Monday, April 28, 2008

Too many people to buy off

In my last post, I wrote the following incomplete passage:
In the popular conception, independence meant owning property; most people were farmers. Economic independence meant political independence. It was widely felt that one could not be "free" if one was economically dependent. For most people, this meant owning land.
There was a lot I left unsaid here, and I fear that the effect is misleading and undermines the overall point of the piece. I should have taken more time to expand on it. If people, ordinary people, believed that one could not be truly independent if one did not own property, where does that leave us? How is their conception one that should inspire us? When we learn rules that require the ownership of property, don't we instinctively think they are wrong? I know I do. I can remember in my youth being indignant upon first learning that the true beneficiaries of the American Revolution, of the new "democracy", were the propertied classes, that the system was never meant to be broadly democratic, etc.

In any event, Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy helped me to understand better why people would link economic independence with political independence in the first place, but it also discusses their movement beyond the notion that only property owners should be able to vote or take part in the political process. I should have noted that, though many colonial Americans were indeed farmers (and could be said to "own" land), many were not. There were numerous artisans and laborers and apprentices (not to mention slaves, of course). It was felt that these sorts of people would be pressured by their employers or landlords to vote a certain way. It is in this way that they would have been said to not be "politically independent". Even so, with the more radical 1776 Pennsylvania constitution nearly all adult men could vote (including free black men), with the removal of all property requirements. Here is Bouton:
This opening represented a dramatically new way of thinking about voting and citizenship. In the past, governments had focused on limiting the franchise to adult men who own sufficient property because it was thought that only those with property could be truly “independent” citizens. Governments had disenfranchised propertyless “dependents,” whom it was thought would vote as their landlord, employers, or creditors directed. It was said that preventing dependents from voting would keep wealthy men from corrupting the political system. As Pennsylvanians broke from Britain, they also abandoned this old way of thinking about voting. The new focus was to protect against corruption by giving the vote to men who held little or no property. The idea was that an expanded electorate would protect against corruption better because, with so many voters, there would be too many people to buy off. At the same time, it was thought that allowing ordinary folk to vote would give them the power they needed to get access to money, credit, and land and become independent. And with property in many hands, it would be even harder for the affluent to control political life. There were remnants of the old thinking in this new ideal: Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries still considered the propertyless a possible threat. But they now believed that giving the vote to ordinary folk was the only way to keep the wealthy in check. (pp. 53-54)
I think that fleshes things out a little better, so I'll leave the topic for now. . . (Though I hope to return to the idea that "one could not be 'free' if one was economically dependent".)

1 comment:

CarlD said...

This is interesting, because in the case of the various expansions of the franchise in late 19th/early 20th century Italy, as I understand it, much of the purpose was to dilute popular radicalism and create better 'buy-in' for the ruling elites. I wonder if this is one of those historical processes that went looking for a theory after the fact, or if the difference had to do with the greater entrenchment of elites and lesser prevalence of small-holding in old Europe.