History of the Great American Fortunes, Vol. I - Conditions in Settlement and Colonial Times
by Myers Gustavus
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Copyright 1907, 1908 and 1909 By GUSTAVUS MYERS


In writing this work my aim has been to give the exact facts as far as the available material allows. Necessarily it is impossible, from the very nature of the case, to obtain all the facts. It is obvious that in both past and present times the chief beneficiaries of our social and industrial system have found it to their interest to represent their accumulations as the rewards of industry and ability, and have likewise had the strongest motives for concealing the circumstances of all those complex and devious methods which have been used in building up great fortunes. In this they have been assisted by a society so constituted that the means by which these great fortunes have been amassed have been generally lauded as legitimate and exemplary.

The possessors of towering fortunes have hitherto been described in two ways. On the one hand, they have been held up as marvels of success, as preeminent examples of thrift, enterprise and extraordinary ability. More recently, however, the tendency in certain quarters has been diametrically the opposite. This latter class of writers, intent upon pandering to a supposed popular appetite for sensation, pile exposure upon exposure, and hold up the objects of their diatribes as monsters of commercial and political crime. Neither of these classes has sought to establish definitely the relation of the great fortunes to the social and industrial system which has propagated them. Consequently, these superficial effusions and tirades—based upon a lack of understanding of the propelling forces of society—have little value other than as reflections of a certain aimless and disordered spirit of the times. With all their volumes of print, they leave us in possession of a scattered array of assertions, bearing some resemblance to facts, which, however, fail to be facts inasmuch as they are either distorted to take shape as fulsome eulogies or as wild, meaningless onslaughts.

They give no explanation of the fundamental laws and movements of the present system, which have resulted in these vast fortunes; nor is there the least glimmering of a scientific interpretation of a succession of states and tendencies from which these men of great wealth have emerged. With an entire absence of comprehension, they portray our multimillionaires as a phenomenal group whose sudden rise to their sinister and overshadowing position is a matter of wonder and surprise. They do not seem to realize for a moment—what is clear to every real student of economics—that the great fortunes are the natural, logical outcome of a system based upon factors the inevitable result of which is the utter despoilment of the many for the benefit of a few.

This being so, our plutocrats rank as nothing more or less than as so many unavoidable creations of a set of processes which must imperatively produce a certain set of results. These results we see in the accelerated concentration of immense wealth running side by side with a propertyless, expropriated and exploited multitude.

The dominant point of these denunciatory emanations, however, is that certain of our men of great fortune have acquired their possessions by dishonest methods. These men are singled out as especial creatures of infamy. Their doings and sayings furnish material for many pages of assault. Here, again, an utter lack of knowledge and perspective is observable. For, while it is true that the methods employed by these very rich men have been, and are, fraudulent, it is also true that they are but the more conspicuous types of a whole class which, in varying degrees, has used precisely the same methods, and the collective fortunes and power of which have been derived from identically the same sources.

In diagnosing an epidemic, it is not enough that we should be content with the symptoms; wisdom and the protection of the community demand that we should seek and eradicate the cause. Both wealth and poverty spring from the same essential cause. Neither, then, should be indiscriminately condemned as such; the all-important consideration is to determine why they exist, and how such an absurd contrast can be abolished.

In taking up a series of types of great fortunes, as I have done in this work, my object has not been the current one of portraying them either as remarkable successes or as unspeakable criminals. My purpose is to present a sufficient number of examples as indicative of the whole character of the vested class and of the methods which have been employed. And in doing this, neither prejudice nor declamation has entered. Such a presentation, I believe, cannot fail to be useful for many reasons.

It will, in the first place, satisfy a spirit of inquiry. As time passes, and the power of the propertied oligarchy becomes greater and greater, more and more of a studied attempt is made to represent the origin of that property as the product of honest toil and great public service. Every searcher for truth is entitled to know whether this is true or not. But what is much more important is for the people to know what have been the cumulative effects of a system which subsists upon the institutions of private property and wage-labor. If it possesses the many virtues that it is said to possess, what are these virtues? If it is a superior order of civilization, in what does this superiority consist?

This work will assist in explaining, for naturally a virtuous and superior order ought to produce virtuous and superior men. The kind and quality of methods and successful ruling men, which this particular civilization forces to the front, are set forth in this exposition. Still more important is the ascertainment of where these stupendous fortunes came from, their particular origin and growth, and what significance the concomitant methods and institutions have to the great body of the people.

I may add that in Part I no attempt has been made to present an exhaustive account of conditions in Settlement and Colonial times. I have merely given what I believe to be a sufficient resume of conditions leading up to the later economic developments in the United States.

GUSTAVUS MYERS. September 1, 1909.





























The noted private fortunes of settlement and colonial times were derived from the ownership of land and the gains of trading. Usually both had a combined influence and were frequently attended by agriculture. Throughout the colonies were scattered lords of the soil who held vast territorial domains over which they exercised an arbitrary and, in some portions of the colonies, a feudal sway.

Nearly all the colonies were settled by chartered companies, organized for purely commercial purposes and the success of which largely depended upon the emigration which they were able to promote. These corporations were vested with enormous powers and privileges which, in effect, constituted them as sovereign rulers, although their charters were subject to revision or amendment. The London Company, thrice chartered to take over to itself the land and resources of Virginia and populate its zone of rule, was endowed with sweeping rights and privileges which made it an absolute monopoly. The impecunious noblemen or gentlemen who transported themselves to Virginia to recoup their dissipated fortunes or seek adventure, encountered no trouble in getting large grants of land especially when after 1614 tobacco became a fashionable article in England and took rank as a valuable commercial commodity.

Over this colony now spread planters who hastened to avail themselves of this new-found means of getting rich. Land and climate alike favored them, but they were confronted with a scarcity of labor. The emergency was promptly met by the buying of white servants in England to be resold in Virginia to the highest bidder. This, however, was not sufficient, and complaints poured over to the English government. As the demands of commerce had to be sustained at any price, a system was at once put into operation of gathering in as many of the poorer English class as could be impressed upon some pretext, and shipping them over to be held as bonded laborers. Penniless and lowly Englishmen, arrested and convicted for any one of the multitude of offenses then provided for severely in law, were transported as criminals or sold into the colonies as slaves for a term of years. The English courts were busy grinding out human material for the Virginia plantations; and, as the objects of commerce were considered paramount, this process of disposing of what was regarded as the scum element was adjudged necessary and justifiable. No voice was raised in protest.


But, fast as the English courts might work, they did not supply laborers enough. It was with exultation that in 1619 the plantation owners were made acquainted with a new means of supplying themselves with adequate workers. A Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown with a cargo of negroes from Guinea. The blacks were promptly bought at good prices by the planters. From this time forth the problem of labor was considered sufficiently solved. As chattel slavery harmonized well with the necessities of tobacco growing and gain, it was accepted as a just condition and was continued by the planters, whose interests and standards were the dominant factor.

After 1620, when the London Company was dissolved by royal decree, and the commerce of Virginia made free, the planters were the only factor. Virginia, it was true, was made a royal province and put under deputy rule, but the big planters contrived to get the laws and customs their self-interest called for. There were only two classes—the rich planters, with their gifts of land, their bond-servants and slaves and, on the other hand, the poor whites. A middle class was entirely lacking.

As the supreme staple of commerce and as currency itself, tobacco could buy anything, human, as well as inert, material. The labor question had been sufficiently vanquished, but not so the domestic. Wives were much needed; the officials in London instantly hearkened, and in 1620 sent over sixty young women who were auctioned off and bought at from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty pounds of tobacco each. Tobacco then sold at three shillings a pound. Its cultivation was assiduously carried on. The use of the land mainly for agricultural purposes led to the foundation of numerous settlements along the shores, bays, rivers, and creeks with which Virginia is interspersed and which afforded accessibility to the sea ports. As the years wore on and the means and laborers of the planters increased, their lands became more extensive, so that it was not an unusual thing to find plantations of fifty or sixty thousand acres. But neither in Virginia nor in Maryland, under the almost regal powers of Lord Baltimore who had propriety rights over the whole of his province, were such huge estates to be seen as were being donated in the northern colonies, especially in New Netherlands and in New England.


In its intense aim to settle New Netherlands and make use of its resources, Holland, through the States General, offered extraordinary inducements to promoters of colonization. The prospect of immense estates, with feudal rights and privileges, was held out as the alluring incentive. The bill of Freedoms and Exemptions of 1629 made easy the possibility of becoming a lord of the soil with comprehensive possessions and powers. Any man who should succeed in planting a colony of fifty "souls," each of whom was to be more than fifteen years old, was to become at once a patroon with all the rights of lordship. He was permitted to own sixteen miles along shore or on one side of a navigable river. An alternative was given of the ownership of eight miles on one side of a river and as far into the interior "as the situation of the occupiers will permit." The title was vested in the patroon forever, and he was presented with a monopoly of the resources of his domain except furs and pelts. No patroon or other colonist was allowed to make woolen, linen, cotton or cloth of any material under pain of banishment.[1]

These restrictions were in the interest of the Dutch West India Company, a commercial corporation which had well-nigh dictatorial powers. A complete monopoly throughout the whole of its subject territory, it was armed with sweeping powers, a formidable equipment, and had a great prestige. It was somewhat of a cross between legalized piracy and a body of adroit colonization promoters. Pillage and butchery were often its auxiliaries, although in these respects it in nowise equalled its twin corporation, the Dutch East India Company, whose exploitation of Holland's Asiatic possessions was a long record of horrors.


The policy of the Dutch West India Company was to offer generous prizes for peopling the land while simultaneously forbidding competition with any of the numerous products or commodities dealt in by itself. This had much to do with determining the basic character of the conspicuous fortunes of a century and two centuries later. It followed that when native industries were forbidden or their output monopolized not only by the Dutch West India Company in New Netherlands, but by other companies elsewhere in the colonies, that ownership of land became the mainstay of large private fortunes with agriculture as an accompanying factor. Subsequently the effects of this continuous policy were more fully seen when England by law after law paralyzed or closed up many forms of colonial manufacture. The feudal character of Dutch colonization, as carried on by the Dutch West India Company, necessarily created great landed estates, the value of which arose not so much from agriculture, as was the case in Virginia, Maryland and later the Carolinas and Georgia, but from the natural resources of the land. The superb primitive timber brought colossal profits in export, and there were also very valuable fishery rights where an estate bounded a shore or river. The pristine rivers were filled with great shoals of fish, to which the river fishing of the present day cannot be compared. As settlement increased, immigration pressed over, and more and more ships carried cargo to and fro, these estates became consecutively more valuable.

To encourage colonization to its colonies still further, the States General in 1635 passed a new decree. It repeated the feudal nature of the rights granted and made strong additions.

Did any aspiring adventurer seek to leap at a bound to the exalted position of patroonship? The terms were easy. All that he had to do was to found a colony of forty-eight adults and he had a liberal six years in which to do it. For his efforts he was allowed even more extensive grants of land than under the act of 1629. So complete were his powers of proprietorship that no one could approach within seven or eight miles of his jurisdiction without his express permission. His was really a principality. Over its bays, rivers, and islands, had it any, as well as over the mainland, he was given command forever. The dispensation of justice was his exclusive right. He and he only was the court with summary powers of "high, low and middle jurisdiction," which were harshly or capriciously exercised. Not only did he impose sentence for violation of laws, but he, himself, ordained those laws and they were laws which were always framed to coincide with his interests and personality. He had full authority to appoint officers and magistrates and enact laws. And finally he had the power of policing his domain and of making use of the titles and arms of his colonies. All these things he could do "according to his will and pleasure." These absolute rights were to descend to his heirs and assigns.[2]


Thus, at the beginning of settlement times, the basis was laid in law and custom of a landed aristocracy, or rather a group of intrenched autocrats, along the banks of the Hudson, the shores of the ocean and far inland. The theory then prevailed that the territory of the colonies extended westward to the Pacific.

From these patroons and their lineal or collateral descendants issued many of the landed generations of families which, by reason of their wealth and power, proved themselves powerful factors in the economic and political history of the country. The sinister effects of this first great grasping of the land long permeated the whole fabric of society and were prominently seen before and after the Revolution, and especially in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century. The results, in fact, are traceable to this very day, even though laws and institutions are so greatly changed. Other colonies reflected the constant changes of government, ruling party or policy of England, and colonial companies chartered by England frequently forfeited their charters. But conditions in New Netherlands remained stable under Dutch rule, and the accumulation of great estates was intensified under English rule. It was in New York that, at that period, the foremost colonial estates and the predominant private fortunes were mostly held.

The extent of some of those early estates was amazingly large. But they were far from being acquired wholly by colonization methods.

Many of the officers and directors of the Dutch West India Company were Amsterdam merchants. Active, scheming, self-important men, they were mighty in the money marts but were made use of, and looked down upon, by the old Dutch aristocracy. Having amassed fortunes, these merchants yearned to be the founders of great estates; to live as virtual princes in the midst of wide possessions, even if these were still comparative solitudes. This aspiration was mixed with the mercenary motive of themselves owning the land from whence came the furs, pelts, timber and the waters yielding the fishes.

One of these directors was Kiliaen van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam pearl merchant. In 1630 his agents bought for him from the Indians a tract of land twenty-four miles long and forty-eight broad on the west bank of the Hudson. It comprised, it was estimated, seven hundred thousand acres and included what are now the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, a part of Columbia County and a strip of what is at present Massachusetts. And what was the price paid for this vast estate? As the deeds showed, the munificent consideration of "certain quantities of duffels, axes, knives and wampum,"[3] which is equal to saying that the pearl merchant got it for almost nothing. Two other directors—Godyn and Bloemart—became owners of great feudal estates. One of these tracts, in what is now New Jersey, extended sixteen miles both in length and breadth, forming a square of sixty-four miles.[4]

So it was that these shrewd directors now combined a double advantage. Their pride was satisfied with the absolute lordship of immense areas, while the ownership of land gave them the manifold benefits and greater profits of trading with the Indians at first hand. From a part of the proceeds they later built manors which were contemplated as wonderful and magnificent. Surrounded and served by their retainers, agents, vassal tenants and slaves, they lived in princely and licentious style, knowing no law in most matters except their unrestrained will. They beheld themselves as ingenious and memorable founders of a potential landed aristocracy whose possessions were more extended than that of Europe. Wilderness much of it still was, but obviously the time was coming when the population would be fairly abundant. The laws of entail and primogeniture, then in full force, would operate to keep the estates intact and gifted with inherent influence for generations.

Along with their landed estates, these directors had a copious inflowing revenue. The Dutch West India Company was in a thriving condition. By the year 1629 it had more than one hundred full-rigged ships in commission. Most of them were fitted out for war on the commerce of other countries or on pirates. Fifteen thousand seamen and soldiers were on its payroll; in that one year it used more than one hundred thousand pounds of powder—significant of the grim quality of business done. It had more than four hundred cannon and thousands of other destructive weapons.[5] Anything conducive to profit, no matter if indiscriminate murder, was accepted as legitimate and justifiable functions of trade, and was imposed alike upon royalty, which shared in the proceeds, and upon the people at large. The energetic trading class, concentrated in the one effort of getting money, and having no scruples as to the means in an age when ideals were low and vulgar, had already begun to make public opinion in many countries, although this public opinion counted for little among submissive peoples. It was the king and the governing class, either or both, whose favor and declarations counted; and so long as these profited by the devious extortions and villainies of trade the methods were legitimatized, if not royally sanctified.


A more potentially robust aristocracy than that which was forming in New Netherlands could hardly be imagined. Resting upon gigantic gifts of land, with feudal accompaniments, it held a monopoly, or nearly one, of the land's resources. The old aristocracy of Holland grew jealous of the power and pretensions of what it frowned upon as an upstart trading clique and tried to curtail the rights and privileges of the patroons. These latter contended that their absolute lordship was indisputable; to put it in modern legal terminology that a contract could not be impaired. They elaborated upon the argument that they had spent a "ton of gold" (amounting to one hundred thousand guilders or forty thousand dollars) upon their colonies.[6] They not only carried their point but their power was confirmed and enlarged.

Now was seen the spectacle of the middle-class men of the Old World, the traders, more than imitating—far exceeding—the customs and pretensions of the aristocracy of their own country which they had inveighed against, and setting themselves up as the original and mighty landed aristocracy of the new country. The patroons encased themselves in an environment of pomp and awe. Like so many petty monarchs each had his distinct flag and insignia; each fortified his domain with fortresses, armed with cannon and manned by his paid soldiery. The colonists were but humble dependants; they were his immediate subjects and were forced to take the oath of fealty and allegiance to him.[7]

In the old country the soil had long since passed into the hands of a powerful few and was made the chief basis for the economic and political enslavement of the people. To escape from this thralldom many of the immigrants had endured hardships and privation to get here. They expected that they could easily get land, the tillage of which would insure them a measure of independence. Upon arriving they found vast available parts of the country, especially the most desirable and accessible portions bordering shores or rivers, preempted. An exacting and tyrannous feudal government was in full control. Their only recourse in many instances was to accept the best of unwelcome conditions and become tenants of the great landed functionaries and workers for them.


The patroons naturally encouraged immigration. Apart from the additional values created by increased population, it meant a quantity of labor which, in turn, would precipitate wages to the lowest possible scale. At the same time, in order to stifle every aspiring quality in the drudging laborer, and to keep in conformity with the spirit and custom of the age which considered the worker a mere menial undeserving of any rights, the whole force of the law was made use of to bring about sharp discriminations. The laborer was purposely abased to the utmost and he was made to feel in many ways his particular low place in the social organization.

Far above him, vested with enormous personal and legal powers, towered the patroon, while he, the laborer, did not have the ordinary burgher right, that of having a minor voice in public affairs. The burgher right was made entirely dependent upon property, which was a facile method of disfranchising the multitude of poor immigrants and of keeping them down. Purchase was the one and only means of getting this right. To keep it in as small and circumscribed class as possible the price was made abnormally high. It was enacted in New Netherlands in 1659, for instance, that immigrants coming with cargoes had to pay a thousand guilders for the burgher right.[8] As the average laborer got two shillings a day for his long hours of toil, often extending from sunrise to sunset, he had little chance of ever getting this sum together. The consequence was that the merchants became the burgher class; and all the records of the time seem to prove conclusively that the merchants were servile instruments of the patroons whose patronage and favor they assiduously courted. This deliberately pursued policy of degrading and despoiling the laboring class incited bitter hatreds and resentments, the effects of which were permanent.


[1] O'Callaghan's "History of New Netherlands," 1:112-120.

[2] Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, 1:89-100.

[3] O'Callaghan, 1:124. Although it was said that Kiliaen van Rensselaer visited America, it seems to be established that he never did. He governed his estate as an absentee landgrave, through agents. He was the most powerful of all of the patroons.

[4] Ibid., 125.

[5] Colonial Documents, 1:41. The primary object of this company was a monopoly of the Indian trade, not colonization. The "princely" manors were a combination fort and trading house, surrounded by moat and stockade.

[6] Colonial Documents, 1:86.

[7] "Annals of Albany," iii:287. The power of the patroons over their tenants, or serfs, was almost unlimited. No "man or woman, son or daughter, man servant or maid servant" could leave a patroon's service during the time that they had agreed to remain, except by his written consent, no matter what abuses or breaches of contract were committed by the patroon.

[8] "Burghers and Freemen of New York":29.



While this seizure of land was going on in New Netherlands, vast areas in New England were passing suddenly into the hands of a few men. These areas sometimes comprised what are now entire States, and were often palpably obtained by fraud, collusion, trickery or favoritism. The Puritan influx into Massachusetts was an admixture of different occupations. Some were traders or merchants; others were mechanics. By far the largest portion were cultivators of the soil whom economic pressure not less than religious persecution had driven from England. To these land was a paramount consideration.

Describing how the English tiller had been expropriated from the soil Wallace says: "The ingenuity of lawyers and direct landlord legislation steadily increased the powers of great landowners and encroached upon the rights of the people, till at length the monstrous doctrine arose that a landless Englishman has no right whatever to enjoyment even of the unenclosed commons and heaths and the mountain and forest wastes of his native country, but is everywhere in the eye of the law a trespasser whenever he ventures off a public road or pathway."[9] By the sixteenth century the English peasantry had been evicted even from the commons, which were turned into sheep walks by the impoverished barons to make money from the Flemish wool market. The land at home wrenched from them, the poor English immigrants ardently expected that in America land would be plentiful. They were bitterly disappointed. The various English companies, chartered by royal command with all-inclusive powers, despite the frequent opposition of Parliament, held the trade and land of the greater part of the colonies as a rigid monopoly. In the case of the New England Company severe punishment was threatened to all who should encroach upon its rights. It also was freed from payment for twenty-one years and was relieved from taxes forever.


The New England colonies were carved out into a few colossal private estates. The example of the British nobility was emulated; but the chartered companies did not have to resort to the adroit, disingenuous, subterranean methods which the English land magnates used in perpetuating their seizure, as so graphically described by S. W. Thackery in his work, "The Land and the Community". The land in New England was taken over boldly and arbitrarily by the directors of the Plymouth Company, the most powerful of all the companies which exploited New England. The handful of men who participated in this division, sustained with a high hand their claims and pretensions, and augmented and fortified them by every device. Quite regardless of who the changing monarch was, or what country ruled, these colonial magnates generally contrived to keep the power strong in their own hands. There might be a superficial show of changed conditions, an apparent infusion of democracy, but, in reality, the substance remained the same.

This was nowhere more lucidly or strikingly illustrated than after New Netherlands passed into the control of the English and was renamed New York. Laws were decreed which seemed to bear the impress of justice and democracy. Monopoly was abolished, every man was given the much-prized right of trading in furs and pelts, and the burgher right was extended and its acquisition made easier.

However well-intentioned these altered laws were, they turned out to be shallow delusions. Under English rule, the gifts of vast estates in New York were even greater than under Dutch rule and beyond doubt were granted corruptly or by favoritism. Miles upon miles of land in New York which had not been preempted were brazenly given away by the royal Governor Fletcher for bribes; and it was suspected, although not clearly proved, that he trafficked in estates in Pennsylvania during the time when, by royal order, he supplanted William Penn in the government of that province. From the evidence which has come down it would appear that any one who offered Fletcher his price could be transformed into a great vested land owner. But still the people imagined that they had a real democratic government. Had not England established representative assemblies? These, with certain restrictions, alone had the power of law-making for the provinces. These representative bodies were supposed to rest upon the vote of the people, which vote, however, was determined by a strict property qualification.


What really happened was that, apparently deprived of direct feudal power, the landed interests had no difficulty in retaining their law-making ascendancy by getting control of the various provincial assemblies. Bodies supposedly representative of the whole people were, in fact, composed of great landowners, of a quota of merchants who were subservient to the landowners, and a sprinkling of farmers. In Virginia this state was long-continuing, while in New York province it became such an intolerable abuse and resulted in such oppressions to the body of the people, that on Sept. 20, 1764, Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden, writing from New York to the Lords of Trade at London, strongly expostulated. He described how the land magnates had devised to set themselves up as the law-making class. Three of the large land grants contained provisions guaranteeing to each owner the privilege of sending a representative to the General Assembly. These landed proprietors, therefore, became hereditary legislators. "The owners of other great Patents," Colden continued, "being men of the greatest opulence in the several American counties where these Tracts are, have sufficient influence to be perpetually elected for those counties. The General Assembly, then, of this Province consists of the owners of these extravagant Grants, the merchants of New York, the principal of them strongly connected with the owners of these Great Tracts by Family interest, and of Common Farmers, which last are men easily deluded and led away with popular arguments of Liberty and Privileges. The Proprietors of the great tracts are not only freed from the quit rents which the other landholders in the Provinces pay, but by their influences in the Assembly are freed from every other public Tax on their lands."[10]

What Colden wrote of the landed class of New York was substantially true of all the other provinces. The small, powerful clique of great landowners had cunningly taken over to themselves the functions of government and diverted them to their own ends. First the land was seized and then it was declared exempt of taxation.

Inevitably there was but one sequel. Everywhere, but especially so in New York and Virginia, the landed proprietors became richer and more arrogant, while poverty, even in new country with extraordinary resources, took root and continued to grow. The burden of taxation fell entirely upon the farming and laboring classes; although the merchants were nominally taxed they easily shifted their obligations upon those two classes by indirect means of trade. Usurious loans and mortgages became prevalent.

It was now seen what meaningless tinsel the unrestricted right to trade in furs was. To get the furs access to the land was necessary; and the land was monopolized. In the South, where tobacco and corn were the important staples, the worker was likewise denied the soil except as a laborer or tenant, and in Massachusetts colony, where fortunes were being made from timber, furs and fisheries, the poor man had practically no chance against the superior advantages of the landed and privileged class. These conditions led to severe reprisals. Several uprisings in New York, Bacon's rebellion in Virginia, after the restoration of Charles II, when that king granted large tracts of land belonging to the colony to his favorites, and subsequently, in 1734, a ferment in Georgia, even under the mild proprietary rule of the philanthropist Oglethorpe, were all really outbursts of popular discontent largely against the oppressive form in which land was held and against discriminative taxation, although each uprising had its local issues differing from those elsewhere.

In this conflict between landed class and people, the only hope of the mass of the people lay in getting the favorable attention of royal governors. At least one of these considered earnestly and conscientiously the grave existing abuses and responded to popular protest which had become bitter.


This official was the Earl of Bellomont. Scarcely had he arrived after his appointment as Captain-General and Governor of Massachusetts Bay, New York and other provinces, when he was made acquainted with the widespread discontent. The landed magnates had not only created an abysmal difference between themselves and the masses in possessions and privileges, but also in dress and air, founded upon strict distinctions in law. The landed aristocrat with his laces and ruffles, his silks and his gold and silver ornaments and his expensive tableware, his consciously superior air and tone of grandiose authority, was far removed in established position from the mechanic or the laborer with his coarse clothes and mean habitation. Laws were long in force in various provinces which prohibited the common people from wearing gold and silver lace, silks and ornaments. Bellomont noted the sense of deep injustice smouldering in the minds of the people and set out to confiscate the great estates, particularly, as he set forth, as many of them had been obtained by bribery.

It was with amazement that Bellomont learned that one man, Colonel Samuel Allen, claimed to own the whole of what is now the state of New Hampshire. When, in 1635, the Plymouth Colony was about to surrender its charter, its directors apportioned their territory to themselves individually. New Hampshire went by lot to Captain John Mason who, some years before, had obtained a patent to the same area from the company. Charles I had confirmed the company's action. After Mason's death, his claims were bought up by Allen for about $1,250. Mason, however, left an heir and protracted litigation followed. In the meantime, settlers taking advantage of these conflicting claims, proceeded to spread over New Hampshire and hew the forests for cleared agricultural land. Allen managed to get himself appointed governor of New Hampshire in 1692 and declared the whole province his personal property and threatened to oust the settlers as trespassers unless they came to terms. There was imminent danger of an uprising of the settlers, who failed to see why the land upon which they had spent labor did not belong to them. Bellomont investigated; and in communication, dated June 22, 1700, to the Lords of Trade, denounced Allen's title as defective and insufficient, and brought out the charge that Allen had tried to get his confirmation of his, Allen's, claims by means of a heavy bribe.


"There was an offer made me," Bellomont wrote, "of L10,000 in money, but I thank God I had not the least tempting thought to accept of the offer and I hope nothing in this world will ever be able to attempt me to betray England in the least degree. This offer was made me three or four times." Bellomont added: "I will make it appear that the lands and woods claimed by Colonel Allen are much more valuable than ten of the biggest estates in England, and I will rate those ten estates at L300,000 a piece, one with another, which is three millions. By his own confession to me at Pescattaway last summer, he valued the Quit Rents of his lands (as he calls 'em) at L22,000 per annum at 3d per acre of 6d in the pound of all improv'd Rents; then I leave your lordships to judge what an immense estate the improv'd rents must be, which (if his title be allowed) he has as good a right to the forementioned Quit Rents. And all this besides the Woods which I believe he might very well value at half the worth of the lands. There never was, I believe, since the world began so great a bargain as Allen has had of Mason, if it be allowed to stand good, that all this vast estate I have been naming should be purchased for a poor L250 and that a desperate debt, too, as Col. Allen thought. He pretends to a great part of this province as far Westward as Cape St. Ann, which is said to take in 17 of the best towns in this province next to Boston, the best improved land, and, (I think Col. Allen told me) 8 or 900,000 acres of their land. If Col. Allen shall at any time go about to make a forcible entry on these lands he pretends to (for, to be sure, the people will never turn tenants to him willingly) the present occupants will resist him by any force he shall bring and the Province will be put to a combustion and what may be the course I dread to think."...[11]

But the persistent Allen did not establish his claim. Several times he lost in the litigation, the last time in 1715. His death was followed by his son's death; and after sixty years of fierce animosities and litigation, the whole contention was allowed to lapse. Says Lodge: "His heirs were minors who did not push the controversy, and the claim soon sank out of sight to the great relief of the New Hampshire people, whose right to their homes had so long been in question."[12]

Similarly, another area, the entirety of what is now the State of Maine, went to the individual ownership of Sir Fernandino Gorges, the same who had betrayed Essex to Queen Elizabeth and who had received rich rewards for his treachery.[13] The domain descended to his grandson, Fernando Gorges, who, on March 13, 1677, sold it by deed to John Usher, a Boston merchant, for L1,250. The ominous dissatisfaction of the New Hampshire and other settlers with the monopolization of land was not slighted by the English government; at the very time Usher bought Maine the government was on the point of doing the same thing and opening the land for settlement. Usher at once gave a deed of the province to the governor and company of Massachusetts, of which colony and later, State, it remained a part until its creation as a State in 1820.[14]

These were two notable instances of vast land grants which reverted to the people. In most of the colonies the popular outcry for free access to the land was not so effective. In Pennsylvania, after the government was restored to Penn, and in part of New Jersey conditions were more favorable to the settlers. In those colonies corrupt usurpations of the land were comparatively few, although the proprietary families continued to hold extensive tracts. Penn's sons by his second wife, for instance, became men of great wealth.[15] The pacific and conciliatory Quaker faith operated as a check on any local extraordinary misuse of power. Unfortunately for historical accuracy and penetration, there is an obscurity as to the intimate circumstances under which many of the large private estates in the South were obtained. The general facts as to their grants, of course, are well known, but the same specific, underlying details, such as may be disinterred from Bellomont's correspondence, are lacking. In New York, at least, and presumably during Fletcher's sway of government in Pennsylvania, great land grants went for bribes. This is definitely brought out in Bellomont's official communications.


Fletcher, it would seem, had carried on a brisk traffic in creating by a stroke of the quill powerfully rich families by simply granting them domains in return for bribes.

Captain John R. N. Evans had been in command of the royal warship Richmond. An estate was his fervent ambition. Fletcher's mandate gave him a grant of land running forty miles one way, and thirty another, on the west bank of the Hudson. Beginning at the south line of the present town of New Paltry, Ulster County, it included the southern tier of the now existing towns in that picturesque county, two-thirds of the fertile undulations of Orange County and a part of the present town of Haverstraw. It is related of this area, that there was "but one house on it, or rather a hut, where a poor man lives." Notwithstanding this lone, solitary subject, Evans saw great trading and seignorial possibilities in his tract. And what did he pay for this immense stretch of territory? A very modest bribe; common report had it that he gave Fletcher L100 for the grant.[16]

Nicholas Bayard, of whom it is told that he was a handy go-between in arranging with the sea pirates the price that they should pay for Fletcher's protection, was another favored personage. Bayard was the recipient of a grant forty miles long and thirty broad on both sides of Schoharie Creek. Col. William Smith's prize was a grant from Fletcher of an estate fifty miles in length on Nassau—now Long Island. According to Bellomont, Smith got this land "arbitrarily and by strong hand." Smith was in collusion with Fletcher, and moreover, was chief justice of the province, "a place of great awe as well as authority." This judicial land wrester forced the town of Southampton to accept the insignificant sum of L10 for the greater part of forty miles of beach—a singularly profitable transaction for Smith, who cleared in one year L500, the proceeds of whales taken there, as he admitted to Bellomont.[17] Henry Beekman, the astute and smooth founder of a rich and powerful family, was made a magnate of the first importance by a grant from Fletcher of a tract sixteen miles in length in Dutchess County, and also of another estate running twenty miles along the Hudson and eight miles inland. This estate he valued at L5,000.[18] Likewise Peter Schuyler, Godfrey Dellius and their associates had conjointly secured by Fletcher's patent, a grant fifty miles long in the romantic Mohawk Valley—a grant which "the Mohawk Indians have often complained of". Upon this estate they placed a value of L25,000. This was a towering fortune for the period; in its actual command of labor, necessities, comforts and luxuries it ranked as a power of transcending importance.

These were some of the big estates created by "Colonel Fletcher's intolerable corrupt selling away the lands of this Province," as Bellomont termed it in his communication to the Lords of Trade of Nov. 28, 1700. Fletcher, it was set forth, profited richly by these corrupt grants. He got in bribes, it was charged, at least L4,000.[19] But Fletcher was not the only corrupt official. In his interesting work on the times,[20] George W. Schuyler presents what is an undoubtedly accurate description of how Robert Livingston, progenitor of a rich and potent family which for generations exercised a profound influence in politics and other public affairs, contrived to get together an estate which soon ranked as the second largest in New York state and as one of the greatest in the colonies.

Livingston was the younger son of a poor exiled clergyman. In currying favor with one official after another he was unscrupulous, dexterous and adaptable. He invariably changed his politics with the change of administration. In less than a year after his arrival he was appointed to an office which yielded him a good income. This office he held for nearly half a century, and simultaneously was the incumbent of other lucrative posts. Offices were created by Governor Dongan apparently for his sole benefit. His passion was to get together an estate which would equal the largest. Extremely penurious, he loaned money at frightfully usurious rates and hounded his victims without a vestige of sympathy.[21] As a trader and government contractor he made enormous profits; such was his cohesive collusion with high officials that competitors found it impossible to outdo him. A current saying of him was that he made a fortune by "pinching the bellies of the soldiers"—that is, as an army contractor who defrauded in quantity and quality of supplies. By a multitude of underhand and ignoble artifices he finally found himself the lord of a manor sixteen miles long and twenty-four broad. On this estate he built flour and saw mills, a bakery and a brewery. In his advanced old age he exhibited great piety but held on grimly to every shilling that he could and as long as he could. When he died about 1728—the exact date is unknown—at the age of 74 years, he left an estate which was considered of such colossal value that its true value was concealed for fear of further enraging the discontented people.


The seizure of these vast estates and the arbitrary exclusion of the many from the land produced a combustible situation. An instantaneous and distinct cleavage of class divisions was the result. Intrenched in their possessions the landed class looked down with haughty disdain upon the farming and laboring classes. On the other hand, the farm laborer with his sixteen hours work a day for a forty-cent wage, the carpenter straining for his fifty-two cents a day, the shoemaker drudging for his seventy-three cents a day and the blacksmith for his seventy cents,[22] thought over this injustice as they bent over their tasks. They could sweat through their lifetime at honest labor, producing something of value and yet be a constant prey to poverty while a few men, by means of bribes, had possessed themselves of estates worth tens of thousands of pounds and had preempted great stretches of the available lands.

In consulting extant historical works it is noticeable that they give but the merest shadowy glimpse of this intense bitterness of what were called the lower classes, and of the incessant struggle now raging, now smouldering, between the landed aristocracy and the common people. Contrary to the roseate descriptions often given of the independent position of the settlers at that time, it was a time when the use and misuse of law brought about sharp divisions of class lines which arose from artificially created inequalities, economically and politically. With the great landed estates came tenantry, wage slavery and chattel slavery, the one condition the natural generator of the others.

The rebellious tendency of the poor colonists against becoming tenants, and the usurpation of the land, were clearly brought out by Bellomont in a letter written on Nov. 28, 1700, to the Lords of Trade. He complained that "people are so cramped here for want of land that several families within my own knowledge and observation are remov'd to the new country (a name they give to Pennsylvania and the Jerseys) for, to use Mr. Graham's expression to me, and that often repeated, too, what man will be such a fool as to become a base tenant to Mr. Dellius, Colonel Schuyler, Mr. Livingston (and so he ran through the whole role of our mighty landgraves) when for crossing Hudson's River that man can, for a song, purchase a good freehold in the Jerseys."

If the immigrant happened to be able to muster a sufficient sum he could, indeed, become an independent agriculturist in New Jersey and in parts of Pennsylvania and provide himself with the tools of trade. But many immigrants landed with empty pockets and became laborers dependent upon the favor of the landed proprietors. As for the artisans—the carpenters, masons, tailors, blacksmiths—they either kept to the cities and towns where their trade principally lay, or bonded themselves to the lords of the manors.


Bellomont fully understood the serious evils which had been injected into the body politic and strongly applied himself to the task of confiscating the great estates. One of his first proposals was to urge upon the Lords of Trade the restriction of all governors throughout the colonies from granting more than a thousand acres to any man without leave from the king, and putting a quit rent of half a crown on every hundred acres, this sum to go to the royal treasury. This suggestion was not acted upon. He next attacked the assembly of New York and called upon it to annul the great grants. In doing this he found that the most powerful members of the assembly were themselves the great land owners and were putting obstacle after obstacle in his path. After great exertions he finally prevailed upon the assembly to vacate at least two of the grants, those to Evans and Bayard. The assembly did this probably as a sop to Bellomont and to public opinion, and because Evans and Bayard had lesser influence than the other landed functionaries. But the owners of the other estates tenaciously held them intact. The people regarded Bellomont as a sincere and ardent reformer, but the landed men and their following abused him as a meddler and destructionist. Despairing of getting a self-interested assembly to act, Bellomont appealed to the Lords of Trade:

"If your Lordships mean I shall go on to break the rest of the extravagant grants of land by Colonel Fletcher or other governors, by act of assembly, I shall stand in need of a peremptory order from the King so to do."[23] A month later he insisted to his superiors at home that if they intended that the corrupt and extravagant grants should be confiscated—"(which I will be bold to say by all the rules of reason and justice ought to be done) I believe it must be done by act of Parliament in England, for I am a little jealous I shall not have strength enough in the assembly of New York to break them." The majority of this body, he pointed out, were landed men, and when their own interest was touched, they declined to act contrary to it. Unless, added Bellomont, "the power of our Palatines, Smith, Livingston, the Phillips, father and son[24]—and six or seven more were reduced ... the country is ruined."[25]

Despite some occasional breaches in its intrenchments, the landocracy continued to rule everywhere with a high hand, its power, as a whole, unbroken.


A glancing picture of one of these landed proprietors will show the manner in which they lived and what was then accounted their luxury. As one of the "foremost men of his day," in the colonies Colonel Smith lived in befitting style. This stern, bushy-eyed man who robbed the community of a vast tract of land and who, as chief justice, was inflexibly severe in dealing punishment to petty criminals and ever vigilant in upholding the rights of property, was lord of the Manor of St. George, Suffolk County. The finest silks and lace covered his judicial person. His embroidered belts, costing L110, at once attested his great wealth and high station. He had the extraordinary number of one hundred and four silver buttons to adorn his clothing. When he walked a heavy silver-headed cane supported him, and he rode on a fancy velvet saddle. His three swords were of the finest make; occasionally he affected a Turkish scimeter. Few watches in the colonies could compare with his massive silver watch. His table was embellished with heavy silver plate, valued at L150, on which his coat-of-arms was engraved. Twelve negro slaves responded to his nod; he had a large corps of bounded apprentices and dependant laborers. His mansion looked down on twenty acres of wheat and twenty of corn; and as for his horses and cattle they were the envy of the country. In his last year thirty horses were his, fourteen oxen, sixty steers, forty-eight cows and two bulls.[26] He lived high, drank, swore, cheated—and administered justice.

One of the best and most intimate descriptions of a somewhat contemporaneous landed magnate in the South is that given of Robert Carter, a Virginia planter, by Philip Vickers Fithian,[27] a tutor in Carter's family. Carter came to his estate from his grandfather, whose land and other possessions were looked upon as so extensive that he was called "King" Carter.

Robert Carter luxuriated in Nomini Hall, a great colonial mansion in Westmoreland County. It was built between 1725 and 1732 of brick covered with strong mortar, which imparted a perfectly white exterior, and was seventy-six feet long and forty wide. The interior was one of unusual splendor for the time, such as only the very rich could afford. There were eight large rooms, one of which was a ball-room thirty feet long. Carter spent most of his leisure hours cultivating the study of law and of music; his library contained 1,500 volumes and he had a varied assortment of musical instruments. He was the owner of 60,000 acres of land spread over almost every county of Virginia, and he was the master of six hundred negro slaves. The greater part of a prosperous iron-works near Baltimore was owned by him, and near his mansion he built a flour mill equipped to turn out 25,000 bushels of wheat a year. Carter was not only one of the big planters but one of the big capitalists of the age; all that he had to do was to exercise a general supervision; his overseers saw to the running of his various industries. Like the other large landholders he was one of the active governing class; as a member of the Provincial Council he had great influence in the making of laws. He was a thorough gentleman, we are told, and took good care of his slaves and of his white laborers who were grouped in workhouses and little cottages within range of his mansion. Within his domain he exercised a sort of benevolent despotism. He was one of the first few to see that chattel slavery could not compete in efficiency with white labor, and he reckoned that more money could be made from the white laborer, for whom no responsibility of shelter, clothing, food and attendance had to be assumed than from the negro slave, whose sickness, disability or death entailed direct financial loss. Before his death he emancipated a number of his slaves. This, in brief, is the rather flattering depiction of one of the conspicuously rich planters of the South.


Land continued to be the chief source of the wealth of the rich until after the Revolution. The discriminative laws enacted by England had held down the progress of the trading class; these laws overthrown, the traders rose rapidly from a subordinate position to the supreme class in point of wealth.

No close research into pre-Revolutionary currents and movements is necessary to understand that the Revolution was brought about by the dissatisfied trading class as the only means of securing absolute freedom of trade. Notwithstanding the view often presented that it was an altruistic movement for the freedom of man, it was essentially an economic struggle fathered by the trading class and by a part of the landed interests. Admixed was a sincere aim to establish free political conditions. This, however, was not an aim for the benefit of all classes, but merely one for the better interests of the propertied class. The poverty-stricken soldiers who fought for their cause found after the war that the machinery of government was devised to shut out manhood suffrage and keep the power intact in the hands of the rich. Had it not been for radicals such as Jefferson, Paine and others it is doubtful whether such concessions as were made to the people would have been made. The long struggle in various States for manhood suffrage sufficiently attests the deliberate aim of the propertied interests to concentrate in their own hands, and in that of a following favorable to them, the voting power of the Government and of the States.

With the success of the Revolution, the trading class bounded to the first rank. Entail and primogeniture were abolished and the great estates gradually melted away. For more than a century and a half the landed interests had dominated the social and political arena. As an acknowledged, continuous organization they ceased to exist. Great estates no longer passed unimpaired from generation to generation, surviving as a distinct entity throughout all changes. They perforce were partitioned among all the children; and through the vicissitudes of subsequent years, passed bit by bit into many hands. Altered laws caused a gradual disintegration in the case of individual holdings, but brought no change in instances of corporate ownership. The Trinity Corporation of New York City, for example, has held on to the vast estate which it was given before the Revolution except such parts as it voluntarily has sold.


The individual magnate, however, had no choice. He could no longer entail his estates. Thus, estates which were very large before the Revolution, and which were regarded with astonishment, ceased to exist. The landed interests, however, remained paramount for several decades after the Revolution by reason of the acceleration which long possession and its profits had given them. Washington's fortune, amounting at his death, to $530,000, was one of the largest in the country and consisted mainly of land. He owned 9,744 acres, valued at $10 an acre, on the Ohio River in Virginia, 3,075 acres, worth $200,000, on the Great Kenawa, and also land elsewhere in Virginia and in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, the City of Washington and other places.[28] About half a century later it was only by persistent gatherings of public contributions that his very home was saved to the nation, so had his estate become divided and run down. After a long career, Benjamin Franklin acquired what was considered a large fortune. But it did not come from manufacture or invention, which he did so much to encourage, but from land. His estate in 1788, two years before his death, was estimated to be worth $150,000, mostly in land.[29] By the opening decades of the nineteenth century few of the great estates in New York remained. One of the last of the patroons was Stephen Van Rensselaer, who died at the age of 75 on Jan. 26, 1839, leaving ten children. Up to this time the manor had devolved upon the eldest son. Although it had been diminished somewhat by various cessions, it was still of great extent. The property was divided among the ten children, and, according to Schuyler, "In less than fifty years after his death, the seven hundred thousand acres originally in the manor were in the hands of strangers."[30]

Long before old Van Rensselaer passed away he had seen the rise and growth of the trading and manufacturing class and a new form of landed aristocracy, and he observed with a haughty bitterness how in point of wealth and power they far overshadowed the well-nigh defunct old feudal aristocracy. A few hundred thousand dollars no longer was the summit of a great fortune; the age of the millionaire had come. The lordly, leisurely environment of the old landed class had been supplanted by feverish trading and industrial activity which imposed upon society its own newer standards, doctrines and ideals and made them uppermost factors.


[9] "Land Nationalization,":122-125.

[10] Colonial Documents, vii:654-655.

[11] Colonial Documents, iv:673-674.

[12] "A Short History of the English Colonies in America":402.

[13] Yet, this fortune seeker, who had incurred the contempt of every noble English mind, is described by one of the class of power-worshipping historians as follows: "Fame and wealth, so often the idols of Superior Intellect, were the prominent objects of this aspiring man."—Williamson's "History of Maine," 1:305.

[14] The Public Domain: Its History, etc.:38.

[15] Pennsylvania: Colony and Commonwealth:66, 84, etc. Their claim to inherit proprietary rights was bought at the time of the Revolutionary War by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for L130,000 sterling or about $580,000.

[16] Colonial Documents, iv:463.

[17] Ibid.:535.

[18] Ibid.:39.

[19] Colonial Documents, iv:528. One of Bellomont's chief complaints was that the landgraves monopolized the timber supply. He recommended the passage of a law vesting in the King the right to all trees such as were fit for masts of ships or for other use in building ships of war.

[20] "Colonial New York," 1:285-286.

[21] According to Reynolds's "Albany Chronicles," Livingston was in collusion with Captain Kidd, the sea pirate. Reynolds also tells that Livingston loaned money at ten per cent.

[22] Wright's "Industrial Evolution in the United States"; see also his article "Wages" in Johnson's Encyclopaedia. The New York Colonial Documents relate that in 1699 in the three provinces of Bellomont's jurisdiction, "the laboring man received three shillings a day, which was considered dear," iv:588.

[23] Colonial Documents, iv:533-554.

[24] Frederick and his son Adolphus. Frederick was the employer of the pirate, Captain Samuel Burgess of New York, who at first was sent out by Phillips to Madagascar to trade with the pirates and who then turned pirate himself. From the first voyage Phillips and Burgess cleared together L5,000, the proceeds of trade and slaves. The second voyage yielded L10,000 and three hundred slaves. Burgess married a relative of Phillips and continued piracy, but was caught and imprisoned in Newgate. Phillips spent great sums of money to save him and succeeded. Burgess resumed piracy and met death from poisoning in Africa while engaged in carrying off slaves.—"The Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates":177-183. This work was a serious study of the different sea pirates.

[25] Colonial Docs, iv:533-534. On November 27, 1700, Bellomont wrote to the Lords of the Treasury: "I can supply the King and all his dominions with naval stores (except flax and hemp) from this province and New Hampshire, but then your Lordships and the rest of the Ministers must break through Coll. Fletcher's most corrupt grants of all the lands and woods of this province which I think is the most impudent villainy I ever heard or read of any man," iv:780.

[26] This is the inventory given in "Abstracts of Wills," 1:323.

[27] "Journal and Letters," 1767-1774.

[28] Sparks' "Life of Washington," Appendix, ix:557-559.

[29] Bigelow's "Life of Franklin," iii:470.

[30] "Colonial New York," 1:232.



The creation of the great landed estates was accompanied by the slow development of the small trader and merchant. Necessarily, they first established themselves in the sea ports where business was concentrated.

Many obstacles long held them down to a narrow sphere. The great chartered companies monopolized the profitable resources. The land magnates exacted tribute for the slightest privilege granted. Drastic laws forbade competition with the companies, and the power of law and the severities of class government were severely felt by the merchants. The chartered corporations and the land dignitaries were often one group with an identity of men and interests. Against their strength and capital the petty trader or merchant could not prevail. Daring and enterprising though he be, he was forced to a certain compressed routine of business. He could sell the goods which the companies sold to him but could not undertake to set up manufacturing. And after the companies had passed away, the landed aristocracy used its power to suppress all undue initiative on his part.


This was especially so in New York, where all power was concentrated in the hands of a few landowners. "To say," says Sabine, "that the political institutions of New York formed a feudal aristocracy is to define them with tolerable accuracy. The soil was owned by a few. The masses were mere retainers or tenants as in the monarchies of Europe."[31] The feudal lord was also the dominant manufacturer and trader. He forced his tenants to sign covenants that they should trade in nothing else than the produce of the manor; that they should trade nowhere else but at his store; that they should grind their flour at his mill, and buy bread at his bakery, lumber at his sawmills and liquor at his brewery. Thus he was not only able to squeeze the last penny from them by exorbitant prices, but it was in his power to keep them everlastingly in debt to him. He claimed, and held, a monopoly in his domain of whatever trade he could seize. These feudal tenures were established in law; woe to the tenant who presumed to infract them! He became a criminal and was punished as a felon. The petty merchant could not, and dared not, compete with the trading monopolies of the manorial lords within these feudal jurisdictions. In such a system the merchant's place for a century and a half was a minor one, although far above that of the drudging laborer. Merchants resorted to sharp and frequently dubious ways of getting money together. They bargained and sold shrewdly, kept their wits ever open, turned sycophant to the aristocracy and a fleecer of the laborer.

It would appear that in New York, at least, the practice of the most audacious usury was an early and favorite means of acquiring the property of others. These others were invariably the mechanic or laborer; the merchant dared not attempt to overreach the aristocrat whose power he had good reason to fear. Money which was taken in by selling rum and by wheedling the unsophisticated Indians into yielding up valuable furs, was loaned at frightfully onerous rates. The loans unpaid, the lender swooped mercilessly upon the property of the unfortunate and gathered it in.

The richest merchant of his period in the province of New York was Cornelius Steenwyck, a liquor merchant, who died in 1686. He left a total estate of L4,382 and a long list of book debts which disclosed that almost every man in New York City owed money to him, partly for rum, in part for loans.[32] The same was true of Peter Jacob Marius, a rich merchant who died in 1706, leaving behind a host of debtors, "which included about all the male population on Manhattan Island."[33] This eminent counter-man was "buried like a gentleman." At his funeral large sums were spent for wine, cookies, pipes and tobacco, beer, spice for burnt wine and sugar—all according to approved and reverent Dutch fashion. The actual currency left by some of these rich men was a curious conglomeration of almost every stamp, showing the results of a mixed assemblage of customers. There were Spanish pistoles, guineas, Arabian coin, bank dollars, Dutch and French money—a motley assortment all carefully heaped together. Without doubt, those enterprising pirate captains, Kidd and Burgess, and their crews, were good customers of these accommodating and undiscriminating merchants. It was a time when money was triply valued, for little of it passed in circulation. To a people who traded largely by barter and whose media of exchange, for a long time, were wampum, peltries and other articles, the touch and clink of gold and silver were extremely precious and fascinating. Buccaneers Kidd and Burgess deserved the credit for introducing into New York much of the variegated gold and silver coin, and it was believed that they long had some of the leading merchants as their allies in disposing of their plundered goods, in giving them information and affording them protection.


By one means or another, some of the New York merchants of the period attained a standing in point of wealth equal to not a few of the land magnates. William Lawrence of Flushing, Long Island, was "a man of great wealth and social standing." Like the rest of his class he affected to despise the merchant class. After his death, an inventory showed his estate to be worth L4,032, mostly in land and in slaves, of which he left ten.[34] While the landed men often spent much of their time carousing, hunting, gambling, and dispersing their money, the merchants were hawk-eyed alert for every opportunity to gather in money. They wasted no time in frivolous pursuits, had no use for sentiment or scruples, saved money in infinitesimal ways and thought and dreamed of nothing but business.

Throughout the colonies, not excepting Pennsylvania, it was the general practice of the merchants and traders to take advantage of the Indians by cunning and treacherous methods. The agents of the chartered companies and the land owners first started the trick of getting the Indians drunk, and then obtaining, for almost nothing, the furs that they had gathered—for a couple of bottles of rum, a blanket or an axe. After the charters of the companies were annulled or expired, the landgraves kept up the practice, and the merchants improved on it in various ingenious ways. "The Indians," says Felt,[35] "were ever ready to give up their furs for knives, hatchets, beads, blankets, and especially were anxious to obtain tobacco, guns, powder, shot and strong water; the latter being a powerful instrument enabling the cunning trader to perpetuate the grossest frauds. Immense quantities of furs were shipped to Europe at a great profit."

This description appropriately applied also to New York, New Jersey, and the South. In New York there were severe laws against Indians who got drunk, and in Massachusetts colony an Indian found drunk was subject to a fine of ten shillings or whipping, at the discretion of the magistrate. As to the whites who, for purposes of gain, got the Indians drunk, the law was strangely inactive. Everyone knew that drink might incite the Indians to uprisings and imperil the lives of men, women and children. But the considerations of trade were stronger than even the instinct of self-preservation and the practice went on, not infrequently resulting in the butchery of innocent white victims and in great cost and suspense to the whole community.

Strict laws which pronounced penalties for profaneness and for not attending church, connived at the systematic defrauding and swindling of the Indians of land and furs. Two strong considerations were held to justify this. The first was that the Indians were heathen and must give way to civilization; that they were fair prey. The demands of trade, upon which the colonies flourished was the second. The fact was that the code of the trading class was everywhere gradually becoming the dominant one, even breaking down the austere, almost ascetic, Puritan moral professions. Among the common people—those who were ordinary wage laborers—the methods of the rich were looked upon with suspicion and enmity, and there was a prevalent consciousness that wealth was being amassed by one-sided laws and fraud. Some of the noted sea pirates of the age made this their strong justification for preying upon commerce.[36]

In Virginia the life of the community depended upon agriculture; therefore slavery was thought to be its labor prop and was joyfully welcomed and earnestly defended. In Massachusetts and New York trading was an elemental factor, and whatever swelled the volume and profits was accounted a blessing to the community and was held justified. Laws, the judges who enforced them, and the spirit of the age reflected not so much the morality of the people as their trading necessities. The one was often mistaken for the other.


This condition was shown repeatedly in the trade conflicts of the competing merchants, their system of bonded laborers and in the long contests between the traders of the colonies and those of England, culminating in the Revolution. In the churches the colonists prayed to God as the Father of all men and showed great humility. But in actual practice the propertied men recognized no such thing as equality and dispensed with humility. The merchants imitated in a small way the seignorial pretensions of the land nabobs. Few merchants there were who did not deal in negro slaves, and few also were there who did not have a bonded laborer or two, whose labor they monopolized and whose career was their property for a long term of years. Limited bondage, called apprenticeship, was general.

Penniless boys, girls and adults were impressed by sheer necessity into service. Nicholas Auger, 10 years old, binds himself, in 1694, to Wessell Evertson, a cooper, for a term of nine years, and swears that "he will truly serve the commandments of his master Lawfull, shall do no hurt to his master, nor waste nor purloin his goods, nor lend them to anybody at Dice, or other unlawful game, shall not contract matrimony, nor frequent taverns, shall not absent himself from his master's service day or night." In return Evertson will teach Nicholas the trade of a cooper, give him "apparell, meat, drink and bedding" and at the expiration of the term will supply him with "two good suits of wearing apparell from head to foot." Cornelius Hendricks, a laborer, binds himself in 1695 as an apprentice and servant to John Molet for five years. Hendricks is to get L3 current silver money and two suits of apparell—one for holy days, the other for working days, and also board is to be provided. Elizabeth Morris, a spinster, in consideration of her transportation from England to New York on the barkentine, "Antegun," binds herself in 1696 as a servant to Captain William Kidd for four years for board. When her term is over she is to get two dresses. These are a few specific instances of the bonding system—a system which served its purpose in being highly advantageous to the merchants and traders.


Toward the close of the seventeenth century the merchants of Boston were the richest in the colonies. Trade there was the briskest. By 1687, according to the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society, there were ten to fifteen merchants in Boston whose aggregate property amounted to L50,000, or about L5,000 each, and five hundred persons who were worth L3,000 each. Some of these fortunes came from furs, timber and vending merchandise.

But the great stimuli were the fisheries of the New England coast. Bellomont in 1700 ascribed the superior trade of Massachusetts to the fact that Fletcher had corruptly sold the best lands in New York province and had thus brought on bad conditions. Had it not been for this, he wrote, New York "would outthrive the Massachusetts Province and quickly outdoe them in people and trade." While the people of the South took to agriculture as a main support, and the merchants of New York were contented with the more comfortable method of taking in coin over counters, a large proportion of the 12,000 inhabitants of Boston and those of Salem and Plymouth braved dangers to drag the sea of its spoil. They developed hardy traits of character, a bold adventurousness and a singular independence of movement which in time engendered a bustling race of traders who navigated the world for trade.

It was from shipping that the noted fortunes of the early decades of the eighteenth century came. The origin of the means by which these fortunes were got together lay greatly in the fisheries. The emblem of the codfish in the Massachusetts State House is a survival of the days when the fisheries were the great and most prolific sources of wealth and the chief incentive of all kinds of trade. A tremendous energy was shown in the hazards of the business. So thoroughly were the fisheries recognized as important to the life of the whole New England community that vessels were often built by public subscription, as was instanced in Plymouth, where public subscription on one occasion defrayed the expense.[37]

In response to the general incessant demand for ships, the business of shipbuilding soon sprang up; presently there were nearly thirty ship yards in Boston alone and sixty ships a year were built. It was a lucrative industry. The price of a vessel was dear, while the wages of the carpenters, smiths, caulkers and sparmakers were low. Not a few of the merchants and traders or their sons who made their money by debauching and cheating the Indians went into this highly profitable business and became men of greater wealth. By 1700 Boston was shipping 50,000 quintals of dried codfish every year. The fish was divided into several kinds. The choice quality went to the Catholic countries, where there was a great demand for it, principally to Bilboa, Lisbon and Oporto. The refuse was shipped to the West India Islands for sale to the negro slaves and laborers. The price varied. In 1699 it was eighteen shillings a quintal; the next year, we read, it had fallen to twelve shillings because the French fisheries had glutted the market abroad.[38]


Along with the fisheries, considerable wealth was extracted in New England, as elsewhere in the colonies, from the shipment of timber. Sharp traders easily got the advantage of Indians and landowners in buying the privilege of cutting timber. In some cases, particularly in New Hampshire, which Allen claimed to own, the timber was simply taken without leave. The word was passed that force was as good as force, fraud as good as fraud. Allen had got the province by force and fraud; let him stop the timber cutters if he dare. Ship timber was eagerly sought in European ports. One Boston merchant is recorded as having taken a cargo of this timber to Lisbon and clearing a profit of L1,600 on an expenditure of L300. "Everybody is excited," wrote Bellomont on June 22, 1700, to the Lords Commissioners for Trades and Plantations. "Some of the merchants of Salem are now loading a ship with 12,000 feet of the noblest ships timber that was ever seen."[39]

The whale fishery sprang up about this time and brought in great profits. The original method was to sight the whale from a lookout on shore, push out in a boat, capture him and return to the shore with the carcass. The oil was extracted from the blubber and readily sold. As whales became scarce around the New England islands the whalers pushed off into the ocean in small vessels. Within fifty years at least sixty craft were engaged in the venture. By degrees larger and larger vessels were built until they began to double Cape Horn, and were sometimes absent from a year and a half to three years. The labors of the cruise were often richly rewarded with a thousand barrels of sperm oil and two hundred and fifty barrels of whale oil.


By the middle of the seventeenth century the colonial merchants were in a position to establish manufactures to compete with the British. A seafaring race and a mercantile fleet had come into a militant existence; and ambitious designs were meditated of conquering a part of the import and export trade held by the British. The colonial shipowner, sending tobacco, corn, timber or fish to Europe did not see why he should not load his ship with commodities on the return trip and make a double profit. It was now that the British trading class peremptorily stepped in and used the power of government to suppress in its infancy a competition that alarmed them.

Heavy export duties were now declared on every colonial article which would interfere with the monopoly which the British trading class held, and aimed to hold, while the most exacting duties were put on non-British imports. Colonial factories were killed off by summary legislation. In 1699 Parliament enacted that no wool yarn or woolen manufactures of the American colonies should be exported to any place whatever. This was a destructive bit of legislation, as nearly every colonial rural family kept sheep and raised flax and were getting expert at the making of coarse linen and woolen cloths. No sooner had the colonists begun to make paper than that industry was likewise choked. With hats it was the same. The colonists had scarcely begun to export hats to Spain, Portugal and the West Indies before the British Company of Hatters called upon the Government to put a stop to this colonial interference with their trade. An act was thereupon passed by Parliament forbidding the exportation of hats from any American colony, and the selling in one colony of hats made in another. Colonial iron mills began to blast; they were promptly declared a nuisance, and Parliament ordered that no mill or engine for slitting or rolling iron be used, but graciously allowed pig and bar iron to be imported from England into the colonies. Distilleries were common; molasses was extensively used in the making of rum and also by the fishermen; a heavy duty was put upon molasses and sugar as also on tea, nails, glass and paints. Smuggling became general; a narrative of the adroit devices resorted to would make an interesting tale.

These restrictive acts brought about various momentous results. They not only arrayed the whole trading class against Great Britain, and in turn the great body of the colonists, but they operated to keep down in size and latitude the private fortunes by limiting the ways in which the wealth of individuals could be employed. Much money was withdrawn from active business and invested in land and mortgages. Still, despite the crushing laws with which colonial capitalists had to contend, the fisheries were an incessant source of profit. By 1765 they employed 4,000 seamen and had 28,000 tons of shipping and did a business estimated at somewhat more than a million dollars.


[31] "Lives of the Loyalists,":18.

[32] "Abstracts of Wills," ii:444-445.

[33] Ibid., 1:323-324.

[34] "Abstracts of Wills," 1:108.

[35] "An Historical Account of Massachusetts Currency." See also Colonial Documents, iii:242, and the Records of New Amsterdam. See the chapters on the Astor fortune in Part II for full details of the methods in debauching and swindling the Indians in trading operations.

[36] Thus Captain Bellamy's speech in 1717 to Captain Baer of Boston, whose sloop he had just sunk and rifled: "I am sorry that they [his crew] won't let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief when it is not for my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security—for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery. But damn ye altogether; damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and ye who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They villify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference: they rob the poor under cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage. Had you better not make one of us than sneak after these villains for employment." Baer refused and was put ashore.—"The Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates":129-130.

[37] "A Commercial Sketch of Boston," Hunt's Merchant's Magazine, 1839, 1:125.

[38] Colonial Documents, iv:790.

[39] Ibid., 678.



Thus it was that at the time of the Revolution many of the consequential fortunes were those of shipowners and were principally concentrated in New England. Some of these dealt in merchandise only, while others made large sums of money by exporting fish, tobacco, corn, rice and timber and lading their ships on the return with negro slaves, for which they found a responsive market in the South. Many of the members of the Continental Congress were ship merchants, or inherited their fortunes from rich shippers, as, for instance, Samuel Adams, Robert Morris, Henry Laurens of Charleston, S. C., John Hancock, whose fortune of $350,000 came from his uncle Thomas, Francis Lewis of New York and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. Others were members of various Constitutional conventions or became high officials in the Federal or State governments. The Revolution disrupted and almost destroyed the colonial shipping, and trade remained stagnant.


Not wholly so, for the hazardous venture of privateering offered great returns. George Cabot of Boston was the son of an opulent shipowner. During the Revolution, George, with his brother swept the coast with twenty privateers carrying from sixteen to twenty guns each. For four or five years their booty was rich and heavy, but toward the end of the war, British gun-boats swooped on most of their craft and the brothers lost heavily. George subsequently became a United States Senator. Israel Thorndike, who began life as a cooper's apprentice and died in 1832 at the age of 75, leaving a fortune, "the greatest that has ever been left in New England,"[40] made large sums of money as part owner and commander of a privateer which made many successful cruises. With this money he went into fisheries, foreign commerce and real estate, and later into manufacturing establishments. One of the towering rich men of the day, we are told that "his investments in real estate, shipping or factories were wonderfully judicious and hundreds watched his movements, believing his pathway was safe." The fortune he bequeathed was ranked as immense. To each of his three sons he left about $500,000 each, and other sums to another son, and to his widow and daughters. In all, the legacies to the surviving members of his family amounted to about $1,800,000.[41]

Another "distinguished merchant," as he was styled, to take up privateering was Nathaniel Tracy, the son of a Newburyport merchant. College bred, as were most of the sons of rich merchants, he started out at the age of 25 with a number of privateers, and for many years returned flushed with prizes. To quote his appreciative biographer: "He lived in a most magnificent style, having several country seats or large farms with elegant summer houses and fine fish ponds, and all those matters of convenience or taste that a British nobleman might think necessary to his rank and happiness. His horses were of the choicest kind and his coaches of the most splendid make." But alas! this gorgeous career was abruptly dispelled when unfeeling British frigates and gun-boats hooked in his saucy privateers and Tracy stood quite ruined.

Much more fortunate was Joseph Peabody. As a young man Peabody enlisted as an officer on Derby's privateer "Bunker Hill." His second cruise was on Cabot's privateer "Pilgrim" which captured a richly cargoed British merchantman. Returning to shore he studied for an education, later resuming the privateer deck. Some of his exploits, as narrated by George Atkinson Ward in "Hunt's Lives of American Merchants," published in 1856, were thrilling enough to have found a deserved place in a gory novel. With the money made as his share of the various prizes, he bought a vessel which he commanded himself, and he personally made sundry voyages to Europe and the West Indies. By 1791 he had amassed a large fortune. There was no further need of his going to sea; he was now a great merchant and could pay others to take charge of his ships. These increased to such an extent that he built in Salem and owned eighty-three ships which he freighted and dispatched to every known part of the world. Seven thousand seamen were in his employ. His vessels were known in Calcutta, Canton, Sumatra, St. Petersburg and dozens of other ports. They came back with cargoes which were distributed by coasting vessels among the various American ports. It was with wonderment that his contemporaries spoke of his paying an aggregate of about $200,000 in State, county and city taxes in Salem, where he lived.[42] He died on Jan. 5, 1844, aged 84 years.

Asa Clapp, who at his death in 1848, at the age of 85 years, was credited with being the richest man in Maine,[43] began his career during the Revolution as an officer on a privateer. After the war he commanded various trading vessels, and in 1796 established a shipping business of his own, with headquarters at Portland. His vessels traded with Europe, the East and West Indies and South America. In his later years he went into banking. Of the size of his fortune we are left in ignorance.


These are instances of rich men whose original capital came from privateering, which was recognized as a legitimate method of reprisal. As to the inception of the fortunes of other prominent capitalists of the period, few details are extant in the cases of most of them. Of the antecedents and life of Thomas Russell, a Boston shipper, who died in 1796, "supposedly leaving the largest amount of property which up to that time had been accumulated in New England," little is known. The extent of his fortune cannot be learned. Russell was one of the first, after the Revolution, to engage in trade with Russia, and drove many a hard bargain. He built a stately mansion in Charleston and daily traveled to Boston in a coach drawn by four black horses. In business he was inflexible; trade considerations aside he was an alms-giver. Of Cyrus Butler, another shipowner and trader, who, according to one authority, was probably the richest man in New England[44]—and who, according to the statement of another publication[45]—left a fortune estimated at from three to four millions of dollars, few details likewise are known. He was the son of Samuel Butler, a shoemaker who removed from Edgartown, Mass., to Providence about 1750 and became a merchant and shipowner. Cyrus followed in his steps. When this millionaire died at the age of 82 in 1849, the size of his fortune excited wonderment throughout New England. It may be here noted as a fact worthy of comment that of the group of hale rich shipowners there were few who did not live to be octogenarians.

The rapidity with which large fortunes were made was not a riddle. Labor was cheap and unorganized, and the profits of trade were enormous. According to Weeden the customary profits at the close of the eighteenth century on muslins and calicoes were one hundred per cent. Cargoes of coffee sometimes yielded three or four times that amount. Weeden instances one shipment of plain glass tumblers costing less than $1,000 which sold for $12,000 in the Isle of France.[46]

The prospects of a dazzling fortune, speedily reaped, instigated owners of capital to take the most perilous chances. Decayed ships, superficially patched up, were often sent out on the chance that luck and skill would get them through the voyage and yield fortunes. Crew after crew was sacrificed to this frenzied rush for money, but nothing was thought of it. Again, there were examples of almost incredible temerity. In his biography of Peter Charndon Brooks, one of the principal merchants of the day, and his father-in-law, Edward Everett tells of a ship sailing from Calcutta to Boston with a youth of nineteen in command. Why or how this boy was placed in charge is not explained. This juvenile captain had nothing in the way of a chart on board except a small map of the world in Guthrie's Geography. He made the trip successfully. Later, when he became a rich Boston banker, the tale of this feat was one of the proud annals of his life and, if true, deservedly so.[47]

Whitney's notable invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had given a stupendous impetus to cotton growing in the Southern States. As the shipowners were chiefly centered in New England the export of this staple vastly increased their trade and fortunes. It might be thought, parenthetically, that Whitney himself should have made a surpassing fortune from an invention which brought millions of dollars to planters and traders. But his inventive ability and perseverance, at least in his creation of the cotton gin, brought him little more than a multitude of infringements upon his patent, refusals to pay him, and vexatious and expensive litigation to sustain his rights.[48] In despair, he turned, in 1808, to the manufacture in New Haven of fire-arms for the Government, and from this business managed to get a fortune. From the Canton and Calcutta trade Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a Boston shipper, extracted a fortune of $2,000,000. His ships made thirty voyages around the world. This merchant peer lived to the venerable age of 90; when he passed away in 1854 his fortune, although intact, had shrunken to modest proportions compared with a few others which had sprung up. James Lloyd, a partner of Perkins', likewise profited; in 1808 he was elected a United States Senator and later reelected.

William Gray, described as "one of the most successful of American merchants," and as one who was considered and taxed in Salem "as one of the wealthiest men in the place, where there were several of the largest fortunes that could be found in the United States," owned, in his heyday, more than sixty sail of vessels. Some scant details are obtainable as to the career and personality of this moneyed colossus of his day. He began as an apprenticed mechanic. For more than fifty years he rose at dawn and was shaved and dressed. His letters and papers were then spread before him and the day's business was begun. At his death in 1825 no inventory of his estate was taken. The present millions of the Brown fortune of Rhode Island came largely from the trading activities of Nicholas Brown and the accretions of which increased population and values have brought. Nicholas Brown was born in Providence in 1760, of a well-to-do father. He went to Rhode Island College (later named in his honor by reason of his gifts) and greatly increased his fortune in the shipping trade.

It is quite needless, however, to give further instances in support of the statement that nearly all the large active fortunes of the latter part of the eighteenth and the early period of the nineteenth century, came from the shipping trade and were mainly concentrated in New England. The proceeds of these fortunes frequently were put into factories, canals, turnpikes and later into railroads, telegraph lines and express companies. Seldom, however, has the money thus employed really gone to the descendants of the men who amassed it, but has since passed over to men who, by superior cunning, have contrived to get the wealth into their own hands. This statement is an anticipation of facts that will be more cognate in subsequent chapters, but may be appropriately referred to here. There were some exceptions to the general condition of the large fortunes from shipping being compactly held in New England. Thomas Pym Cope, a Philadelphia Quaker, did a brisk shipping trade, and founded the first regular line of packets between Philadelphia and Baltimore; with the money thus made he went into canal and railroad enterprises. And in New York and other ports there were a number of shippers who made fortunes of several millions each.

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