LAND OF THE FREE

In 1670 a penniless young English couple stepped off the first ship to land on the shores of South Carolina, after a harrowing transatlantic journey. Like her travelling companion Abraham Smith, Millicent How had signed herself into service with a standard deed of indenture made in September 1669:

Know all men that I Millicent How of London Spinster the day of the date hereof doe firmely by these pnts [points] bind and oblige my selfe as a faithfull & obedient Servant in all things whatsoever, to serve and dwell with Capt. Joseph West of the sd City of London Merchant, in the plantation, or province of Carolina.16

Between 65 and 80 per cent of all the Britons who came to the Chesapeake in the course of the seventeenth century did so on this basis.17 That was by no means exceptional. Fully three-quarters of all European migrants to British America over the entire colonial period came as indentured servants.18

This was a very different migration from the one experienced by Jerónimo de Aliaga. The Spaniards had literally found mountains of silver in Mexico and Peru. All there seemed to be on the shores of Carolina was a bone-yard of bleached tree-trunks. This was no El Dorado. Instead, settlers in North America had to plant corn to eat and tobacco to trade.19 For many years Britain’s American colonies remained a patchwork of farms and villages, with a few towns and virtually no true cities. And here the natives, though less numerous, were not so easily subjugated. Even in 1670 you could still have been forgiven for thinking that Jerónimo de Aliaga’s America was the land of the future, while Millicent How’s was destined to remain an obscure Ruritania.

What if it had been the other way round? What if de Aliaga had ended up in a Spanish Carolina and How and Smith had ended up in a British Peru? ‘If [England’s] Henry VII had been willing to sponsor Columbus’s first voyage,’ the historian J. H. Elliott once half-playfully reflected,

and if an expeditionary force of [Englishmen] had conquered Mexico for Henry VIII, it is possible to imagine a … massive increase in the wealth of the English crown as growing quantities of American silver flowed into the royal coffers; the development of a coherent imperial strategy to exploit the resources of the New World; the creation of an imperial bureaucracy to govern the settler societies and their subjugated populations; the declining influence of parliament in the national life, and the establishment of an absolutist English monarchy financed by the silver of America.20

In other words, it is not at all self-evident that the British colonies would have turned out as they did if they had been established in South rather than North America.

What if New England had been in Mexico and New Spain in Massachusetts? If it is possible to imagine England, rather than Castile, seduced into absolutism by the silver of the Peruvian mines, is it equally possible to imagine Castile, rather than England, planting the seeds of republican virtue at higher latitudes? Might the cortes – the nearest thing early-modern Spain had to a parliament – have built up enough power to establish the first constitutional monarchy in Western Europe? And might the Estados Unidos have emerged from a crisis of Hispanic rather than British imperial authority, speaking Spanish from its very inception? Such a role reversal is not so implausible. The United Provinces, after all, emerged from the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule. Perhaps it was mere contingency – the absence or presence of New World gold and silver – that sent England along the high road to parliamentarism and Spain down the primrose path to absolutism. With an additional source of revenue outside the control of parliament, Charles I might have maintained his ‘Personal Rule’ and avoided the fateful confrontation that produced the British Civil War. His Puritan opponents in the House of Commons were elderly men by 1640. A few more years would have seen their challenge fade.21 Nor was there any certainty that Britain would be steered a second time away from absolutism by the Dutch invasion and coup that installed William of Orange as king.22 The chain of events that led from the financial travails of James I to the deposition of James II might easily have been broken on many occasions. No narrative is more tendentious than the Whig interpretation of English history, with its assumption that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a divinely ordained compromise between monarch and legislature. Even after 1688 the dominance of the Whig aristocrats who were the real beneficiaries of the Stuarts’ ouster was still periodically vulnerable to Jacobite counter-coups, which enjoyed considerable support on the Celtic periphery.

The crux of the matter is the relative importance in the historical process of, on the one hand, initial resource endowments in the colonized territories of the New World and, on the other hand, the institutional blueprints the colonizers brought with them from Europe. If initial conditions were determining, then it did not much matter if Englishmen or Spaniards turned up in Peru; the result would have been much the same, because Englishmen would have been just as tempted to plunder the Incas and just as likely to succumb to the ‘resource curse’ of cheap gold and silver.23Presumably, too, Spanish settlers might have been more innovative had they found themselves goldless in the Chesapeake Bay. But if you believe that the key variable was the institutions the settlers brought with them, then quite different alternatives suggest themselves.

British colonization generally produced better economic results than Spanish or Portuguese, wherever it was tried. There is no perfect test for this proposition, since no two colonies were exactly alike, but Arizona is richer than Mexico and Hong Kong is richer than Manila. So perhaps British colonization of Mexico and Peru would have had better long-run results than Spanish, ultimately producing some kind of United States of Central and South America. And perhaps Spanish colonization of North America would have left that region both relatively impoverished and divided into quarrelsome republics: multiple nation-states like Colombia rather than a single District of Columbia as the seat of a federal government, and undying enmity between Wisconsin and Minnesota, rather than between Colombia and Venezuela.

England was already different from Spain in 1670, long before the advent of industrialization. Violence as measured by the homicide rate had been declining steadily since the 1300s. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an era of intermittent civil war had come to an end, though hard battles remained to be fought to impose order on the Celtic periphery, especially Northern Scotland and Southern Ireland. Beginning in around 1640, the English birth rate rose steadily from around twenty-six per 1,000 to a peak of forty per 1,000 in the early 1800s. Yet the Malthusian trap did not close, as it had in the past and continued to do elsewhere. Real wages moved upwards. Rents trended downwards. And literacy rose markedly.24 A crucial change was the availability of an exit option for those willing to risk a transatlantic voyage. As early as the 1640s net emigration exceeded 100,000, and it ranged between 30,000 and 70,000 in every decade until the 1790s.25 Those who feared that these adventurous types were being lost to the land of their birth failed to see the reciprocal benefits of transatlantic migration as trade between the American colonies and Europe flourished. The exported labour was simply more productive in land-rich, labour-poor America. The emigrants’ departure also indirectly benefited their more risk-averse kinsmen who stayed behind by raising slightly the price of their work.

Those, like Millicent How and Abraham Smith, who left England for America after around 1670 took little with them. Even the price of their passage was paid by, in effect, a mortgage on their future labour. But they carried in their minds a number of ideas that had profound implications for the American future. The first was the idea of property rights* as they had evolved in the common law courts (and the Court of Chancery) since the twelfth century.26 The second idea was that of militant Protestantism (though it is important not to forget that Quakers, Catholics and Jews also played their part in settling the eastern seaboard).27 The third idea was that taxation depended for its legitimacy on parliamentary approval; the Crown was granted ‘supply’ in return for consenting to the redress of grievances through legislation. These had been the core issues of Britain’s Civil War.

Antagonism to the uniformity of Anglican worship to which Archbishop William Laud had aspired, combined with hostility to Charles I’s fiscal innovations, had given the mid-seventeenth-century crisis a distinctive character in the British Isles. As early as 1628, in the Petition of Right, the King’s parliamentary critics had demanded that ‘No man hereafter be compelled to make or yield any gift, loan, benevolence, tax or such like charge without common consent by act of parliament.’ When a botched attempt to impose Laud’s Book of Common Prayer on Presbyterian Scotland ended in war, Charles was forced back to parliament, cap in hand. But rather than accept what became the Long Parliament’s violations of his royal prerogative, Charles raised the royal standard in August 1642, plunging the country into war. He lost and paid the price with his head on 30 January 1649. Regicide was followed by Republic (the Commonwealth), which in turn was followed – much as foreseen in classic political theory – by Tyranny, in the form of Oliver Cromwell as lord protector. With Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored, but the old issues soon resurfaced. Charles II and his brother were both suspected, with good reason, of Roman Catholic leanings, and of yearning to reduce the power of parliament. The deposition of James II in 1688 was a Dutch coup by parliamentary invitation; the Declaration of Rights emphatically ended the argument about fiscal power: ‘Levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal.’ By ending the threat of arbitrary taxation and by putting the government’s revenue, expenditure and borrowing under the supervision of a body in which property-owners were disproportionately represented, the Glorious Revolution laid a solid foundation for the subsequent development of what might be called the British ‘maritime–fiscal complex’.28 Even if the Stuarts had been restored to power in 1714 or 1745 it is doubtful that they would have undone this.

Yet the more profound change that happened in seventeenth-century England had to do with the very nature of politics itself. The argument was between two Oxford men – one educated at Magdalen Hall, the other at Christ Church – both of whom were beneficiaries of aristocratic patronage – the Earl of Devonshire in the former case, the Earl of Shaftesbury in the latter – and both of whom derived inspiration from time spent abroad – in, respectively, France and the Netherlands. For Thomas Hobbes, writing in his Leviathan (1651), the lesson of the first half of the seventeenth century was clear: ‘During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in … a war … of every man against every man.’29 Men are held to perform their duties only by ‘fear’, Hobbes argued, and therefore power must be delegated to a strong sovereign with responsibility for defence, education, legislation and justice. The crucial point was Hobbes’s belief that the sovereign must be secure against any challenge from below. He could not be bound by any ‘covenant’ (constitution), could not be ‘divisible’ and could not ‘justly be put to death’.30 This was not (as is sometimes thought) a justification of royal absolutism; on the contrary, with its dark view of man’s imperfectibility and its pragmatic arguments for a strong sovereign, Leviathan severed Hobbes’s ties to the then exiled Stuarts. For Hobbes made it clear that his sovereign could be either a monarch or a parliament (‘one man, or an assembly of men’).31 His conception was thus very far removed from the divine-right absolutism of a Stuart loyalist like Sir Robert Filmer, the author of Patriarcha.

John Locke’s first Treatise of Government (1690) was a rebuttal of Filmer, but his second Treatise offered a more searching and original challenge to Hobbes. Far from a strong sovereign’s being the solution to a natural state of war, Locke argued, the true state of nature is harmonious; it is the would-be absolutist, in seeking to ‘take away Freedom’, who is at war with society.32 People do not choose to be governed purely out of fear. As ‘a Society of Rational Creatures’, they enter into ‘a Community for their mutual good’. In a commonwealth constituted on this basis, Locke suggested, power is merely delegated by ‘Civil Society’ to a ‘Legislative’, whose majority decisions are based on the implicit consent of all citizens. In contradistinction to Hobbes’s belief that the sovereign must be unitary and indivisible, Locke explicitly favoured separating the ‘Executive’ and what he called the ‘Federative’ branches from the Legislative, though he saw the Legislative as the dominant institution, with the responsibility for appointing judges as well as for making laws. Even more striking is the difference between Hobbes’s theory of liberty and Locke’s. According to the former, ‘the liberty of a subject, lieth … only in those things, which … the sovereign hath praetermitted [that is, explicitly conceded]’ – in cases of ‘the silence of the law’, the presumption must be in favour of the sovereign. Locke saw the matter quite differently:

Where there is no Law, there is no Freedom … The Legislative … is bound to dispense Justice … by promulgated standing Laws, and known Authoris’d Judges … designed for no other end ultimately but the good of the People.33

Freedom in Locke’s view was something quite distinctive. It was a man’s ‘Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another …’34Here was the heart of the matter: ‘The great and chief end therefore, of Men’s uniting into Commonwealths … is the preservation of their Property.’35 And the Legislative may not ‘take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent’, meaning a consent of the majority of representatives to taxation. This had truly revolutionary implications, as Locke well knew, writing as he was so soon after the events of 1688:

the Legislative being only a Fiduciary Power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the People a Supream Power to remove or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.36

Though only one American edition of the Two Treatises appeared before 1776 – and an imperfect edition at that – Locke’s ideas would have a seminal influence on the development of both society and politics in North America. By contrast, Latin America’s politics after independence would end up oscillating between Hobbes’s anarchic state of nature and a crude caricature of his authoritarian sovereign.

The New World represented a vast addition of territory to the West European monarchies. The key question that faced the new settlers in the Americas – Spaniards in the south, Britons in the north – was how to allocate all this new land. Their answers to this question would ultimately determine the future leadership of Western civilization. They could scarcely have been more different.

When the captain of the first ship to arrive in the Carolinas stepped on to the beach he brought with him an institutional template for the New World – one that had the issue of land at its heart. ‘The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina’ were drawn up in March 1669 by none other than Locke, in his capacity as secretary to one of Carolina’s eight ‘Lords Proprietor’, the Earl of Shaftesbury. The document is remarkable as much for the things the colonists did not adopt as for what they did adopt. Obedient to his aristocratic patron, who was anxious to ‘avoid erecting a numerous democracy’, Locke outlined a scheme that would have established a hereditary aristocracy and a hierarchical society in the Americas, complete with a supreme lord palatine, landgraves, baronies and all kinds of oddities like caziques and leet-men, as well as strict limits on the alienation and subdivision of land from their large estates. He also sought to ban professional lawyers, arguing that ‘it shall be a base and vile thing to plead for money or reward’. And, to his considerable discomfiture, he was forced by his noble patron to include an article (number 96) naming the Church of England as the established Church of Carolina.37 The colonists wisely ignored most of this, but they did retain one of Locke’s key assumptions – that there should be a link between political representation and property-ownership. Article 4 specified that three-fifths of the land was to be divided ‘amongst the people’. Articles 71 and 72 declared that there would be a parliament, meeting biennially, and that:

No man shall be chosen a member of parliament who has less than five hundred acres of freehold within the precinct for which he is chosen; nor shall any have a vote in choosing the said member that hath less than fifty acres of freehold within the said precinct.

Much therefore hinged on how the land in Carolina would be divided up.

For a time it was feared that the first fleet of settlers sent to Carolina had been lost at sea. When it was discovered that they had in fact arrived safely, what became known as the Barbados Proclamation was drawn up to regulate the distribution of land. The important thing was that there was a guaranteed minimum: ‘To every freeman that shall arrive there to plant and inhabit before the 25 March 1672 one hundred akers of land to him and his heires for ever …’. But what if there were insufficient freemen to take advantage of this offer? The obvious answer was that when the indentured servants had served out their time – usually five or six years – they too should be given land.

Life in England had been hard for Millicent How and Abraham Smith. The Atlantic crossing had been fraught with peril and they were doubtless aware that significant numbers of immigrants to the North American colonies did not survive the first year or two of ‘seasoning’. But here was an incentive to run those risks. In England property rights were secure, but property was held in a few hands. (In 1436 between 6,000 and 10,000 families of nobles and gentry had owned around 45 per cent of the land; the Church 20 per cent; the Crown 5 per cent.) But in America even the lowest of the low had the chance to get a first foot on the property ladder. This was the essence of the headright system, also introduced in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was a system that made perfect sense in colonies where land was plentiful and labour in short supply.38 As Locke observed in his ‘Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interests’: ‘Most nations in the civilized parts of the world are more or less rich or poor, proportionably to the paucity or plenty of their people and not the sterility or fruitfulness of their lands.’ Rival empires – like the Spanish and Dutch – did not make ‘any improvement by planting; what they do in the East Indies being only by war, trade, and building of fortified towns and castles upon the seacoast, to secure the sole commerce of the places and with the people whom they conquer, not by clearing, breaking up of the ground, and planting, as the English have done’.39 Not only was this active planting of land an economically superior form of imperialism. It also legitimized the expropriation of land from indigenous hunter-gatherers. In Locke’s words: ‘As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the Common.’40 Indian hunting grounds were, by this definition of private property, terra nullius – ownerless land, ripe for development. This was a charter for expropriation.

Every land transaction since the arrival of the first settlers is recorded in the North Charleston Conveyancing Office, including all the small plots granted to the men and women who had fulfilled the terms of their deed of indenture. Millicent How and Abraham Smith were duly given, respectively, 100 acres and 270 acres of land, to keep or sell as they saw fit. They had indeed arrived – not only economically but also politically. For Locke had made it clear in his ‘Fundamental Constitutions’ that in Carolina it would be landowners who held political power. If you were a man like Abraham Smith – although not a woman like Millicent How – and owned 50 or more acres of land, then you could vote as well as sit on a jury. With 500 acres you could become a member of the Carolina assembly or a judge. And, crucially, as a voter, a juryman or a member of parliament, you had one and only one vote, regardless of whether you owned the minimum number of acres or a hundred times that amount.

This property-owners’ democracy had a homespun start. The first elected representatives of Carolina originally met upstairs at number 13, Church Street, a modest Charleston house. Yet institutions like this were to be the launching pad for a revolution in government. The English Crown had laid the foundations of its American empire simply by granting rights to trading companies. Though governors were royally appointed, there was an assumption that the colonists should have their own representative assemblies, which followed logically from their origins as chartered companies. And indeed, they wasted little time in establishing such bodies. The Virginia assembly met for the first time as early as 1619. By 1640 eight such assemblies existed in the British colonies, including Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, Connecticut, Plymouth and New Haven as well as Barbados.41 No such institutions existed in Latin America.

The key, in short, was social mobility – the fact that a man like Abraham Smith could arrive in a wilderness with literally nothing and yet within just a few years become both a property-owner and a voter. In seven out of thirteen future American states on the eve of the American Revolution, the right to vote was a function of landownership or the payment of a property tax – rules that remained in force in some cases well into the 1850s.

In the Spanish colonies to the south, land had been allocated in a diametrically different way.

In a cedula (decree) dated 11 August 1534, Francisco Pizarro granted Jerónimo de Aliaga and another conquistador named Sebastián de Torres a vast domain – an encomienda – called Ruringuaylas, in the beautiful valley of Callejón de Huaylas in the Peruvian Andes. The valley was fertile, the mountains full of precious ore. The question facing de Aliaga was how to exploit these resources. The answer was quite unlike the one devised by John Locke for North America.

At first it was not land that was being given to de Aliaga and Torres; technically, it was just the labour of the 6,000 or so Indians who lived here. Unlike in British colonies like Carolina, where acres were widely distributed, in Spanish America it was the right to exploit the indigenous people that was granted to a tiny elite. Previously, they had worked for the Inca Emperor under the mita system. Now their lot was to work for the Spaniards. It was essentially a tribute system – and tribute took the form of toil. The Indians were de Aliaga’s to direct as he pleased, whether to plough the land or to dig gold and silver out of the mountains. This system changed only slightly with the introduction in 1542 of the repartimiento de labor, which imposed royal control over the allocation of native labour in response to reports of abuse by the encomenderos. (Torres was in fact murdered by some of his Indian workers because of his cruelty.) Encomiendas were not granted in perpetuity to a man and his heirs; under Castilian law, the land on which they stood remained the property of the Crown; they were not even supposed to be fenced. Only slowly did they evolve into hereditary haciendas.42 But the ultimate result was that the conquistador class became the idle rich of America. The majority of people were left with only tiny plots of land. Even among Spanish immigrants, the encomenderos were a minority, perhaps as few as 5 per cent of the Hispanic population in Peru.43Because, despite the depredations of disease, indigenous labour remained relatively abundant – population density in 1700 in the three leading Spanish colonies was several times greater than in the British mainland colonies – the Spaniards felt no need to import indentured labour from Europe on a large scale. Indeed, from the early sixteenth century the Spanish government went out of its way to restrict migration to its American colonies.44 Under Spanish rule, as a result, there was none of the upward mobility that characterized British America.

Spanish rule also meant Roman Catholicism, which was not all bad – it was the Dominican missionary Fray Pedro de Córdoba who first exposed the appalling abuse of the indigenous peoples under the encomienda system – but fundamentally a monopoly of another sort. North America, on the other hand, became home to numerous Protestant sects; dissent and diversity were among the organizing principles of British settlement. This had its shadow side (the Salem witchcraft trials spring to mind), but the clear benefit was the creation of a society of merchants and farmers committed to religious as well as political freedom. In article 97 of his ‘Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina’, John Locke made clear the extent of the British commitment to religious toleration:

Since the natives of that place, who will be concerned in our plantation, are utterly strangers to Christianity, whose idolatry, ignorance, or mistake gives us no right to expel or use them ill; and those who remove from other parts to plant there will unavoidably be of different opinions concerning matters of religion, the liberty whereof they will expect to have allowed them, and it will not be reasonable for us, on this account, to keep them out; that civil peace may be maintained amidst diversity of opinions, and our agreement and compact with all men may be duly and faithfully observed; the violation whereof, upon what presence soever, cannot be without great offence to Almighty God, and great scandal to the true religion which we profess; and also that Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion may not be scared and kept at a distance from it, but, by having an opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, may, by good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing methods of gentleness and meekness, suitable to the rules and design of the gospel, be won over to embrace and unfeignedly receive the truth; therefore, any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession, to which they shall give some name, to distinguish it from others [emphasis added].

It took remarkable self-confidence, after so many years of bitter religious conflict in Europe, to envisage a society in which just seven people could legitimately start a new church. These profound differences between the civil societies of colonial North and South America would have enduring consequences when the time came for them to govern themselves independently.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!