That’s what the Founders of this nation used to call the majority of European settlers. They were “white savages”, and no better than the Native Americans. Many of the white savages were indentured servants. They sold their lives to colonial property owners to work on their farms, businesses or homes for a period of time, usually three to seven years. Unlike African slaves, an indentured servant was freed when his indenture ran out. Some indentured servants knew a trade. They could come to Ben Franklin with their hats in their hands and beg a loan to open a business. Those indentured servants with generous employers would end their terms with their own tools. They could scratch out a living on the frontier.
Most of the American settlers were not that lucky. It was a fortunate person who came out of his indenture without owing his employer for food, lodging, or some trumped up excuse. There was a case where a person indentured to a miller had to serve an extra two years because his brother died three years into his indenture. The survivor had to work an extra two years to fulfill his brother’s contract.
Indentured servants lived under terrible conditions, as they lived under the same conditions as slaves. They could be physically or sexually abused with no resort to the law. If they tried to escape, they would be jailed for breaking the contract. Those who escaped had little recourse but to head for the frontier and take their chances with the natives. When given the choice between the frontier and another period of indenture, the frontier looked pretty damned good to a majority of freed servants.
Even the frontier was no guarantee of freedom, as the land in western Pennsylvania, New York State, and Kentucky was already owned. William Penn was granted Pennsylvania by the king of England. That meant that Penn and his heirs owned any land within that grant and had the right to charge rent to any settlers. Indentured servants ended up becoming tenant farmers who owed rent to their landlords, and the said landlords were not shy about collecting. Of course the western land in the other colonies was also owned through royal grant, and those settlers were also charged rents for their subsistence farms.
Then came the American Revolution and our all wise and kindly founding fathers put an end to indentured servitude, and the abused servants turned into our brave western pioneers. Right?
The American Revolution certainly had the support of the former indentured servants. Most of the guerrilla companies in the western states were composed of former indentured servants who couldn’t wait to take a shot at their tormentors. The Revolution did nothing to improve the lot of either indentured servants or the tenant farmers in the west. The indenture was a legal contract that continued to be honored in all thirteen states after the revolution.
Although the Constitution recognized indentured servants as citizens for purposes of congressional recognition, there was little change in the lives of either the indentured servants or the tenant farmers in the west. To the founders of this country, the tenant farmers were only “white savages”. They were treated little better than animals. They improved and cultivated the lands the founders owned. They fought the original inhabitants of America for the landed gentry, but they received the same consideration as slaves or natives.
This is the glorious past that our tea bagging libertarian brethren would bring us back to. The life of a tenant farmer was brief, brutal, and nasty. Work began at sun-up and continued after sun-down. After months of back breaking labor, their landlords would leave them barely enough to live on. If you failed to pay most of your crops in rent, the landowner had the right to send the sheriff to drive you off the land. Stop and think for a moment. After spending years being abused by some fop, you become a free man and move west to build a better life. In fact, you might have even fought in the Revolutionary War! You clear the land, you plant the crops, you fight off the natives, and then some bastard from Boston or Philadelphia comes riding up and demands more than half your crop. If you don’t give it to him, the sheriff comes with armed deputies to arrest you and drive your wife and kids off the land that you developed!
But our founding fathers would never do anything like that? Right?
After the establishment of the Constitution, the new government was desperately in need of funds. Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey production. It was a two tiered tax. The large distilleries had the financial resources to pay a yearly rate, and their businesses were not hurt at all. However, the tenant farmers in western Pennsylvania supplemented their incomes by making corn whiskey. These small business people could not afford to pay a yearly fee and were forced to pay by the quart. Of course their customers, most of them tenant farmers, could not afford the price mark up from the tax. Essentially the government tax put them out of business.
Of course the tenant farmers rebelled. They continued to brew and sell their whiskey and shot anybody who tried to collect the tax. It was one thing for the land owner to demand his rent. It was another for the government to come in and take food out their kid’s mouths. The tenant farmers had just about enough and they were not ready to stand down. They actually might have stood a chance of winning, except that their landlord was none other than George Washington.
Before the Revolution, Washington bought thousands of acres of undeveloped land from the sons of William Penn. Technically, the sale was illegal as Washington was a citizen of the Virginia Colony and not of Pennsylvania. William Penn’s progeny were notorious spendthrifts and always in need of ready cash. So the sale went down, and if the Crown discovered it, Washington would have been fined and the land confiscated by the Crown.
Of course the Whiskey Rebellion, as it was called, was centered right in Washington’s holdings. The first Commander and Chief of the American army led his troops to Pennsylvania and violently ended America’s first tax revolt. Alexander Hamilton accompanied Washington as his aid decamp. In truth, not many tenants were killed in the rebellion. Many were arrested and brought back to Philadelphia where they were pardoned. Others ran away to Ohio where they killed more natives, improved more land, and ended up paying rent to the people whom the new federal government granted Ohio to. Washington also evicted all his tenants and replaced them with indentured servants.
This is the glorious past the libertarians want to return us to.