The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Seven: More on Class Antagonisms
In a moment I shall have to speak to you very plainly and frankly, even to the point of crudity. I need to make absolutely sure that I am not misunderstood. If I am at all unclear, the fault will be entirely mine.
There is one thing that I want you to keep in mind as you read each or any of the installments in this series. That one thing is that there are two very broadly conceived groups of people, who would have seen themselves as having been "screwed" by the English system, in general.
I. The noble and gentry siblings
Those of you who have been following this series, know that England had a system of inheritance called primogeniture. The way it worked in England was that the first-born son got it all. In the case of the aristocracy, the first son even got the title, and the successive siblings were legally known as commoners.
It is these non-first-born siblings who are the focus of concern, for us, in this series.
They saw themselves as having been screwed by the system, by an accident of birth, which kept them out of the top spot. They would have especially seen themselves as having been screwed, in relation to England's rivals, France and Spain, which did not do a first son primogeniture system.
Because of their effective placement in society, the noble and gentry siblings would have been in the best position to squawk about it; and compel the central government to find ways to help them out, so that they could get a stake of their own.
Those of you who've been following this series, know that the way I have interpreted the scholarship: medieval feudalism, with its lord-vassal system provided an outlet. This was a system in which one could pledge one's sword and loyalty to a great lord of one kind or another.
In return for this oath, the "pledge" got to manage a territory---on a long-term basis---on behalf of that lord. Oftentimes the vassal could always revolt and declare himself the sole authority of the territory, since the lord or king was rarely strong enough to take back the territory, that he had technically loaned out to the vassal (1).
With the end of the Hundred Years War, between England and France, which England lost by 1432, medieval feudalism with its lord-vassal territorial loan system came to a close (2). The noble and gentry siblings found this important outlet shut down. Other options had to be found.
This put pressure on the English system to expand territorially, making moves in Ireland, making moves in Scotland, making moves in Wales, for starters.
When England (or Britain) comes into its own as an empire, this opened up other career options for the noble and gentry siblings, in terms of the administration and management of the empire. Other paths to personal enrichment were also opened up for them.
The siblings could get themselves appointed as royal governors of colonies, for example.
It makes sense that this should be so, since it was traditionally the noble and gentry families who were the only candidates for high positions at court, in the military, or in the church (3).
It is important to see that whatever they might have gained by government endowment ("corporate welfare," if you like), the noble and gentry siblings would have thought to be their due, what they deserved, what they would have had had it not been for the "accident of birth," which had kept them out of the top spot in terms of family inheritance.
Do you follow me?
Good. Hold that thought!
II. The "peasantry," proletariat, working class, the "ordinary" Englishman and Englishwoman
Those of you who have been following this series, may recall that I am using Simon Fairlie's paper, "A Short History of Enclosure in Britain"---which you can Google---as a source.
I use it as a source to say that the peasantry/proletariat/working class/ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman had been profoundly screwed by the enclosure system, which had privatized commonly-held lands, thereby severing these people from their rights to land. It was a centuries-long process, which got started in the sixteen century.
Those of you who have been following this series, know that the way I interpret the scholarship, I say that this process already created a massive nationwide social crisis in England by the 1530s (4).
Private property, as we know it today, did not exist yet in Europe. There had been no such thing as one person or family having a piece of land and holding total and exclusive rights over it. Other people could use that land for various reasons at various designated times (5).
Those of you who have followed this series, know that I argue that the English government gradually solidified the concept of private property, as they enclosed common lands, initially, as a sop to the noble and gentry siblings who had lost a major outlet with the close of the medieval feudal system with its lord-vassal territorial loan component.
Stay with me!
I need you to stay with me, and attend me very closely, here!
The peasantry/proletariat/working class/ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen, I spoke of, would have perceived themselves to have been "double-screwed," as it were, by the English central government. By the way, those of you who have been following this series, know that the great bulk of these folk, came to mainland North America, during the colonial period as indentured servants.
They were "screwed" once on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A. The first "screwing" occurred in England, when the government start the application of enclosure, severing these folks from their traditional land rights under the common property system.
In response to this, I argue that the folks who would become the settlers of the North American mainland, accepted the logic of privatization and private property.
Indeed, on the other side of the Atlantic, they would eventually enshrine the concept of private property in the Constitution (6).
B. The second "screwing" occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, in mainland North America. As I said, the settlers accepted the logic of privatization and private property. But during the colonial period, they were denied an equitable share of private property, as their desire for fair and equitable treatment, at long last, bumps up against the sense of entitlement of the noble and gentry siblings, and their associates.
Does that make sense? Are you following me?
In other words, on one side of the Atlantic, the squawking noble and gentry siblings were rewarded with the proverbial "oil," as the English central government enclosed the commonly-held lands, thus destroying the common property system.
And the squawking siblings are rewarded again, on the other side of the Atlantic, in mainland North America, as the situation shifted from common property to private, in ways that I will point out in a moment.
This "second screwing" produces, in the settlers, a "something's gotta give" tension, perhaps a revolutionary tension. This second "screw" would have implanted, in the minds of the settlers, a certain frustration with London, who, seemingly, could not follow its own rules.
Are you following me?
That second "screwing" gave rise to the following state of affairs, of which we will only take a snapshot.
By 1700: There were fifty rich families in Virginia, with wealth equivalent to $50,000 (an enormous sum at the time). They lived off the labor of black slaves and white indentured servants. They sat on the governor's council and served as local magistrates (7).
In Maryland the settlers were ruled by a proprietor, whose right to total control over the colony had been granted by the crown. Between 1650-1689 there were five revolts against the proprietor (8).
In the Carolinas the Fundamental Constitutions were written in the 1600s by John Locke. This constitution set up a feudal-type aristocracy in which eight barons would own up to 40 percent of the colony's land. Only a baron could be governor (9).
I have to say a word about "feudalism" here. As you read this, you may find it tempting to say that "feudalism" had been recreated in the North American mainland.
The "feudalism" that previously existed had been feudalism with common property.
The "feudalism" that went on in colonial America was feudalism with private property.
When the crown took direct control of North Carolina, after a revolt against the land arrangements, rich speculators seized a half million acres for themselves; and monopolized the good farming land near the coast. Poor people, desperate for land, squatted on bits of farmland and fought all through the pre-Revolutionary period against the landowner's attempts to collect rent (10).
New York was like a "feudal kingdom" in the colonial period. The Dutch had set up a patroonship system along the Hudson River, with enormous landed estates, where the barons completely controlled the lives of their tenants. In 1689 many of the grievances of the poor were mixed up with the farmers' revolt of Jacob Leisler and his group. Leisler was hanged and the parceling out of huge estates went on unabated (11).
Governor Benjamin Fletcher of New York gave a friend a half million acres for a nominal payment of thirty shillings. Under Fletcher, three-fourths of the land in New York was granted to about 30 people. Under Lord Cornbury, in the early-1700s, one grant to a group of speculators was for 2 million acres (12).
You know what? I'll leave it there for now.
We have some spillover, but I'll take care of that in the next installment---part twenty-eight.
Thank you so much for reading!
1. Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968. (paperback). 109
2. Neillands, Robin. The Hundred Years War. Routledge, 1990. 16
3. Appleby, Joyce. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 32
4. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 51
5. Fairlie, S. (2009 Summer). A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. Retrieved July 8, 2015.
6. Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Free Press, 1986.
7. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 47
11. ibid, 48
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