Land Ownership and the Foundations of Democracy, Part Two

John AdamsWe’ve looked last time at the role of land in relation to democracy, at least in the minds of the Founders. It turns out that while this new government was certainly trying to take “consent of the governed” way past anything tried before, there remained some concern about how, exactly, to decide who was and wasn’t qualified to “consent” on behalf of this baby nation.  

The general opinion seemed to be that land ownership was a good sign of minimal competence. If a man could make decent decisions and work hard enough to take care of himself and his immediate family, he clearly wasn’t a complete moron.

They put it fancier than that, of course. 

But… how could they avoid becoming simply another nation-state in which money and power determined whether or not one had a voice? How does an idealistic young ‘Merica avoid aristocracy?

It was John Adams (of all people) who best explained how the young nation could be both a land of opportunity and pragmatically defend itself against fools and freeloaders.

It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People.

There’s that “in theory” again…

But to what an Extent Shall We carry this Principle? Shall We Say, that every Individual of the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation? No, you will Say. This is impossible…

Adams probably talked too much, but he effectively steps his audience through his reasoning as he does. It’s very Socrates, Holmes, or Bill Nye the Government Guy. Franklin may have been the poster child of the Enlightenment in the New World, but Adams was its lesson-planner and curriculum coordinator.

But why exclude Women? You will Say, because their Delicacy renders them unfit for Practice and Experience, in the great Business of Life, and the hardy Enterprizes of War, as well as the arduous Cares of State. Besides, their attention is So much engaged with the necessary Nurture of their Children, that Nature has made them fittest for domestic Cares. And Children have not Judgment or Will of their own…

How did Abigail not kill him regularly?

Think of the most impressive women in your world, professional or personal. How often does the term “delicate” come to mind? Clearly John was not in the room during childbirth.

But will not these Reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that Men in general in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own? … Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own…

There it is – the same basic argument which was made time and again by our Framers. You gotta pass the 8th grade reading test to take Driver’s Ed, you gotta keep a ‘C’ average or better to play football, and you gotta have your own land to vote. It’s nothing personal. It’s simply an imperfect indicator of minimal competence.

Doctors gotta have degrees to doctor on you. Accountants have to be certified to do spreadsheets for you. Barbers have to earn special paperwork confirming they can snip your hair off with scissors. None of these hold the power over the vast numbers of people a voter does. None could do the damage possible at the hands of the unqualified citizen.

Or so the Framers reasoned; they may have been overreacting. Pretty much everyone can vote today, and things are going –

OK, maybe they weren’t overreacting. 

But Adams doesn’t leave it at that. He elaborates on a solution, a counterbalance. He looks at the long game.

Power always follows Property. This I believe to be as infallible a Maxim, in Politicks, as, that Action and Re-action are equal, is in Mechanicks. Nay I believe We may advance one Step farther and affirm that the Ballance of Power in a Society, accompanies the Ballance of Property in Land.

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: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates.

If the Multitude is possessed of the Ballance of real Estate, the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, and in that Case the Multitude will take Care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government. 

(Letter to James Sullivan, May 1776) 

It’s the underest of understatement to say that the first century of American history was largely shaped by this need for land. 

Some of it was primal and selfish, of course. At times, shiny rocks were in the ground or particularly nice lumber stuck up out of it. But those were the temporal motivators. The ethical Under-ArmourTM of westward expansion  was this political – this almost spiritual – paradigm. 

America City On A HillTo be a City on a Hill, one must have a hill. To be a republic – a government of-the-by-the-for-the – one must have qualified voters. The most universal way to demonstrate basic responsibility, competence, and character, was land ownership. Thus the almost sacred role of land in both the founding and expanding of this new democracy. It was, to many Framers, the most obvious and tangible measure of a man’s legitimacy, his investment in the nation’s success, and his potential value as a voice in the national discussion. 

Without widespread, relatively easy access to land, democracy wasn’t possible, and this grand experiment would fail. If democracy failed here, it effectively failed everywhere – it would, in fact, never even begin elsewhere.

Dark Ages. Tyranny and ignorance. Monsters rule the earth.

Every homestead was a 160-acre, individually-sized portion of national ideals. Its role was not asserted so much as perceived – much like many other “self-evident” truths bandied about in those days.

And as if that weren’t enough, the issue wasn’t solely terrestrial.

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. 

(Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782)

Whoa, doggies. We may need to chew slowly on this one. 

“Those who labor in the earth…” 

He could have just said “farmers,” but in addition to being a bit poetic, it better sets up where he’s going. It’s not about the economy or the food chain – it’s about the agency of individuals, applied not merely to ground or soil but to the “earth”. It’s a wide-angle lens on an idealized way of life – Jefferson’s agrarian ideal.

“…the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people…” 

Wow. Jefferson getting all allusion-y up in here. The most obvious antecedent would be the Israelites of the Old Testament. Jefferson wasn’t a huge fan of biblical literalism, but that wouldn’t negate its value as a frame of reference. 

“{I}f ever he had a chosen people” may be read as emphasis (“that’s a miracle if ever I saw one!”) or a touch of skepticism (“if there are such things as miracles, this would be one”). But the power of the image – the holy role of the Hebrew children –he utilizes quite intentionally either way.

It wasn’t much of a leap from Old Testament progenitors to fresh young Americans – the City on a Hill, the people whose destiny was quickly becoming manifest, and a culture who a century later would carry their “white man’s burden” well past the boundaries of the continent.

But for now the issue was land – or at least the way of life it promoted.

Jefferson Green

Farmers worked 365 days a year. Soil still needing tilling on your birthday, cows needed milked on Christmas, and no matter how sick you might be, those crops weren’t going to reap themselves. It was labor-intensive and the hours were long, and yet after doing all you could do, all day every day – you waited.

You waited for the rain. You waited for the growth. You waited for the births. You waited for the universe to do its part.

Sometimes it didn't. Often, even when it did, it took too long and was too slow and there was no way to rush it, but many ways to ruin it. This combination of intense human application and eternal patience. Almost nothing works that way anymore – those lessons are learned late in life, if ever. The laboring Jefferson extols, however, produced “substantial genuine virtue” – a type of perspective and wisdom essential in a government of-the-by-the-for-the.

You won’t find accounts of farmers going rogue in meaningful numbers, he claims. Presumably this is related to all that virtue and sacred fire, but it’s impossible to imagine they could have found the time or energy to be particularly corrupt even had they wished. Any moral or social shenanigans would have quickly self-corrected as they brought ruin on the individual so behaving. Idle hands? Not so much. 

But that was his ideal picture of how the nation’s future would unfold. In reality, it was a bit messier.

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