Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 3, Sec. II

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



Back: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 3



The migration of Englishmen to America merely transferred this problem into another setting. The discussion of political theory went on vigorously, but the philosophy of natural rights and popular sovereignty came out in practice about where they had come out in England. Here again a great deal has been made of the democratic spirit and temper of the migrants, especially in the case of the separatists who landed at Plymouth, but the facts do not bear it out, except with regard to the decentralizing congregationalist principle of church order. This principle of lodging final authority in the smallest unit rather than the largest--in the local congregation rather than in a synod or general council--was democratic, and its thorough-going application in a scheme of church order would represent some actual advance towards democracy, and give some recognition to the general philosophy of natural rights and popular sovereignty. The Plymouth settlers did something with this principle, actually applying it in the matter of church order, and for this they deserve credit. [5] Applying it in the matter of civil order, however, was another affair. It is true that the Plymouth colonists probably contemplated something of the kind, and that for a time they practised a sort of primitive communism. They drew up an agreement on shipboard which may be taken at its face value as evidence of their democratic disposition, though it was not in any sense a "frame of government," like Penn's, or any kind of constitutional document. Those who speak of it as our first written constitution are considerably in advance of their text, for it was merely an agreement to make a constitution or "frame of government" when the settlers should have come to land and looked the situation over. One sees that it could hardly have been more than this--indeed, that the proposed constitution itself could be no more than provisional--when it is remembered that these migrants were not their own men. They did not sail on their own, nor were they headed for any unpreempted territory on which they might establish a squatter sovereignty and set up any kind of civil order they saw fit. They were headed for Virginia, to settle in the jurisdiction of a company of English merchant-enterprisers, now growing shaky, and soon to be superseded by the royal authority, and its territory converted into a royal province. It was only by misreckonings and the accidents of navigation that, most unfortunately for the prospects of the colony, the settlers landed on the stern and rockbound coast of Plymouth.

These settlers were in most respects probably as good as the best who ever found their way to America. They were bred of what passed in England as "the lower orders," sober, hard-working and capable, and their residence under Continental institutions in Holland had given them a fund of politico-religious ideas and habits of thought which set them considerably apart from the rest of their countrymen. There is, however, no more than an antiquarian interest in determining how far they were actually possessed by those ideas. They may have contemplated a system of complete religious and civil democracy, or they may not. They may have found their communist practices agreeable to their notion of a sound and just social order, or they may not. The point is that while apparently they might be free enough to found a church order as democratic as they chose, they were by no means free to found a civil democracy, or anything remotely resembling one, because they were in bondage to the will of an English trading-company. Even their religious freedom was permissive; the London company simply cared nothing about that. The same considerations governed their communist practices; whether or not these practices suited their ideas, they were obliged to adopt them. Their agreement with the London merchant-enterprisers bound them, in return for transportation and outfit, to seven years' service, during which time they should work on a system of common-land tillage, store their produce in a common warehouse, and draw their maintenance from these common stores. Thus whether or not they were communists in principle, their actual practice of communism was by prescription.

The fundamental fact to be observed in any survey of the American State's initial development is the one whose importance was first remarked, I believe, by Mr. Beard; that the trading-company--the commercial corporation for colonization--was actually an autonomous State. "Like a State," says Mr. Beard, "it had a constitution, a charter issued by the Crown... like the State, it had a territorial basis, a grant of land often greater in area than a score of European principalities... it could make assessments, coin money, regulate trade, dispose of corporate property, collect taxes, manage a treasury, and provide for defense. Thus"--and here is the important observation, so important that I venture to italicize it--"every essential element long afterward found in the government of the American State appeared in the chartered corporation that started English civilization in America." Generally speaking, the system of civil order established in America was the State-system of the "mother countries" operating over a considerable body of water; the only thing that distinguished it was that the exploited and dependent class was situated at an unusual distance from the owning and exploiting class. The headquarters of the autonomous State were one side of the Atlantic, and its subjects on the other.

This separation gave rise to administrative difficulties of one kind and another; and to obviate the--perhaps for other reasons as well--one English company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, moved over bodily in 1630, bringing their charter and most of their stockholders with them, thus setting up an actual autonomous State in America. The thing to be observed about this is that the merchant-State was set up complete in New England long before it was set up in Old England. Most of the English immigrants to Massachusetts came over between 1630 and 1640; and in this period the English merchant-State was only at the beginning of its hardest struggles for supremacy. James I died in 1625, and his successor, Charles I, continued his absolutist regime. From 1629, the year in which the Bay Company was chartered, to 1640, when the Long Parliament was called, he ruled without a parliament, effectively suppressing what few vestiges of liberty had survived the Tudor and Jacobean tyrannies; and during these eleven years the prospects of the English merchant-State were at their lowest. [6] It still had to face the distractions of the Civil War, the retarding anomalies of the Commonwealth, the Restoration, and the recurrence of tyrannical absolutism under James II, before it succeeded in establishing itself firmly through the revolution of 1688.

On the other hand, the leaders of the Bay Colony were free from the first to establish a State-policy of their own devising, and to set up a State-structure which should express that policy without compromise. There was no competing policy to extinguish, no rival structure to refashion. Thus the merchant-State came into being in a clear field a full half-century before it attained supremacy in England. Competition of any kind, or the possibility of competition, it has never had. A point of greatest importance to remember is that the merchant-State is the only form of State that ever existed in America. Whether under the rule of a trading company or a provincial governor or a republican representative legislature, Americans have never known any other form of the State. In this respect the Massachusetts Bay colony is differentiated only as being the first autonomous State ever established in America, and as furnishing the most compete and convenient example for purposes of study. In principle it was not differentiated. The State in New England, Virginia, Maryland, the Jerseys, New York, Connecticut, everywhere, was purely a class-State, with control of the political means reposing in the hands of what we now style, in a general way, the "business-man."

In the eleven years of Charles's tyrannical absolutism, English immigrants came over to join the Bay colony, at the rate of about two thousand a year. No doubt at the outset some of the colonists had the idea of becoming agricultural specialists, as in Virginia, and of maintaining certain vestiges, or rather imitations, of semi-feudal social practice, such as were possible under that form of industry when operated by a slave-economy or a tenant-economy. This, however, proved impracticable; the climate and soil of New England were against it. A tenant-economy was precarious, for rather than work for a master, the immigrant agriculturalist naturally preferred to push out into unpreempted land, and work for himself; in other words, as Turgot, Marx, Hertzka, and many others have shown, he could not be exploited until he had been expropriated from the land. The long and hard winters took the profit out of slave-labour in agriculture. The Bay colonists experimented with it, however, even attempting to enslave the Indians, which they found could not be done, for the reasons that I have already noticed. In default of this, the colonists carried out the primitive technique by resorting to extermination, their ruthless ferocity being equalled only by that of the Virginia colonists. [7] They held some slaves, and did a great deal of slave-trading; but in the main, they became at the outset a race of small freeholding farmers, shipbuilders, navigators, maritime enterprisers in fish, whales, molasses, rum, and miscellaneous cargoes; and presently, moneylenders. Their remarkable success in these pursuits is well known; it is worth mention here in order to account for many of the complications and collisions of interest subsequently ensuing upon the merchant-State's fundamental doctrine that the primary function of government is not to maintain freedom and security, but to "help business."




Next: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 3, Sec. III




.. [5] In 1629 the Massachusetts Bay colony adopted the Plymouth colony's model of congregational autonomy, but finding its principle dangerously inconsistent with the principle of the State, almost immediately nullified their action; retaining, however, the name of Congregationalism. This mode of masquerade is easily recognizable as one of the modern State's most useful expedients for maintaining the appearance of things without the reality. The names of our two largest political parties will at once appear as a capital example. Within two years the Bay colony had set up a State church, nominally congregationalist, but actually a branch of the civil service, as in England.

.. [6] Probably it was a forecast of this state of things, as much as the greater convenience of administration, that caused the Bay Company to move over to Massachusetts, bag and baggage, in the year following the issuance of their charter.

.. [7] Thomas Robinson Hazard, the Rhode Island Quaker, in his delightful Jonnycake Papers, says that the Great Swamp Fight of 1675 was "instigated against the rightful owners of the soil, solely by the cussed godly Puritans of Massachusetts, and their hell-hound allies, the Presbyterians of Connecticut; whom, though charity is my specialty, I can never think of without feeling as all good Rhode Islanders should,... and as old Miss Hazard did when in like vein she thanked God in the Conanicut prayer-meeting that she could hold malice forty years." The Rhode Island settlers dealt with the Indians for rights in land, and made friends with them.