Another Man”s Cause – The Levellers – Levelling The Land

1 Mar

Another Man”s Cause – The Levellers – Levelling The Land

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would proveenormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by another Man’s Cause – The Levellers – Levelling The Land a nation, a symbol,a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power fromfavorites of the British Empire. They created the mosteffective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations ofleaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.

Starting with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed atoverthrowing colonial governments. There had also been six black rebellions, from South Carolinato New York, and forty riots of various origins. By this time also, there emerged, according to Jack Greene, “stable, coherent, effective andacknowledged local political and social elites. And by the 1760s, this local leadership saw thepossibility of directing much of the rebellious energy against England and her local officials. It was not a conscious conspiracy, but an accumulation of tactical responses. North America, ambitious colonial leaders were nolonger threatened by the French. They now had only two rivals left: the English and the Indians.

Perhaps once the British were out of the way, the Indianscould be dealt with. With the French defeated, the British government could turn its attention to tightening control overthe colonies. It needed revenues to pay for the war, and looked to the colonies for that. Also, thecolonial trade had become more and more important to the British economy, and more profitable: ithad amounted to about 500,000 pounds in 1700 but by 1770 was worth 2,800,000 pounds. So, the American leadership was less in need of English rule, the English more in need of thecolonists’ wealth. The elements were there for conflict.

The war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants,unemployment for the poor. A newspaper editor wrote about the growing”Number of Beggers and wandering Poor” in the streets of the city. In Philadelphia and New York too, wealthwas more and more concentrated. In Boston, the lower classes began to use the town meeting to vent their grievances. We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-classenergy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. James Otis, Samuel Adams, Royall lyler, Oxenbridge Thacher, and a host of other Bostonians,linked to the artisans and laborers through a network of neighborhood taverns, fire companies, andthe Caucus, espoused a vision of politics that gave credence to laboring-class views and regarded asentirely legitimate the participation of artisans and even laborers in the political process. Boston seems to have been full of class anger in those days.

This accumulated sense of grievance against the rich in Boston may account for the explosivenessof mob action after the Stamp Act of 1765, Through this Act, the British were taxing the colonialpopulation to pay for the French war, in which colonists had suffered to expand the British Empire. It was one of those moments in which fury against the rich went further than leaders like Otiswanted. Could class hatred be focused against the pro-British elite, and deflected from thenationalist elite? Mechanics were demanding political democracy in the colonial cities: open meetings ofrepresentative assemblies, public galleries in the legislative halls, and the publishing of roll-call votes, so that constituents could check on representatives. They wanted open-air meetings wherethe population could participate in making policy, more equitable taxes, price controls, and theelection of mechanics and other ordinary people to government posts. By mid-1776,laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen, employing extralegal measures when electoral politicsfailed, were in clear command in Philadelphia. In the countryside, where most people lived, there was a similar conflict of poor against rich, onewhich political leaders would use to mobilize the population against England, granting somebenefits for the rebellious poor, and many more for themselves in the process.

The land rioters saw their battle as poor against rich. A witness at a rebel leader’s trial in New York in 1766 said that the farmers evicted by the landlords “had an equitable Tide but could not bedefended in a Course of Law because they were poor and . Ethan Alien’s Green Mountain rebels in Vermont described themselves as “a poor people. Green Mountain rebels did the same.

But as the conflict with Britain intensified, thecolonial leaders of the movement for independence, aware of the tendency of poor tenants to sidewith the British in their anger against the rich, adopted policies to win over people in thecountryside. The Regulators saw that a combination of wealth and political power ruled North Carolina, anddenounced those officials “whose highest Study is the promotion of their wealth. They resentedthe tax system, which was especially burdensome on the poor, and the combination of merchantsand lawyers who worked in the courts to collect debts from the harassed farmers. Thus were the people of Orange insulted by The sheriff, robbed and plundered .