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The American Frontier and Private Property Rights: A Personal Journey


Jigs Gardner

Fifteenth Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights
Century House, Latham, New York
October 29, 2011

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; it is an honor to be here. I want to be brief because my argument is unusual and I want enough time at the end to discuss it. There is a problem to be solved: private property has a bad smell. When I told a friend where I was going today he laughed—said he supposed you're be a bunch of fat cats with briefcases full of "No Trespassing" signs. Or else it's an abstraction. Our other freedoms are not that way, and we think of them as part of our lives. We forget, too often, that it is the basis of all our other rights. We thought of it as an abstraction until forty years ago until we moved to Canada. From 1965 to 1971 we ran a small school on a rented farm in Vermont, saving money to buy a farm, but that was a bad time because yuppies were flooding north to New England, sending the price of land up and up. Unable to afford anything in New England, we tried farther afield in the Canadian Maritimes, and in 1970 we bought a 100-acre farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia for $8,000 and moved there the following spring.

I am going to say some hard things about Canadians, so I want it understood that Canadians cannot be blamed for their history. The first thing we noticed was the condition of the roads. I have lived a long life in many places and I have never seen such wretched roads. We lived in the Backlands where all the roads were gravel but were really RED CLAY. We were lucky if they were graded once a year. They rarely spread gravel. Now, in Vermont, when something was unsatisfactory about the roads or the plowing, you'd call the town roads commissioner—after all, you had elected him at Town Meeting—and he came and fixed the problem. He'd damn well better. We kept our commissioner supplied with hard cider and he plowed our driveway all winter. But on Cape Breton, the town had no control over the roads, nor had the county. In fact, the County of Inverness, where we lived, put up a sign opposite the causeway from the mainland which said "Welcome to Inverness County, the Worst Roads in the Province." There must have been a big bug in Halifax, but in thirty years we never learned who controlled the roads.

The next thing we noticed was what I suppose we could call the psychology of grants, and it came about when I suggested to a neighbor that we pick up the trash alongside the road together and he said, "What? What would you do that for? You get a grant for that." The federal government gave grants for local make-work jobs (like picking up trash beside the road, painting a church, repairing the town wharf) designed to last ten weeks, employing all the local unemployables. At the end of ten weeks, you applied for unemployment insurance and received 75 percent of your wages for the rest of the year, when you got on another grant job. Jo Ann used to say that a Cape Bretoner wouldn't get out of bed in the morning without a grant.

Then there was the general dependence on government. They might grumble about the roads or the stupidity of the grants, but they did nothing, they didn't think they should do anything. I could not understand their attitude—Americans were not like that. Hitherto I had thought Canadians were just Americans who talked funny, but now I saw a fundamental difference in their attitude toward government, and I was fascinated by that, determined to get to the bottom of that difference. Eventually it was the study of history that enlightened me.

The essential thing to know about Canada is that its colonial history began in 1760, when the British finally defeated the French and the royal power was in the ascendant. Although there had been attempts at settlement in the Bay of Fundy area early in the Seventeenth Century, they had soon come to nothing. Samuel de Champlain had promoted the settlement of Acadians, dike farmers from Champlain's area in France, quite unlike the Quebecers who were from Normandy, who settled at the head of the Bay of Fundy where they turned to Tantramar Marshes into fine farmland. The Acadians were peasants living a pastoral life celebrated in Longfellow's Evangeline (no American was ever a peasant). New France itself was essentially a royal bastion for the collection of furs from the west. By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the British acquired Acadia, roughly comprising Nova Scotia (minus Cape Breton) and a vague portion of New Brunswick. In 1749 Lord Halifax sent 2,500 settlers over, but there weren't many British there until after the American Revolution, when the Loyalists were given land grants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. What you must bear in mind is that Canada, settled when royal power was so strong, was governed from the top down. To show you how the British viewed their colonists, I cite the Proclamation Line of 1763, a line drawn along the height of the Appalachians beyond which no colonists were to go. The lands beyond were reserved for the Indians; if population pressure were to grow the British would allow it but in a controlled manner. Americans were already settling along the Ohio River!

The general story of the American colonies I'm sure you know: how in the beginning, the early Seventeenth Century, the British had no colonial policy and the colonies were proprietary; that is, shareholders in England sponsored settlements as a speculation. Meanwhile, the British tried to develop a colonial policy, but problems at home—the Civil War, the Protectorate, the final overthrow of the Stuarts in 1688—delayed the process so that it wasn't until the Eighteenth Century that the royal power began to be felt in America, but by then it was too late: Americans had become used to governing themselves. Gradually proprietary colonies became royal entities, and the history of the Eighteenth Century was largely a tale of struggles between royal governors and assemblies, squabbles over money appropriations, taxation, appointments and elections.

The usual explanations of the colonists' unruliness focus on things like the Protestant dissenting spirit, strong throughout the colonies, and the Mayflower Compact, and so on. I do not doubt these factors, but I recall a succinct statement at the beginning of his Critique of Political Economy by my old mentor Karl Marx: "Conditions are not created by consciousness; consciousness is created by conditions." What we must ask is what were the colonists doing?

The most vital fact we must always keep in mind is that until well into the Eighteenth Century the frontier was nowhere more than fifty miles from the Atlantic beaches. Fifty miles. What that means is that the frontier struggles closely impinged on the settlements, and the frontier habits of mind were pervasive. First we must understand what the frontier meant to the first settlers, and the key word here is strangeness. The first generation—and I take that to mean, in the Massachusetts Bay colony, the one I know best, those who arrived between 1620 and 1650—faced an utterly strange environment: new flora, fauna, strange weather and climate, new soils, Indians, and I have always thought that the appalling mortality in that first generation was due, not so much to inadequate food and shelter, but to despair at trying to cope with such a strange, obdurate environment. I can cite our own case: when we moved to Cape Breton we were already experienced farmers living in a modern world where we had access to books and pamphlets, an Agricultural Department, good seed, advice of all kinds—and it was ten years before we knew we could cope successfully with a new climate, strange weather, new flora and fauna, and horrendous soil. Ten years.

Another factor, and this obtained for generations in the colonies and later the young republic: providing food. My wife and I are probably the most self-reliant couple you will ever meet, but even we can never know the labor those early women had to endure because in order to provide food for their families they had to begin its production a year ahead of time (in the case of fruit and vegetables) and eighteen months to two years ahead for meat. The seed must be procured, planted, harvested, and preserved in various forms so that a year after the seed is planted the family will have something to eat. Of course, with livestock the animals must be bred long before that. To put it another way, they had long food horizons; a modern person, if her sole reliance is on store-bought food, has a food horizon measured in days. When we look at the ancient gravestones and see that men then often buried their wives, we think it was constant childbearing that killed them—I submit that it was also work, the work of providing food.

Some of you may be familiar with the correspondence between John Adams and Abigail when he was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress, and we read those letters chiefly to learn about high politics and statesmanship, passing over those passages in which John asks Abigail, back on the farm in Braintree, questions like these: How's the hay crop? Who's mowing the hay? Has the corn been planted? Has the heifer been bred? Have the potatoes been dug? Those are not idle questions, even in the 1770s.

One final condition before I get to the heart of this matter. I'm referring now to the scarcity and dearness of labor, a fact remarked by all foreign observers, something that was true in America until after the Civil War. Oh, the settlers helped each other, but it was hard to find labor to hire and damned expensive. Why? Virginia provides a clue. To ease the problem, Virginians brought over boatloads of indentured workers, and they lived up to their contracts—until they gained enough knowledge of the situation on the frontier, and then they lit out for the boondocks. Why? Because for the first time in their lives they had a chance to own land, because they wanted to own their own farms; they were apostles of private property rights!

Now we come to the heart of the matter, the significance of the frontier: Given the scarcity of hired labor, given the crucial nature of the task—life or death, survival—those clearing land on the frontier develop, had to develop these traits, these habits: resourcefulness, self-reliance, practical or technical proficiency, and resulting self-confidence. These traits are obvious, but let me give you a telling example of American technical proficiency. The English felling axe is a clumsy tool, perfectly adequate if you can afford to send out three or four of your tenants to hack at a tree for half a day or so, as English landowners could afford to do. But when, as in the colonies, you had to do the job alone and you had to do it quickly and efficiently, and the task was crucial, the English felling ax was no good. So on the frontier the American felling ax was developed, probably the handsomest and most consequential hand tool ever created here, used from the Atlantic to the Pacific for 300 years, a tool I was still using in the 1980s. A tool for self-reliant experts.

We can say of these traits, these frontier habits, an aphorism of my own: What the body learns, the mind does not forget. And they spread beyond the immediate frontier to the settlements because, as I have already shown, they were close to the frontier and shared similar tasks. But they spread farther into every corner of American life because they enabled Americans to live successful and proud lives. They became our defining characteristics, our exceptionalism, and they grew out of our struggle for land, for private property.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your attention.

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