August 03, 2006

Help PG Find Land Rights in American History

by PG

Since a quick Amazon search didn't turn up anything, I thought I'd check with De Novo readers:

Does anyone know of a good book that reviews property rights, particularly those in land, in the history of the area that is now the United States? Having recently discussed Native American losses with a friend (one who is strongly of the opinion that there's no reason to care about them), I've been thinking about the difficulty in translating one group's conceptions of land rights for a group with no such conceptions. There's also the use of land reform -- often disastrous, as in Communist nations' collectives or Zimbabwe's cronyist incompetence, but sometimes helpful, as in South Korea and Taiwan -- to enact social justice. I suppose the Homestead Act would be the major U.S. land reform, one that embedded the not-wholly-voluntary transfer from Native Americans and others into the government's grants to white citizens. But that seemed less of a social justice initiative than an attempt to get people living on newly acquired lands so they would have a stake in defending them from the peoples recently removed. The United Kingdom seems to have been engaging in land reform quite recently, and a Sunday Times piece claims that the old aristocracy and landed gentry still own 30% of the land. Or at least the land whose ownership anyone knows for a certainty; apparently the English and Welsh keep lousy records, whereas the Scottish are better. (The article is quite fun to read, if for no reason other than the writer's terrific scorn for titled and acred men.)

Just now I was reading TNR's review of Eric Foner's Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. The reviewer says (emphasis added),

Foner therefore begins the slavery chapter (the first, and the longest, in the book) with an account of General Sherman's meeting with twenty black ministers (most of whom had been slaves at some point in their lives) in Savannah, Georgia in early January 1865. Here we learn of the richness and the density of black hopes at the moment of emancipation. Defining freedom as the opportunity to "reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves," one of the ministers, speaking for the group, thought it necessary "to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor." Three days later, Sherman issued his Field Orders No. 15, reserving 400,000 acres of prime plantation land along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia for exclusive black settlement, to be divided into forty-acre plots and made available to black families together with the use of army mules (the basis of the expression "forty acres and a mule").

Rarely have the aspirations and sensibilities of slaves and freedpeople -- or of any working people -- made themselves felt so directly on public policy, and toward what were unmistakably revolutionary ends. The freedpeople had some allies in the national government, and also among the Northern public, who supported land reform not only to place black freedom on a secure basis but also fully to break the back of the antebellum slaveocracy and the plantation system over which it had presided: to create in the South a society more resonant with what they valued in the North. But land reform threatened property rights throughout the nation, in a way in which the abolition of property in slaves never quite did; and so those allies were relatively few in number and summarily defeated. The social revolution of the middle period would have clear limits.

I'd really like to read a book that mixes history with political philosophy to explain how people at different times and places on the continent understood the ownership of land. There's a kind of fictional/ anecdotal reason to believe the sentence I bolded, inasmuch as the real fury and fear of loss in the Civil War and Reconstruction-set novel Gone with the Wind is directed at the threat to the heroine's home and especially land. The author may have done this so the protagonist would be sympathetic to readers, particularly those whose families had never owned slaves but had owned land; Scarlett's determination that she would burn Tara down and salt the earth before letting her enemies take it at tax auction is much more palatable than a similar attitude toward her slaves would have been. But it's still socially destructive, and though obviously much less serious than the worst violation of individual rights, not something that we would find understandable if we had less a sense of land rights.

August 3, 2006 11:59 PM | TrackBack

This isn't really what you're looking for, but I thought you might find it interesting.

"The book, a record of the people and lands ruled by William the Conqueror, is the oldest record held by Britain's National Archives and one of Britain's most valuable documents.

Now anyone with an Internet connection can download copies of handwritten records that provide a picture of life in the 11th century

Officials fanned out across England to assess who owned the land and what was on it. The result is a detailed record that lists more than 13,000 places. Farmland, woodland, meadows, pastures, mills and fisheries are enumerated; estimates given of the number of freemen, indentured peasants and slaves on each estate."

Posted by: Sean Sirrine at August 4, 2006 01:51 PM

Depending on whether you're focused only on the Native American-European Immigrant land metamorphosis, Stuart Banner's How The Indians Lost Their Land (Harvard 2005), may be what you want.

Posted by: Will Baude at August 4, 2006 09:58 PM

I remember learning about the Domesday Book (although I think I thought of it as the Doomsday Book) in history class. Thanks for letting me know that it's now online for history teachers to further torture their students ;-)

Thanks for the recommendation. Banner's book sounds excellent. After I pick up that, I just need to read Foner to find out in more detail how the 40 acres and a mule became impossible -- after all, if rebels could lose their right to vote, why couldn't they lose their land?

Posted by: PG at August 6, 2006 10:09 PM

At today's Informed Comment (Juan Cole) an article by Patrick McGreevy references:
Daniel Richterís book, Facing East from Indian Country (2001)
which may be of interest.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at August 8, 2006 08:31 AM
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