Land Ownership and the Foundations of Democracy, Part One (What Made This Particular Destiny So Manifest?)

American Progress

Land was a big deal when our little experiment in democracy began. Why?

Let’s ask the Founding Fathers. They seemed bright. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… 

(Declaration of Independence, 1776)

Consent of the governed? As in, the people being ruled make the rules, and all that? Huh – big responsibility. Harder than it sounds.

Given the number of reality shows based on the challenges of a dozen or so people living together in a free house with unlimited alcohol and no jobs, running an entire country based on the collective will of the masses seems… problematic. “Come at me, Idaho!”

And the rallying cry had been “No taxation without representation!” The phrase has survived, but over the years we’ve lost sight of something rather obvious in these words, and inherent to our founding ideology.

If paying taxes means you deserve to have a voice in your government, then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that having a voice in your government is contingent on your willingness and ability to pay taxes. 

In other words, you have to own something valuable enough to be taxed. Like, say… land.  

Alexander HamiltonSo we have two issues in play as the Founders wrestle with outlining this new government – the connection between paying into the system and thus earning a voice in the running of that system, and the practical challenges of who exactly “consents” to that government on behalf of the whole. Little wonder our progenitors might try to reconcile them in concert – hopefully without overtly dialing back those fancy new ideals we’d been proclaiming to justify the entire project. 

They weren’t starting from scratch. There were some longstanding assumptions about land ownership – or the lack thereof – with which they could begin. 

If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote…

You gotta pay close attention when any argument begins with “in theory…”

But since that can hardly be expected, in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications, whereby, some who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting; in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other." 

(Alexander Hamilton, Quoting Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Laws of England, 1775)

So, in order to assure that everyone’s political voice is more or less equal, we’re going to have to deny a political voice to some – to those without the ability to provide for themselves. Otherwise, the entire representative system may be undermined through the ability of the wealthy to manipulate the indigent.

Ironic, huh?

Then again, Hamilton was kinda Machiavellian about such things. Maybe someone less… cynical?

Viewing the subject in its merits alone…

That sounds a whole lot like “in theory” again…

…the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty. In future times the great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation, in which case the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands; or, which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side. 

(James Madison, Speech in the Constitutional Convention, August 1787)

James MadisonNo help here from the ‘Father of the Constitution’. Apparently handing power over to men without land leads to either a tyranny of the masses (mob rule) or a system in which the ignorant and easily agitated are led about by the manipulations of the wealthy and power-hungry.

My golly jeepers, we wouldn’t want that. Can you imagine?

It appears that while our new nation was taking the concept of self-rule well beyond anything previously attempted, there were still substantial concerns over appropriate limits. The dilemma was hardly unique to Baby ‘Merica – it’s inherent any time the commoners are given a voice. It’s one thing to talk about student-directed learning, for example, but quite another to hand them the chalk and the wifi password and tell them you’ll check back in May.

Get too idealistic, and the system devolves into chaos. Maintain too much structure – aka, limitations – and you quickly become just like whatever system you were trying to get away from. It’s like trying to balance Jello on your nose while you learn to unicycle. 

We could try Jefferson. He believed in the collective wisdom and purity of the agrarian citizen and stuff – that sounds promising. Besides, you can find quotes from Jefferson to prove just about anything, right?

You have lived longer than I have and perhaps may have formed a different judgment on better grounds; but my observations do not enable me to say I think integrity the characteristic of wealth. In general I believe the decisions of the people, in a body, will be more honest & more disinterested than those of wealthy men: & I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family & peculium in it… 

(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edmund Pendleton Philadelphia, Aug. 26, 1776) 

“Peculium” is quite a word. Essentially, it means “stuff” – including family, income, etc. Not quite the same as “land,” but still property – still evidence of competence via one’s successful estate. In other words, no help from T.J.

Thomas JeffersonJefferson here confesses to a sort of paradox – he doesn’t believe for a moment that wealth indicates personal integrity or even political wisdom. At the same time, he finds it easier to trust the input of someone who’s invested in the success of the nation of which they’re a part. 

It’s the difference between shopping at Bobo’s Grocery Extravaganza and working there, or between working at Bobo’s and having all of your life savings tied up in stock. If I’m a shopper and Bobo’s fails, it’s merely inconvenient. If I work there and it fails, it’s a problem. 

But if my kids’ college savings and my retirement are all tied up in Bobo’s, I’m going to go above and beyond to do a great job every time I’m there. I may clean up even when that’s not part of my job, or study up on products I’m not actually required to know about. I’ll certainly be ultra-friendly to every customer who walks in the door. Heck, I may come in on my day off just to kinda help out. 

Because I’m invested. 

Land ownership suggests one is not only capable, but invested in the nation’s success. If I’m a landowner, I care very much about the next election, the local statutes, the state questions. Crazy Harold who lives under the bridge talking to his urine may be a nice guy, but he’s not overly concerned with researching and analyzing the finer points of foreign policy. 

Well, unless his pee tells him to. 

So it seems that whatever else they argued about, our Founding Fathers were largely in agreement about one thing. Landowners were reliable, and self-sufficient. Their voice was their own. Those without? Not so much.

Keep in mind this was a new country – a baby nation. The Declaration was as much a birth certificate as a break-up letter, and our forebears were trying something entirely new. They were idealists, sure – but they were also educated, and realists, and had some idea of the ways in which people tend to behave.

Monsters Rule The Earth

If this ‘self-government’ thing didn’t work, America would fail. If America failed, then democracy had failed. And if democracy failed here, it effectively failed everywhere – in many cases it would never even begin.

The Dark Ages return – tyranny and ignorance. Monsters rule the earth.

That would be what we in the social sciences call “bad.” 

There was at least one Founding Father who understood how this pretty much had to play out – who recognized the potential provided by the sheer geographical size of this new republic. And it’s not the guy with his own megahit musical.

RELATED POST: Land Ownership and the Foundations of Democracy, Part Two (Infallible Maxims and Chosen People)

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