American Elephants

A Few Words From Mark Steyn That I Liked: by The Elephant's Child

The one identity we’re not encouraged to trumpet is the one that enables us to trumpet all the others; our identity as citizens of a very particular kind of society, built on the rule of law, property rights, freedom of expression and the universal franchise.


The framework that the Founding Fathers devised to unite a baker’s dozen of small homogeneous colonies on the Atlantic coast roved strong enough to expand across a continent and halfway round the glove to Hawaii.  That’s why the British have successfully exported Westminster constitutions to Belize, Papua New Guinea, and India, the world’s largest democracy, mainly Hindu but with a minority population of 150 million Muslims (that’s some minority) who to their credit have no interest in the fetid swamp of militant Islamism in which so many of their co-religionists elsewhere are festering.  Of the world’s fifty most free nations, half were once ruled by Britain.  That’s the sort of thing most countries would boast about, not teach in schools as a shameful legacy of oppression.


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“Built on … universal franchise?” African-Americans did not get the guaranteed right to vote until the late 19th century, and women not until the 20th century. And, prior to the Constitution, a lot of colonies restricted voting rights only to land-owners. The influence of progressive French political thinkers, like La Fayette and the Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli, on the ideas of the founding fathers also should form part of the story.

As for India, soon after independence, a huge proportion of the Muslims living in India got out of there and set up their own countries (East and West Pakistan) — i.e., there was self-selection. Those Muslims who chose to remain behind were much more secular than the ones who left. A lot of credit for India’s political (as opposed to economic) success is owed to the peaceful instincts of their ancient culture.

The enduring successes have been the colonies that spread across areas of the world that were sparsely populated, like Australia, Canada, and the United States. The records of Britain’s former colonies in the densely populated of sub-Saharan Africa (think Nigeria and Kenya) have been much more mixed.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

From ““:

John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and later president, wrote in 1776 that no good could come from enfranchising more Americans:

Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.

Colonial Voting restrictions reflected eighteenth-century English notions about gender, race, prudence, and financial success, as well as vested interest. Arguments for a white, male-only electorate focused on what the men of the era conceived of as the delicate nature of women and their inability to deal with the coarse realities of politics, as well as convictions about race and religion. African Americans and Native Americans were excluded, and, at different times and places, the Protestant majority denied the vote to Catholics and Jews. In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. They were not signs of a popular belief in universal suffrage.

Property requirements were widespread. Some colonies required a voter to own a certain amount of land or land of a specified value. Others required personal property of a certain value, or payment of a certain amount of taxes. Examples from 1763 show the variety of these requirements. Delaware expected voters to own fifty acres of land or property worth £40. Rhode Island set the limit at land valued at £40 or worth an annual rent of £2. Connecticut required land worth an annual rent of £2 or livestock worth £40.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

Link again: “Voting in Early America


Comment by Subsidy Eye

Subsidy, whatever I write about you can always find a nit to pick. The two quotes are not from the same piece.

    Neither are talking about the political situation in Colonial days, but about today.

Immense changes don’t arrive overnight. Today we deplore slavery. In Colonial days it was the norm, and slavery was common in every society, including among the Indians. Slavery was for the most part regarded as a misfortune as were bound apprentices and servants. A great many of our Colonial settlers were bound to a certain period of service to pay for their voyage and support, and when their contracted period ended they were free to go and there was no particular shame attached, and the same applied to many slaves. You cannot look at earlier times with today’s eyes and morals. We must attempt by studying history to try to look at the world through their eyes, and it’s hard for us to imagine.

Imagine not just an absence of all the technology of communication we possess today, but the absence of news. Information traveled at the speed of a fast horse or a sailing packet at best. George Washington’s Farewell Address was printed, not spoken. A speaker had to gather a crowd and have a good set of lungs. Printing was still in its infancy. Books were not widely distributed. No photographs, so if someone could see a drawing or a painting of a president that was the closest they would ever come to knowing what he looked like. So do not sneer at property requirements for voting — it was what they knew. Property-owners had a stake in the community and were assumed to be more responsible. Times change, people change, ideas change, but were remarkably lucky to have the British influence of the Founding Fathers instead of the French.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

“The two quotes are not from the same piece.”

— Did I imply they were?

“Neither are talking about the political situation in Colonial days, but about today.”

— When one writes of “building on”, I think it is fair to examine the foundations.

“You cannot look at earlier times with today’s eyes and morals.”

I am not judging the early citizens of the United States, just trying to throw a dose of reality at anglo-centric myths. The country was not built on the principle of universal franchise, unless you want to define “universal” as white, property-owning men of over 21 years of age. That came later, and not simply as an income from Britain, which still has a monarchy and a (shudder) parliamentary system (as do Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, etc.)

You poo-poo the influence of French thinking on the founding fathers, but it was considerable. And on many of the British thinkers who in turn influenced Americans like Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. The inspiration for republican (small “r”) ideals did not come from exclusively or even predominantly from Britain but from further south in Europe.

I think (I hope) we agree that America has proved to be a great experiment. But that experiment has been influenced by peoples of many cultures, and not least by the immigrant determination and struggle to be treated as equals.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

You’re chasing straw men.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

I forgot to mention the Dutch influence as well, which was present early on in America, both through the settlements in New Amsterdam (Manhatten and Albany) and Plymouth Colony, whose original settlers had spent many years in Leyden.

Herewith a short snippet from this article:

Wherever the Dutch farmers in America who refused to live under the semi-feudal patroons made their settlements they discarded the artificial and un-Netherlandish system of patroons and manors, and followed the ancestral and familial methods of commonage in land, representation in government, and democratic ideas and instincts in freedom inherited for ages.

Page after page of [Ubbo Emmius’s “History of Friesland’], with its account of the elections after prayer, and of written ballots, of magistrates and select-men, reads like descriptions of early New England town meetings.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

We give a lot of attention the the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving, but the Mayflower Compact and the settlement at Plymouth had very little influence on America. The Pilgrims, more numerous and more organized, were going to found their “city on a hill,” but need and opportunity upstaged ideology. In their American remoteness, the New Englanders created simple new forms of self-government. The New England town meetings had a kind of precedent in the vestry meetings of rural England, but American circumstances gave town meetings comprehensive powers and a new vitality. They brought old customs but they were changed by America itself and the need for self-government.

Daniel Boorstin called it the “therapy of distance.” New immigrants to America came to escape old ways and to adapt to a new land. Albany and New York were temporarily particularly Dutch, but not for long. You overemphasize the extent to which the customs they brought with them had influence. My husband’s family were Albany Dutch, mine were Pennsylvania and New Jersey Dutch, New Amsterdam beginnings. Particularly in the early days, newcomers were apt to cluster together with others who shared their language, and as they blended in to the country (there was lots of movement to get a better piece of land, a better opportunity,a better water supply). But they blended and adapted, and bits of the old ways from the old country were blended into the new.They were all subsistence farmers at first, and they needed land and water which America had in abundance.Daniel Boorstin’s Hidden History is valuable, as is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher. The latter is British, of course, but it shows how customs and folkways have blended into the country and their remnants today. Dutch farmers didn’t have to refuse the Patroons, they could become prosperous farmers themselves.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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