Sam Burnham, Curator
In my previous article I mentioned the 1859 speech that Augustus Wright gave on the floor of the US House of Representatives. His idea, if taken only in summary, comes across as radical, leftist, perhaps even communist. But just as news headlines today don’t explain the details that are unearthed while actually reading the story, a summary of this speech cannot relay the brilliance of his idea.
His speech opens with the observation that the federal government owned “a thousand million acres” (a billion acres) of land. Presently that number is around 640 million acres. That sounds like there has been a huge sell off but keep in mind entire states have been carved out of that 1859 estimate. The current total puts roughly 28% of all US land under the ownership of the federal government. Add land owned by state and local governments and that’s a sizable chunk of land that is in the public trust.
He progresses into the idea he is presenting by laying out the importance of land ownership, not by the government and not by large planters but by the people at large. He advocated selling off, perhaps even ceding, arable tracts of public land to common people with the stipulation that they use the land to make their living. He described the power that self determination and independence can give to people. A man who owns his own land and can grow his own food has power. If he grows food for others he has income. This is the original American Dream.
Wright further explains his position by pointing out the benefits for the government and the nation at large. He speaks of the economic benefits of having large swaths of the population become independent and prosperous. He explains that land ownership by those who want to work it benefits everyone.
He describes his lack of sympathy for the rich who don’t need it “capital never fails to take care of itself.” He has similar feelings about willful vagrancy, “if a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” Then he explains that his sympathies lie with those who work and those who would work if they could. He asked his colleagues to consider the number of people who tilled the soil for others “obtaining a bare subsistence for themselves.”
This concept brings us back to the Oglethorpe model, to unleash the power of small landowners and empower them to defend themselves against exploitation. He further argued that this would build a nation of true citizens. No threat to the United States could overcome such a mass of citizenry who had a vested interest in this country. He argued that men would fight to defend their property and livelihood far more readily than they would for an abstract idea.
Today the public holdings are fewer but still vast. Granted much of the land is in use as military bases, national parks, utilities, etc, but much of it just sits there.
But there is also a new detail: corporate ownership. Big business has long been an issue but recently that threat has increased. If we only consider the Mississippi Delta, hedge funds own hundreds of thousands of acres. Large cotton plantations are owned by Wall Street investors who have likely never seen them. The people who live in the Delta, once described as “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” work the land to make rent payments to TIAA, Hancock, or UBS. There can be no self determination in such situations. This region has the largest per capita population of African Americans in the country. Much of this land was once owned by their ancestors and the way they lost it wasn’t pretty.
So we see those two heads of the same monster- big government and big business - tightly grasping large landholdings that could otherwise be providing opportunity to a truly empowered working class - motivated, diverse, independent, hopeful.
Wright’s sentiment on this situation? “Any contrivance of men, by governments or corporations, whereby those who would labor are prevented from laboring, is, to that extent, a mischievous contrivance.” Regardless of the economic benefits of the current situation, it amounts only to damage in comparison to a model that unleashes the productivity of citizens achieving independence.
Wright’s plan lays out an agricultural solution. In 1859, particularly in the South, agriculture was the reality. Atlanta was a dusty crossroads on a rail line. Birmingham, Orlando, and Miami didn’t exist. Commerce and industry were almost nonexistent across the South. In 2020 we can make adjustments to the plan. This is where we look at the percentages of the market controlled by Walmart, Wells Fargo, Home Depot, and other household names. The ability for local banks, local grocery stores, and local mercantile businesses to gain a foothold in the market is hindered by policies made by governments and choices made by customers.
In this model, wages, benefit packages, leave policies, and other human resource practices are developed by people who never meet the employees they manage. Employees become a number rather than a person and humanity is lost in the shuffle. Small businesses have a better chance of preserving humanity and also offer independence to more people than huge corporations. More people running smaller businesses build a larger economic base than fewer people running large businesses.
So we see, once again, an old idea that is wiser than current practices. Wright’s spin on Oglethorpe’s model is an option we can update easily and put into practice.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire