Monday, July 16, 2012

The Pandora's box

 In its July 4th post SOYMB described how much of the story of America’s founding is a total lie, that the Founding Fathers saw their new government as a protection against democracy — as a means of safeguarding privilege and elevating the right to property over the rights of the people and were pretty explicit about this, making it abundantly clear that protecting property was a driving force behind their push for a more powerful central government. The War of Independence can be described as a civil war between the various forces within American society. It did not establish a truly democratic government. It did not significantly change the structure of American society; rather, it reinforced the political, economic, and social gaps between classes of Americans.

James Madison, for instance, who would serve as the young republic’s fourth president, warned his fellow founders of the perils of democracy, saying too much of it would jeopardize the property of the landed aristocracy. “In England,” he observed, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.”  Land would be redistributed to the landless, he cautioned. Without the rich exercising monopoly privileges over the commons, the masses would be less dependent on elites like them.

 Edmund Randolph, the country’s first attorney general, said that as he saw it from looking at the example of the states, “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions.”
Alexander Hamilton derided the allegedly “pure democracy” of the ancients.

 It did not abolish slavery; rather, it continued to allow slavery to flourish. At the time of America’s founding, a full 20 percent of the US population was enslaved. By 1776, the number of slaves in the colonies had reached 500,000. Slavery in 18th century America was not confined to the South and could be found in each of the 13 colonies, and were especially numerous in New Jersey and in New York's Hudson River Valley. The slave-owning class from the South insisted as a condition of their participation in the Union that their interests be protected in the very fabric of the Constitution itself. Consequently the slaveholders would control the presidency of the new republic for 41 of its first 50 years, and 18 of 31 Supreme Court justices would be slaveholders. Slaves gained their freedom by entering the British army. This was especially true in Georgia, where over 10,000 slaves flocked to freedom behind British lines, one of the largest mass escapes in the history of American slavery. Eventually more than 65,000 from across the South joined them. Wherever the British marched, slaves followed. Non-slave states now stood obligated to defend slave states against slave rebellion

SOYMB however did not fully describe the revolutionary side of the American War of Independence. The writer J. Franklin Jameson described its character thus: “The stream of revolution, once started, could not be confined within narrow banks, but spread abroad upon the land. Many economic desires, many social aspirations were set free by the political struggle, many aspects of colonial society profoundly altered by the forces thus let loose. The relations of social classes to each other, the institution of slavery, the system of land-holding, the course of business, the forms and spirit of intellectual and religious life, all felt the transforming hand of revolution.” Jameson’s assessment of the social leveling accomplished by land- holding,  for example, the abolition of primogeniture, the confiscation of loyalist estates, and, most important, the distribution of public lands in the western country,  proved more symbolic than real. Social realities meant the  persistence of poverty.

 SOYMB was also amiss for its neglect of reminding readers of the Pennsylvania proposed new constitution, annual parliaments in which voting wasn’t qualified by property. Nor was holding office. A judiciary appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms, and removable at any time. Some radicals even pushed for a provision in the state constitution limiting how much property any one person could own. That however was narrowly defeated and did not pass.

There were a number on gallant individual radicals. Thomas Young who favored the working class and western farmers, and  supported a redistribution of wealth clause in the proposed constitution that was later removed by more conservative influences, James Cannon, Christopher Marshall, Timothy Matlack, an early earnest  opponent of slavery in America), and Thomas Paine, well known for his Rights of Man and the only one well known to us formed a group dedicated to gaining political participation for landless laborers, lower artisans, tenant farmers and others whom upscale revolutionary leaders had barred from representative government. To those radicals, independence looked like a chance to make their ideas into realities.  For the first time, laborers, tenant farmers and others without financial privilege could take full part in government.
Gordon Wood writes: “This democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or expected. . . . The founding fathers were unsettled and fearful not because the American Revolution had failed but because it had succeeded.”

In the revolutionary lexicon, liberty had assumed a greater urgency than equality, but the war had accelerated demands for social change. The United States, the discontented were now saying, “was to be a revolutionary society precisely because it would not have the permanent classes of privileged rich and dependent poor that Americans associated with the ‘old’ societies of mercantilist Europe.”

Artisans had become more assertive during the American Revolution, but they did not move very far up the ladder. Statistically, the United States remained a society of disparities in wealth. Income and wealth were as inequitably distributed in the United States in 1800 as in British America in 1776—this despite the confiscation of 2,200 loyalist estates, the elimination of primogeniture and entail, and the opening up of the West to settlement. Although the revolution had little effect on this upward social mobility, it held out opportunities for horizontal mobility— especially in a great internal immigration from east to west. But even in the robust West the inequities of a revolutionary age persisted. The West looked more democratic because struggling farmers picked up and moved west, where prospects seemed better. They joined younger men starting out. The combination of two social groups—one indebted and nonconformist, the second restless and more radical—lent a vitality and an earnestness to frontier life. They were no match, however, for the opportunists and speculators who accompanied them. speculators took advantage of the postwar disruption to acquire western land from economically distressed veterans. The assumption of state debt by the federal government benefited those who had purchased certificates for one-tenth of their face value, creating a moneyed class that owned $32 million in federal debt. Property in slaves exacerbated wealth inequity in the slave states.

Europeans visiting the United States in the following years, however, wrote of hovels from which emerged the impoverished and undernourished of the new republic. “Instead of the lands being equally divided, immense estates are held by a few individuals,” observed a traveler in rural Virginia in the 1790s, “whilst the generality of the people are but in a state of mediocrity.”

For many Continental Army veterans, however, civilian life was an unrelenting struggle to extract pensions from state governments and to stave off penury. One, Joseph Plumb Martin, wrote: “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.”

American Independence was a social revolution as promised but it was also left unfulfilled.  In part, because those who railed against the social leveling inspired by the war and the dangers of mobocracy (activists had organized committees of safety and formed local militias and Boston’s Reverend Samuel Seabury roared “If I must be enslaved let it be by a King at least, and not by a parcel of upstart lawless committee" ) were determined to stifle it and, more important, because they ultimately found ways to dissipate its strength. Elites managed to preserve the old property or freehold qualifications for voting (but ultimately could not prevent radically changing beliefs that the vote should mean something more than ownership of property) . Property counted a great deal in post-revolutionary culture for those aspiring to a political career. Habits of deference to those with established power and influence still mattered. “In large portions of the United States,” Historian, Robert Wiebe argues, “the Revolution actually strengthened gentry rule by channeling popular ferment toward the British and the American Tories"

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