Sunday, July 22, 2012

C.M. Curtis's "Jefferson’s Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion"

Christopher Michael Curtis is an Associate Professor of History at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He also holds an appointment by the Governor to serve on the South Carolina Commission on Archives and History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Jefferson's Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion, and reported the following:
Score another one for Ford Madox Ford. Page 99 of Jefferson’s Freeholders explains the consequences of the democratic political and ideological reforms made in Virginia between 1829 and 1832. The reconceptualization of the political value of individual ownership stood at the crux of these democratic reforms and, indeed, provides the narrative thread for this history of Virginia’s transformation from a British colony into a Southern slave state. The ideal of individual ownership has proven to be a powerful and persistent theme in American politics. One finds it appearing today in many guises; from questions of government takings for economic developments, to issues of home ownership and foreclosure in a world of mortgage derivatives, or as an individual mandate requiring people to be owners of health insurance. As political design, however, it is perhaps best articulated in Congressman Paul Ryan’s Lake Woebegone-inspired “path to prosperity,” where all Americans are potential entrepreneurial owners and all of the children are above average. But this ownership ideology got its start with Thomas Jefferson and his revisions to Virginia’s land laws in the midst of the American Revolution. Jefferson sought to secure the requisite economic independence for a self-governing citizenry by abolishing the English common-law doctrine of tenure and implementing an allodial regime of private ownership. In the end, however, as most students of American history remember, Jefferson’s ownership ideal did not work out too well. When his “chosen people” were given the exclusive right of ownership over the land, they squandered it. They exhausted the soil, contracted significant debt, and mortgaged their lands for immediate material gain. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Jefferson, and even James Madison, had accepted the principle tenet of liberal democracy, the idea the political rights needed to be vested in individual persons.

Page 99 provides an overview of the reforms that initiated liberal democracy in Virginia. It explains that during the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830, Virginians abandoned the centuries old concept of the franchise vested in a freehold in favor on the contemporary belief that more “diverse forms of property ownership, most notably property in labor, also possessed substantial political value.” At the core of this new conceptualization stood the idea that the economic capacity to produce goods through labor was of equivalent in political value to the ownership of land. This ideological change was not confined to Virginia alone. E.P. Thompson’s classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, documented the political consequences of this change in England, and Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic pursues similar themes in nineteenth-century New York City. Virginia, however, was a slave-owning society and the ownership of labor meant something fundamentally different there than it did in New York or Manchester. Slave ownership replaced the ownership of land as the distinguishing basis of political and economic privilege. Democratic development thus took a different path in Virginia, with tragic consequences for the fate of the American Union.
Learn more about Jefferson's Freeholders at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue