Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Black History Month: Dr. Martin Luther King "speaks deep" about how the west was built, and how the conditions for America's farming middle class was created by the state ... 

There's a much larger conceptual framework to Dr. King's discussion about the "economic floor" that was built for America's yeoman farmers. And it speaks more to old fashion economic nationalism and aggressive mercantilism than it does to Manifest Destiny and free market capitalism. The following captures the point, and is from Chapter 6 (pp. 126-127) of my book, The Myth of the Free Market.

... Instead of paying attention to “preserving an old economic order” – as was the case in England and on the European continent – property in America was going to be used as “a powerful tool for creating a new one.” The idea was that the spirit of democracy would flourish only if everyone who wished it was afforded the opportunity to own and farm their own land ... The policy of preemption made it clear that the U.S. government would take deliberate steps to stock the country with farmers who were disciplined and productive. For a young Abraham Lincoln this meant the purpose of the U.S. government was “to ‘clear the path’ for the individual to labor and get ahead” ...

Because absentee land owner claims to property were ignored and government claims were given up as well, the policy of preemption departed fundamentally from European land practices that protected the aristocratic elite. This enabled America to do three things crucial for building its middle-class. First, it made pioneers out of those previously viewed as illegal “squatters” or, worse, labeled as “criminals.”

Second, instead of supporting a titled or leisure class, preemption encouraged others to go and develop the West by rewarding hard work and individual initiative.

Finally, it helped set the stage for America’s yeoman farming middle-class to emerge, which became the cornerstone of American democracy.

To facilitate land grabs and economic growth, and to deal with periodic economic slumps, the U.S. government promoted settlement through preemption and made sure there would be plenty of land to settle. From 1800 to 1848 a series of treaties, wars and artful negotiations on the part of the U.S. government (the Louisiana Territory, 1803; Florida, 1819; the Transcontinental Treaty, 1821; the Oregon Territory, 1846; Texas, 1845; the Mexican Cession in 1848) helped the nation acquire more than two million square miles of territory. It also turned “Manifest Destiny” into a powerful national movement that promoted economic expansion as much as it inspired a sense that God had chosen America to do His bidding ...

The Homestead Act of 1862 continued the trend of growing America’s middle-class by providing 160 acres of free public land to settlers who worked the land for at least five years. Just as important, the Act was accompanied with federally subsidized continent-crossing railroads, the creation of the Army Corps of Engineers (which built much of the country’s rural infrastructure), the Morrill Act (1862), U.S. Indian policies that made squatting possible, lenient immigration policies, and other state sponsored initiatives that worked to encourage, protect, and reward the efforts of individual (white) settlers.

To be sure, there were no guarantees of success – as many homesteader families found. Yet, there was hardly anything “invisible” about state policies that had set the stage by offering opportunities a new middle class that would become the cornerstone of the American experience. 

At the end of the day, what's clear is that in order for Manifest Destiny to happen ...

America needed this to happen first ...

The Trail of Tears

The Indian Wars cleared the way for early settlers in the west.

- Mark

Hat tip to Tom for the MLK clip.

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