The Communist Commons

There is a nexus of issues: property and ownership, land and Lockean rights, the Commons and enclosure, free range and fences. This has been a longtime interest of mine. It goes back to the enclosure movement in England. It led to tumultuous conflict in England and Ireland. This then set the stage for the issues in the American colonies that brought on revolution. The issues remain unsettled going into the 19th century.

There are many angles to this, but I would first offer some background. Traditional European society, as with other traditional societies, was built on various notions of shared land and shared rights. This was well established in the land known as the Commons and guaranteed as part of common law and the rights of commoners (what in the colonies came to be thought of as the rights of Englishmen), established by precedent which is to say centuries old tradition involving centuries of legal cases, going back to the early history of the “Charter of the Forest” and Quo Warranto.

In writing about Thomas Paine’s ‘radicalism’, I noted that it particularly “took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.” From another post that was even more scathing, it is made clear what are the consequences of the true radicalism of early capitalism in privatizing what was public: “The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few.”

This is how millions of English and Irish serfs were made landless and impoverished. In droves, they headed for the cities where many of them died of sickness and starvation. Others were imprisoned, hung, put into workhouses, or sent overseas as indentured servants. Yet more died along the way. Once they were inseparable from the land they lived on, but now their lives were cheapened and so their lives became brutal and short. The earliest indentured servants rarely lived long enough to see the end of their indenture. Those like Thomas Paine saw all of this firsthand and experienced some of it on a personal level.

This is the world out of which the American Revolution was fomented and a new nation founded. The issues themselves, however, remained unresolved. This should be unsurprising, considering Europeans had been fighting over these issues for millennia. Still, for most of history, there was a shared worldview. John Locke wrote about the right of land being based on who used it and improved upon it, but this was simply what most people took as common sense going back into the mists of the ancient world. Feudal serfs thought they had a right to the land that they and their ancestors had lived and worked on for centuries. Native Americans assumed the same thing. Yet Lockean land rights, without any sense of irony, was implemented as rhetoric to justify the theft of land.

Even so, the old worldview died slowly. The notion of private property is a modern invention. It remained a rather fuzzy social construct in the centuries immediately following the Enlightenment thinkers. This was particularly true in the American colonies and later on the frontier of the United States, as claims of land ownership were an endless point of contention. The same land might get sold multiple times. Plus, squatter’s rights had a Lockean basis. Use was the primary justification of ownership, not a legal document.

In early America, there was such vast tracts of uninhabited land. It was assumed that land was open to anyone’s use, unless clearly fenced in. Even if it was known who owned land, law initially made clear that others were free to hunt and forage on any land that wasn’t enclosed by a fence. Both humans and livestock ranged freely. It was the responsibility of owners to protect their property and crops from harm: “Livestock could range freely, and it was a farmer’s responsibility to fence in his crops and to fence out other people’s animals!” This was the origin of the open range for cattle that later on caused violent conflict in the Wild West when, like the wealthy elite back in England, ranchers enclosed public land with claims of private ownership. Barbed wire became the greatest weapon ever devised for use against the commons.

This struggle over land and rights was an issue early on. But the ancient context was already being forgotten. The traditional social order was meaningless in this modern liberal society where claims to rights were individualistic, not communal. Not long after the American Revolution, James Fenimore Cooper had inherited much family land. It apparently wasn’t being used by the property owner and, according to custom, the locals treated it as a public park. Cooper was offended at this act of trespass defended in the his neighbors making a Lockean-like claim of their use of the land. It wasn’t fenced in, as law required, to deny use by the public.

There was a simple reason for this early attitude toward land. It was an anti-aristocratic response to land accumulation. The purpose was to guarantee that no one could deny use of land that they weren’t using. This meant someone couldn’t buy up all the land in monopolistic fashion. Land had one purpose only in this worldview, in terms of its usefulness to humans. Basically, use it or lose it. And many people did lose their land according to such claims of use. That remains true to this day in US law. If a neighbor or the public uses your land for a certain period of time without your challenging their use, a legal claim can be made on it by those who have been using it. In many states, a squatter in a building can go through a legal process to make a claim of ownership.

The conflict involving Cooper and his neighbors was a minor skirmish in a larger battle. It only became a central concern with the large numbers of immigrants putting greater pressure on land ownership. This was exacerbated by conflicts with Native Americans, such as President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of multiple tribes that had sought to gain legitimacy of legal rights to their land such as building houses and farming, along with assimilating to American culture. This act was the blatant betrayal of Lockean land rights and of the entire justification of law. These tribal members were free citizens of the United States who had both legal title and Lockean claim.

Tensions grew even worse after the Civil War. That was when settlers claiming land ownership came into conflict with both Native Americans and open range cowboys. Then as the railroads encroached, many squatters were kicked off their land, Lockean land rights be damned once again. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer worked for the railroad companies in kicking these poor people off their own land. As president, Lincoln wasn’t any kinder to the Native Americans, for the progress of capitalism superseded all quaint notions of rights and ownership.

Another point of conflict was Emancipation (see Ballots and Fence Rails by William McKee Evans). All of the freed blacks became a major problem for the racial order, not unlike how feudal serfs had to be dealt with when feudalism ended. Emancipation also caused disarray in relation to land and property. The Civil War decimated the South. In the process, a large number of Southerners were killed or displaced. There was no one to tell blacks what to do and so they went about living their own lives, squatting wherever they so pleased as long as it wasn’t occupied by anyone else. There was plenty of land for the taking.

This was intolerable to the white ruling class, despite it being entirely within the law. Fraudulent charges were brought against blacks with accusations of trespass, theft, and poaching. It was assumed that anything a black had couldn’t rightfully be theirs and so everything was taken from them, even property they had bought with money made with their own labor. Blacks were often forced off their land and made to return to their former plantations, now as sharecroppers… or else made into forced prison labor, since the law only made private and not public slavery illegal.

All of this led to property laws becoming more narrow and legalistic. Over time, further restrictions were placed on the public use of lands. The Depression Era was the last time when large numbers of Americans were able to live off of the commons. My mother’s family survived the Depression by hunting and foraging on public land and on open private land, as did millions of other Americans at that time. Yet conflicts still happen, such as the Bundy standoff where ranchers thinking they were cowboys in the Wild West pointed guns at federal agents over a disagreement about grazing rights on public lands. It’s amusing that these right-wingers, however misguided in their understanding of the situation, were fighting for the public right to the commons.

Advertisements

On the White Trash Heap

The below passage caught my attention. It’s written by Nancy Isenberg, from White Trash. The book is a nice read, if you have some curiosity about poor whites. They make for an intriguing historical study. There are centuries of opinions written about them, a favorite topic of discussion for the upper class folk ever perplexed by this alien world of whiteness, often not far away.

Ah, poor whites! Those crackers, dirt poor and the filth to prove it, toothless and ignorant, the lowest of low in the American social hierarchy. They have been looked upon as worse than blacks and Indians. They had the audacity to not fit into the racial order and their whiteness was often questioned.

Blacks always were supposed to be poor and Indians are meant to be in the backcountry. But these white trash have been impoverished by sheer laziness, because of their moral failures and lowly nature, a poverty passed on as their rightful inheritance. And they lived in crappy shacks in rural bumfuck nowhere (or else in ramshackle trailer parks at the edge of town) because that is what they liked, proof that they were barely above being animals.

These pathetic losers, refuse on the trash heap of civilization. Heck, are they even really Americans like the rest of us? It’s as though they live in their own world, purposely cutting themselves off from respectable society and glorying in their backwards ways. They are a step beyond the status of redneck, closer to the category of hillbilly, but really they are in a class of their own. White trash.

We know this because those are the descriptions offered by more well off whites of the past when they traveled among the lower sort. It’s been well documented by astute observers for longer than this land has been its own country.

And ya know what makes these poor whites the worst? They are my people. Ha! It’s probably why I have such a bad attitude.

My mother’s family didn’t come from a respectable background. They were of the Hoosier persuasion, back when to be called a Hoosier was an insult. They were poor whites from Kentuckiana (the limestone region of Kentucky and Indiana). My great grandfather was born a squatter, quite literally. He began his life in an abandoned building that was part of an old abandoned village, at the outskirts of a small border town in a rural county of southern Indiana. It was typical Hoosier territory.

My people were among those first on frontier. They killed and died fighting Indians, when they weren’t fighting each other. There probably was even a bit of mixing with the native folk, not to mention some hanky panky with those of a darker shade (hence the term “Hoosieroon”). Always rumors in poor white rural families that their blood might have more than one color running through it. There is a challenge in determining exact ancestry, many genealogical lines of descent seem to emerge out of the backwoods, as if they had always been there, their natural habitat.

By the time my mother was born, the extended family was finally escaping the fate of dirt poverty. But not all the family escaped. From hearing about some of the family I’ve never met, I suspect there are those who others might look upon as ‘white trash’. Even in her childhood, my mother spoke with that Hoosier dialect that told everyone around her that she was poor white, no matter the fact her father had a factory job. Her father was an alcoholic and on the abusive side, the towering patriarch of his own home. He was born poor and had little education, but to his mind at least he escaped poverty and maybe more importantly wasn’t black.

My mother had two brothers and plenty of cousins about her, the infamous clannishness that poor whites are known for. She still has pride in her voice in telling how she could hold her own in a fight or in a race with the boys. And, of course, she spent her childhood barefoot, as only the poor did back then.

Do you know who else was a poor white Hoosier? Abraham Lincoln.

Abe’s family were small farmers and manual laborers, as was mine. And, like my family, they drifted along as the frontier spread west, from Kentucky where he was born to Indiana where he spent his childhood. His father never understood his love of books and would sometimes burn them. In some of those books, he read about the American founders and it inspired that dirty little backwoods boy to dream of becoming president. But still he was Hoosier through and through. He could scrap with the best of them and he gained some notoriety for his fighting skills, with the strength to pick up a full grown man and toss him.

He also had the grim fatalism of his poor white heritage. He never expected life to end well for him. To rise up out of one’s class was asking for trouble. It isn’t what white trash is suppose do. But along with grim fatalism, he had grim determination to do what he had set his mind to do.

In 1817, when little Hoosier Abe was about eight years old, over in Virginia Thomas Jefferson brought one of his granddaughters to some nearby property he owned where they met a family of low class scrub dwellers. She was shocked by what she perceived as their shamelessness and lack of deference. She would have been even more shocked if someone told her that in her lifetime a dirty little heathen, just like one of those barely clothed children, would hold the same high office as her well-honored grandfather. A few decades later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although he was preceded in 1829 by another president of poor white origins, Andrew Jackson.

That is always the failure of white trash. They don’t know their place. They have their own values and their own sense of pride, no matter what anyone else thinks of them. It might seem the arrogance of brute ignorance, but it’s well earned. They think of themselves as plain Americans, as they identify themselves on census records. Their continued existence despite the odds being against them is their only needed justification.

George Washington, that great aristocratic leader, had a vision for America. He dreamed of a disinterested aristocracy ruling with paternalistic concern. When the poor whites rebelled, he did what any stern father would do and put them back in their place. The problem is they wouldn’t stay in their place, even all these centuries later. Still, they remain useful as scapegoats and so maybe we should keep them around, to occasionally trot them out on the public stage as a lesson for us all.

* * *

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
pp. 114-116

The distance between town and backwoods was measured in more than miles. It had an evolutionary character, forming what some at the time recognized as an impassable gulf between the classes. The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country. In 1817, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph wrote to her younger sister about a trip with their grandfather to the Natural Bridge, a property that Jefferson owned ninety miles west of Monticello. Here, she said, she encountered members of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” The children she met were barely covered by their scanty shifts and shirts, while one man strutted around before them with his “hairy breast exposed.” In this large, unruly family, she noted with disapproval, there were no more than “two or three pairs of shoes.” She was especially surprised by the crude familiarity of their speech. Oblivious to social forms, they conversed with the ex-president as though he was some lost family member. As a proud member of the Virginia gentry, Cornelia was convinced that she towered above the unwashed squatters. To her further chagrin, she was astounded that the poor family exhibited not the least sense of shame over their pathetic condition.

Class made its most transparent appearance by way of such contrasts. We can read volumes into the scorn expressed by the educated onlooker as he or she sized up the uncouth figures who roamed the backcountry. The need to make them into a new breed focused on more than crude living conditions, however. The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy. While traveling in the trans-Appalachian West in 1830, a city adventurer drolly observed of his bed companion for the night, “lantern-jawed, double-jointed backwoodsman, measuring some seven feet one in his stocking feet.” A typical alligator hunter in southern Illinois bore a similar physique: “gaunt, long-limbed, lanthorn-jawed, Jonathan.” (“ Jonathan” simply meant “fellow” here, being a common appellation for a generic American.) The cracker women had the same protruding jaw and swarthy complexion, and were as often as not toothless.

Women and children were important symbols of civilization— or the absence of it. Officers stationed in Florida in the 1830s identified “ye cracker girls” as brutes, with manners no better than sailors, and often seen smoking pipes, chewing and spitting tobacco, and cursing. Seeing their slipshod dress, dirty feet, ropy hair, and unwashed faces, one lieutenant from the Northeast dismissed them all as no better than prostitutes. In his words, everyone of the cracker class was a “swearing, lazy, idle slut!”

The backwoods personality could be found as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, and across the Northwest and Southwest Territories. They acquired localized names, such as Mississippi screamers, for their cracker-style Indian war whoop or love of squealing; Kentucky corn crackers, for their poor diet of cracked corn; and Indiana Hoosiers, for the poor in that state. “Hoosier” is a word no linguistic scholar can define with any precision. Even so, the class descriptor was the same. A Hoosier man ran off at the mouth, lied, boasted, and remained ready to harm anyone who insulted his ugly wife. They were as prone to a down-and-dirty fight as any southern cracker. Hoosier gals were no more refined than their Florida sisters. A Hoosier gal’s courtship ritual, it was said, involved a lot of kicking and hair pulling.

Sexual behavior was another crucial marker of class status. In a well-known poem of the era, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (1833), the author harkened back to the vocabulary of the Scottish naturalist Wilson. Here again, the cabins were wild nests, a half-human, half-animal retreat perfect for indiscriminate breeding. Using a racially charged slur, the poet identified the children as “Hoosieroons”— a class variation of the mixed-race quadroons. Under their leaky roofs were none of the hearty pioneer stock. Instead, poor Indiana squatters produced a degenerate dozen of dirty yellow urchins.

Filthy cabins, a lack of manners, and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as verified by their patterns of speech. Backwoods patois constituted a rural American version of the lower-class English cockney. In 1830, there was even a “Cracker Dictionary,” preserving their vintage slang. One was “Jimber jawed,” whose mouth was constantly moving, who couldn’t stop talking. The cracker’s protruding lower jaw carried over into his style of talking. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent type; the descriptive “chewed up” literally referred to having one’s ear, nose, or lip bitten off.

But one polysyllabic word may have best captured their identity. The verb “obsquatulate” was a cracker conjugation of “squat,” conveying the idea of moseying along or absconding. For a people who wouldn’t settle in one place, “obsquatulate” gave an activity of sorts to the American heirs of English vagrants. They might flee like an absconding servant or amble at a slow pace without a destination in mind, but in either case it was their dirty feet and slipshod ways that defined them.