The Great American Land Grab
With three out of four Americans now jammed into cities, no one pays much attention to landholding patterns in the countryside. How things have changed. A hundred years ago, land for the landless was a battle-cry. People sailed the oceans, traversed the continent and fought the Indians, all for a piece of territory they might call their own. America envisioned itself-not entirely accurately - as a nation of independent farmers, hardy, self-reliant, democratic. Others saw us this way too. Tocqueville noted the "great equality" that existed among the immigrants who settled New England, the absence of rich landed proprietors except in the South, and the emergence in the western settlements of "democracy arrived at its utmost limits."
Along with industrialization, however, came urbanization and the decline of the Arcadian dream. Immigrants forgot about land and thought about jobs instead; the sons and grandsons of the original pioneers began to leave the farms and join the immigrants in the cities. Radical agitation shifted from farm to factory. Frontiersmen's demands for free land and easy credit were supplanted by workers' demands for a fair wage, decent conditions and union recognition. In due course a kind of permanent prosperity was achieved, and America directed its energies outwards, not inwards. Consumers bought their food in neatly wrapped packages, at prices most of them could afford, and forgot about the land.
Why, then, in the present day, should we turn back to look at our landholding patterns? One reason is that the land is still the cradle of great poverty and injustice. Another is that the beauty of the land is fast disappearing. Canyons are being dammed, redwoods felled, hills strip-mined and plateaus smogged. Wilderness and croplands are giving way to suburban sprawl and second-home developments. And the balance of nature itself is threatened by excessive use of pesticides.
The deterioration of our cities should also cause us to look back at the land. There is a growing recognition that nagging social problems - burgeoning welfare rolls, racial tensions, the alienation of workers from their work-have not responded to treatment. Many of these problems have their roots in the land, or more precisely, in the lack of access to productive land ownership by groups who today make up much of the urban poor. Mexican-Americans, Indians and some blacks are beginning to raise the point that more of America's land ought to belong to them. Given the dead-end nature of most antipoverty programs today, it is an argument worth listening to.
The schizoid character of American landholding patterns was first implanted during colonial days. In New England the land was divided fairly evenly among the many; in the South, mostly because of large royal grants, it was concentrated in the hands of the few. As a consequence, New England politics revolved around such institutions as the town meeting and the popular militia, while Southern society and politics were dominated in all aspects by the landed gentry. Jefferson warned that perpetuation of the large plantations would lead to the ensconcement of an "aristocracy of wealth" instead of an "aristocracy of virtue and talent," and even talked of freeing the slaves; but the plantation owners were hardly inclined to abdicate their privileged positions voluntarily.
End of Part One.
Part Two will be published starting Thursday, September 4.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you'll be pleased -- and perhaps shocked -- to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.
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