all about.
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