Last week I wrote on the problem of landlessness in this country through the lens of the evictions we may be facing—if not before the election, most certainly after. This week it is the handling of the racial unrest nationwide that brings me to the same topic.
On my bookshelf, in a sacred section devoted to Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange’s works, I have kept pristine a copy of a study Paul began in 1942, when rationing of gasoline and rubber for the war effort made fieldwork nearly impossible. Unable to go into the field, as he and Dorothea had been doing for several years, he headed to the library, intending to research agricultural labor in the U.S. since 1607.
When he got to the chapter in America’s story of the founding of Georgia Colony (1732), he unearthed a piece of history that most of us don’t know. In the beginning there were words of intention about the kind of society its founders wanted to create, and to avoid creating, in the 13th and last colony. They called them laws. African slave labor was forbidden, even though it dominated the socioeconomic and political life of several colonies to the north. The amount of land anyone could own was limited to 500 acres, certainly far more than any one man or family could work themselves at the time. Most land grants to new colonists were around 50 acres. The specific intention was to prevent the kind of plantation agriculture that already had dominated the Carolinas and Virginia for 120 years, where a few plantation owners lived high on the backs of slaves, and the rest of society kowtowed or drooled.
“The intent was that Georgia should be a land of small farms and small farmers,” wrote historian W. W. Abbot in the foreword to Paul’s study, self-published in typescript in 1972. “As such, it would provide a livelihood for a large number of needy people from the Old World, secure them from ruin at the hands of rich and powerful neighbors, make for an industrious and self-reliant citizenry, and by their numbers afford the settlers protection from Indians and Spaniards alike. The virtuous yeomanry of Old England would come into its own once again.” Twenty years after the colony’s establishment, the law forbidding slave labor was rescinded and the remaking of Georgia into a late-coming brother of the other plantation colonies was begun.
Taylor’s research, unlike that of most Colonial historians who have deemed these beginnings “utopian” and doomed to fail, went further and deeper. He unearthed exactly who eroded the laws, how and why. He never accepted the suggestion that we, as people or as a country, cannot legislate against greed. He rejected the idea that we cannot restrict the overaccumulation and hoarding of wealth. He believed that we can, and should, defend the public interest and the common good, not to mention the ordinary working citizen. He believed this is a nation for the many, not the few. On some very important ground, Taylor was a descendant of Lincoln more than Jefferson.
This past week, as I’ve read about the Georgia Plan, I found myself wondering what difference it would have made if they’d succeeded. Certainly the South, as we now think of it, would not have been as uniform, perhaps not even consolidated enough to wage the Civil War. Perhaps the inboard states—Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky—could have leaned in Georgia’s direction instead of Virginia’s. Perhaps the more democratic citizens of early Georgia would have dealt more civilly, more humanely with the Cherokee Nation forming in its northwestern corner, respecting their rights to land. Perhaps we would not have had the Trail of Tears.
And perhaps we would not have institutionalized racism in every nook and cranny of our economy, our social and political life. Perhaps we wouldn’t be fighting in the streets now.
Trudy Wischemann is a land researcher who lives in Lindsay. You can send her your comments c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.