Tea Partiers Have a Very Mixed-Up Notion of What the American Revolution Was About
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“I got debts that no honest man can pay … ”~~Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
O. Max Gardner III, a patrician lawyer in Shelby, North Carolina, has started a movement for resisting home mortgage foreclosures.
In what Reuters describes as “legal jiu jitsu,” Gardner teaches techniques for using a bank’s lumbering hugeness to enable people to stay in their homes long after banks want them gone. He’s not alone. A foreclosure resistance movement has gained national traction in the past year. The Times has reported on local sheriffs’ refusals to evict, and in an especially pointed act of guerilla theater, Patrick Rodgers of Philadelphia recently turned the tables on Wells Fargo by starting a foreclosure against the bank’s local mortgage office. According to ABC News, the bank had not paid Rodgers a court-ordered judgment it sustained in the process of failing to respond to his demand under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) for information about his mortgage. Rodgers thought his foreclosure gesture would at least get the bank’s attention.
The foreclosure resistance movement understandably disconcerts those who are concerned above all about fulfilling legal contracts and taking what the Tea Party-connected right calls “personal responsibility” for the inability to make mortgage payments. Yet the resistance has strong precedents in the same founding-era America to which the Tea Party constantly appeals. Conflicts not between American colonists and the British government but between small-scale American debtors and big-time American creditors illuminate struggles that continue today.
It can be hard to envision an early America seething with conflict between ordinary, hardworking Americans, stifled in their efforts to get ahead, and the rich, predatory Americans who stifled them. Prevailing historical fantasies of pre-Revolutionary America conjure a modestly thriving yeomanry, along with craftsmen, small businesspeople, and merchants participating together in a representative civics. In this fantasy, income and wealth disparities look minor and manageable; slavery and women’s subjugation are terrible deviations from an ethos of liberty shared more or less democratically by free Americans of all types. The main problem for everyone is the restrictive influence of the British elements in government. The rosy narrative has it that a revolution dedicated to freedom of trade and thought and the proposition that all men are created equal will launch this society on a grand progress, embattled but irresistible, toward a democracy that includes everybody.
Of course many historians have added troubling nuance to that picture; some have debunked it entirely. Certain history students, possibly over-interpreting the work of Howard Zinn, routinely reduce famous American founders to self-interested hypocrites. Yet across the political spectrum, fuzziness about founding-era economics, credit and monetary policy persists. The fuzziness helps today’s populist right cast nativism and unfettered markets as essentially American.
The possibly startling fact is that the major social battle raging before, during, and after the American Revolution was over the proper uses of money and credit in American life. For ordinary people of the period, these were hardly abstractions. The only real money in 18th-century America was metal — silver and gold coin from England, Spain, and Mexico — and for long, terrible periods, money was rarely seen by ordinary people. Small farmers and artisans, wanting to survive and improve their lot, had to borrow. Merchants, gaining access to metal through imperial trading networks, used their money to make money, becoming lenders. Well before the Revolution, Americans defined themselves in practical terms either as “debtors” — poor and working people in small-scale enterprise — or “creditors” — well-heeled merchants growing their money by lending it.