99% vs 1% – A New Name For An Old American Institution

When Mitt Romney said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich; they’re doing just fine,” I was outraged. Many other people were outraged too – poor and rich alike. There is quite obviously a gaping tear in the “safety net.”

When the politicians and talking heads began blaming President Obama for starting a “class war,” I was incensed.

“The poor are fine.” “The rich are fine.”  “President Obama is creating an unnecessary class war.”

Yeah, right.

If you’re somebody who likes to focus on the here and now, the Republicans can sound pretty good.

But if you’re like me and like to dig a little deeper behind the words and why they’re being said, have I got a story for you.

Turns out our current “class war” problem has been going on for over three hundred years and it’s steeped in greed and violence.

In 1619, the first 20 slaves shipped to the English colonies of America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. In the same year, the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly in America, was born. This assembly provided the recording and enforcing of contracts between servants and masters. In a few decades, indentured servitude – the practice of agreeing to a term of labor (usually 3 to 7 years) in order to pay for the trip from Europe to the Americas – would be in full swing.

Indentured servants were often beaten and/or raped. In a number of colonies, female servants were not allowed to marry without their master’s permission (typically they weren’t given it). Many of these white European servants fled before their time was up and in a few cases, rose up against their masters.

Indentured servants were sold just like black slaves were.

The idea behind the servitude was that poor Europeans were being driven out of over-crowded cities and given the option to go to the New World and, after serving a time in labor, would be free to make their way and be successful – something they would never get had they stayed in Europe.

The truth is that for the majority only the first generation of servants ever left their servitude and became land owners. Later generations became tenants or general laborers. Land had already been fully parceled out by the aristocrats. Free whites were continually forced west to the frontier to try and make their living in “hostile Indian” country.

In 1676, seventy years after Jamestown was founded and one hundred years before the American colonies declared their independence, Virginia faced it’s first uprising. It is called Bacon’s Rebellion and it stands out because Nathaniel Bacon gathered to him white frontiersman, white servants and black slaves – all eager to follow Bacon to a promise of something better for them. Until recently, Bacon’s Rebellion has been taught as being the first taste of the fight for independence in the colonies, but it was in fact just two very headstrong men – Nathaniel Bacon, a young aristocrat and William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia – who didn’t see eye-to-eye. Bacon was a member of the House of Burgesses and spoke strongly for wiping out the local Indian populations. Berkeley thought it was a bad idea and refused to grant Bacon a military commission. Bacon took it upon himself to gather a militia, fight the Indians and demand a commission. Berkeley again refused, so Bacon led his militia to Jamestown and put it to the torch. This wasn’t a fight for freedom as we have been taught in school, but it did scare Berkeley and other Virginian aristocrats. Why?

Bacon's Rebellion putting the torch to Jamestown.

They saw how easy it was for Bacon to get the masses to rise up in violence.

Berkeley himself wrote in 1676, “How miserable that man is that Governs a People where six parts in seaven [sic] at least are Poore [sic] Endebted Discontented and Armed.”

The wealthy land owners in all of the colonies were mortally afraid of slave uprisings. They were afraid of servants fighting back against their masters. But what they feared most was slaves and poor whites joining forces and creating a rebellion that couldn’t be stopped. Bacon’s Rebellion scared them all. So much so, that the 1,000 English troops Berkeley requested to help stop Bacon and his militia stayed in Virginia. The official request for the troops to stay read:

Virginia is at present poor and more populous than ever. There is great apprehension of a rising among the servants, owing to their great necessities and want of clothes; they may plunder the storehouses and ships.

Seventy years was all it took for European whites to come to a new land and create a gap between the very rich and the very poor so wide that we still have it today, over 300 years later.

At this same time, in the Carolinas, eight men owned 40% of the land. In Maryland, one man ruled the entire colony. In New York, about three-fourths of the land was owned by 30 people.

Carl Bridenbaugh, in his book, Cities In The Wilderness, says:

The leaders of early Boston were gentlemen of considerable wealth who, is association with the clergy, eagerly sought to preserve in America the social arrangements of the Mother Country. By means of their control of trade and commerce, by their political domination of the inhabitants through church and Town Meeting, and  by careful marriage alliances among themselves, members of this little oligarchy laid the foundations for an aristocratic class in seventeenth century Boston.

All of these wealthy white men owned land and only landowners could vote, thereby ensuring their continued control of the colonies.

The 99 and the 1.

By the mid 1700’s, these wealthy men saw the poor as a problem that had to be dealt with – not even realizing that the greed and selfishness of their fathers and grandfathers created the situation.

I think Howard Zinn, in his book,  A People’s History of the United States, describes the results of the widening gap between rich and poor best with this:

The New Yorker Cadwallader Colden, in his Address to the Freeholders in 1747, attacked the wealthy as tax dodgers unconcerned with the welfare of others (although he himself was wealthy) and spoke for the honesty and dependability of “the midling rank of mankind” in whom citizens could best trust ‘our liberty & Property.” This was to become a critically important rhetorical device for the rule of the few, who would speak to the many of “our” liberty, “our” property, “our” country.

Any of that sound familiar? Almost sounds like the Romney quote, doesn’t it?

We can’t blame President Obama for starting a “class war.” It’s been here for centuries. And I don’t think we can blame Mitt Romney too much for that quote. It’s how the rich have thought for centuries.

The 99% vs. 1% problem is older than this country. It’s a system that was put into practice immediately after the first European whites landed their ships in North America. It is a system that has been around for centuries and won’t be going away any time soon, if it all.

It’s a shameful foundation of America.

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Thanks to The Simpson’s illustration team for Mr. Burns