Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%
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Settlers were not deterred. Patrolling the line reliably was nearly impossible. When they could, people moved across it, squatted, and traded atrocities with the Indians. Ambitious speculators meanwhile registered titles in land offices for trans-Proclamation lands with defiant impunity.
But when Herman Husband came from the Maryland shore to the western backcountry in the 1750s, the Proclamation line hadn’t yet been drawn, and Husband found promising land well east of the mountains in forests in the North
Carolina piedmont. He was operating on behalf of a consortium he’d formed for the purpose of land speculation there. He began buying parcels of likely backcountry woods, ripe for improvement. He soon owned ten thousand acres on the Sandy Creek and the Deep River. By 1762, he’d settled his family permanently on a farm.
Still a Quaker, he attended the Cane Creek Meeting. He wrote to Lord Granville, who owned the upper half of the colony; he wanted Granville to keep the Anglican Church from establishing itself as the legal religion of the backcountry, and to prohibit African slavery there. Husband was beginning to see his new, western home as the ideal place to establish the egalitarian society that would be a sign of the millennium.
Then one day he rose to speak in the Cane Creek Meeting. He condemned Quaker discipline. Every church, Husband complained, prevents its members from voicing revelations of the spirit when those revelations confl ict with procedures of the church. All churches kill spirit.
He was expelled from the Society of Friends. The relentlessness of his quest for revelation had left Husband on his own. He was forty. Unchurched, he would now put his spiritual insight into action.
Husband had long seen human government and the millennium as separate: government the dry, merely temporary necessity, something to improve but not perfect in advance of human transformation; the millennium that eagerly anticipated transformation itself. Now, however, he was looking at the social and economic situation in the western backcountry. He saw the possibility of achieving human redemption by ending corruption in government. This new phase of Husband’s quest—at once political, practical, and millennial— would make him a social and economic radical and lead to his flight from North Carolina, a fugitive of the Regulation.
The problems that the North Carolina Regulators became adept not only at opposing but also, thanks largely to Herman Husband, at describing, point to economic distress that made life hard in many parts of pre-Revolutionary America. Causes of distress came down to three things that combined to stifle ordinary people’s aspirations: tenancy, debt, and corruption.
Or, to flip that description the other way, the problem for ordinary Americans was caused by a far smaller, more powerful group of Americans: landlords, lenders, and officials who made representative government the landlords’ and lenders’ tool. Historical imagination has allowed us to associate economic oppression in colonial America with snobbery and corruption supposedly characteristic of the English elements in government (shorthanded as “Tory”) in opposition to democracy and honesty, supposedly characteristic of Americans. Landlords and lenders in founding-era America offer a prime example to the contrary.
Early American landlords and lenders are not unfamiliar to us. One way of talking about them is to use terms all classes used then, also used in founding history today: “the merchants” and “the planters.” The colonial merchants and planters are famous mainly because in the 1760s and ’70s so many of them, far from expressing any inherently Tory tendencies, resisted England especially strongly. Merchants and planters and their lawyers became the American revolutionaries we’ve come to call founding fathers.