by Akim Reinhardt
Historian Francis Jennings (1918-2000) didn’t take the fast track to academic fame. His first career was teaching high school English and Social Studies. After serving in World War II, he returned to the classroom and also became president of his union. Soon thereafter, he became a victim of the Red SCare; the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) fingered him during its 1951 “investigation” of organized labor in Philadelphia.
Jennings became disgusted and quit. Despite having small children, he abandoned a safe, established career and began pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Pennsylvania. It took more than a decade, but he finally earned his doctorate in 1965 at the age of 47.
It would take another decade for Jennings to establish himself in academia. He could not immediately translate his hard-won Ivy League pedigree into any prestigious appointments. Instead, he taught at little known schools like Moore College of Art and Cedar Crest College.
Jennings finally arrived on the scene in a way that could not be ignored in 1975 after publishing his first book at the age of 57. The very title was a shot across the bow of America’s received history: The Invasion of America.
The book defied many academic conventions, not to mention popular, mainstream history. It disputed the romantic notion of the European “discovery” of America, redefining it as an invasion and recasting North America’s hearty pioneers as the brutal agents of colonial conquest.
The Invasion of America was a direct challenge not only to famous U.S. historians of yore such as Francis Parkman (1823-1893) and Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), but to entire generations of scholars that helped establish America’s founding mythologies. According to Jennings, these glorified apologias for European colonialism sometimes resulted from error and sometimes from the intentional manipulation of sources. Either way, he deemed them to be little more than crude propaganda that had nevertheless evolved into conventional scholarship and infected popular culture.
To overturn that mythology and reinterpret the colonial invasions, Jennings relied on French historian Marc Bloch’s theories of feudalism. For Jennings, the dull thud of feudal butchery and elitism explained much about European attitudes and actions in North America during the 17th century. The European invaders were a product of their times, and their times were decidedly feudal. They would arrive in America striving to be lords (if they weren’t already), and seeking to reduce the Indigenous population into vassalage.
OF course the feudal economic and political order eventually gave way to republican governments and capitalism. But to study history is to stand at the peculiar intersection of continuity and change. Everything goes in due time, but in some respects never leave us.
Marçel Proust was right. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
In some ways, feudalism is no more. In other ways it is still very much with us. Just look at Great Britain. Not only does that nation retain its monarchy, but the upper house of its parliament is the House of Lords.
The British government still includes actual aristocratic lords.
The House of Lords’ continued existence is the kind of thing that you just have to accept. Because if you ponder too long, your head will explode as everything you took for granted about the reality of the modern world is called into question.
Yes, the upper house in the bi-cameral legislature of one of the world’s leading democracy’s is composed of “Lords.” Among them are Lords Spiritual, a fancy name for high-ranking officials in the state church, and Lords Secular, or actual lords, who are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister or, get this, the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Until 1999, hundreds of Lords held their seats as a result of life peerage. That is, they inherited them. Today, there are still nearly a hundred Lords who were literally born to hold political office.
And here in the 21st century, this feudal remnant can still propose legislation. It rarely does anymore, but it does regularly review and even amend legislation coming from the House of Commons.
Sometimes the echoes of feudalism ring loudly.
BUT what about here in the United States? This, afterall, is a nation that boasts endlessly of democracy and freedom. But as Francis Jennings pointed out, the U.S. also has roots in feudal Great Britain, and to a lesser degree feudal France, Spain, and The Netherlands. Can we still hear those echoes on this side of the Atlantic?
When the American colonists raised their bloody rebellion in 1776, part of the goal was to speed the destruction of Europe's feudal legacies. That much is obvious. For example, the new nation outlawed hereditary aristocracy altogether. But that doesn’t mean Americans, and in particular the revolutionary leaders, rejected all forms of feudalism.
To begin with, the new American government was closely modeled on the British system: a tri-partite polity featuring a chief executive, a legislature, and an independent judiciary. The U.S. Constitution turned the British monarch into a president, replaced the House of Lords with a Senate, and implemented its vaunted system of checks and balances. All, I dare say, were tremendous improvements on late 18th century British government. But none of it can hide the traces of America’s feudal inheritance.
One of the most obvious legacies of feudal elitism was the founders’ inherent mistrust of common folk. You know. The peasants.
In the new nation, citizens would not be allowed to propose or vote upon legislation. This would not be a democracy. It would be a republic. Citizens could merely have some say in choosing their rulers. And only a choice few people even qualified as voting citizens.
The states, which determined voting rights, erected class-based barriers to the franchise. Most required citizens to amass a certain amount of wealth before being eligible to vote. Roughly half of white American men were not wealthy enough to cast ballots. Such property requirements were eventually removed during the 1810s and 1820s, though poll taxes and other economic impedements remained until well into the 20th century.
In addition to economic class, there were also various social class barriers. For example, until 1792 Delaware required voters be Christian. Beyond that, most black Americans, including free ones, were officially prohibited from voting until 1866. Afterwards, most had their voting rights sabotaged by various Jim Crow laws in that did not specifically cite skin color and thus also erased many poor whites from the roles. It would be another century until African Americans regained their voting rights en masse. Women were not guaranteed the franchise until 1920. American Indians were not full enfranchised until 1924, and several states denied them the vote until the 1940s.
And for those people who could vote, at first there was not much to actually vote for.
The House of Representatives. That was it. Modeled on the House of Commons, it was the only office for which the relatively small number of privileged citizens could cast a direct vote during the early years of the republic. U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures until 1913. Federal judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. And to this day, citizens vote only indirectly for the president; Americans actually vote for a candidate’s appointed representatives in the Electoral College who are supposed to vote for that nominee on their behalf. Although they’re not required to. So-called “faithless electors” can and sometimes do jump ship, regardless of how the people vote. Indeed, Americans have just dodged that happening again in the upcoming presidential election. A Republican elector from Iowa recently resigned from the Electoral College because she decided she doesn’t want to vote for Mitt Romney if it comes to that. She could have just as easily held the position, and voted for Ron Paul (whom she favors) without impunity. Such are the vagaries of creating filters between the citizenry and its government.
Why was so much electoral obfuscation enshrined in the Constitution? Why did the founders consider citizens worthy of voting for only one-half the legislature and nothing else? Because the aristocratic attitudes of the feudal era were still very much alive and well in late 18th century America. To one degree or another, most of the elites who founded a new nation did not trust the average person to participate in its governance. Some men are simply better than others. So the founders created a republican system that placed great limitations on the franchise, both in terms of quantity and quality, minimizing who could vote and what they could vote for.
In some ways then, the American Revolution was not an effort to upend the colonies’ feudal origins, but to modify them in ways that made sense to men of the Enlightenment. They still wanted political power to be concentrated among the leading men. They just mocked the idea that those leading men should be determined by heredity. Instead, they wanted a meritocracy. They didn’t want to tear down the pyramid of hierarchy. They simply wanted more fluidity within it.
HERE in the 21st century, it’s easy to dismiss feudalism as an awful political, economic, and social system of a long bygone era. And of course feudal influences on the United States have greatly diminished since the 1780s. The nation has democratized substantially, the franchise being expanded in both quantity and quality. But that does not mean those influences are gone entirely. In some respects, the echoes of feudalism still reverberate beyond the limited role citizens are still afforded in choosing some of their rulers. The legacy of feudalism can also be seen in American culture and its vision of an ideal society. Indeed, many Americans still cling to a modified version of it.
Of course no one wants a hereditary aristocracy, an absolutist monarchy, or an economic system based on serfs being legally tied to the land. But many Americans don’t want a complete dissolution of that either. Though they may not consciously realize it, they seem to want an economic and social system that is much like their political system: an improved feudal order that features an emphasis on fairness and “freedom.” They want an equality of opportunity. But they do not want actual equality.
At the heart of the feudal system was the notion that a small number of people are superior to the masses. The elite should monopolize power and the masses should gratefully toil on their behalf. Many Americans still embrace this basic vision of society. They just don’t think the elite should be determined by birth. Rather, they want to näively believe that the cream usually rises to the top. That the rich and powerful are rich and powerful because they’re talented and hardworking, and that they deserve all the perks of their wealth and prestige.
Most Americans don’t fully reject the notion of an aristocracy. They just don’t want its existence to be determined by who fucks whom. In many ways they still adore Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a “natural aristocracy,” a select group of social, economic, and political leaders who earn their power and privilege instead of inheriting it.
Of course, it’s a pretty shitty vision for society. It champions endless competition and stark stratification. It trades generosity for selfishness and social responsibility for a winner-take-all mentality.
The question then is, Why? In a nation where most people believe anything is possible, why do so many Americans continue to embrace a modified vision of feudal elitism?
Simply put, they all want their crack at a modern lordship. Everyone wants to be a tech wizard billionaire or a glamorous movie star/singer/athlete. And barring that, they’d settle for being Paris Hilton or “The Situation” from Jersey Shore, trading on dumb luck for their wealth and fifteen minutes of fame. Indeed, too many Americans lay down at night and dream about a day when they can hire someone to make their bed. A four-post California King with satin sheets and an ungodly number of throw pillows, most likely.
Generally speaking, Republican politicians and intellectuals are the ones who most avidly push this neo-feudal vision. Why else would so many poor and working people vote for Mitt Romney? The rah-rah team spirit of mindless party loyalty and fear of Barack Obama’s dark skin explain only so much. The truth is, many people will vote for Mitt Romney because they want to be Mitt Romney. They want to be unfathomably rich. And they fall for the lie that they could pull it off if bad luck and government bureaucrats would just get out of their way. So they’re eager to believe Romney when he insinuates that he can help them get there.
That’s not to let the Democrats off the hook in this charade. In general, their social vision is more democratic than the increasingly conservative socio/economic order championed by Republicans, but they also indulge in their fair share of elitist fantasy. It’s just that they appeal to different demographic groups.
“The historian cannot wholly free himself from the outlook of his cultural tradition,” Francis Jennings wrote in 1975. Indeed, none of us can.
In the United States, we do not have a king or queen to grant lordships, or a House of Lords to indulge them and rub our noses in the wretched decay of our feudal legacy. Instead we have a corrupt political vision and a fetid popular culture that offer the sweet scent of saccharine dreams and broken promises.
Every man’s home is his castle. Feudal lordships for all!
Akim Reinhardt blogs at The Public Professor.