“Like a Biblical chapter of begats crossed with land descriptions”
Reviewed by Deborah Boykin
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 24-25
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Land: The Plunder of Early America, by Daniel M. Friedenberg (Promethus Books, 1992, 423 pages).
History conventionally ascribes a standard set of motives to those who settled North America. Colonists left England seeking religious freedom, treasure, or escape from newly-overpopulated cities. Friedenberg provides another dimension to this history, suggesting that the founding fathers were motivated less by the desire for freedom and devotion to democratic principles than by a passion for acquiring land.
In seventeenth century Europe, land was power. Ownership of land was essential for anyone who sought political, social, or economic influence. Focusing primarily on England, Friedenberg examines the reasons both nobles and common people came to America. Christian evangelization, the search for new trade routes, and the hope of finding gold or silver all brought colonists to the new land. Freidenberg examines intentions in light of what actually occurred and reaches a conclusion that appears to be inescapable: all of these motives were secondary to the desire to acquire land.
The high value placed on the land meant that no value could be placed on the rights of the tribes who lived there. The English had to establish some legal basis for laying claim to Indian lands. They made a show of negotiation, but their claims in North America were based on the right of discovery, rights that ultimately could be upheld only by force. As Native American tribes were diminished by European diseases, deceived by English negotiators, and driven off their lands, the way was cleared for the land speculators.
Native Americans were neither the first nor last group
of people to be displaced to accommodate landowners. Decades of political and social upheaval in England, beginning with the consolidation of power in the monarchy after the Wars of the Roses and including the dissolution of private armies by Henry VII and Henry VIII and Henry VII’s seizure of Catholic lands, displaced thousands of people. Friedenberg observes that this division of feudal society into two classes, and aristocracy and a toiling peasantry, “left its psychological mind print.” Region by region, he proves the point. Throughout the new continent, native tribes were seen less as human beings than as impediments to acquisition of land. The plantation aristocracy that developed in the Southern colonies depended on African slaves for its very existence. The picture emerges of a society in which the cost of power and privilege is borne by those most removed from it.
Since most of North America was an English protectorate, rights to any part of it could be obtained by royal grant. Region by region, Friedenberg details the labyrinthine politics involved in obtaining these grants, the system of quitrents which had to be enforced to keep them, and the tension between the grantee landlords who controlled the colonial government and those who settled the land.
As the colonies grew, so did the need to acquire land. Competing American land companies jockeyed for acreage with the royal governors, their councils and the Crown. This process and its eventual effect on the decision to seek American independence is presented here, and the cast of characters is often surprising. Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin appear in their roles as land speculators, as do Patrick Henry, John Sevier, and George Rogers Clark.
Making sense of this period requires an understanding of complex political and social relationships. Friedenberg’s accounts of political maneuvering, exploitation of family connections, and calculated marriages read like a Biblical chapter of begats crossed with land descriptions. However, these events exemplify the obsession with land that brought the English to America and influenced what they built here. The author makes a compelling case that the history of early America is rooted in the use of land to obtain wealth and power. This book examines how cultural attitudes toward the possession of land led to the dispossession of a people and shaped the nature of the nation established by those who took their place.
Deborah Boykin is Folk Arts Director for the Mississippi Arts Commission. She served as editor of the Choctaw Drummer, a monthly newspaper published by the Choctaw Tribal Schools in Mississippi.