Why I'm currently obsessed with the American Revolution
Friday, 12 September 2014
It's not just because independence is in the air!
A really important aspect of Small is Powerful is the historical analysis. I am hoping to argue that the 'big consensus' that developed in the twentieth century (the idea that big government, big business and big culture were good) not only grew during the nineteenth century but also represented a major break with how we thought about freedom and well-being before that period.
I've discovered, much to my delight, that the place where 'small' thinking prevailed very strongly was in 18th century America. I've written about this a bit here already but now I'm starting to get a much clearer picture as I do my research.
The American revolution had a clear sense of the sort of small politics it wanted to create: one where all had an equal voice and where no single big power could come to dominate (hence the deliberate decision to create three centres of power: the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency).
That much is well-known but the commitment to small power went deeper than that.
In the economic sphere there was a strong view that wealth had to be shared out as widely as possible. The revolutionaries were not extreme egalitarians by any means but they recognised that great concentrations of wealth combined with high levels of poverty would not only stunt people's flourishing but corrupt political democracy. The very rich would take over the state and the very poor would, most likely, follow them blindly. Thomas Jefferson, for example, saw an economy built around many small-holdings owned by hard-working farmers as the key to a good society.
They also had a commitment to the small society (to coin a phrase). While we today might see small power flourishing in the rise of diverse lifestyle choices and the fight against discrimination, for the American revolutionaries the sentiment was expressed in religious terms. For them, the freedom to choose and practice your own faith was the flipside of the rejection of the European idea that a single big Church should tell people how they should live. They saw clearly that such social control goes hand in hand with the big political and economic power they aimed to prevent.
These beliefs led to fascinating practical attempts to constrain big power and guarantee small power. Of course the structure of the constitution was key but it's less well-known that the revolutionaries were opposed to primogeniture (the practice by which the eldest son inherits all of their Father's land and property) because they felt this ensured concentrations of wealth carried on down the generations.
They were also keen to find mechanisms by which land could be shared out equally and widely between American citizens - efforts which ultimately led to the Homestead Acts which ran from 1862 right through to 1930 and which literally parcelled up land and gave it (at very cheap rates) to those who could show they could make productive use of it.
Maybe, most importantly, considering how the twentieth century shaped up, the revolutionaries inspired a deep suspicion of large commercial corporations (which had become a new force in the economies of Holland and Britain during the eighteenth century). As a result, corporations often had to fight hard to get permission from state legislatures to trade and there was great popular opposition to granting them the special legal privileges they demanded. Ultimately the corporations won this fight but still had to fend off a backlash at the turn of the twentieth century as politicians tried to curb their power.
So expect a lot of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in Small is Powerful. Their (real) vision has a lot to teach us today.
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