Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Thanksgiving

We all know that Native Americans rescued the pilgrims from starvation back in the 1600’s. And we all know that the European settlers would eventually repay the generosity of the Native American people with smallpox, bubonic plague, broken treaties, and genocide. 

We Americans have had an uneasy relationship with our own history. Some Americans believe that it is wrong to extol America’s greatness in light of the crimes of its past. They are the ones who march in protest on Columbus Day and attempt to paint American history as an uninterrupted saga of imperialism and injustice. Others believe that it is appropriate to turn a blind eye to these historical events; they may mention, as a dubious argument for mitigating circumstances, that the Native Americans eventually fought back, and took European lives. Both of these views are one-sided, and ignore the truth that light shines most brightly in the dark. 

I will suggest a third option. On Thanksgiving Day, let us we remember with gratitude the Native American people, and recognize that the country we know today would not exist if it were not for them. 

There are simply too many examples that could be offered to illustrate the magnitude of the debt that the United States owes to the Native Americans. In keeping with the spirit of the New Independent Whig, I will focus on the relationship between the Native Americans and the Founders, with an eye toward insights that are relevant to the challenges we face today. 

John Locke

John Locke, as I have pointed out in earlier posts, was among a handful of early modern political philosophers who had a profound impact on the views of the Founders. In his Two Treatises on Government, written in the 1680’s, Locke declared, “In the beginning all the World was America.” Thus, he began the argument that the principles of Natural Law and the Social Contract can be empirically validated by studying the way of life of the Native American people. 

Some scholars have been dismissive of Locke’s reasoning in this area, and have claimed that Locke knew little of Native Americans and was merely trading in Rousseau’s sentimental myth of the Noble Savage. In fact, John Locke owned land in the American colonies, had access to abundant first-hand accounts, and was careful when selecting the data on which he based his conclusions. He wrote,  

[W]e see, that the kings of the Indians in America, which is still a pattern of the first ages ... whilst the inhabitants were too few for the country, and want of people and money gave men no temptation to enlarge their possessions of land, or contest for wider extent of ground, are little more than generals of their armies; and though they command absolutely in war, yet at home and in time of peace they exercise very little dominion, and have but a very moderate sovereignty, the resolutions of peace and war being ordinarily either in the people, or in a council.
Locke will argue that, in a state of nature, God has provided the human race with land to share in common. When property in land is abundant, human beings do not need to develop a form of government that is founded on the idea of private ownership of property. In this state of abundance, both laws and crimes are few, because every member of society has an equal and bountiful share of property, and no occasion for envy or ambition. It is possible for members of the society to come together and discuss, civilly and in a disinterested manner, the proper role of government. 

It is a very different matter when the population has grown large and property has become scarce. In European societies, “It is plain that Men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth, they have by a tacit and voluntary consent found out a way, how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, Gold and Silver.” In other words, when property becomes scarce, its value in the eyes of men increases. And once its value has increased, ambitious men will keep property that they do not use and land that is unnecessary for fulfilling their basic needs, simply because property has economic value. People who lack property will be obliged to pay rents to people who own property, if they wish to farm the land for food. When members of society meet to discuss issues of governance, some of them will be self-interested, and incivility will inevitably manifest in their interactions. 

Locke continues, “The Law of Reason makes the Deer, that Indian's who hath killed it; ‘tis allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before, it was the common right of every one.” Thus, if property is regarded as belonging to everyone, a strong claim to private ownership exists when labor is added to property, and the aim of labor is self-sufficiency. This view, however radical in its implications, was shared by Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers including the much-misunderstood Adam Smith. 

Eventually, Karl Marx would propose radical solutions for addressing the harms that can arise from the inequitable distribution of property. Enlightenment thinkers and the Founders gravitated toward a different solution. Rather than advocate for state ownership of property as Marx did and place that much faith in government, they concluded that every citizen has the right to possess some amount of property. Whenever the right to property was invoked, it came alongside the right to life and liberty. It remains unclear whether the rights to life, liberty, and property were, in the minds of the Founders, separable or facets of a single right of enfranchised citizenship. 

It is clear, though, is that Enlightenment thinkers and the Founders would agree on the following point. If some people are starving because they have no land to cultivate, and other people own land that they do not bother to cultivate, it is a form of social injustice. 

The Romans of the New World

William Penn was a Quaker and a pacifist whose ideas influenced the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Penn was celebrated by Voltaire for making the only treaty with Native Americans that was never broken. He was a friend to the Lanni-Lanape (also known as Delaware) tribes, and seemed genuinely admiring of their way of life. He said of these Native Americans, “if they are ignorant of our pleasures, they are also free from our pains. They are not disquieted with bills of lading and exchange, nor perplexed with chancery-suits and exchequer-reckonings. We sweat and toil to live; their pleasure feeds them, I mean, their Hunting, Fishing and Fowling.” He perceived that, “They never have much nor want much. Wealth circulateth like the Blood, all parts partake; and … none shall want what another hath.” 

Similarly, Benjamin Franklin said, “Happiness is more generally and equally diffused among Savages than in civilized societies. No European who has tasted savage life can afterward bear to live in our societies.” It is also clear that, in Franklin’s view, the colonists benefited from the Native American example, 

Whoever has traveled through the various parts of Europe, and observed how small is the proportion of the people in affluence or easy circumstances there, compared with those in poverty and misery; the few rich and haughty landlords, the multitude of poor, abject, rack-rented, tythe-paying tenants, and half-paid and half-starved laborers; and view here [in America] the happy mediocrity that so generally prevails throughout these States, where the cultivator works for himself, and supports his family in decent plenty, will, methinks, see the evident and great difference in our favor.
Again, one may ask whether the Native Americans were being sentimentalized. When the Dutch explorer Jasper Danckaert studied the Delaware tribes in the years 1679 and 1680, he recorded a balanced and credible account of what he saw. His experience did lead him to reflect, years before the “noble savage” motif had been popularized in Europe, that “most labor arises from want or need” or else “from avarice and greed.” The Native Americans he encountered labored only to satisfy their wants and needs, and enjoyed “a sufficient abundance of necessities.” They “had no external example of more or greater that could cause them to judge themselves deficient.” 

Among anthropologists, the question is framed in terms of the theory of original affluence. According to this view, some hunter-gather societies – particularly those which supplemented their food sources with agriculture – were able to enjoy a very satisfactory existence. They were able to avoid hunger, enjoy leisure activity, and be comfortable during cold winter months. And members of these societies did not work the long hours that were then typical in European societies. Based on the preponderance of first-hand accounts of Native Americans, it is evident that their way of life was enviable to any European who was able to recognize that the European standard of a good life (defined by Christian beliefs, permanent architecture, cleanliness, fine clothing and material accumulation), was not the only standard by which one could judge.

When Franklin referred to the Native Americans as “The Romans of the New World,” he was drawing attention to the fact that, during the height of their civilization, and before their slide into corruption and decadence, the Romans also shunned materialism and prized frugality. This was, in the minds of many Whig philosophers, the key to Roman greatness. The great North Carolina Whig James Iredell believed, “luxury and its never failing attendant corruption, will render easy the attempts of an arbitrary prince, who means to subvert the liberty of his country.”   

Thomas Jefferson was well aware of John Locke’s use of the Native Americans in his philosophical treatises. But, always the good empiricist, he was more impressed by the evidence of first hand observation. “Before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to history but man of the old world, crowded within limits either small or overcharged and steeped in the vices which that situation generates.” The Native American way of life was proof of the existence and the viability of an alternative to the European style of oppressed labor, avarice, and arbitrary rule.  

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