Land Ownership and the Foundations of Democracy, Part Four (Maybe Radio...)
The original element of despotism is a MONOPOLY OF TALENT, which consigns the multitude to comparative ignorance, and secures the balance of knowledge on the side of the rich and the rulers.
If then the healthy existence of a free government be, as the committee believe, rooted in the WILL of the American people, it follows as a necessary consequence, of a government based upon that will, that this monopoly should be broken up, and that the means of equal knowledge, (the only security for equal liberty) should be rendered, by legal provision, the common property of all classes.
In a republic, the people constitute the government, and… frame the laws and create the institutions, that promote their happiness or produce their destruction… It appears, therefore, to the committee that there can be no real liberty without a wide diffusionwe of real intelligence; that the members of a republic, should all be alike instructed in the nature and character of their equal rights and duties, as human beings, and as citizens…
(Report of the Workingman’s Committee of Philadelphia On the State of Public Instruction in Pennsylvania, 1830)
These were white working men in the semi-industrialized north. They lived in an age of reform – the time of Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Dorothea Dix, and Horace Mann. It is unlikely that most owned land. Their “report” echoes other labor organizations of the era – we need universal public education for our kids.
This was not a majority sentiment.
It’s as if even when public education was barely a thing, these men realized it would soon become essential if their sons were to flourish in the next generation. As to whether they even considered things like personal fulfillment or expanding horizons, it is impossible to say. As 21st century educators, we’d like to think maybe they did.
The report demonstrates impressive cognizance of their target audience. Rather than plead on behalf their offspring or talk of “fairness” or “opportunity,” they argued founding values, and the well-being of the republic – things far more likely to resonate with those in positions to change the system. They didn’t ask for opportunities, even democratic ones; rather, they promised better citizens. The references to aristocracy and oligarchy, anathema to most Americans a generation after the Revolution, were intentional “triggers” designed to make their point with a touch of hyperbole, but no histrionics.
It’s a great argument. It’s also about a century ahead of its time. Education was starting to matter in 1830, at least in the North, but land was still the universal key to… well, everything.
And then a century passed.
In the 1930’s, the national paradigm ran full speed into a big, dirty wall.
The Great Depression and its sidekick, Dust Bowl, were game-changers for the nation and the world. Once taking on the role of helper and fixer, the federal government would never again be much limited by all that silly federalism stuff. Any number of programs and laws cobbled together in desperation would long outlive those they served, and economic theory would require several decades of refiguring and rewriting.
Something else was going on as well, though – an abrupt shift in land ownership and what it meant.
Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land… and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership.
The Mexicans… could not resist, because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land.
(John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath - 1939)
Steinbeck was entirely capable of being racist by modern standards, but this wasn’t one of those times. His venom here is towards what we’d today call “the man,” and he’s mildly sympathetic towards Mexico’s loss. Keep in mind that he was accused of being a Socialist for writing stuff like this – which tends to happen to people who spend enough time among the disenfranchised.
Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners; and their children grew up and had children on the land. And the hunger was gone from them, the… tearing hunger for land, for water and earth and the good sky over it… They had these things so completely that they did not know about them any more… and crops were reckoned in dollars, and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted.
Jefferson would have been horrified. He liked having a good income, but tenaciously clung to his ideals regarding the holiness of agriculture in the American paradigm. For those who “labor in the earth” as “the chosen people of God” to be consumed by merchants as their labors were overtaken by industrialization was putting moneychangers and dove salesmen in charge of the temple. It was inconceivable – and yet irrevocable.
Then crop failure, drought, and flood were no longer little deaths within life, but simple losses of money. And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shopkeepers of crops… Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, how loving a man might be with earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not a good shopkeeper. And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them…
And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more…
Land didn’t work anymore.
It would still grow stuff – more effectively than ever, actually. But it wasn’t LAND (*cue majestic music*) in the way it had been land before. Jefferson’s agricultural ideal and the slightly less sanctified versions of his contemporaries were all but extinguished, and the most sacred of pursuits – the one previously regarded as the best possible indication of a man’s capability, responsibility, moral potential, and stake in the success of the nation – became just another business. It mattered, sure – but so did weaving and manufacturing and shipping and lawyering. It was no longer special.
Land had come to define more than one’s right to vote – it was an element of individual worth and identity. It was taken from the Amerindians, who didn’t buy into the system, and denied to Black Americans, who did. Then, suddenly, it no longer functioned as what it had become – the key to opportunity, responsibility, capability… all the -itties.
“Ma,” the girl said, “when we get there, all you gonna pick fruit an’ kinda live in the country, ain’t you?”
Ma smiled a little satirically. “We ain’t there yet,” she said. “We don’t know what it’s like. We got to see.”
“Me an’ Connie don’t want to live in the country no more,” the girl said. “We got it all planned up what we gonna do… Connie gonna get a job in a store or maybe a fact’ry. An’ he’s gonna study at home, maybe radio, so he can git to be a expert an’ maybe later have his own store. An’ we’ll go to pitchers whenever… An’ after he studies at night, why – it’ll be nice, an’ he tore a page outa Western Love Stories, an’ he’s gonna send off for a course…”
Ma was right – no one knew what it was gonna be like. Rose was pregnant in the most literary way, and Connie wasn’t entirely wrong about how the future was going to work for those able to claim it. Right at the end of that conversation, the truck carrying them all to California breaks down. That Steinbeck and his symbolism – what a nut.
Education became the new land. There were hints in the early 19th century, and Connie Rivers had a glimpse of it, but it takes a while to remake the core of a faith. Enlightenment ideals certainly should have anticipated this, but the New World had more soil than it did acres of pedagogy. Sometimes the beliefs shape the facts, sometimes the facts shape the beliefs. Land it was, then.
By the time of the Cold War, starting with the G.I. Bill, the rules had changed. Land ownership is still nice, and money still matters. People figure if you’re rich – no matter HOW you got there – you must pretty much know everything about everything. That this is absurd, delusional, and dangerous hasn’t changed the dynamic.
But the 160 acres we make available to so many, as well as the 40 acres and a mule we still deny to others, are today presented in credit hours and activity fees. From Pre-K to Bachelor’s, the American narrative now insists anyone willing to apply themselves can grow what they need from this. The markers of so doing are the default measure of value, work ethic, and capability, and the system itself presented as the magic answer to any and all social, political, or economic dilemmas.
The future used to be shaped by landowners; it’s today determined by whoever shapes what we teach and how we teach it – and most especially who we’ll teach it to, and under what circumstances. As in centuries past, access as much as accomplishment largely determine to what extent the individual will be allowed to fully participate – to be a “real” American.
It is thus great to learn, as Schoolhouse Rock so frequently intoned, because “Knowledge Is Power.”
Yes, it is.