A Republic of Masters
Over the last few months, I’ve been gradually working my way through a set of lectures on the history of the United States by professors Staloff and Masur of the City College of New York — emphasis on the gradually as several months and 22 lectures in I’m around at around 1800.
One of the things that has been striking me is the discussion on the ideas about how a republic ought to function current among the colonists and the Founders’ generation. In early America, it was generally only male property owners who could vote — sometimes with an additional limitation on how much property you had to own. This was not, however, out of a desire to exclude the poor and empower the rich. (Though one could certainly see it that way, and I’m sure that some people did.) Rather, it’s purpose was to assure that only “masters” had a voice in the running of the republic(s). I use the term “master” not in reference to slavery, but in an almost feudal sense. A master was a man who owned property in the sense of owning some means of support: an estate, a farm, a business, etc. But this wasn’t just a position of power, it was also one of responsibility. A master was expected to assure the well-being of all those who worked for him or lived in his household/estate. Sometimes, these were one and the same. A master craftsman might well have one or two apprentices living in his house, with his family. Journeyman laborers might live in the shop, or also in his house. Even if his workers lived under another roof, a master was not merely an employer, he was also a patron and head of household to all who depended on him.
Thus, only masters were permitted to vote as a way to minimize the power of the wealthy masters over poorer masters (or farmers or craftsmen who owned property but weren’t rich enough to employ anyone.) It was assumed that all those in a master’s household would follow the master in his politics, and so if you had universal male suffrage, you would have been giving more votes to the masters who had more workers.
Further, since someone was not a master was in a state of dependence, it was assumed that allowing such a person to vote would present him with too much of a temptation to vote self-servingly: to support policies which would better his own condition rather than policies which would be to the common good. Masters, it was believed, would be able to be able to set self interest aside when guiding a republic, because they already had their basic needs assured. (Clearly a somewhat optimistic idea, but there it is.) This is one of the things which led the founders to recoil from “democracy” (which they equated with mob rule) while embracing the idea of a republic.
Now, one could theorize that this was always a fiction, that the idea of a republic ruled by masters with the common good in mind was a story that people told themselves in order to justify giving power only to the relatively well-off. But I’m not sure that this would be a believable claim. The revolution itself (and the escalating series of protests which led up to the actual revolution) gave ample opportunity for an oppressed and numerous underclass to gain power and demand universal suffrage (and through that suffrage, policies to economically limit the masters and better themselves.) This did not happen. And I think one fairly decent explanation for why is that the idea of masters taking care of their dependents worked — at least enough of the time that a majority of non-masters were not ready to create social disturbance and disrupt the system.
That this set of obligations within society worked moderately well at the time would explain, in part, why the Founders placed such great emphasis on political liberty — because non-state mechanisms were already functioning to assure the basic well being of society. It was over the coming decades, as employers grew larger and began to abandon the idea of being masters in the feudal sense, that those without property turned increasingly to the state for protection. Industrialization, a mass society, and a breakdown in traditional social obligations would lead future revolutionaries to seek a direct relationship between the individual and the state in order to assure basic needs — something which at the time of the American Revolution it was assumed would be met through existing social structures of mutual obligation, and through escape valve of a massive and sparsely settled continent spreading out to the west of the colonies, where those feeling dispossessed could go seeking to become their own masters.