Agrarian Roots of American Political Equality


Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, I have been thinking about the concept of independence in American political thought. For early Americans, independence from Britain was more than simply severing national connections; it was part of a larger perspective on political equality as a matter of autonomy of individuals, as well as of nations. The perspective later gave rise to such characteristic American developments as Emersonian self-reliance, but it was originally shaped by the situation of people who were equally free from subordination to each other because they controlled their own property, and most importantly their property in land.

The first national understanding of equality emerged from the pursuit of economic and social independence by individuals during the colonial period. This understanding was less a matter of Americans having the same standards of living or even being able to look forward to the same opportunities than it was a matter of being able to hold and farm land and thereby to live apart from a hierarchy of dependence. Land, more than anything else, provided the real basis of the early American economy and much of the nation’s history of expansion across the continent can be understood as the quest for more land by individuals seeking to support themselves and, in their quest, acquiring the view that each of them, whether scratching bare sustenance from a small plot or harvesting export crops from a vast plantation, could be self-supporting and self-contained. Even the appearance of a middling sort in the eastern cities owed much to the constant possibility of moving out of the cities.

By the time of national independence, the central political issue for most Americans was not the redistribution of wealth. It was whether the acknowledged and accepted inequalities of condition would subordinate some to others. The American commitment to an ideal of equality grew in a society not only of inequalities in condition, but of great regional variations in stratification. Many of these variations can be linked to the class background of the settlers in different locations. The earliest wave of immigrants to the lands that became the United States consisted of Puritans who came from the east of England in the years 1629 to 1640 and settled in Massachusetts. Most of these early arrivals were from the middle ranks of English society and the majority worked in skilled craft and trade occupations. Still, while people from the lowest class positions in English society made up only a very small proportion of the settlers in Massachusetts, a little under one-fourth arrived as servants, so that some stratification definitely existed. The elite of the Puritan-based society of New England that came out of the Massachusetts settlement, though, consisted of the interconnected and intermarried leading families of ministers and magistrates. Heavily drawn from the eastern counties of England, the men of these families had attended the same schools before migration, with nearly half attending three colleges of Cambridge, according to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989).
Despite the clear existence of a New England elite, stratification was relatively modest in this section of the colonies. The mainly middle-ranking population of Massachusetts multiplied rapidly in the years following 1640 and settled much of the northeastern region of the future United States. High levels of literacy characterized the great mass of this population, as well as the small upper elite. Wealthy ruling families had arisen in Massachusetts by 1760, but their power was insecure and they could be challenged by larger publics. Similarly, proprietary gentry had come into existence in the Mid-Atlantic region in the face of diversity of ethnicity and religion,

The governing elite of Virginia came closest to the aristocratic ruling class of England, although the two were distinguished by, among other characteristics, the commercial origins of the former. By the time of the Revolution, Virginia was largely ruled by wealthy planters whose position and power came from what their crops and speculations. More importantly, the Virginia planters exercised their powers primarily over their slaves, rather than over white freemen, regardless of how poor those white freemen might be.

In relative terms, then, early America actually was a fairly equal society. Comparing America’s colonial elites with the English ruling class, Gary J. Kornbluth and John M. Murrin observed in their 1993 chapter on “The Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class” (in Alfred F. Young’s edited volume Beyond the American Revolution), that “North America was much more rural and had no set of men as wealthy as the families that governed England. England had no class of laborers as exploited as the slaves of America. The most affluent 1 percent in England probably controlled over 40 percent of the wealth, and the richest 5 percent owned over 70 percent of the kingdom’s land and personal property. In the colonies the yeomanry – roughly 60 percent of white householders – controlled 70 percent of the land. The wealthiest 5 percent in colonial society claimed only 30 percent. The most distinctive feature of the colonies was the relative economic autonomy of the middling orders. Thus, colonial society had a lower basement and a lower ceiling than England, and it also had far more people crowded into the middle” ( p. 29).

The emphasis on the rural character of colonial America and on land is important. The United States at its inception was an overwhelmingly rural society: 95% of Americans lived in rural areas in 1790, with an average population density of only 4.5 people per square mile, compared to 17.8 people per square mile in 1890 and 70.3 people per square mile in 1990 (1990 Census of Population and Housing, “1990 Population and Housing Unit Counts: United States”, (CPH-2, Table2, 4.). In looking at these numbers, we should recall the the U.S. at the end of the eighteenth century was limited to the relatively densely populated east and did not include the vast reaches that would be added with the Louisiana Purchase or the later Gadsden Purchase. In this spread-out, farming society, the early American version of what would later be called “equal opportunity” was based precisely on the ready availability of land. And it was the quest for land, more than anything else that created economic mobility, as well as geographic mobility.

In his book Dangerous Nation (2006), historian and former State Department official Robert Kagan has observed that for the American colonists of the eighteenth century:

The desire for land was not primarily a desire for profit. Some land speculators made fortunes off the lands they bought and sold. But for the vast majority of settlers, the benefits of expansion were of a more spiritual and political nature. Landownership equaled liberty, both in Lockean theory and in practice. Settlement on the ever-expanding frontier offered unprecedented freedom and independence, and a sense of honor, to hundreds of thousands of families who would otherwise have lived a more dependent or oppressed existence in Europe or crowded in the cities on the Atlantic Coast. The endless supply of land meant that no one, except the slave, was condemned to spend a lifetime in the employ of someone else. Men earned wages only until they had enough money to buy land and move away. This was the original “American dream,” one that Abraham Lincoln was still extolling a century later: the opportunity of every white male to abandon a wage earner’s life for the independent life of the landowner (p. 15).

By examining tax lists from the late 1700s, Jackson T. Main, in his 1974 book Political Parties Before the Constitution, determined that substantial upward mobility characterized early America. Even in older farm districts, many landless individuals acquired property between the 1760’s and the 1780’s. In new frontier areas, rates of land acquisition were high. In the cities, skilled workers could obtain credit and open shops, and relatively high wages enabled even poor workers to move up by learning trades. Most importantly, geographic and horizontal mobility raised chances for vertical mobility. The ever-present opportunity to move on to settle available land held out the possibility of moving out and being on one’s own, out of the power of a patron or employer. It also helped keep the labor market in the east coast cities fluid and contributed to the independence of the relatively small numbers of urban workers by boosting demand for labor and it making it relatively easy for workers to move from one employer to another. This early version of the land of opportunity was based on the opportunity to acquire land. Understanding this fact is crucial for understanding the westward push first to the center and then to the far west of the continent.

One might plausibly argue, in fact, that this driving hunger for land not only settled what would become the United States with European descendants, but even created the United States as an independent nation. By the middle of the eighteenth century, settlers from the English American colonies were finding their plots of land by pushing relentlessly into the Ohio Valley, claimed by the French as well as the British. Control of the land so eagerly sought became the key to fortune. Stock companies, such as the Ohio Company, sought to bring together shareholders and obtain title to vast reaches of land. However, settlement brought the Americans, and by extension England, into conflict with the French, so the English government attempted to limit the settlement that was the source of independence, mobility and fortune. The Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War, began when Ohio Company stockholder and Governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie sent the youthful Colonel George Washington to place a fort on the Ohio River in order to secure colonial property interests. The clashes between Washington’s forces and the French escalated into a war between France and England. Although it resulted in victory for the English, the need to pay for this long and expensive struggle led England to attempt to extend new forms of taxation to the American colonies, provoking a colonial protest that expanded into a war for independence.

To describe the American Revolution as a struggle for independence is to emphasize “independence,” and not just separation from the original European homeland. Samuel Johnson, one of the most eloquent oponents of the Americans, described himself to James Boswell as “a friend to subordination,” For Johnson, an ordered society required a hierarchy of dependents and patrons, and to opt out of such a hierarchy was to court anarchy. Indeed, one of the fundamental sources of disagreement and misunderstanding between the British and their troublesome American subjects concerned relationships of subordination. British communications repeatedly emphasized the theme of the subordinate position of the colonies toward the mother country and it was this, more than the mere payment of taxes, that sparked violent responses from recalcitrant colonists. The same quest for land that had led the Americans to start the French and Indian War later also produced a spirit of independence from ranked authority that made it difficult to command them to pay for the war.

I want to emphasize that equality as independence derived from land and from the resulting relatively high degree of control over labor power in towns was different from economic equality. In fact, land ownership was one of the major sources of economic inequality. This was not just because some Americans owned vast tracts while others held small plots. In a mainly agricultural society with continuing immigration driving up the demand for land, landowners could count on steadily rising values. Speculation in land therefore became one of the earliest routes to wealth before and after the Revolution. The brilliant, slippery French diplomat Talleyrand, during a period of disfavor in the turbulent years after the Revolution in his own country, took advantage of his refuge in the United States to pile up a tidy sum speculating in American land.

The idea of equality as the independence of landed freemen was central to the agrarian perspective of Thomas Jefferson. Recognizing the importance of land speculation in creating inequality, Jefferson observed that “the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made … by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable lands we possess.” Jefferson saw little contradiction between great estates and equality because he understood equality as the absence of hierarchical dependence. Jefferson’s model of society was one of independent farmers, each working his own land. He believed that Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest had been based on alodial law, in which land belonged to the person who worked it, and argued that American society should be a return to this old Saxon system

Jefferson’s social vision makes it clear just how he managed to square social egalitarianism with a belief in the existence of superior individuals. All men were indeed not only created equal, but would live in equal circumstances insofar as none were dependent on others for support or patronage because each controlled his own agrarian base. Some might indeed hold larger tracts, as Jefferson did, But this would not give larger land holders power over smaller holders.

With a basic social and economic equality assured by agrarian independence, the only real ranked inequality would be within a narrow range of political authority. Even Jefferson’s counties would need administrators and judges. One way in which these leaders could be chosen would be through a popular vote. The likely candidates could also be trained and pre-selected over their lifetimes, though, through some program like Jefferson’s 1797 educational scheme for basic education for all (white men) and a competitive pyramid of schooling for political leaders. Such a program would give the independent yeomen the basic learning not only to control their own livelihoods more effectively, but also to recognize and support the special abilities of leaders. Given Jefferson’s concept of a strictly limited government, his “natural aristocracy” would, in theory, pose few problems for the egalitarianism of a social structure existing largely outside the sphere of political power.

Jeffersonian agrarians such as John Taylor of Caroline, emphasized landed property as the means by which each household (of whites, at least) could maintain self-sufficiency. In his massive treatise on the agrarian ideal (1814), Taylor attacked commercial activities as means of drawing off the abundance created by farmers and mechanics and concentrating this in the abundance in the hands of a powerful elite of investors. To modern eyes the Viriginia planters look like a feudal aristocracy and the Hamiltonian merchants and bankers look like the rising challenge to aristocratic ways. But from the agrarian point of view, it was Alexander Hamilton and his allies who wanted to impose a rank-ordered society along British lines by institutionalizing the commercial means of confiscating the products of the labor of independent landed property owners.

Self-Educated American Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.