The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Three
1. In addressing the question of why England created overseas colonies in the first place, we are starting with the end of the medieval-period "Hundred Years War," between England and France, which ended in 1432, and which England lost.
2. Only for the purpose of helping people understand what was going on in that war, I employ the modern Globalization/Anti-Globalization concept of "nationalization."
3. Nationalization means that a country---usually a third world one---brings land and underground resources back under real as well as nominal native control by buying out the foreign companies, who operate industrial infrastructure on this native soil.
4. Oftentimes these companies do not like that; and they often appeal to their patron Western nation of origin for assistance in forestalling "nationalization" of their industrial property, if possible.
5. I give a specific example from the twentieth century: When, during the White House administration of FDR, Mexico nationalized U.S.-owned oil extraction infrastructure on Mexican soil.
A Long Historical View
We're going to see what we can come up with on the question: Why did England create overseas colonies in the first place? And we want to relate that to the American Revolution of 1776-1783.
Why did England create overseas colonies?
England lost the One Hundred Years War against France. This was a 116-year struggle which was waged entirely on French soil. One of the consequences of this war is said to have been the end of feudalism (1).
My characterization of this war
The way I would characterize this medieval-period war and France's victory is like this: The French authorities essentially decided to 'nationalize' the French territorial holdings formerly in the hands of English "princes" (2). That is to say, French territorial land holdings were brought back under real as well as nominal French control and administration.
Here is how I would analogize that situation, so as to make it have resonance for you in modern terms. From the twentieth century an analogous historical series of events present themselves. I want you to cast your mind back to the first four decades of the twentieth century.
I want you to imagine that the United States is playing the role of medieval-period England. And I want you to imagine Mexico in the role of medieval-period France.
Background to the U.S.-Mexico Conflict
In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew occupation forces from the Caribbean; abandoned a series of treaties that had given the United States special privileges in a number of Caribbean and Central American countries; abrogated the Platt Amendment in Cuba's constitution, which had granted the U.S. the right to intervene in the island's politics at will (3).
Roosevelt agreed to a policy of absolute nonintervention in Latin American matters. All of this was part of the so-called 'Good Neighbor' policy. Washington began to accept a degree of economic independence in Bolivia and Mexico, both of which had nationalized U.S. oil companies on Mexican soil (4).
After Mexico nationalized those U.S. oil assets, the U.S. Treasury Secretary suspended the purchase of Mexican silver and twenty-two U.S. oil companies organized a boycott, refusing to buy or help refine Mexican petroleum. This prompted the Mexican government to threaten to sell its oil to Germany and Japan. This threat from the Mexican government, in turn, prompted U.S. Congressman Hamilton Fish to call for a U.S. invasion of Mexico (5).
Even before Mexico had taken over U.S.-owned oil extraction infrastructure on Mexican soil, Nelson Rockefeller had returned from a tour of Latin America. Based on the poverty and labor unrest he witnessed, he urged U.S. corporations to reform the way they did business in the region (6).
Rockefeller's fellow capitalist entrepreneurs were convinced to moderate their practices, out of fear that hostilities between the United States and Latin America would benefit their European competitors. And so they made peace with Mexico's revolutionary government (7).
On top of that President Roosevelt worried that a conflict with Mexico would derail America's economic recovery and direct attention away from the emerging threats of Germany and Japan. Therefore he resumed buying Mexican silver; and he pushed the oil companies to accept the compensation offered by Mexico for the expropriated property (8).
Not only that, but the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 had destroyed massive amounts of U.S.-owned property in Mexico (9). That and the American war of 1927-1933 against the Mexican guerrilla forces of Augusto Sandino (10) had convinced Washington that Mexican political and economic nationalism were forces to be reckoned with (11).
Remember, we're imagining the United States of the 1930s in the role of medieval-period England. And we're imagining Mexico of the 1930s in the role of medieval-period France, England's opponent during the One Hundred Years War.
Mexico successfully nationalized U.S. oil assets in the face of sometimes blistering opposition from the United States, which included a threat of invasion, a ten-year revolution, and a five-year guerrilla war. But still, the Mexican government got its way and nationalized the oil companies in Mexico. This means, of course, that the government actually nationalized the land upon which those oil companies sat, as well as the "black gold" beneath that soil.
In other words, Mexico successfully brought Mexican land and Mexican oil back under real as well as nominal Mexican control, by nationalizing the foreign-owned industrial structures sitting on top of that land and that oil.
The One Hundred Years War was a pre-capitalist conflict, but the comparison holds. Again, by winning that war, the French authorities successfully brought French territorial landholdings---formerly in the hands of English princes---back under real as well as nominal French control.
- Feudalism (lord-vassal) relationship was the main political system in operation in the medieval period.
- This involved a pledge of honor between a vassal and his lord
- This pledge involved the vassal's stewardship of land on behalf of the lord
- The complications of this social and political system led to many battles and wars; the main one was the Hundred Years War.
For our purposes, we are concerned with the dimension of feudalism that centered around the lord-vassal relationship.
A fief was originally a landholding which could range in size from a small manor, barely large enough to support a single knight to a whole province or even a kingdom. Or it might fall somewhere in between---either counties or duchies (12).
Someone who held a fief was called a vassal, who held it on behalf of a superior lord or suzerain, by an act of homage. The terms were sworn before God and their peers by the lord and his vassal (13).
What we're looking at here is a from a pre-capitalist time. Therefore we cannot say that medieval-period England had "capital investment," or some such in medieval-period France, which the latter "nationalized." However, we can very well say that what medieval-period England had "invested" in France, was something that can be very, very, very loosely characterized as "honor."
Now then, a vassal had only one sword, as it were, with which to pledge fealty to his lord. However, with intermarriages, and the granting of estates as dowries for the support of daughters when made widows or dowagers on their husbands' deaths---the fiefs, or parts of fiefs could be split up or fall into the hands of other lords. After a few marriages or a couple of generations a vassal could end up more powerful than his patron lord, a state of affairs which would make the vassalage "a nonsense," as author Robin Neillands put it (14). This means that the temptation to revolt was oftentimes overwhelming; and the vassals, therefore, oftentimes choose to do exactly that.
It sometimes happened that a vassal found himself holding lands from two or more lords at the same time. The vassal might find himself in a quandary. Should these very lords go to war against each other, which lord shall the vassal follow? Whomever he chooses, he will end up as a traitor or 'recreant' to the other(s) (15).
And so, by the time the Hundred Years War started in the fourteenth century (the 1300s), all vassals tried---and the operative word is tried---to limit their obligations and keep their word by being very careful about the terms of the oaths they swore. Indeed, a great deal of discussion went into the terms of any oath a vassal swore to his liege lord (16).
This state of affairs oftentimes caused a huge amount of confusion. When the confusion became too impenetrably inscrutable, the various entities usually took to war. At the conclusion of the wars, treaties were hammered out, which tried to construct new paradigms.
I would compare this confusion I'm talking about to a dimension of the financial and economic crisis that overtook the world in 2008. I'm speaking specifically about the way the subprime mortgages were securitized. Remember that?
We learned that these mortgages were bundled together, recombined, which is to say, "sliced and diced" into various tranches levels of derivative investment.
Now you may recall this brought about something of an epidemic of home foreclosures which befell working families. You might also remember that President Obama, very briefly, called a moratorium on home foreclosures, so that the authorities could get things sorted out, so to speak---whatever that means.
You may also remember that banks were sending out foreclosure notices to unfortunate homeowners; and because "we're a nation of laws," most families simply obeyed these royal decrees. But occasionally, once in a blue moon, somebody would get the notion to challenge a bank, by making it prove that the specific institution really did own the mortgage. Remember that?
When challenged like this, the bank oftentimes simply could not produce the deed, showing that it owned the mortgage of the house they were trying to evict a working family from.
The same thing applies to this feudal lord-vassal situation we're talking about. The confusion that arose, due to intermarriages and the way fiefs could be broken up and passed around, and so forth, oftentimes created a state of affairs in which nobody really knew, anymore, "who owned what," so to speak.
Why does England's loss of the Hundred Years War matter? How does it relate to why the country spawned overseas colonies in the first place?
Why does England's loss of the Hundred Years War matter?
1. England's loss matters for the same reason that it would matter to any other nation-state. No nation-state ever likes to be on the losing end of any war, for various reasons having to do with national prestige and all that.
2. There is an additional social force which puts additional pressure on England, on the heels of this loss. By the way, it is a social force that does not exist in France and Spain, the two countries that would be Britain's main strategic adversaries in centuries to come.
Medieval-period England---unlike its contemporaries France and Spain---had a system of primogeniture for inheritance. The way it worked in England was that the first-born son got everything: the land, the money, all the family assets. In an aristocratic family, the oldest son got the title, as well, with all of his siblings to be legally known as commoners (17).
Here's the point of everything we've been talking about in this essay.
With this system of primogeniture in England, we are looking at a situation (let's say particularly in the noble, aristocratic families) that produces generation upon generation upon generation upon generation---ad infinitum---of noble siblings who are left standing around, like Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, saying, in effect: "What about me?"
Now then, I would imagine that the eldest brother was required to make some provision for the maintenance of his "commoner" siblings, but other than that, these brothers and sisters of aristocrats got "squat," if I may use a technical term.
What options do these poor souls have---these "commoner" noble siblings?
1. The sisters, of course, would be looking to get married, of course; and preferably to a man of the same or higher social standing. Part of the estate inherited in whole, formally, by the oldest son, would probably be offered up as a dowry.
2. As for the boys, they have at least two options that I know of. Commoner noble brothers might choose to join the clergy.
And its just interesting to note that in the eleventh century the Catholic Church underwent reforms, which included the imposition of celibacy upon the entire priesthood. The reason for this was that the Church, too, wanted to keep its property holdings whole and intact without the risk of outsiders being able to inherit Church property (18).
3. The other option was for such a young man to get himself a sword, get himself some armor, get himself a horse or two. If he can draft a few friends and/or hire a few thugs, he can present himself as a likely vassal to a lord. This is a way for the "commoner" noble siblings, left with "squat" due to primogeniture, to try to get a "stake" for themselves.
Everything has been building up to this...
Question: If we can assume that it was people like these, the noble "commoner" siblings (as well as left out gentry siblings), who were the ones largely in possession of French territorial landholdings, in lord-vassal relations; and it was, therefore, largely these upper crust "commoners," who lost out in 1432 when England lost the Hundred Years War against France----what do we think their reaction would have been?
In other words, what I'm asking is: Do we think that these noble "commoner" vassals of French lords on French territory---upon England's loss of the Hundred Years War---would have been inclined to shrug their shoulders and say to themselves: 'Oh well, easy come, easy go. It was a good run. That's the way the cookie crumbles'?
Let me tell you, we have every reason to believe that the answer to that question is a most emphatic 'No!'
It seems to me, and the evidence suggests, that these "commoner" nobles (and perhaps gentry), who had held lands as vassals under French lords, were determined that the English government needed to find a way to "make them whole," to use today's parlance.
Next time, in part four, we're going to take a look at the measures the English government apparently undertook to make these medieval-period Fredo Corleones whole.
These measures will be facilitated by: the sixteenth-century agricultural revolution, which will mean that far fewer people are required to work the land.
We will see that the English government will take advantage of the farming revolution in order to embark upon enclosure: the privatization of commonly-held lands.
We will see that this enclosure movement causes a tremendous social crisis in the 1530s.
Parliament will respond to this social crisis of the 1530s, in 1547, with slavery legislation, which this body will repeal three years later in 1550.
When Parliament repeals slavery, they go to work to construct a labor regime....
We'll take things from there....
Thank you so much for reading!
References and Notes
1. Neillands, Robin. The Hundred Years War. Routledge, 1990. 263, 16
2. My use of the word "princes" is not meant to be taken literally. I am simply using it as a kind of convenient idiom for "big shots" or people who aspire to be "big shots," people who are oftentimes from "well-born" families and all that.
3. Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, The United States, And The Rise Of The New Imperialism. Metropolitan Books, 2006. 27
5. ibid, 29-30
6. ibid, 30
8. ibid, 30-31
9. ibid, 28-29
10. ibid, 31
11. ibid, 29, 31
12. Neillands, R. Hundred Years War. 12
16. ibid, 18
17. Appleby, Joyce. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. [Note: I have a confession to make here. I did indeed read this fact that I have cited in this very book. But it was a library book and I did not write the fact and page number down at the time, not thinking I would ever have use for it. It was a library book and I moved to another state. This particular library system does not apparently have this book in their system, so that I can get my hands on it and get that page number. Sorry about that! But for what its worth, I promise you that I read the fact about primogeniture in this book on capitalism. I thank you for your forgiveness.] :)
18. Tyerman, Christopher. God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Belknap Press, 2006. 6
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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