Land Ownership and the Foundations of Democracy, Part Three

We The White Male LandownersRecap: A new nation has been founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” and have certain “unalienable rights.” In order to secure these rights, government exists, “deriving {its} just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

The dilemma: who gets to “consent,” in practice? Who gets to be a full, participating American? 

For many of the Framers, the answer was obvious. Landowners. First, they were the ones paying those taxes that required they receive representation. Second, land was an indicator of responsibility and capability; a man unable to provide for himself and his family could certainly not be relied upon to make good decisions about running the country. Third, land ownership meant the individual was invested in the success of the new nation – they had something to gain if things went well and something to lose if it didn’t. 

It was John Adams who most eloquently expressed the pragmatic solution:

The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society… 

(Letter to James Sullivan, May 1776)

If land ownership is essential to establish investment and credibility, and thus essential for the growth and smooth functioning of a presumed republic, then that republic must ensure that land is available on practical terms to anyone desiring to participate. Fortunately, this radically idealistic new nation just happened to have come into existence on the far eastern shore of a rather extensive continent – one uninhabited by anyone… “civilized.” Land wouldn’t be a problem for many, many centuries, surely. 

They were a bit off on that particular estimation. 

Jefferson added a few bonus factors to the mix. Adequate land allows a nation of small farmers, and farmers are the “chosen people of God.” In a government of-the-by-the-for-the, the “spiritual” compass of the individual citizen mattered greatly. Wise, informed, good people make for a wise, informed, good government. People driven by ignorance, fear, and distraction…

Well, you get the idea. 

And that’s where we left off last time.

There was at least one more critical role of land in Jefferson’s mind. 

Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.  The wealth acquired by speculation and plunder, is fugacious in its nature, and fills society with the spirit of gambling.  The moderate and sure income of husbandry, begets permanent improvement, quiet life, and orderly conduct both public and private.”  

(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to George Washington, 1787)

Jefferson had a distrust of bankers, stock markets, or anything financial industry-ish – so much so that he took great personal pride in never having the foggiest idea how to make his estate solvent. (He died in substantial debt.) Farmers raised essentials. They produced raw materials which could be woven into clothing, smoked for pleasure, eaten to survive. “Real wealth.”

Bankers scribbled numbers in little books, in stuffy rooms, producing nothing, but somehow always taking from those who did. Farmers dealt in uncertainty, but financiers gambled. Farmers produced, money men plundered. The soil, properly tended, would always be there – would always prove reliable. Paper numbers and percentage points never were.

Jefferson is claiming an essential role of land beyond voter qualifications. He’s claiming it as a lifestyle – a moral anchor, social stabilizer, and the only true source of economic security. Husbandry grows in men the essential traits of a fledgling democracy – applied labor, determination, patience, and pragmatism. It’s the wisdom of the earth in the hands of the earth’s masters.

As the United States began to expand west, its people encountered numerous native tribes who were – to be blunt – in the way. Sometimes the “Great White Father” declared war, but more often he declared eternal friendship. The locals were thus killed and rounded up in the name of peace and a faith built on martyrs. U.S. expansion took everything from them in the name of giving them everything the white man was absolutely certain they should have wanted – civilization, religion, modernity. 

To be fair, the newcomers needed that land. The Amerindians had it, but… well, they weren’t really using it properly. The Plains tribes especially were the worst sort of land-wasters – hunting when hungry, gathering when gathering was useful, hanging out, carousing and eating and socializing and such… 

The language lacked a term for “hippies,” but “utopians” didn’t seem harsh enough. Not one single factory. Very little organized agriculture. No hospitals. No schools. Just relationships alternating with quiet reflection.

I’m overgeneralizing, of course – there were hundreds of tribes and cultures and such – but by and large, they weren’t doing proper America things with the lands they claimed as theirs. Real Americans weren’t impressed by the arguments of those claiming that land ownership requires neither cultivation nor mall-building. (And don’t even try to pretend there was no such thing as “owning land.” That doesn’t even make sense. That’s like saying you can’t own people – ridiculous.)

Westward ExpansionIt was genuinely maddening. Let’s not overlook that. Mixed in with the greed and selfishness and prejudice and maybe even some dark damnable thoughts was palpable frustration – an almost holy outrage – that this land was being denied them by a people unwilling to do more than… live there.  

We needed that land – we deserved that land. The fact that we kept winning proved we were right. We’re here as part of something bigger – something important – something holy – something democratic – something special. 

Besides, we really want all your stuff. 

Killing Indians for personal reasons wasn’t considered particularly onerous by the standards of the day. Most of the civilized world was still pretty comfortable with what would today be condemned as the worst sorts of racial and cultural elitism. This was beyond that, though – this was brushing aside a backwards culture and a darkened people (figuratively?) to make room for progress. Light. Democracy. The New Way. 

Because we NEEDED this land for settlers. For homesteaders. For citizens. Without it, there’s no progress. Without sufficient land, the whole of-the-by-the-for-the concept clogs up – it could even fail. And if American democracy fails, the new nation fails. If it fails here, it fails everywhere. Tyranny returns, darkness wins, and monsters rule the earth.

Conflict with Mexico was not much different. Their culture was nothing like most Amerindian peoples, but neither did we particularly fathom or appreciate their social structure, economic mores, or anything else – nor they ours. Perhaps outright disdain for one another played a larger role than with the Natives, and certainly by that point the sheer momentum of Westward Expansion eclipsed whatever underlying values or beliefs had fueled it a generation prior, but whatever the immediate motivations, the same conviction of absolute rightness oozed from the words and letters of those pinche gabachos manifesting their destiny.  

It’s not logical, but it is very human to devalue how others process their world and the goals they choose to pursue. The Natives had every opportunity to make themselves productive – to get a little schooling (the U.S. offered it to them FOR FREE), learn proper civilization, even to take care of themselves through the miracles of modern agriculture. The Mexicans had plenty of chances to be, um… not Mexican!

But let’s set aside for a moment that we were inflicting antithetical values and lifestyles on a diversity of proud peoples. We’ll ignore the generations of broken treaties and outright deception. Take a moment instead to focus on the third element of the equation – the rigged game, even should the Locals choose to play our way. 

Poor tools. Bad soil. Spoiled supplies. If there’s such a thing as a ‘level playing field’, this wasn’t it.

They were assigned a value system and lifestyle they didn’t want, with the full weight of state and federal governments forcing compliance. They were assigned the worst land on which to practice this new system, and given inadequate tools and other supplies. The stakes were incredibly high – at best, they were expected to emulate those with the right equipment, in which case they could perhaps almost survive as second-class citizens. More likely, they would fail, starve, or simply give up – this not being a game they’d wished to play anyway. 

The dominant citizenry would then point to this “failure” and label them as lazy, incompetent, or otherwise flawed. 

If you didn’t know better, you’d think I was talking about the intentional subversion of public education in high-poverty or high-minority districts, yes? Or the way states do everything possible to bury educators in red tape and bureaucracy, then criticize them for being inefficient? 

But that would be silly. Obviously we’re talking about Amerindians and Anglo-American culture. It’s not like the lessons of history manifest themselves repeatedly throughout the ages. 

40 Acres & A MuleAfter the Civil War, many Freedmen believed they deserved – that they had in fact been promised – “40 Acres and a Mule.” Some had actually been granted such at the unauthorized discretion of Union generals who, reasonably enough, took land from defeated plantation-owners and redistributed it to former slaves.

These few instances were reversed to smooth the transition into Reconstruction and maintain the almost cultish commitment Americans had to property rights – and, apparently, to irony. The freedmen received nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They received freedom. That was a pretty big deal. But freedom to do… what? With no education, no land, no resources, no momentum – what were they to do?

We’ll wrap up this series beginning with that question next time.

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