The Beginnings of American Liberalism

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The North American colonies established by the Spanish and the French in the 1500’s and 1600’s were State enterprises, which means that although many of them were offspring of the daring doing of “conquistadors” and missionaries, the conquests were property of the King, and the King made or unmade the governors who ruled them afterwards. The English and the Dutch were a different story, because in their cases, colonial enterprises were strictly franchised operations in which the State preferred to have as little involvement as possible. This did not turn out to be a very effective way of undertaking colonization. Whether from mismanagement in America, or from undercapitalization by investors and organizers in Europe; not one of the corporations that set up money-making operations in America were still in business a century later.

Only two parties came out the winners in this sorry process. One of them was the imperial government in London, which acquired title to vast stretches of the North American coastline, with settlements and settlers, without having to maintain troops in North America. That was up to the colonials.

The other set of winners were the actual colonials themselves. When the corporations they worked for collapsed, as they did in Virginia in 1622, this left the Virginia settlers pretty much to their own devices. Even before the complete removal of the Virginia company in 1624, representatives from every Virginia settlement were assembling as a House of Burgesses, to tie the hands of a royal governor and create a series of incentives for new immigrants to New England to refresh the population. London got an empire with pretty much no cost, and the Virginians got more freedom from control than any English subjects at home have ever enjoyed before.

A Different Kind of Government

The problem with this was that an assembly like the House of Burgesses was illegal, or at least it had not legal standing. There was only one recognized legislative assembly for the English. That was the Parliament in London. But from the colonists’ point of view, London was 3000 miles away. There was no one there in position to act well or wisely on Virginia’s affairs. And for London’s point of view, this arrangement cost London no money. In fact, it saved London the cost of paying attention to Virginia. So, the imperial government turned what later would appear to be a blind eye to American affairs.

This turning of the eye was easy to do because the House of Burgesses and the other colonial assemblies, which sprang after it, did not look much like any legislative assembly the English had ever seen. Parliament was a legislature, but it was far from being representative. Parliament was controlled by the nobility, the Church and the landed gentry. In its two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons; the bishops, the dukes and the earls dominated the first; and the wealthy elite dominated the second. This aristocracy in England was actually less heavy than its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but it was heavy enough by contrast to America.

In England, 40% of the wealth of the kingdom was owned by the top 1% of the population. A wealth based largely on the fact that they owned 70% of the land. Most of the English population was composed of renters. They had neither voice nor stake in England’s political life. In America, however, the cheapness and the availability of land inverted those proportions almost exactly. Almost two thirds of the white population in the British colonies owned sixty percent of the land. The would-be gentry in America actually controlled only about 30%. This meant that colonial elites might enjoy a position and power which make them look and feel like gentry, but they were critically dependent on the good-will of the vast array of independent farmers all around them.

The Royal governors labored under the same constraints. On paper, the powers of the Royal governor in the colonies were substantial. They could appoint judges, they could control appointments to other offices, they had a power of veto. In fact, the number of appointments they could make was small. Their actions were restricted. Moments when those restrictions were not observed produced outbursts of crowd action. In 1736, unhappy Bostonians gathered at midnight and demolished the town marketplace as a protest against the construction of the marketplace as a means of regulating public food sales.

In 1763, a mob of Scot-Irish immigrants from Paxton, Lancaster County; filled with fury against the Indians and against the Quakers in the Pennsylvania assembly who refused to give money for their defense, took out their frustrations on a defenseless band of Indians, killing six of them. Fourteen more Indians were locked up for their own protection, pursued by the Paxton boys and murdered. 250 of the Paxton boys then marched on Philadelphia, and only when governor John Penn sent Benjamin Franklin and a persuasive delegation to meet them, did the Paxton boys turn and headed home.

American elites could imagine that they filled the place of the English gentry, but only if they did not stepped to heavily on popular toes. So, by a process that few people in London understood, the rowdy lowlife who departed for the colonies a century before, had turned into competitors for economic dominance within the Empire. They had developed an anglicised elite who thought of themselves as the equals of their English cousins. And they created domestic legislatures exercising powers that were technically illegal, and elected by farmers who had an unpleasantly passion for independence.

All the Americans lacked was a political philosophy to give it all coherence. In the 1760’s, the imperial government unwillingly provided them with it.

The Glorious Revolution and the Whigs

England was a monarchy, but it had never been a happy monarchy. The vice of the French, it was said, was letchery, but the vice of the English was treachery. The English overturned dynasties with the regularity that appalled the rest of Europe. The Plantagenet kings were overthrown by the Tudors, the Tudors led to the Stuarts, the Stuarts were overthrown not once but twice in 1642 and again in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution, after that, Parliament tied the hands of the kings and queens so securely, that when a new ruling house from Hanover, Germany, in 1714; government in England was already being described not in terms of a King and a Throne, but in a three-way system of checks and balances. King, lords and commons.

The people who were most apt to use this three-part way of describing English politics had been known, since the 1670’s, as Whigs. The term Whig came into use from Whiggamore, which was a way of describing people from the countryside. And indeed, the Whigs liked to think of themselves as the sturdy sons of the countryside, characterized by a simple protestantism and a concern with the promotion of the good of their communities. If Whiggery could be distilled to four political propositions, they would be that:

1. Liberty is natural. Because is natural, it cannot be the gift of a monarch.

2. Liberty can be destroyed, normally by a corrupted elite who strives to concentrate power in themselves and to corrupt others.

3. Liberty, therefore, requires allegiance with virtue for protection from corruption and power. Whether in the form of the natural virtues, like modesty, productive work or self-restraint; or religious ones, such as would be found in strict protestant moralism.

4. Because Whigs prefer virtue to power, they are often found outside the centers of powers. Hence, their identity with the countryside, rather than with the corrupted royal courts at the empire center.

Not surprisingly, Whiggery had long roots in Puritanism. And it had strong associations with parliament. And it was parliaments Whigs who had been the chief engineers of the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Some of the most radical of the Whigs argued for abolishing the monarchy entirely, and erecting a republic. Even the mainstream of Whig opinion wanted monarchy severely curtailed. And to rationalize this curtailment and to rationalize the Glorious Revolution, they turned to John Locke.