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This Magazine Ends Where America Began
by The Editorial Collective
This article was freely adapted from We, The People, by Leo Huberman, courtesy of Monthly Review Press and A History of Social Movements, by Roberta Ash.
American history is typically taught as a succession of leaders and wars. In an endeavor to learn history in the framework of peoples struggles instead, we have started what we hope will be the first of a regular series of short analyses. We also hope other chapters will be interested in writing future articles for this series, and suggest one on the period of the American Revolution as a good sequal to this one.
The Old World And The New One
At the time that England got into the empire business, many people believed that countries were rich or poor according to how much gold or silver bullion they had. One way to acquire it was to be lucky and find new lands inhabited by Indians who knew where mines were and who could be persuaded, by force if necessary, to give them up. The Spaniards had tried this in South America with great success. But even Indians could not find mines every day, so a better, surer method for accumulating wealth had to be found. The answer seemed to be in selling goods so that money would flow in. But England was not the only country to arrive at this conclusion. Spain, Holland and France had thought of the same thing, and naturally, all of them wanted to sell, sell, sell. But if all of them were interested mainly in selling, the scheme would not work. So markets had to be found—or made. Colonies! Let the mother country be the heart of the empire and let every colony be a market for goods. At the same time colonies would provide the mother country with raw materials and special foods and luxuries, and then what bullion reserves the mother country did have, would need never leave the empire.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the English Parliament was made up of rich landowners, merchants and manufacturers who believed in the colony plan. They had much to gain if it was successful. Accordingly, in the years from 1607 to 1793, they passed laws which were meant to control the trade of the colonies to the advantage of the mother country: all goods sent to the colonies from Europe or Asia had to go through England first; colonial products like rice, indigo, tar, pitch, skins, and tobacco were sent to England only so she could control trade between her colonies and other countries; the colonists were forbidden to manufacture goods even though the raw materials were right there, but they had to ship the materials to England, where they were manufactured and then reshipped to the colonial market at a fantastic markup; to make sure that the empire trade was handled only by empire ships, the Navigation Acts were implemented as early as 1651.
All of this looked pretty rosy for the mother country. But, the colonists were not quite so unselfish as to think that the colonies existed merely for the sake of the mother country.
Who Were The Colonists?
The answer to this question is many-faceted. The colonists came from many places for many reasons.
In the beginning, over three hundred years ago, trading companies were organized by rich and powerful Englishmen. They got huge tracts of land in America for nothing, or almost nothing. That land, however, was valueless until people lived on it, until crops were produced, or animals killed for their furs. Hence the first charter boats came to the New World, landing at such places as Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay. The trading companies would step in, buy things from the people who did the work, and then sell them back to these people or to other markets—at a profit. The companies, London Company and Dutch West India Company, gave some of the land away with the idea of eventually making money on cargoes to and from the colonies. They wanted profits, needed immigrants, advertised, and people came. Despite dangers and difficulties, the people who came over on the first small boats had contracts with the companies and expected some land, and a chance at a new life. But others, aside from the original groups of colonists, came.
People arrived in North America with tremendous material differences. Certainly an indentured servant or slave had less chance of success than a royal governor or lord. Tradesmen, however, trained in their homelands as blacksmiths, silversmiths, or mechanics, found their skills and the tools brought with them useful in terms of wage earning. In this way, a person’s former status had a decisive role in determining life in the new world.
Aside from these material remnants, there were the ideological social remains of the old order. Far from arbitrary, these social relations grew out of, and supported, the British system. There were merchants, landowners and the royal governors who ran the government and made the laws. Their job was to see that the work of the colonists was in England’s interests. It’s easy to see why the laws they passed favored the rich.
What were these laws? Throughout all the colonies, one did (or did not) have certain rights according to rank and amount of property. On this basis, people were seated in church, given or denied the vote, and judged in court. In 1631, when Mr. Josias Plaistowe was convicted of stealing corn from the Indians, the court merely imposed a fine and directed that henceforth he should be called by the name Josias and not Mr. Plaistowe. On the other hand, his servants, who had assisted in the theft, were severely flogged. A seventeenth century Massachusetts law regulated the worker’s maximum pay. The worker who took more, and not the employer who offered more, was fined.
The Importance Of Geography
The earliest people came not to a united America, but to thirteen distinct little countries, called colonies. Immigrants landed at different times, at different places along the eastern shore of America. They came with very different ideas about what they would do, how they would live, and the work they would perform. But they had to modify their plans to fit the conditions they found. The work that was done in different regions depended largely on the geography of the settlement. This helped determine the kind of people they became.
Ninety percent of the inhabitants became farmers. Southern settlements were particularly well suited to the production of tobacco, indigo, rice, pitch and tar. For the first hundred years, land was held by small farmers who worked the fields themselves with their families and a few servants. However the advent of large scale slavery provided a cheap labor supply, and farming became more profitable. Consequently, the demand for land increased, and land prices rose. Land was gobbled up by richer plantation owners. The poor farmer had to compete in the tobacco market with rich farmers, who had a constant supply of cheaper slave labor. Unless he had enough money to buy a few slaves, he had to give up his land and move on. In the social order of the south, the black man was at the bottom rung; the white man, to retain his position on a higher rung, had to find other work. In this way large plantations swallowed smaller ones, and a new landed hierarchy developed as the south became a vast farmland.
As northern land was more difficult to farm, many New Englanders turned to other trades. These people became seafarers, ship builders, merchants and tradesmen. When the ships were not loaded with their own fish and lumber, tobacco was being transported from the south, wheat from Pennsylvania, or sugar from the West Indies. There wasn’t a port on the Atlantic that wasn’t visited at some time by New Englanders looking for business.
The middle colonies had land suitable for barley, wheat, rye, fruit, cattle, sheep and pigs. Again, a number of people became merchants. When England was at war, ship owners and high ranking seafarers would earn commissions as privateers. Armed with a few guns, they were able to seize enemy ships, selling the goods they captured.
Many people who came to find a better life could not afford the passage price of the contracts. The colonies were advertised then as Coca Cola is today. It was the ultimate in opportunity. A large portion of these people had left the comfort and warmth of their families because they were poor and the New World appeared to be rich. The ads on the European side stressed unlimited opportunity, but if you could not prepay passage it was not that simple. At the bottom of the ad, under passage regulations, one might have found the following: If you cannot afford the passage fare, we can get you there for a small fee. We will get you a job and you can work until you return the fare to us (approximately $40). In other words, you would be indentured (read enslaved) for as long as seven years, and if you were a child, regardless of your age, you would be indentured until you were twenty-one.
On the other side of the ocean, the ads for your services looked something like:
There are still 50 or 60 persons newly arrived from Germany. They can be found with the widow Kriderin at the sign of the Golden Swan. Among them are two schoolmasters, mechanics, farmers. also young children, as well as boys and girls. They are desirous of serving for their passage money.
The people described above basically came of ‘their own free will.” But large numbers of persons came in obviously forced ways. Hundreds of paupers and convicts were put on ships and sent to America. Many had been put in prison for small offenses such as poaching, or stealing a loaf of bread, or being in debt. What a wonderful way to get rid of them, so, off to America, whether they liked it or not. There was another group who were carried here against their will—hustled on board ship, borne across the sea and sold into bondage. The streets of London were full of kidnappers, spirits, as they were called. No working man was safe, the very beggars were afraid to speak with anyone who mentioned the terrifying word “America.” Parents were torn from their homes, husbands from their wives, children from their parents, to disappear forever.
Still another group of “immigrants” were brought here against their will. They were black and they came from Africa. The settlers had found it difficult to make good slaves of the Native Americans, because these people knew the land and retreated westward, at least for a while. But rich farmers needed a source of cheap labor in order to expand their land holdings for profit, and they would pay a price. So, rich men who could make profits by selling labor, turned to stealing people from Africa. Thus, Negro slave trading became a big business. Many enormous English fortunes, such as that of the Gladstone family, were founded on the slave trade. Needless to say, the privations suffered by white people crossing in crowded boats, with little to drink or eat, were as nothing compared to the misery forced on the black man.
One important group came over, and of their own will. Rich English gentlemen, merchants and landowners all came to get in on the business, and some to become royal governors as well. The latter would insure the workings of the mother country-colony scheme.
Equality For Whom
America represented a new beginning for its immigrants. Freedom from the European class structure, from political and economic repression. Here everyone would have equal opportunity. Or would they?
American social structure was molded by several factors. Primary among these were the ideologies and possessions of the European settlers, and the land upon which they settled (geography).
Out of all this, a hierarchy arose in the North. At the top were the royal governors, landed aristocracy, merchants, managers, officers and officials. Theoretically, these ruling class positions were open to anyone who could amass a sufficient fortune. Practically, this kind of mobility was rare. In this we can see the seeds of the trend that is so characteristic of American society today: as formally ascribed barriers to wealth and power became fewer, power and wealth also became more concentrated.
The middle class included lawyers, clergymen, lesser merchants, small businessmen, shopkeepers with artisan skills, and master craftsmen, middle farmers and the frontiersmen. The latter groups contained former indentured servants, some newly arrived immigrants, and people in conflict with the eastern aristocracy. For the frontier people life was physically difficult, and at first, in practice and in theory, was more egalitarian. The people resented and fought against rule by the wealthy. They instigated a number of rebellions which ranged from protests and civil disobedience to the armed capture of colonial assemblies. These acts, few of which were consistent and broad based enough, resulted in hangings and other punishments of the insurgents.
The lower classes included artisans and journeymen who were not self-employed, sailors, servants, slaves, and those who worked but did not own land. The poor accounted for about 40 percent of the population. Unorganized and angry over conditions, these people engaged in individual acts of crime, and were punished, individually, by members of the ruling class.
The colonial period introduced to America several contradictions. There were conflicts between big landowners and tenant farmers, plantation owners and small rural farmers (yeomen), masters and slaves, law-making aristocracy and frontiersmen, the colonial aristocracy and the colonial lesser classes, the north and the south, and the major conflicts between the ruling aristocracy of Britain and its colonial subjects. These formed the multiplicity of interests of the period to follow.
The ideological outgrowth of these class interests can be identified primarily by three trends that were developing. American merchants resented the trade restrictions and manufacturing regulations which were imposed on them by the British merchants and royal power structure. They, against the King’s rule, began to pirate and smuggle goods to attempt to maximize their profits and control the markets, despite the Navigation Acts. There were conflicts of interest then. between the colonial ruling class and the royal ruling class. The resulting ideology of these colonists was for “home rule.” The Whig ideology called for colonial executive and a bicameral, colonial legislature, election to which was based on land ownership, but that of the colonials, not of the royal landed. The Tory ideology, held by the mother country class interests, advocated the retention of the power of the empire through the royal aristocracy, the British merchants and manufacturers. But a third ideology represented still other interests. The question of home rule was vital, but Paine’s Common Sense posed questions about who would rule at home. Of course, the colonial merchants and large plantation owners were threatened by the suggestion of this ideology that common men be in the ruling body. They felt threatened that artisans, doctors, school teachers, yeomen, frontiersmen, sailors, indentured servants, and even slaves might be aroused to action by such a possibility, yet they would need the labor of these very people in a short period of time in order to serve their own interests, that of gaining control of the colonies.
We have presented here a brief outline of the development of class interests in colonial America. How and when these contradictions surfaced, how they were or were not resolved, and what new contradictions emerged, we suggest be examined in the next presentation of the people’s history of the United States.