Praise for why Nations Fail


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Early in 1516 the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís sailed into a wide estuary on the Eastern Seaboard of South America. Wading ashore, de Solís claimed the land for Spain, naming the river the Río de la Plata, “River of Silver,” since the local people possessed silver. The indigenous peoples on either side of the estuary—the Charrúas in what is now Uruguay, and the Querandí on the plains that were to be known as the Pampas in modern Argentina—regarded the newcomers with hostility. These locals were hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups without strong centralized political authorities. Indeed it was such a band of Charrúas who clubbed de Solís to death as he explored the new domains he had attemped to occupy for Spain.

In 1534 the Spanish, still optimistic, sent out a first mission of settlers from Spain under the leadership of Pedro de Mendoza. They founded a town on the site of Buenos Aires in the same year. It should have been an ideal place for Europeans. Buenos Aires, literally meaning “good airs,” had a hospitable, temperate climate. Yet the first stay of the Spaniards there was short lived. They were not after good airs, but resources to extract and labor to coerce. The Charrúas and the Querandí were not obliging, however. They refused to provide food to the Spaniards, and refused to work when caught. They attacked the new settlement with their bows and arrows. The Spaniards grew hungry, since they had not anticipated having to provide food for themselves. Buenos Aires was not what they had dreamed of. The local people could not be forced into providing labor. The area had no silver or gold to exploit, and the silver that de Solís found had actually come all the way from the Inca state in the Andes, far to the west.

The Spaniards, while trying to survive, started sending out expeditions to find a new place that would offer greater riches and populations easier to coerce. In 1537 one of these expeditions, under the leadership of Juan de Ayolas, penetrated up the Paraná River, searching for a route to the Incas. On its way, it made contact with the Guaraní, a sedentary people with an agricultural economy based on maize and cassava. De Ayolas immediately realized that the Guaraní were a completely different proposition from the Charrúas and the Querandí. After a brief conflict, the Spanish overcame Guaraní resistance and founded a town, Nuestra Señora de Santa María de la Asunción, which remains the capital of Paraguay today. The conquistadors married the Guaraní princesses and quickly set themselves up as a new aristocracy. They adapted the existing systems of forced labor and tribute of the Guaraní, with themselves at the helm. This was the kind of colony they wanted to set up, and within four years Buenos Aires was abandoned as all the Spaniards who’d settled there moved to the new town.

Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America,” a city of wide European-style boulevards based on the great agricultural wealth of the Pampas, was not resettled until 1580. The abandonment of Buenos Aires and the conquest of the Guaraní reveals the logic of European colonization of the Americas. Early Spanish and, as we will see, English colonists were not interested in tilling the soil themselves; they wanted others to do it for them, and they wanted riches, gold and silver, to plunder.

The expeditions of de Solís, de Mendoza, and de Ayolas came in the wake of more famous ones that followed Christopher Columbus’s sighting of one of the islands of the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Spanish expansion and colonization of the Americas began in earnest with the invasion of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in 1519, the expedition of Francisco Pizarro to Peru a decade and a half later, and the expedition of Pedro de Mendoza to the Río de la Plata just two years after that. Over the next century, Spain conquered and colonized most of central, western, and southern South America, while Portugal claimed Brazil to the east.

The Spanish strategy of colonization was highly effective. First perfected by Cortés in Mexico, it was based on the observation that the best way for the Spanish to subdue opposition was to capture the indigenous leader. This strategy enabled the Spanish to claim the accumulated wealth of the leader and coerce the indigenous peoples to give tribute and food. The next step was setting themselves up as the new elite of the indigenous society and taking control of the existing methods of taxation, tribute, and, particularly, forced labor.

When Cortés and his men arrived at the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, they were welcomed by Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, who had decided, in the face of much advice from his counselors, to welcome the Spaniards peacefully. What happened next is well described by the account compiled after 1545 by the Franciscan priest Bernardino de Sahagún in his famous Florentine Codices.

[At] once they [the Spanish] firmly seized Moctezuma … then each of the guns shot off … Fear prevailed. It was as if everyone had swallowed his heart. Even before it had grown dark, there was terror, there was astonishment, there was apprehension, there was a stunning of the people.And when it dawned thereupon were proclaimed all the things which [the Spaniards] required: white tortillas, roasted turkey hens, eggs, fresh water, wood, firewood, charcoal … This had Moctezuma indeed commanded.And when the Spaniards were well settled, they thereupon inquired of Moctezuma as to all the city’s treasure … with great zeal they sought gold. And Moctezuma thereupon went leading the Spaniards. They went surrounding him … each holding him, each grasping him.And when they reached the storehouse, a place called Teocalco, thereupon they brought forth all the brilliant things; the quetzal feather head fan, the devices, the shields, the golden discs … the golden nose crescents, the golden leg bands, the golden arm bands, the golden forehead bands.Thereupon was detached the gold … at once they ignited, set fire to … all the precious things. They all burned. And the gold the Spaniards formed into separate bars … And the Spanish walked everywhere … They took all, all that they saw which they saw to be good.Thereupon they went to Moctezuma’s own storehouse  … at the place called Totocalco … they brought forth [Moctezuma’s] own property … precious things all; the necklaces with pendants, the arm bands with tufts of quetzal feathers, the golden arm bands, the bracelets, the golden bands with shells … and the turquoise diadem, the attribute of the ruler. They took it all. The military conquest of the Aztecs was completed by 1521. Cortés, as governor of the province of New Spain, then began dividing up the most valuable resource, the indigenous population, through the institution of the encomienda. The encomienda had first appeared in fifteenth-century Spain as part of the reconquest of the south of the country from the Moors, Arabs who had settled during and after the eighth century. In the New World, it took on a much more pernicious form: it was a grant of indigenous peoples to a Spaniard, known as the encomendero. The indigenous peoples had to give the encomendero tribute and labor services, in exchange for which the encomendero was charged with converting them to Christianity.

A vivid early account of the workings of the encomienda has come down to us from Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican priest who formulated the earliest and one of the most devastating critiques of the Spanish colonial system. De las Casas arrived on the Spanish island of Hispaniola in 1502 with a fleet of ships led by the new governor, Nicolás de Ovando. He became increasingly disillusioned and disturbed by the cruel and exploitative treatment of the indigenous peoples he witnessed every day. In 1513 he took part as a chaplain in the Spanish conquest of Cuba, even being granted an encomienda for his service. However, he renounced the grant and began a long campaign to reform Spanish colonial institutions. His efforts culminated in his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, written in 1542, a withering attack on the barbarity of Spanish rule. On the encomienda he has this to say in the case of Nicaragua:

Each of the settlers took up residence in the town allotted to him (or encommended to him, as the legal phrase has it), put the inhabitants to work for him, stole their already scarce foodstuffs for himself and took over the lands owned and worked by the natives and on which they traditionally grew their own produce. The settler would treat the whole of the native population—dignitaries, old men, women and children—as members of his household and, as such, make them labor night and day in his own interests, without any rest whatsoever. For the conquest of New Granada, modern Colombia, de las Casas reports the whole Spanish strategy in action:

To realize their long-term purpose of seizing all the available gold, the Spaniards employed their usual strategy of apportioning among themselves (or en-commending, as they have it) the towns and their inhabitants … and then, as ever, treating them as common slaves. The man in overall command of the expedition seized the King of the whole territory for himself and held him prisoner for six or seven months, quite illicitly demanding more and more gold and emeralds from him. This King, one Bogotá, was so terrified that, in his anxiety to free himself from the clutches of his tormentors, he consented to the demand that he fill an entire house with gold and hand it over; to this end he sent his people off in search of gold, and bit by bit they brought it along with many precious stones. But still the house was not filled and the Spaniards eventually declared that they would put him to death for breaking his promise. The commander suggested they should bring the case before him, as a representative of the law, and when they did so, entering formal accusations against the King, he sentenced him to torture should he persist in not honoring the bargain. They tortured him with the strappado, put burning tallow on his belly, pinned both his legs to poles with iron hoops and his neck with another and then, with two men holding his hands, proceeded to burn the soles of his feet. From time to time, the commander would look in and repeat that they would torture him to death slowly unless he produced more gold, and this is what they did, the King eventually succumbing to the agonies they inflicted on him. The strategy and institutions of conquest perfected in Mexico were eagerly adopted elsewhere in the Spanish Empire. Nowhere was this done more effectively than in Pizarro’s conquest of Peru. As de las Casas begins his account:

In 1531 another great villain journeyed with a number of men to the kingdom of Peru. He set out with every intention of imitating the strategy and tactics of his fellow adventurers in other parts of the New World. Pizarro began on the coast near the Peruvian town of Tumbes and marched south. On November 15, 1532, he reached the mountain town of Cajamarca, where the Inca emperor Atahualpa was encamped with his army. The next day, Atahualpa, who had just vanquished his brother Huáscar in a contest over who would succeed their deceased father, Huayna Capac, came with his retinue to where the Spanish were camped. Atahualpa was irritated because news of atrocities that the Spanish had already committed, such as violating a temple of the Sun God Inti, had reached him. What transpired next is well known. The Spanish laid a trap and sprang it. They killed Atahualpa’s guards and retainers, possibly as many as two thousand people, and captured the king. To gain his freedom, Atahualpa had to promise to fill one room with gold and two more of the same size with silver. He did this, but the Spanish, reneging on their promises, strangled him in July 1533. That November, the Spanish captured the Inca capital of Cusco, where the Incan aristocracy received the same treatment as Atahualpa, being imprisoned until they produced gold and silver. When they did not satisfy Spanish demands, they were burned alive. The great artistic treasures of Cusco, such as the Temple of the Sun, had their gold stripped from them and melted down into ingots.

At this point the Spanish focused on the people of the Inca Empire. As in Mexico, citizens were divided into encomiendas, with one going to each of the conquistadors who had accompanied Pizarro. The encomienda was the main institution used for the control and organization of labor in the early colonial period, but it soon faced a vigorous contender. In 1545 a local named Diego Gualpa was searching for an indigenous shrine high in the Andes in what is today Bolivia. He was thrown to the ground by a sudden gust of wind and in front of him appeared a cache of silver ore. This was part of a vast mountain of silver, which the Spanish baptized El Cerro Rico, “The Rich Hill.” Around it grew the city of Potosí, which at its height in 1650 had a population of 160,000 people, larger than Lisbon or Venice in this period.

To exploit the silver, the Spanish needed miners—a lot of miners. They sent a new viceroy, the chief Spanish colonial official, Francisco de Toledo, whose main mission was to solve the labor problem. De Toledo, arriving in Peru in 1569, first spent five years traveling around and investigating his new charge. He also commissioned a massive survey of the entire adult population. To find the labor he needed, de Toledo first moved almost the entire indigenous population, concentrating them in new towns called reducciones—literally “reductions”—which would facilitate the exploitation of labor by the Spanish Crown. Then he revived and adapted an Inca labor institution known as the mita, which, in the Incas’ language, Quechua, means “a turn.” Under their mita system, the Incas had used forced labor to run plantations designed to provide food for temples, the aristocracy, and the army. In return, the Inca elite provided famine relief and security. In de Toledo’s hands the mita, especially the Potosí mita, was to become the largest and most onerous scheme of labor exploitation in the Spanish colonial period. De Toledo defined a huge catchment area, running from the middle of modern-day Peru and encompassing most of modern Bolivia. It covered about two hundred thousand square miles. In this area, one-seventh of the male inhabitants, newly arrived in their reducciones, were required to work in the mines at Potosí. The Potosí mita endured throughout the entire colonial period and was abolished only in 1825. Map 1 shows the catchment area of the mita superimposed on the extent of the Inca empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. It illustrates the extent to which the mita overlapped with the heartland of the empire, encompassing the capital Cusco.

Remarkably, you still see the legacy of the mita in Peru today. Take the differences between the provinces of Calca and nearby Acomayo. There appears to be few differences among these provinces. Both are high in the mountains, and each is inhabited by the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. Yet Acomayo is much poorer, with its inhabitants consuming about one-third less than those in Calca. The people know this. In Acomayo they ask intrepid foreigners, “Don’t you know that the people here are poorer than the people over there in Calca? Why would you ever want to come here?” Intrepid because it is much harder to get to Acomayo from the regional capital of Cusco, ancient center of the Inca Empire, than it is to get to Calca. The road to Calca is surfaced, the one to Acomayo is in a terrible state of disrepair. To get beyond Acomayo, you need a horse or a mule. In Calca and Acomayo, people grow the same crops, but in Calca they sell them on the market for money. In Acomayo they grow food for their own subsistence. These inequalities, apparent to the eye and to the people who live there, can be understood in terms of the institutional differences between these departments—institutional differences with historical roots going back to de Toledo and his plan for effective exploitation of indigenous labor. The major historical difference between Acomayo and Calca is that Acomayo was in the catchment area of the Potosí mita. Calca was not.

In addition to the concentration of labor and the mita, de Toledo consolidated the encomienda into a head tax, a fixed sum payable by each adult male every year in silver. This was another scheme designed to force people into the labor market and reduce wages for Spanish landowners. Another institution, the repartimiento de mercancias, also became widespread during de Toledo’s tenure. Derived from the Spanish verb repartir, to distribute, this repartimiento, literally “the distribution of goods,” involved the forced sale of goods to locals at prices determined by Spaniards. Finally, de Toledo introduced the trajin—meaning, literally, “the burden”—which used the indigenous people to carry heavy loads of goods, such as wine or coca leaves or textiles, as a substitute for pack animals, for the business ventures of the Spanish elite.

Throughout the Spanish colonial world in the Americas, similar institutions and social structures emerged. After an initial phase of looting, and gold and silver lust, the Spanish created a web of institutions designed to exploit the indigenous peoples. The full gamut of encomienda, mita, repartimiento, and trajin was designed to force indigenous people’s living standards down to a subsistence level and thus extract all income in excess of this for Spaniards. This was achieved by expropriating their land, forcing them to work, offering low wages for labor services, imposing high taxes, and charging high prices for goods that were not even voluntarily bought. Though these institutions generated a lot of wealth for the Spanish Crown and made the conquistadors and their descendants very rich, they also turned Latin America into the most unequal continent in the world and sapped much of its economic potential.

As the Spanish began their conquest of the Americas in the 1490s, England was a minor European power recovering from the devastating effects of a civil war, the Wars of the Roses. She was in no state to take advantage of the scramble for loot and gold and the opportunity to exploit the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1588, the lucky rout of the Spanish Armada, an attempt by King Philip II of Spain to invade England, sent political shockwaves around Europe. Fortunate though England’s victory was, it was also a sign of growing English assertiveness on the seas that would enable them to finally take part in the quest for colonial empire.

It is thus no coincidence that the English began their colonization of North America at exactly the same time. But they were already latecomers. They chose North America not because it was attractive, but because it was all that was available. The “desirable” parts of the Americas, where the indigenous population to exploit was plentiful and where the gold and silver mines were located, had already been occupied. The English got the leftovers. When the eighteenth-century English writer and agriculturalist Arthur Young discussed where profitable “staple products,” by which he meant exportable agricultural goods, were produced, he noted:

It appears upon the whole, that the staple productions of our colonies decrease in value in proportion to their distance from the sun. In the West Indies, which are the hottest of all, they make to the amount of 8l. 12s. 1d. per head. In the southern continental ones, to the amount of 5l. 10s. In the central ones, to the amount of 9s. 6 1/2d. In the northern settlements, to that of 2s. 6d. This scale surely suggests a most important lesson—to avoid colonizing in northern latitudes. The first English attempt to plant a colony, at Roanoke, in North Carolina, between 1585 and 1587, was a complete failure. In 1607 they tried again. Shortly before the end of 1606, three vessels, Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, under the command of Captain Christopher Newport, set off for Virginia. The colonists, under the auspices of the Virginia Company, sailed into Chesapeake Bay and up a river they named the James, after the ruling English monarch, James I. On May 14, 1607, they founded the settlement of Jamestown.

Though the settlers on board the ships owned by the Virginia Company were English, they had a model of colonization heavily influenced by the template set up by Cortés, Pizarro, and de Toledo. Their first plan was to capture the local chief and use him as a way to get provisions and to coerce the population into producing food and wealth for them.

When they first landed in Jamestown, the English colonists did not know that they were within the territory claimed by the Powhatan Confederacy, a coalition of some thirty polities owing allegiance to a king called Wahunsunacock. Wahunsunacock’s capital was at the town of Werowocomoco, a mere twenty miles from Jamestown. The plan of the colonists was to learn more about the lay of the land. If the locals could not be induced to provide food and labor, the colonists might at least be able to trade with them. The notion that the settlers themselves would work and grow their own food seems not to have crossed their minds. That is not what conquerors of the New World did.

Wahunsunacock quickly became aware of the colonists’ presence and viewed their intentions with great suspicion. He was in charge of what for North America was quite a large empire. But he had many enemies and lacked the overwhelming centralized political control of the Incas. Wahunsunacock decided to see what the intentions of the English were, initially sending messengers saying that he desired friendly relations with them.

As the winter of 1607 closed in, the settlers in Jamestown began to run low on food, and the appointed leader of the colony’s ruling council, Edward Marie Wingfield, dithered indecisively. The situation was rescued by Captain John Smith. Smith, whose writings provide one of our main sources of information about the early development of the colony, was a larger-than-life character. Born in England, in rural Lincolnshire, he disregarded his father’s desires for him to go into business and instead became a soldier of fortune. He first fought with English armies in the Netherlands, after which he joined Austrian forces serving in Hungary fighting against the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Captured in Romania, he was sold as a slave and put to work as a field hand. He managed one day to overcome his master and, stealing his clothes and his horse, escape back into Austrian territory. Smith had got himself into trouble on the voyage to Virginia and was imprisoned on the Susan Constant for mutiny after defying the orders of Wingfield. When the ships reached the New World, the plan was to put him on trial. To the immense horror of Wingfield, Newport, and other elite colonists, however, when they opened their sealed orders, they discovered that the Virginia Company had nominated Smith to be a member of the ruling council that was to govern Jamestown.

With Newport sailing back to England for supplies and more colonists, and Wingfield uncertain about what to do, it was Smith who saved the colony. He initiated a series of trading missions that secured vital food supplies. On one of these he was captured by Opechancanough, one of Wahunsunacock’s younger brothers, and was brought before the king at Werowocomoco. He was the first Englishman to meet Wahunsunacock, and it was at this initial meeting that according to some accounts Smith’s life was saved only at the intervention of Wahunsunacock’s young daughter Pocahontas. Freed on January 2, 1608, Smith returned to Jamestown, which was still perilously low on food, until the timely return of Newport from England later on the same day.

The colonists of Jamestown learned little from this initial experience. As 1608 proceeded, they continued their quest for gold and precious metals. They still did not seem to understand that to survive, they could not rely on the locals to feed them through either coercion or trade. It was Smith who was the first to realize that the model of colonization that had worked so well for Cortés and Pizarro simply would not work in North America. The underlying circumstances were just too different. Smith noted that, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the peoples of Virginia did not have gold. Indeed, he noted in his diary, “Victuals you must know is all their wealth.” Anas Todkill, one of the early settlers who left an extensive diary, expressed well the frustrations of Smith and the few others on which this recognition dawned:

“There was no talke, no hope, no worke, but dig gold, refine gold, load gold.” When Newport sailed for England in April 1608 he took a cargo of pyrite, fool’s gold. He returned at the end of September with orders from the Virginia Company to take firmer control over the locals. Their plan was to crown Wahunsunacock, hoping this would render him subservient to the English king James I. They invited him to Jamestown, but Wahunsunacock, still deeply suspicious of the colonists, had no intention of risking capture. John Smith recorded Wahunsunacock’s reply: “If your King have sent me presents, I also am a King, and this is my land … Your father is to come to me, not I to him, nor yet to your fort, neither will I bite at such a bait.”

If Wahunsunacock would not “bite at such a bait,” Newport and Smith would have to go to Werowocomoco to undertake the coronation. The whole event appears to have been a complete fiasco, with the only thing coming out of it a resolve on the part of Wahunsunacock that it was time to get rid of the colony. He imposed a trade embargo. Jamestown could no longer trade for supplies. Wahunsunacock would starve them out.

Newport set sail once more for England, in December 1608. He took with him a letter written by Smith pleading with the directors of the Virginia Company to change the way they thought about the colony. There was no possibility of a get-rich-quick exploitation of Virginia along the lines of Mexico and Peru. There were no gold or precious metals, and the indigenous people could not be forced to work or provide food. Smith realized that if there were going to be a viable colony, it was the colonists who would have to work. He therefore pleaded with the directors to send the right sort of people: “When you send againe I entreat you rather to send some thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided, then a thousand of such as we have.”

Smith did not want any more useless goldsmiths. Once more Jamestown survived only because of his resourcefulness. He managed to cajole and bully local indigenous groups to trade with him, and when they wouldn’t, he took what he could. Back in the settlement, Smith was completely in charge and imposed the rule that “he that will not worke shall not eat.” Jamestown survived a second winter.

The Virginia Company was intended to be a moneymaking enterprise, and after two disastrous years, there was no whiff of profit. The directors of the company decided that they needed a new model of governance, replacing the ruling council with a single governor. The first man appointed to this position was Sir Thomas Gates. Heeding some aspects of Smith’s warning, the company realized that they had to try something new. This realization was driven home by the events of the winter of 1609/1610—the so-called “starving time.” The new mode of governance left no room for Smith, who, disgruntled, returned to England in the autumn of 1609. Without his resourcefulness, and with Wahunsunacock throttling the food supply, the colonists in Jamestown perished. Of the five hundred who entered the winter, only sixty were alive by March. The situation was so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism.

The “something new” that was imposed on the colony by Gates and his deputy, Sir Thomas Dale, was a work regime of draconian severity for English settlers—though not of course for the elite running the colony. It was Dale who propagated the “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall.” This included the clauses

No man or woman shall run away from the colony to the Indians, upon pain of death.Anyone who robs a garden, public or private, or a vineyard, or who steals ears of corn shall be punished with death.No member of the colony will sell or give any commodity of this country to a captain, mariner, master or sailor to transport out of the colony, for his own private uses, upon pain of death. If the indigenous peoples could not be exploited, reasoned the Virginia Company, perhaps the colonists could. The new model of colonial development entailed the Virginia Company owning all the land. Men were housed in barracks, and given company-determined rations. Work gangs were chosen, each one overseen by an agent of the company. It was close to martial law, with execution as the punishment of first resort. As part of the new institutions for the colony, the first clause just given is significant. The company threatened with death those who ran away. Given the new work regime, running away to live with the locals became more and more of an attractive option for the colonists who had to do the work. Also available, given the low density of even indigenous populations in Virginia at that time, was the prospect of going it alone on the frontier beyond the control of the Virginia Company. The power of the company in the face of these options was limited. It could not coerce the English settlers into hard work at subsistence rations.

Map 2 shows an estimate of the population density of different regions of the Americas at the time on the Spanish conquest. The population density of the United States, outside of a few pockets, was at most three-quarters of a person per square mile. In central Mexico or Andean Peru, the population density was as high as four hundred people per square mile, more than five hundred times higher. What was possible in Mexico or Peru was not feasible in Virginia.

It took the Virginia Company some time to recognize that its initial model of colonization did not work in Virginia, and it took a while, too, for the failure of the “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall” to sink in. Starting in 1618, a dramatically new strategy was adopted. Since it was possible to coerce neither the locals nor the settlers, the only alternative was to give the settlers incentives. In 1618 the company began the “headright system,” which gave each male settler fifty acres of land and fifty more acres for each member of his family and for all servants that a family could bring to Virginia. Settlers were given their houses and freed from their contracts, and in 1619 a General Assembly was introduced that effectively gave all adult men a say in the laws and institutions governing the colony. It was the start of democracy in the United States.

It took the Virginia Company twelve years to learn its first lesson that what had worked for the Spanish in Mexico and in Central and South America would not work in the north. The rest of the seventeenth century saw a long series of struggles over the second lesson: that the only option for an economically viable colony was to create institutions that gave the colonists incentives to invest and to work hard.

As North America developed, English elites tried time and time again to set up institutions that would heavily restrict the economic and political rights for all but a privileged few of the inhabitants of the colony, just as the Spanish did. Yet in each case this model broke down, as it had in Virginia.

One of the most ambitious attempts began soon after the change in strategy of the Virginia Company. In 1632 ten million acres of land on the upper Chesapeake Bay were granted by the English king Charles I to Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore. The Charter of Maryland gave Lord Baltimore complete freedom to create a government along any lines he wished, with clause VII noting that Baltimore had “for the good and happy Government of the said Province, free, full, and absolute Power, by the Tenor of these Presents, to Ordain, Make, and Enact Laws, of what Kind soever.”

Baltimore drew up a detailed plan for creating a manorial society, a North American variant of an idealized version of seventeenth-century rural England. It entailed dividing the land into plots of thousands of acres, which would be run by lords. The lords would recruit tenants, who would work the lands and pay rents to the privileged elite controlling the land. Another similar attempt was made later in 1663, with the founding of Carolina by eight proprietors, including Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper. Ashley-Cooper, along with his secretary, the great English philosopher John Locke, formulated the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. This document, like the Charter of Maryland before it, provided a blueprint for an elitist, hierarchical society based on control by a landed elite. The preamble noted that “the government of this province may be made most agreeable to the monarchy under which we live and of which this province is a part; and that we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.”

The clauses of the Fundamental Constitutions laid out a rigid social structure. At the bottom were the “leet-men,” with clause 23 noting, “All the children of leet-men shall be leet-men, and so to all generations.” Above the leet-men, who had no political power, were the landgraves and caziques, who were to form the aristocracy. Landgraves were to be allocated forty-eight thousand acres of land each, and caziques twenty-four thousand acres. There was to be a parliament, in which landgraves and caziques were represented, but it would be permitted to debate only those measures that had previously been approved by the eight proprietors.

Just as the attempt to impose draconian rule in Virginia failed, so did the plans for the same type of institutions in Maryland and Carolina. The reasons were similar. In all cases it proved to be impossible to force settlers into a rigid hierarchical society, because there were simply too many options open to them in the New World. Instead, they had to be provided with incentives for them to want to work. And soon they were demanding more economic freedom and further political rights. In Maryland, too, settlers insisted on getting their own land, and they forced Lord Baltimore into creating an assembly. In 1691 the assembly induced the king to declare Maryland a Crown colony, thus removing the political privileges of Baltimore and his great lords. A similar protracted struggle took place in the Carolinas, again with the proprietors losing. South Carolina became a royal colony in 1729.

By the 1720s, all the thirteen colonies of what was to become the United States had similar structures of government. In all cases there was a governor, and an assembly based on a franchise of male property holders. They were not democracies; women, slaves, and the propertyless could not vote. But political rights were very broad compared with contemporary societies elsewhere. It was these assemblies and their leaders that coalesced to form the First Continental Congress in 1774, the prelude to the independence of the United States. The assemblies believed they had the right to determine both their own membership and the right to taxation. This, as we know, created problems for the English colonial government.

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