The Quest for Land

The people who came to the Americas from Europe were, as Roosevelt suggests, motivated not so much by the promise of empire as by the promise of a freehold and minimal government encroachment on their freedom. Accompanying this mass migration of people from Europe to the North American coast and then into the vast interior a small number of transnational intellectuals recognized the incongruity of conquering a less advanced people in the interest of individual liberty. Opportunists and the agents of the State might continue to act out man's inhumanity to man in vulgar fashion; what appeared and then increased, however, was the number of voices in the wilderness, crying out against injustice. And yet, there was a recognition on the part of leaders among the Europeans as well as the indigenous tribes that justice demanded a sharing of the earth's bounty. Meeting with the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, George Thomas, in 1742, the Iroquois chief Canassateego drove to the heart of the problem between those who controlled the land and the newcomers:

We know our lands are now become more valuable. The white people think we do not know their value; but we are sensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone.

The response by Thomas, measured and thoughtful, provides the basis on which the Europeans legitimately had an equal claim, an equal birthright, to the land: It is very true that lands are of late becoming more valuable; but what raises their value? Is it not entirely owing to the industry and labor used by the white people in their cultivation and improvement? Had not they come among you, these lands would have been of no use to you, any further than to maintain you. And is there not, now you have sold so much, enough left for all the purposes of living? What you say of the goods, that they are soon worn out, is applicable to everything; but you know very well that they cost a great deal of money; and the value of land is no more than it is worth in money.

To the extent that Thomas meant exchange value as represented by coinage or other form of money, he espoused the demand theory of value. Although the indigenous tribes bartered and relied upon certain commodity standards for money, territory was acquired not by purchase or exchange but held by force of arms. With the creation of grants, charters and titleholdings, the Europeans had merely advanced the art of sanctioned criminal license to a more cultivated level. The indigenous people were, however, only the first victims of the privilege carried forward into the socio-political arrangements and institutions of the new confederation become union of sovereign states. After war between these states reduced the states to subordinate positions within a continental empire, the consequences of privilege became clear, at least to some. Among the vanguard of those warning of worsening conditions was Henry George:

Even if universal history did not teach the lesson, it is in the United States already becoming very evident that political equality can continue to exist only upon a basis of social equality; that where the disparity in the distribution of wealth increases, political democracy only makes easier the concentration of power, and must inevitably lead to tyranny and anarchy. And it is already evident that there is nothing in political democracy, nothing in popular education, nothing in any of our American institutions, to prevent the most enormous disparity in the distribution of wealth. ...We already have citizens whose wealth can be estimated only in hundreds of millions, and before the end of the century, if present tendencies continue, we are likely to have fortunes estimated in thousands of millions -- such monstrous fortunes as the world has never seen since the growth of similar fortunes ate out the heart of Rome.

What, after all, had brought millions of Europeans to the Americas was the quest for land and a better life. Conditions in Europe were such that "[t]he general productivity of agriculture was still too low [as late as the sixteenth century] that no country could totally guarantee a basic level of subsistence for the whole of its population every year out of its own resources." Peasants in every country suffered from heavy taxation and land rents as well as from a denial of political liberty. Along the coastal tidewaters of North America, the descendants of earlier immigrants had by the early eighteenth century accumulated considerable personal wealth; newer arrivals sought to repeat the process by moving to the frontier. Sounding very much like Henry George, Jackson Turner Main found that the North American promise of equality of opportunity was amazingly short-lived:

When the frontier stage had ended, and society became stable, the chance to rise diminished. All the land worth owning was now occupied, and land prices rose, so that the sons of pioneers and the newcomers could not so easily improve their positions. Mobility therefore diminished as the community grew older.

Under these pressures, the civilization of pre-European America had little chance of maintaining a sovereign existence. Their numbers were, in the end, not even large enough for them to become an important minority among the minorities who eventually came forward to challenge the dominant European-American population. As we know from the experience of the last four hundred years, the pace of change in the direction of adherence to a doctrine of human rights has been agonizingly slow. An argument can be made that an equal or even larger portion of the world's population today suffers from oppression and economic deprivation than in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Even in the world's social democracies (a group of societies recently enlarged, one might argue, to include some of the eastern European societies the various republics comprising the Soviet Union) power and privilege continue to be concentrated, as is the control over land and natural resources. In some societies this control remains largely private; in others, privilege manifests itself in the hands of bureaucrats and the State. In North America during the period of frontier expansion, control of the land was taken away from the indigenous tribes by people in constant motion along a 1,500 mile front that moved westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, then converged on the remaining tribes from all sides.