40 Credits & A Mule, Part I: This Land
Land was a big deal when our little experiment in democracy began. Why?
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 people living together (in a free house with unlimited alcohol and no jobs), running an entire country based on mandates from the masses seems… problematic.
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.
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)
No 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 democracy) or a system in which the ignorant are led about by the manipulations of the wealthy and power-hungry.
My god, 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. (It’s one thing to talk about student-directed learning, but quite another to hand them chalk and the wifi password and tell them you’ll check back in May.)
Hey… maybe Jefferson! You can find quotes from Jefferson to prove just about anything. Let’s see…
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…
You see? That’s what I’m talking –
…and I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family & peculium in it… (Letter to Edmund Pendleton, August 1776)
I had to look up ‘peculium’. 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.
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 how people tend to people-ize.
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 most cases it would never even begin.
The Dark Ages return – tyranny and ignorance. Monsters rule the earth.
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 I guess he’d met the others…
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 I do love how he steps his audience through his reasoning. It’s very Socrates, very Holmes, very 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 edu-blogger.
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?
I know a number of impressive women both professionally and personally. They are varied and wonderful creatures, but very few qualify for the epithet ‘delicate’. 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 indication of minimal competence.
Doctors gotta have degrees to doctor on you. Drivers have to have a license. Barbers have to have special certificates 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 they reasoned. Personally, I think they were overreacting. I mean, pretty much everyone can vote today, right?
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)
The first century of American history was largely shaped by this need for land. Some of this was primal and selfish. At times, shiny rocks were in the ground or particularly nice lumber stuck up out of it. But those were the temporal motivators. Behind them was a political, almost spiritual, paradigm – a distinction not always clear in that era.
To 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.
What neither Adams nor his contemporaries anticipated was just how quickly this baby nation would begin filling up – the locals spawning and immigrants flowing in as fast as boats could carry them. We were going to need more land, or this wasn’t going to work.
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.
We have some bad news for the Natives and Mexico.
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part II – Chosen People
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part III - Manifest Destiny
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part IV - The Measure of a Man
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part V - Maybe Radio
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VI - ABCDF
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VII - Sleeping Giants