Thursday, July 06, 2006

I Would Have Been Revolting

Via Radley Balko, I read Tyler Cowen’s post in which he muses about whether he would have supported the American War for Independence had he been alive back in the day:

As a family historian, I have had occasion to ponder the actions and attitudes of my ancestors. These varied considerably depending on their social class, religion, place of residence and other factors.

For example, one of my Quaker forebears signed a letter disavowing the Boston Tea Party and assuring the Crown of the signers’ commitment to good order. His faith prevented him from taking up arms for either side, and he had the good fortune to live in an area where the Crown maintained effective control much of the time.

Another was a Virginia landowner of some significance and Colonel of the militia, and he threw in his lot with the Rebels. He was motivated in part by a desire to get even more land beyond the proclamation line established by the Crown, and he had speculated in lands in Western North Carolina, later East Tennessee. Moreover, had he taken up the Loyalist cause, he would have been a target of his Rebel peers. He had much to gain from the Rebellion and everything to lose if it failed.

Another was a professional soldier from Prussia who came to North America to participate in the rebellion. I suppose he might have gone the other way if the Crown had been hiring and would have offered him equivalent rank and station.

The rest of my ancestors, and the kind of person I imagine that I would have been had I lived in those days, were frontiersmen and yeoman farmers. Their interests doubtless included the opening of lands beyond the proclamation line (elites in the tidewater and piedmont controlled the land there) and pacification of the Cherokee, Shawnee and Creek tribesmen. They had little love for the elites who controlled Virginia and the Carolinas, and it appears that their first impulse was to remain loyal to the Crown. Among the issues that turned them to the rebel cause were the alliance of the Crown with hostile Indians who threatened their homes and the fear that the Crown would arm slaves and Indians for a murderous uprising against the white colonists. Add to that the terrorism employed by Rebels against Loyalists, and you find that you are left with little choice but to embrace rebellion if you live in the backwoods.

If I were lucky, I might avoid taking up arms altogether. I am not aware of any ancestors in the Continental Army, but a number served in the armies of their states as militiamen. Quite a few managed to avoid military service altogether, I am proud to report. I like to think that my ancestors were not so naïve as to buy into the propaganda of liberty and that they made their choices based on the interests of their families as they understood them at the time. I reckon that I would have been a reluctant Rebel for the same reasons that they were.

The results of the Rebellion for my family came in the form of bounty lands, eligibility for extra draws in the Cherokee land lotteries, the chance to speculate in western lands, and the opportunity to drive the Indians from their lands and claim them for their own. The Crown might have afforded the same opportunities if it had not had scruples about screwing the Indians and if it had not chosen to ally itself with them. My family was able to move westward into the Blue Ridge highlands and Cumberland Plateau and to establish farms and enterprises in the wilderness, whereas they had previously been hemmed in by elites in the east and Indians, and the proclamation line, in the west. Otherwise, in terms of laws and liberties, things were not much changed. Rulers in Britain were replaced by similarly minded rulers in the east, and frontiersmen didn’t exert much influence for decades.

Ironically, when the government that the Rebels had fought to establish got control of the western lands and the monopoly on dealing with the Indians, it adopted a policy of treating with the Indians and discouraging encroachments. Moreover, the federal western lands were closed to homesteading and were made available for sale in such large lots that only wealthy speculators had much chance to acquire land. The US Army raided and destroyed communities of squatters in the Ohio valley in furtherance of its policies. Westward expansion was delayed considerably, and it was up to the states to prosecute campaigns of harassment against the Indians and to distribute their lands to whites.


Kevin Carson said...

Your treatment of the lands west of the proclamation line is sure a lot different from the account of Hernando De Soto, who makes it sound like the central theme of American history was regularizing the property rights of squatters. I wonder if that happened in the same universe as Bearded Spock.

Vache Folle said...


A lot of the political machinations of folks like Andrew Jackson were aimed at securing title for settlers who had crossed over into Indian lands, for example in Tennessee. This was a struggle against the mainstream in the federal government. The states, such as Georgia and Tennessee, aimed to promote white settlement whereas the federal government aimed at times to promote stable relations with the Indians and to assert control over Indian relations and Indian lands.

It also makes a difference whether we are talking about purely federal lands or Indian lands within more easterly states. Land sales were the federal government's second largest source of revenue, and land grants were a means of investing in public works and enriching influential constituents. Except for a program in the Oregon Territory, which was not attracting settlers at a satisfactory rate, federal lands were not given away to homesteaders until the Homestead Act of 1863.

Historians may, if it serves their purposes, interpret the trends broadly as De Soto does, but from the perspective of my ancestors, this was something that they had to fight for. It was by no means a given that "squatters' rights" would ever be recognized as legitimate, especially since there were significant regional differences in philosophy about the acquisition of land titles.