Frederic Clemson Howe.

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manorial system came into conflict with the German
idea of common ownership under the village com-
munity. For the barbarians had no conception of
the absolute private ownership of the land. Among
them the land was owned in common by the village.
''The families forming the community had only the
right of enjoyment, the ownership of the soil resting
in the community itself." ^ The idea that one indi-
vidual might appropriate a part of the earth's surface,
and do with it as he willed, seems never to have oc-
curred to these, or to any other early people. It
was not permitted to one person, more aggressive
than his neighbors, to become the lord proprietor of
an immense estate, and pass it on from generation to
generation and from century to century, and ex-
clude his fellows from its use. Equality of economic
opportunity was the most fundamental, as it was the

* Primitive Property, Laveleye, p. 106.


most universal, idea of early society. Like the right
to breathe the air and enjoy the sunlight, the land was
the common possession of all. It was designed for
use, not for ownership. The motive of early society
was production. He who would use the land was
preferred to him who would not. Each oncoming
generation was thus assured an opportunity as full
and as free as its predecessor.

It was the communal ownership of the land that
explains the essential democracy of early European
peoples, just as it was the free public land of America
that lies at the basis of our own democracy. There
was little or no hereditary rank among the early
Teutons, save that which attached to age or charac-
ter. The leader was the first among equals. His
authority was the authority of superior ability or
wisdom. In the tribal organization every freeman
had a voice. This democracy of the Teutonic peoples
was economic. It sprang out of the common owner-
ship of the soil. It is this that explains the democ-
racy and comparative well-being of the people of
Switzerland. ^'In the primitive cantons of Switzer-
land," says Laveleye, '^institutions of the most
democratic character conceivable have secured the
inhabitants from the most remote times in the enjoy-
ment of liberty, equality, and order, and as great a
degree of happiness as is compatible with human
destinies. This exceptional good-fortune is attribu-
table to the fact that ancient communal institutions


have been preserved, and with them the primitive
communal ownership." ^

The village community, with its common owner-
ship of the land, is one of the most universal insti-
tutions of society. Sir Henry Maine says : '^It is
known to be of immense antiquity. In whatever
direction research has been pushed in Indian terri-
tory, it has always found the community in exist-
ence at the farthest point of its progress. . . . Con-
quests and revolutions seem to have swept over it
without disturbing or displacing it, and the most
beneficent systems of government in India have
always been those which have recognized it as a
basis of administration." Under it 'Hhe personal
relations to each other of the men who compose
it are indistinguishably confounded with their pro-
prietary rights. " ^ The village community is to be
found in Russia to-day, where it is said 'Ho be a
nearly exact repetition of the Indian community. " '
Research has found this idea of the common owner-
ship of the land in Russia, Germany, Great Britain,
Ireland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. It has been
found in Java, in Mexico, and in Peru, as well as in
New Zealand, India, and Africa.

In early Britain the same was true. The land of
the township belonged to the village. Each free-
man had a homestead of his own. This land was

' Primitive Property, Laveleye, p. 62.

^Ancient Law, p. 231. ^Idern, p. 237.


separated from the common stock. Around about
the enclosure lay the arable land. It was divided
into fields whose use was allotted to the members
of the community. These allotments were used for
farming, and from seed-time to harvest were under
the control of the freemen to whom they had been
assigned. There was individual ownership of the
crops, but not in the land. After the harvest had
been gathered the land was thrown open for pastur-
age, to be used by all.^

Under this system of land tenure rent was un-
known. The land belonged to all. That one man
should collect tribute from another for the use of that
which nature had provided for the community did not
enter the imagination of early peoples. It was this
sort of industrial democracy that came into conflict
with the land laws of Rome. In this conflict the
village community of the Germans was destroyed.
It was destroyed by the plantation system of the
Romans. The Roman landlord became the feudal
overlord; the German freeman degenerated into the
Latin tenant. Feudalism with its hierarchical organ-
ization of classes was the result. Common owner-
ship of the land was lost to humanity.

Such would seem to be the obvious explanation of
the origin of feudalism. Such an explanation is con-
firmed by the tenacity with which people cling to
their ideas of property. And of all laws those re-

' The Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages, E. Nasse, p. 10.


lating to land tenure are the most immutable. Re-
ligion and language may be abandoned. Forms
of government and the ideals of a people may be
altered. But the methods of land tenure persist.
They are carried by the emigrant to his new home.
They take root when other ideas are abandoned. We
see this in the persistence of the common law, which
has spread out from England over the whole western
world and carried with it the system of English
land tenure.

During the centuries which followed the disinte-
gration of the Roman Empire feudalism became a
system of organized society. It was, primarily, an
economic system. About the system of land tenure
the political, religious, and industrial institutions of
Europe were erected. The union of lord and vassal
was one of mutual service and protection. The
tenant bore arms in the time of war. He served
the master in time of peace. At the same time the
lord engaged to protect the vassal. Both had obli-
gations, both had rights.

But the land was still far from private property.
The great baron held his land from the king by the
performance of certain duties, just as the lesser
vassals held their lands from the baron by similar
services. These services, whether military, personal,
or servile, were the nexus of society. They were fixed
by custom. They were the same as taxes, for the
lack of money precluded the existence of any revenue


system. The basis of all relations was the land.
This was the economic foundation of the feudal order.
All of the activities and relations, whether political,
social, or industrial, sprang from this fact.

The distinguishing thing about the feudal tenure
was the joint ownership of the land by the crown,
the lord, and the vassal. Neither the one nor the
other was the absolute owner. The tenure of the
great baron was the same as the vassal's. Along
with the Roman ownership of the land by the lord
there survived certain Germanic ideas of the common
ownership by the people. Every person had to serve
some one above him as a condition of his occupancy.
Each class had certain fixed rights and obligations.
These obligations could not be changed, the services
could not be increased, the occupancy of the land
could not be taken away, except by agreement.
Absolute private ownership of the land, as we un-
derstand it, did not obtain. There was a blending of
the common ownership of the Germans with the ab-
solute ownership of the Romans. It was this that
distinguished the land tenure of the Middle Ages
from that which preceded it, and from that which we
have to-day.

But this condition did not continue. If it had, the
land of Europe would still be jointly held by all the
people, subject to certain fixed rents in the form of
taxes to the state. The rights of the vassals on the
one hand and of the crown on the other were de-


stroyed. The rights of both were absorbed by the
feudal barons, who became the absolute owners of
the land, just as they are to-day. The Roman law
destroyed the Germanic custom. By the eighteenth
century almost all of the land of Europe was held in
great estates as exclusive private property.

This change did not take place in a year or in a
generation, but in a series of generations, just as rail-
way monopoly in America is the product of an un-
conscious evolution covering a long period of time.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the
use of money became general. The personal services
of the feudal order were converted into money rent.
The vassal ceased to pay for his land in service. He
now paid in cash. The use of money also made pos-
sible the substitution of a paid army for military
duties. This absolved the barons from their ser-
vices to the crown. The economic framework of so-
ciety still centred about the land. But the lord
was freed from taxes and services, while the vassal
became a competitive cash tenant.

Modern landlordism had its beginning in these
changes. The personal relations of the vassal to the
lord as well as of the lord to the king were destroyed.
The lords came to treat the land as their own. They
lost all sense of obligation to their tenants. As pop-
ulation grew, so did the demand for land. The lords
substituted competitive rents for services fixed by
custom, The freeman lost his security of tenure and


with it his customary though Hmited ownership of
the land. The landlord now charged as much rent
as was possible. He was limited only by what an-
other would pay for the land. The vassal became
a tenant at his will. He might be evicted at the
whim or caprice of the owner. He now had to com-
pete with his fellows for that which had formerly
been partly his own. He gained his personal
freedom, but he lost materially by the destruction
of his ownership in the land.

The importance of this change, which reached its
culmination in the seventeenth and eighteenth cen-
turies, cannot be exaggerated. Through it every
vestige of the common or village ownership of the
land was destroyed. The free yeoman was reduced
to the position of a rack-rented tenant. He could
move from place to place, but he could not move off
from the face of the earth. Instead of the great
mass of serfs being raised to freedom, all of the free-
men were reduced to the position of tenants. Only
the symbols were changed. In many ways modern
tenancy is more oppressive than were the custom-
ary relations of the Middle Ages.^

' Under the feudal regime " the freeman . . . owed nothing to the
master; they were dependent upon him only in so far as he was their
landlord, only because they lived upon his lands. They were renters
or farmers in perpetuity. Their holding was a fragment of the great
domain. They cultivated it for their profit, on the condition of pay-
ing either a fixed amount, like our farm rents, or a certain part of
the produce, as in our farming on shares. Ln distinction from the
renter or farmer of our day, their condition was fixed forever; the land-


Such is the evolution of the private ownership of
the land. Such are the means by which the unpriv-
ileged classes were despoiled by their rulers. Such,
too, is the origin of rent, the modern equivalent of
serfdom. Both private ownership of the land and
the payment of rent for its use (aside from the pay-
ments of services, which were in reality payments
or taxes to the state) are of comparatively recent
origin. Landlordism made its way out of feudalism,
because the landed classes everywhere controlled the
state. Not only the state but the schools and the
universities, the bench and the bar, the Church and
all of the agencies of public opinion as well. Those
who had previously ruled by force now ruled by
law. Through law they gave a solemn sanction and
respect for their decrees. The idea of obedience was
taught by the Church as the first duty of man.

Private ownership of the land is a product of class
legislation, just as is the tariff, just as are the great
manorial estates which have been stolen from the
public domain in the West, just as are the privileges
which have been conferred upon the franchise cor-

lord could not take back their lands or increase their rent. On the con-
dition that they paid the old charges, they were free to dispose of their
holding, to bequeath it as they would, to transfer it, even (at least in
France) to parcel it out. . . . The difference is that while our farmers
have but a precarious position and are in danger of seeing their
charges increased at the end of the lease, the tenant of the middle
ages enjoyed an assured position, encumbered only with fixed
charges. He was consequently in a firmer position, one that was
nearer to ownership." — The Feudal Regime, by Charles Seignobos,
pp. 13 and 25.


porations and water-power companies of America
to-day. The ideas of the private ownership of the
land and of rent for its use are merely an evidence
of the long-continued control of the governments of
Europe by the land-owning classes. They are not
an evidence of progress or of reason, of custom or of
popular sanction. The genesis of private ownership
of lands is to be found in force and in fraud.


The feudal system is not yet ended. No more
ended than is the idea of kingship in the countries
of Europe. No more ended than is the Church.
The feudal regime has persisted from the eighteenth
century into the twentieth, just as it persisted
from the fourteenth century to the fifteenth. It
altered its forms in the latter centuries just as it
did in the former. The substance has remained the
same from the tenth century down to date, only it
casts a different shadow. The use of money, the
absence of many servile obligations and services, the
shifting of the military power from the great nobility
to the crown, the substitution of a standing army for
personal military service — all these have altered the
appearance of the feudal relationship.

But the essence of the feudal system is and ever
has been the power of one class to live upon the
labor of another class without giving any service in
return. The two characteristics of the feudal system
have ever been the support of the privileged orders
by rent, and the maintenance of the crown by taxes,
by the labor of the unprivileged masses. These ob-
ligations have ever been the brand of the servile



class. All other elements were non-essential. The
personal ties, oaths, and obligations which bound
the serf, vassal, and overlord were to feudalism what
the Thirty-nine Articles are to the Anglican Church.
The rendition of service was its essence. It was the
three or five days a week labor on the estates of the
lord; it was the payment of toll upon the bridges,
of tribute at the markets, at the mill, and the wine-
press; it was the beating of the marshes at night in
order that the sleep of the lord might not be dis-
turbed by the frogs — it was these things that feudal-
ism meant to the vassal.

Democracy has cast off the shadows of class rule,
but has retained the substance. It is as though the
government should confiscate such counterfeit coin
as fell into its hands, but should solemnly place the
hall-mark of its approval on the dies from which it is
coined. We have not changed the economic founda-
tions of life, however much we have altered the po-
litical forms.

Were it not for the veneration for the past and the
respect which property enjoys, we should see that the
private ownership of the land and indirect taxation
have ever been the agencies of oppression. It is
through these means that peoples have ever been
kept in subjection. But we refuse to question the
things that are. In religion, in law, in politics, prog-
ress has to make its way against the generations
which are long since dead.


This veneration for the past is always strongest
where the property rights of the ruling class are
involved. Macaulay has somewhere said that if
it were to the interest of an ascendant class to
deny the law of gravitation, there would arise an
organized resistance to its acceptance. It would
be challenged as impious, as contrary to the law
of God. It would be treated as at variance with
the laws of nature. Those who defended it would
be shunned. All preference would be closed against
them. They would suffer as did Galileo and Bruno
for daring to defend the theory of the revolution of
the earth in the face of the opposition of the holy

We fancy we are free from this reverential at-
titude in America. Yet America is ruled by the
political ideas of our grandfathers. The temple of
Delphi was scarcely more sacred to the ancient
Greeks than the Federal Constitution is to us. Criti-
cism is almost sacrilege. Yet a recent examination
of the circumstances surrounding its adoption shows
that the Federal Constitution was not intended to be
a democratic instrument.* It was not designed that
the people should rule. The reactionary spirits
who had taken small part in the Revolution ob-
tained control of the Constitutional Convention, and
impressed their will upon that body. And as later
interpreted by the courts the Constitution has be-

• The Spirit of American Government, J. A. Smith, p. 27.


come even more reactionary than its language im-
ports or its makers designed.

It was this veneration for propertied wrong that
continued negro slavery far into the nineteenth cen-
tury. It was only yesterday that slavery could not
be discussed with safety. Even in the Northern
states belief in its abolition involved personal vio-
lence. In some sections of the country the protec-
tive tariff enjoys something of the same sanctity.
It may not be discussed in the university, certainly
not in the pulpit. The franchise corporations of
our cities environ themselves with the same power-
ful influences, which close the press, the clubs, the
legal professions, and every avenue of preferment to
those who dare to question the most arrogant de-
mands of their owners. That which was true of
slavery, of piracy, and of the gentlemanly pursuit of
highway robbery in the generations which are gone,
is true of many of the most accepted institutions of

The lineage of rent is far less honorable than is that
of chattel slavery, for slavery has had the approval
of almost every nation and of every religion. But
the private ownership of the land and the collection
of rent for its use is of comparatively recent origin.
And, as we have seen, it arose under such conditions
as give it a questionable claim upon posterity.

It is true the tenant of to-day does no labor in the
fields of his overlord; he is free from physical insult


and molestation; his lands may not be shot over
nor his crops destroyed ; he need not grind his grain
at the mill of the lord, nor do menial services in his
household; he is not subject to personal services at
every turn, as he was in France prior to the Revolu-
tion. All these burdens of a personal sort have been
swept away. The methods of payment have been
changed, but the servitude remains as it was in the
days of the Normans or of the Plantagenets. Rent
has taken the place of the spear or the arrow; it has
taken the place of personal and military services.
The origin of rent is perfectly definite and clear. And
to-day, as during the Middle Ages, it is paid by those
who labor to those who do not. It is paid by all those
who do not participate in the ownership of the land.
We shudder at the inhumanity of the French
nobles, who muzzled their serfs in order that they
might not eat of the corn which they ground at the
mill. We protest against the cruelty of the absentee
landlords, who dissipated in idle luxury the exhaust-
ing rack-rents wrung from their starving Irish ten-
ants. We sympathize with the peasantry of Russia,
and aid by contributions and monster mass-meetings
their revolt against the oppression of the aristocracy.
Yet the suffering, the hunger, and the oppression
which seems so terrible at a distance is not very dis-
similar from that which is to be found in America
to-day. There is famine in New York and in
Chicago, in the mining regions and the mill dis-


tricts of America, just as there is famine in Russia,
in Poland, and in Ireland. And the cause is the same
in each country. There was food enough in Ireland
during the famine. Millions of produce were
shipped out of the country to pay rent when the
peasantry were dying of hunger by the tens of
thousands. There was wealth in abundance for the
landlords at a time when there was not even a po-
tato diet for those who produced whatever wealth
the country contained. And the infant mortality,
which carries away the children of the tenements like
a plague, is famine — famine in the midst of plenty,
just as it was in Ireland, just as it is in Russia and
India to-day. For the steamship and the telegraph
have made all the world a counter. There can be
no famine among a people who have the means with
which to purchase food. And it was not the failure
of food, it was the burden of rent which produced the
Irish famine of sixty years ago, just as it is the bur-
den of rent which sends 60,000 famished children
to school in the metropolis of America every day.

Were it not that our eyes are blinded by this prop-
erty sense, we should see that the right of the sluna
owner to his rent had its origin in the days when men
were serfs; when society was ruled by force, and
legislation had its origin in craft and fraud.

The feudal state still persists in its essential quali-
ties. For the worker in New York still labors two
days out of every seven for his overlord in order


that he may be permitted to labor five days for him-
self. The corvee is still exacted as ruthlessly as it
was in the eighteenth century. The worker still
labors one day more out of every seven in order to
support the nation; not only to pay his own taxes,
imposts, and octroi on his food, but to pay those of
his overlord as well, who escapes their payment just
as did the grand seigneur in France.

Measured by its size the tribute of to-day is vastly
heavier than it was in the days of the ancient regime.
It is figured in millions instead of in thousands. It is
still paid by the vassal to the lord. It still supports
an idle aristocracy in the capitals of the world, just
as it did the French nobles at Versailles. The rent-
rolls of New York run into the hundreds of millions
each year. They are paid for the use of the earth,
just as they were two or ten centuries ago. And
they are collected with far more precision and with
much less hazard than at any time in the history
of mankind.


We have seen how the private ownership of the
land was evolved from the common ownership of
the land through the control of the governments of
Europe by the feudal aristocracy; how tenancy is
but the cash equivalent of the earlier relationship of
lord and vassal, of master and serf, a relationship
which historians assume was destroyed in the sev-
enteenth and eighteenth centuries. We have further
seen how competitive rents have been substituted
for the customary services of an earlier age, by means
of which those who use the land are subject to an
increasing tribute for the privilege of living upon
the earth.

Private land ownership is now complete. This is
true of practically all the world. Those who come
after us must come as trespassers. They must pay
a competitive price for the right to live. Future
generations will be born into servitude. Permission
to work must now be had of another, a permission
which can only be secured on the payment of a
price, and a price determined by the competition
of another for the same opportunity. It is competi-
tion that fixes rent, and it is the power of the owner to



exact such tribute as he wills that distinguishes the
servitude of to-day from that of the feudal regime.

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Online LibraryFrederic Clemson HowePrivilege and democracy in America → online text (page 7 of 19)