Monday, April 23, 2012

St George's Day and Agrarian Injustice

I wrote a post about St. George's day in 2009 that can be found here.  Unlike St. Patrick's day, Americans of English descent will not be parading in the streets or gathering for bangers and mash or fish and chips washed down with  brown ale. In fact, English Americans have virtually no ethnic identity. Most historians attribute this to the ability of English immigrants to quickly blend in among earlier arriving cousins. I think there is more to it.

For the Irish, the oppressor that drove people from their homes was a foreigner. Most English immigrants were  oppressed by their own government. I think that once the mourning over their displacement was over, they just never looked back.  In addition to starving the Irish, the rulers of England kept pretty busing destroying their own peoples subsistence agriculture through the enclosure movement. The Terrierman blog (one of my daily reads) has a pretty good summary of this.

The great estates shown in Pride and Prejudice or Downtown Abbey were created by 800 years of legal chicanery and outright force to consolidated  land in the hands of a few.  Our romantic view of these great houses covers up the incredible squalor of cottagers and laborers in old England.  When the smallholders turned to poaching to get their families a bit of protein, the great lords responded with mantraps.

If you are an American of English descent, you might wish to read some of William Cobbett, the original contrary farmer.  Cobbett was an exceptional writer and easy to read today.  Reading Cobbet also helps explain why the most recent emigrant among the founding fathers (Tom Paine) was later concerned with agrarian justice.

The enclosures created the surplus labor force that fueled the industrial revolution. The poor of England were regarded as just another industrial input. Miners were bonded in a form of pseudo slavery. The worst example of this was the use of little girls to hurry coal. We know their lives because the governing elites were finally moved to action more out of concern about Victorian  morality than human decency.

Like the Irish, the English poor rose up against their oppressors multiple times. There were Swing Riots, Topuddle Martyrs and numerous miners strikes (which is why my maternal grandfather's  family came to Pennsylvania). Like my maternal great grandfather, the worst of the troublemakers typically fled to America or Australia. For hundreds of years, these two places served as a safety valve for a very sick society.

It remains no wonder that there was little nostalgia for the old country among English immigrants. From the religious troublemakers who settled Plymouth in 1620 to the children of Northumberland miners or  Lancashire mill workers in the 1800's, America offered a new and better England where land ownership, universal suffrage and equality before the  law became realized.

Music for your very own agrarian St George's day party:
Unthanks sisters perform the testimony of Patience Kershaw

Dance to Tom Paine's bones with Graham Moore

A couple of favorites from Show of Hands