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his father and his father's father, by the desire for
opportunity, an opportunity that was offered by the
free land upon the frontier.


This movement continued at an accelerated pace
during the generation which followed the Civil War.
These were years of phenomenal railway develop-
ment. During the five years to September, 1873,
$1,700,000,000 was expended in railway building.
36,000 miles of line were constructed, more than had
been laid in the preceding generation. Much of this
development was to the west of the Mississippi.
Since that time railway construction has continued,
until to-day the total mileage is in excess of 224,000.
This is equivalent to an eight-track railway com-
pletely encircling the globe. During this period set-
tlement followed the railways, just as formerly it
had crept up the rivers, or followed the great lakes or
wagon routes. A free homestead of 160 acres
was a mirage of hope. It was the voice of oppor-
tunity calling to the pioneer. It depopulated Ire-
land. It brought to our shores the most adventu-
rous spirits of Europe. It converted the hills of New
England into a region of deserted farms. More re-
cently it has lured the college men of the East to the
prairie states and mining camps. The frontier has
been pushed on and still further on. Population has
crossed the broad arid belt which, up to a few years
ago, was known as 'Hhe Great American Desert."
It reached and crossed the Rocky Mountains, in the
face of the declaration of Thomas Benton that at
these mountains 'Hhe western limits of the Republic
should be drawn, and the statue of the fabled god,


Terminus, should be raised to the highest peak, never
to be thrown down."

America has repeated the history of other nations.
The desire to be free, to satisfy one's desires with the
minimum of effort, has filled in the open spaces of
America and is now spilling our surplus population
over into Canada and Mexico.

At last the waves of population have broken on the
Pacific slope. But that the hunger for land is as
intense as ever is demonstrated whenever an Indian
reservation is opened up to settlement. Upon the
borders of these reservations, tens of thousands of
persons gather, impatiently awaiting the signal to
enter and take possession of the promised land.
Like an avalanche they pour in upon the opened ter-
ritory, conscious that the few remaining acres of our
once apparently inexhaustible domain are being
fenced in forever.

The West is now enclosed. The world-long drift
of peoples has finally come to an end. It has reached
an impassable barrier in the Pacific Ocean. The
free land of the nation has been taken up. There is
now no homestead to be had for the asking. The
frontier has only a historical significance. The
public domain is almost wholly gone. "The pubHc
lands which now remain are chiefly arid in character,"
says the Public Land Commission.* The oppor-
tunity for a home, which for three centuries has been

* Senate Document No. 188, 58th Congress, 3d session, p. 3.


open to all, has been finally closed by occupancy or
fraudulently appropriated by individuals and cor-
porations in collusion with the government. No
longer is America the commons of the world. The
steady stream of home-seekers which for three cent-
uries drifted across the face of the continent, has
ceased to pass our doors.

This enclosure of the American West, for three
centuries the ager puhlicus of the world, terminated
the greatest single movement of modern history.
It marks the close of the first real cycle of American
life, a cycle which has been repeating itself, at various
epochs in the history of the world, from the dawn
of Western civilization. In a big perspective, it may
be likened to the fall of Rome, the opening up of a
new route to India by Vasco da Gama, or the dis-
covery of America by Columbus. In so far as it
affects America, it marks the end of an era. In so
far as it brings to an end twenty centuries of west-
ward migration, it is revolutionary. It marks a
turning-point in the world.



One need not accept the materialistic conception
of history to find in the free pubHc lands of America
the greatest single influence in our life. Under-
neath the surface the great movements of democracy
— political, social, industrial — have been moulded
by the free land and the sense of freedom which it
awakened in all. To this call every instinct of
democracy has been attuned. This has been true
from the very beginning.

It is economic liberty that has moulded our politi-
cal institutions. It is the free public lands of the West
that have made us free. It was this that inspired
the Declaration of Independence, it was this that
led to the separation of the colonies from England, it
is this that has ever vitalized American democracy.
We have been taught that the Revolution was a pro-
test of Englishmen against an invasion of the rights
secured by Magna Charta; that the interference of
Parliament with the colonist aroused the Anglo-
Saxon in his new home to a spirit of revolt. All
these things were irritating, it is true, but the sense
of security of the colonists was menaced in a far



graver way. According to a recent historian, it was
a proclamation of George III that the '^hinterland"
to the west of the Alleghany Mountains should
be closed to further settlement that aroused the
colonies to resistance/ The settler had always
looked upon the West as part of his possessions,
secured to him by grants of the Crown and confirmed
by his own sacrifice and suffering. Long before the
French and Indian War he had come in conflict
with the French over the region to the west of the
mountains, and New England, as well as Virginia,
had joined with the mother country to drive a tra-
ditional foe from the menacing position which it oc-
cupied in the rear. The American looked upon the
continent as his own and, upon the close of the war
with France, he expected to be confirmed in his
original grants. Instead of this George III issued an
order forbidding the colonists to purchase land from
the Indians, or to make any settlements in the re-
gions acquired from France. The British Board of
Trade enforced this order. It refused its consent
to petitions for land. By this order the colonist was
limited to the seaboard, his dreams of economic inde-
pendence were destroyed. And it was to preserve
this opportunity to himself and his children that he
took up arms against the mother country.

And just as this instinct for freedom and the desire
for Western lands led to war with Great Britain, so

^Foundatiom of Modern Europe, Emil Reich, p. 9.


the fruits of the war later preserved the Union. The
territory to the west of the Alleghanies became the
property of the Colonies by conquest. The title was
in dispute. The conflicting claims of the states were
finally settled by the abandonment of the north-west
territory to the Federal Government.^ It became
the property of the nation. The states that were
born thereafter were children of the Union. They
claimed no traditions of state sovereignty, they had
no memories of independence. This great territory
was a bond of nationality, which held the states
together in the years which follow^ed. It was an
ager publicus, the folk-land of all the people. It
cemented the nation. It gave the people a common
interest and a common purse.

Just as the public lands formed the strongest bond
of nationality in the years when the sense of union
was forming, so the same public lands were the pri-
mary cause of the attempted dissolution of the Union.
The expansion of the West threatened the institution
of slavery. The new states carved out of the prairies
disturbed the balance of power which had thereto-

^"The territory embraced within the present states of Ohio, In-
diana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, that part of
Minnesota lying east of the Mississippi River, and all of Alabama
and Mississippi lying north of the thirty-first parallel was held by
Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, North Carolina,
South Carolina, and Georgia under grants from Great Britain during
their coloniarcondition. These territorial interests were surrendered
to the general government of the Union by the last named states
. . . and constituted the nucleus of our public domain." The Pub-
lic Domain, Donaldson, p. 10.


fore existed. The dominion of the slave states in
Congress was jeopardized. This was especially true
in the Senate. There the commonwealths enjoyed
equal representation. Even the most solemn sanc-
tions of the Constitution could not prevent a conflict
between the divergent economic systems of the North
and the South. Thus it was that the public land
united the nation at a time when it most needed
cohesion, and at a later date threatened the dis-
memberment of that which it had so largely con-
tributed to save.

The West is the real birthplace of American de-
mocracy. The seaboard states have ever been
aristocratic in thought and interest. The frontier
jealousy resented any interference from a distance.
And the states carved out of the West have impressed
their influence on politics, industry, education, and
character. They came into the Union with full man-
hood suffrage. They exulted in their freedom, and
their note has ever been one of protest, of independ-
ence, of liberty. The West has constantly drawn to
itself the restless forces of discontent. Men crushed
by competition it has called. Men eager for personal
freedom it has invited. In this sense the West has
been the escape-valve of America. The buoyancy of
our character is traceable to the free democracy which
was founded on a freehold inheritance of land.

Our politics have been quickened by this sense of
economic liberty. The attitude of the West has been


that of the pathfinder. It is pioneer-hke and feels
that the present owes no obhgations to the past.
Education is highly cherished. The state univer-
sities are close to the people. The public has an
affectionate regard for higher learning and utilizes
its institutions in many ways for the promotion of
local matters. Here, the girl looks forward to higher
education just as does the boy, and both attend col-
lege together. In Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and
Idaho suffrage has been extended to women, while in
North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Oklahoma,
Missouri, and Montana democracy has popularized
all legislation through the initiative and referendum.
The free public lands have moulded industry no
less than politics. Free land has determined the
scale of wages as well as the opportunity for em-
ployment. No man will remain in another's employ
for less wages than he can earn on his own home-
stead. And in all new countries the wages which
prevail are determined by what can be produced on
the land itself. During colonial days, the indented
servant was found along the seaboard. But no in-
denture of personal servitude crossed the Alleghany
Mountains. There can be no servitude, save that
of chattel slavery, where free lands are to be had
by the worker. The redemptioner and the tenant
speedily became home-owners, for free land was
always to be had just beyond the line of settlement.
Here was independence, and the hope that was born


of independence. Here was freedom from the servi-
tude of the master and the landlord. Here a new
life, under new conditions, was open to all. It is this
that explains the high standard of living that has
prevailed in America. It is not due to the protective
tariff, it is due to the fact that the wage-earner could
adopt another alternative, and an alternative that
left him a free man. It is this that has determined
wages in America. It is this that explains the gen-
eral well-being which prevails in all new countries.

''While free lands exist," says Achille Loria, the
celebrated Italian economist, ''that can be cultivated
by labor alone, and when a man without capital may,
if he choose, establish himself upon an unoccupied
area, capitalistic property is out of the question: as
no laborer is disposed to work for a capitalist when
he can labor on his own account upon land that
costs him nothing. Evidently, therefore, while such
conditions prevail, the laborers will simply take pos-
session of the free lands and apply their labor to the
soil, adding to this the capital they accumulate. "*

This is what occurred in America. It was free
land that raised the American wage-earner above the
laborer of Europe. It was the amount produced
upon the free land that determined wages. This con-
trolled wages in all other industries. It was this
that raised our workers to industrial efficiency. It
was this hope that has made them resourceful. Up

• Economic Foundations of Society, p. 2.


to very recently the wage-earner always dreamed of
a larger success. The free land of the West is also
responsible for America's industrial eminence. It
is the coal and the iron, the copper and the oil, the
wheat, corn and cotton fields of the West and South
that have given us supremacy. It is not protec-
tion, it is freedom of trade between our states and
freedom of access to the resources of the earth that
awakened industry. It was a free field open to all
that developed our powers. It built our railroads,
telegraphs, and telephones; it girded the earth with
steamships and revolutionized all industry. It
placed the wheat-fields of the Dakotas alongside of
the mills and factories of old England. It built our
cities; it gave diversity, strength, and independence
to life and character.

The generation which closed with the century
was one of intense competition and splendid achieve-
ment. It was a generation devoted to harnessing
nature to the service of man. It brought forward
the captains of industry. They were men familiar
with every process from the bench to the counting-
room. Human talent enjoyed an opportunity un-
paralleled in the history of the world. Democracy
at work on the undeveloped resources of the country
produced an array of men, masters of their craft and
leaders in their respective communities.

There is no more conclusive demonstration of the
economic basis of all life, of all progress, of all civil-


ization, in fact, than the history of the development
of America. It was not poUtical, it was economic
Hberty that made America what she is. It mat-
tered not from what section of the earth men came
or what their previous environment had been, those
of force pushed their way to the fore and grew strong
by contact with obstacles in a way that suggests
the achievements of Drake and Hawkins, whose
daring exploits opened the way for the expansion
of England over distant seas. It was economic
opportunity that made the American people what
they are. It was our unparalleled resources that
gave us a position of industrial supremacy. The
leaders of the age came up from the sod and the mill.
They did so, not because they were politically free,
but because they were industrially free.

That which is true of America is true of the world.
In the last analysis the institutions of a people are
but the reflection of the economic foundations upon
which they are laid. This is true of politics, of in-
dustry, of morals, of religion. A people's destiny is
determined by its economic environment. And the
relation of the people to the land is the controlling
influence of all else. A nation of home-owners is es-
sentially free, no matter what the political forms of
the state may be. Such a people is bound to be
democratic. All history bears witness to this fact.
It is the difference in the method of land tenure that
explains the political as well as the social institu-


tions of modern Europe. The countries of Switzer-
land, Holland, Denmark, France, and south Ger-
many are countries in which widely distributed
ownership prevails. On the other hand, Prussia,
Great Britain, and Russia are still feudal to the core.
It is the difference in the relation of these peoples to
the land on which they dwell that explains the es-
sential democracy of the former countries and the
caste and aristocracy of the latter. The social posi-
vion and political power of the ruling classes in the
latter countries are due to their economic rather than
to their political privileges. The privileged orders are
weakest where the land is most widely distributed;
they are strongest where the feudal system is least
impaired. If a nation is reared upon land monop-
oly its political institutions will reflect monopoly.
They are bound to be aristocratic. Those who own
the land will own the government. And wherever
the people are industrially free, wherever they own
their own homes, political institutions will reflect
that freedom.

With the enclosure of the land a change has come
over the spirit of our life. Population is crowding
in upon the cities. The energetic wage-earner, who
formerly followed the western trail, is now entering
the trades-union. Here he finds expression for the
energy which formerly found an outlet in the West.
It is this that explains the present industrial un-
rest. It is this that accounts for the political fer-


merit. No longer can the discontented improve his
fortunes in another longitude. He must remain at
home as a tenant or a wage-earner. The alternative
of a homestead, which for three centuries relieved
the pressure of the world, is now closed forever.

Such is the significance of the American West.
Such are some of its contributions to our life. And
this development of ours is not an isolated phenome-
non. It is but a reflection of that which has gone

Thus it is, as Loria has said, that America offers a
key to the enigma which Europe has sought for cent-
uries in vain. Thus the land which has no history
reveals the course of universal history. For just as
the frontier offers a mirror in which the political,
social, and industrial conditions of colonial times
may be studied, so America offers a mirror of the
evolution of the western world from the expansion
of Rome down to date. So, too, the conditions
which the countries of Europe now present, disclose
to us the problems which we ourselves must pres-
ently face.


We have seen that the settlement of America was
but the final act in a drama, whose beginnings coin-
cide with the dawn of Western civilization. Century
by century the process of nation-building has re-
peated itself, even the details being the same. This
has been true in the enclosure of the American West.
The experiences of Rome, of feudal Europe, of
England, and of Ireland have been reproduced in
almost every line of our public land policy.

When the Federal Constitution was adopted the
United States was the undisputed owner of almost
all the land between the Alleghany Mountains and
the Mississippi River. This territory formed the first
public land of the nation. The Louisiana purchase
added 1,182,000 square miles to this domain, which
was confirmed as to the Oregon country by the ex-
plorations of Lewis and Clark. The acquisition of
Florida increased the public lands by 54,000 square
miles, while the Gadsden purchase, by means of
which the southern part of Arizona was acquired,
added 25,000 square miles more. Texas, with an
area of 265,000 square miles, was annexed in 1845;
but as this territory had been temporarily independ-



ent, its unoccupied lands did not become part of the
public domain. Leaving out of consideration the
recently acquired Pacific islands, the total area of
the public domain of the United States amounted to
1,849,072,587 acres, or about 3,000,000 square miles.
Its cost to the nation was four and seven-tenths cents
an acre.^ This land was the unencumbered posses-
sion of the people. America was the greatest land-
lord in the world.

No such opportunity was ever offered to any ^
people. One cannot help dreaming of the America \
that might have been had this imperial domain been \
retained as the common possession of the nation.
Had the government reserved the title, and leased
the land under proper protection for improvements
in such quantities and as increasing population re-
quired, involuntary poverty need never have ap-
peared among us, while homes for unnumbered
millions would still be waiting in the prairies to
the west of the Mississippi River. Under such a
policy there would have been no million-acre estates
held for speculation and idle uses. The Pacific
railroads would not have acquired a twelfth of the
total public domain. Instead of a nation in which
one-half of the people have no homes of their own
there would have been ample abiding-places for
many times our present number. For were America
settled as densely as is France, there would be room

» The Public Domain, Donaldson, pp. 14, 21.


for 480,000,000 people instead of one-sixth that
number. Were the population no denser than it
is in Germany, there would be accommodation for
800,000,000 people. For the empire of Germany
could be laid across the face of Texas and still
leave unoccupied an area three times the size of

America could support five times its present popu-
lation in far greater comfort than that now enjoyed
by a large portion of the people, had the public
lands been allotted only as the needs of the people
demanded. For the resources of America surpass
those of all Europe. Had the nation reserved the
title of the land and leased it to users, the colossal
fortunes that have been contributed to the owners
of city and suburban sites would have remained in
the hands of the people. The same is true of the
mineral resources. Instead of enriching a handful
of men, who control, but do not develop, the iron,
the coal, the copper, the oil, and the natural gas
deposits, these resources would have remained the
common heritage of us all. By means of periodic
revaluations of the rental value we could have dis-
pensed with all other taxes and maintained ourselves
in affluence out of the increasing rents and royalties
of the public lands. The mineral deposits could have
been leased to private operators, just as many of
them are to-day by their owners, and worked under
such conditions as the Government saw fit to impose.


Under such restrictions no billion-dollar monopolies
would have been created, competition would have
continued as in other lines of industry, while the
recurring wars of capital and labor would have been
forever impossible.

Had such a policy been pursued, opportunity
would still exist for unborn generations. In such a
nation there would be no landlords and no tenants.
The tenement and the slum would never have ap-
peared with the disease, poverty, and vice which they
inevitably produce. Crime would have remained at
a minimum, for crime is the product of poverty and
the lack of opportunity to work. In such a society
wages would have been determined by the will of the
worker, for opportunity would still be calling in the
unoccupied prairies of the public domain. Then
labor w^ould have the alternative to work for itself.
And this is always the determining factor in the
fixing of wages.

There is nothing extraordinary about such a policy.
It is not even difficult of execution. The Govern-
ment has adopted just such a method in dealing with
the land of the Indian tribes of Oklahoma. It has
probably not been carried out with any critical jus-
tice for the Indians and yet the returns from this
source are colossal.^

* The government has treated the Indians as its wards and leased
their lands on a royalty basis. The Osage Indians number 2,230.
Their reservation amoimts to 1,470,000 acres. From this source, by
means of grazing, oil and gas royalties, the selling of lots, and interest


But no such vision has guided our policy. To be
quickly rid of our resources and on any terms has
been a consuming passion with us. Human inge-
nuity could scarcely have devised a more wasteful
policy than that which has been pursued. This
was especially true during the decade which fol-

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Online LibraryFrederic Clemson HowePrivilege and democracy in America → online text (page 2 of 19)