Saturday, August 28, 2010

Competing, Non-Territorial Blog Post

Comments are closed on this post over at Gene Callahan's blog, but I find the discussion interesting enough to continue.

The gist of the post is a comparison of feudal liege/vassal relationships to the anarcho-capitalist [sic] concept of "competing defense agencies," at the expense of the latter.

I contested this notion on the premise that at least one group among those he treated as "clients" of said "defense agencies" -- serfs or villeins -- were not in fact clients but chattel.

What Gene took issue with (and, as is not especially unusual, got a bit testy about) was my claim that:

The history of the end of feudalism is the history of those serfs retaining their own "defense agencies," formal and informal, from the Peasants' Revolt to the Levellers to the sans-culottes to the Continental Army.

The disagreement here seems to me to be a disagreement between viewing history as a set of discrete periods versus viewing it as a continuum with considerable periodic overlap. To wit, Gene writes that:

[A]lthough I'm just finishing a dissertation during the writing of which I did a lot of reading on the American founding, I can't think of a single case in which I saw the American Revolution described as a battle against feudalism, which generally is seen to have ended, in Western Europe, with the consolidation of the large nation-states from, say, 1300 to 1600 or so.

He'd probably really and truly blow his stack if I told him that I place the actual end of widespread feudalism in the early 20th century (with the Russian revolution and, if one views pre-Republic China as a feudal rather than bureaucratic system -- scholars are still arguinig about that -- Sun Yat-Sen's revolution).

Anyway, I popped back with a quote from Jefferson describing the revolution, at least as it progressed politically in Virginia, as essentially a revolt against feudal land relations and in favor of a restoration of the pre-feudal Anglo-Saxon way of doing things.

I probably should have been more detailed: In my opinion, Locke put the kibosh on the intellectual underpinnings of feudalism; the project of Jefferson et al was sort of janitorial. They were cleaning up the messes (monarchy, remnants of liege/vassal land relationships, etc.) left by that system's gradual disintegration.

Which brings me to this comment, from Daniel McCarthy:

In any event, Tom is not alone in considering the American Revolution to be a revolt against "feudalism" of a sort. But even if one grants that, the history may suggest the opposite of the conclusion Tom wants to draw: it was the development of modern states (and armies) that displaced feudalism and "liberated" the individual.

I strenuously disagree. Modern states and armies (especially standing armies) filled the vacuum left by feudalism's final disintegration, but they weren't responsible for the disintegration itself, or at least not in England and America and France. In fact, the modern state was a restoration of certain aspects of feudalism -- those convenient to the power and prosperity of a new political class that was emerging to replace the old (feudal) political class.

Let's see if I can find some heavy hitters who agree with me on these two points -- that the American revolution was a revolution against feudalism, and that the constitutional convention served up old feudal wine in new republican skins:

Here's John Adams -- "founding father" and second President of the United States -- in 1765, inveighing against the Stamp Act in A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law:

The canon and feudal systems, though greatly mutilated in England, are not yet destroyed. Like the temples and palaces in which the great contrivers of them once worshipped and inhabited, they exist in ruins; and much of the domineering spirit of them still remains. ... it seems very manifest from the Stamp Act itself, that a design is formed to strip us in a great measure of the means of knowledge, by loading the press, the colleges, and even an almanac and a newspaper, with restraints and duties; and to introduce the inequalities and dependencies of the feudal system, by taking from the poorer sort of people all their little subsistence, and conferring it on a set of stamp officers, distributors, and their deputies.

And here's James Madison -- "founding father" and fourth President of the United States -- writing to Thomas Jefferson in October of 1787 on the difference between the Articles of Confederation and the newly framed Constitution:

Encroachments of the States on the general authority, sacrifices of national to local interests, interferences of the measures of different States, form a great part of the history of our political system. It may be said that the new Constitution is founded on different principles, and will have a different operation. I admit the difference to be material. It presents the aspect rather of a feudal system of republics, if such a phrase may be used, than of a Confederacy of independent States.


Contra Gene, I don't believe that it was only Jefferson who "THOUGHT he was struggling against 'feudalism?'" Adams clearly thought so as well. Nor do I attribute that notion on the part of Jefferson and Adams to the idea that, as Gene puts it, "[t]he enlightenment dudes were generally not very good historians."

And Contra Daniel, I don't believe that "it was the development of modern states (and armies) that displaced feudalism and 'liberated' the individual."

But hey, I could be wrong.

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