White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW
Taking Out the Trash
Waste People in the New World
Colonies ought to be Emunctories or Sinkes of States; to drayne away the filth.
—John White, The Planters Plea (1630)
In the minds of literate English men and women, as colonization began in the 1500s, North America was an uncertain world inhabited by monstrous creatures, a blank territory skirted by mountains of gold. Because it was a strange land that few would ever see firsthand, spectacular tales had more appeal than practical observation. England’s two chief promoters of American exploration would never set foot on the continent. Richard Hakluyt the elder (1530-91) was a lawyer at Middle Temple, a vibrant center of intellectual life and court politics in the London metropolis. His much younger cousin with the identical name (1552-1616) trained at Christ Church, Oxford, and never hazarded a voyage beyond the shores of France.1
The elder Hakluyt was a bookish attorney who happened to be well connected to those who dreamt of profit from overseas ventures. His circle included merchants, royal officials, and such men on the make as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Martin Frobisher, all of whom sought fame and glory from exploration. These men of action were endowed with larger-than-life egos; they were a new breed of adventurer, known for heroism but also for ill-tempered public behavior.2
Richard Hakluyt the younger was an Oxford fellow and clergyman who devoted his life to compiling the travel narratives of explorers. In 1589, he published his most ambitious work, Principall Navigations, an exhaustive catalogue of all the accounts he could track down of English travelers to the East, the North, and of course America. In the age of Shakespeare, everyone who was anyone read Hakluyt. The unstoppable John Smith quoted liberally from his writings, proving himself more than a brute soldier of fortune.3
Even before publishing Principall Navigations, the younger Hakluyt had sought royal favor. He prepared a treatise for Queen Elizabeth I and her top advisers, laying out his working theory of British colonization. “Discourse of Western Planting” (1584) was pure propaganda, designed to persuade the queen of the benefits of American settlements. Sir Walter Raleigh had commissioned the work, hoping for the state financing he never received when he launched an expedition that led to the short-lived Roanoke colony, off the Carolina coast.4
In Hakluyt’s English colonial vision, distant America was a wilderness of an almost inconceivable dimension. For the French intellectual Michel de Montaigne, in 1580, it was the habitat of a simple and uncorrupted people whom he whimsically called “cannibals,” slyly challenging the popular image of brutes gorging on human flesh. Like Hakluyt, he had never seen Native peoples, of course. Hakluyt at least was more practical (and more Anglican) than Montaigne in his outlook on the aboriginals. He believed them neither dangerous nor innocent, but empty vessels waiting to be filled with Christian—and, no less, commercial—truths. He imagined the Indians as useful allies in fulfilling English aspirations, possible trading partners, and subordinate, to be sure, but above all a natural resource to be exploited for the greater good.5
Attaching “empty” as a metaphor to a mysterious land served the legal purposes of the English state. Without recognized owners, the territory was available and waiting to be taken. Even for the bookish cleric Hakluyt, the trope of conquest he used presented America as a lovely woman waiting to be wooed and wed by the English. They would become her rightful owners and deserving custodians. It was all a fiction, of course, because the land was not really inane ac uacuum—void and vacant. As the English conceived it, however, any land had to be taken out of its natural state and put to commercial use—only then would it be truly owned.6
Obviously, the Indian occupants were deemed unable to possess a true title. Combing ancient laws for convincing analogies, English colonizers classified the Natives as savages, and sometimes as barbarians. The Indians did not build what the English would acknowledge as permanent homes and towns; they did not enclose the workable ground inside hedges and fences. Under their tenancy, the land appeared unbounded and untamed—what John Smith, in his accounts of Virginia, and later New England, described as “very ranke” and weedy. The Indians lived off the earth as passive nomads. Profit-seeking planters and industrious husbandmen, on the other hand, were needed to cultivate the ground for its riches, and in doing so impose a firm hand.7
This powerful conception of land use would play a key role in future categorizations of race and class on the experimental continent. Before they even established new and busy societies, colonizers denoted some people as entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land; they declared others (the vast majority) as mere occupiers, a people with no measurable investment in productivity or in commerce.
Whether barren or empty, uncultivated or rank, the land acquired a quintessentially English meaning. The English were obsessed with waste, which was why America was first and foremost a “wasteland” in their eyes. Wasteland meant undeveloped land, land that was outside the circulation of commercial exchange and apart from the understood rules of agricultural production. To lie in waste, in biblical language, meant to exist desolate and unattended; in agrarian terms, it was to be left fallow and unimproved.
Wasteland was idle land. Arable tracts of desirable property could only be associated with furrowed fields, rows of crops and fruit trees, golden waves of grain, and pasture for cattle and sheep. John Smith embraced the same ideological premise with a precise (if crude) allusion: the Englishman’s right to the land was ensured by his commitment to carpeting the soil with manure. An English elixir of animal waste would magically transform the Virginia wilderness, making untilled wasteland into valuable English territory. Waste was there to be treated, and then exploited. Waste was wealth as yet unrealized.8
In his “Discourse of Western Planting,” Hakluyt confidently described the entire continent as that “waste firm of America.” Not terra firma, but waste firm. He saw natural resources as raw materials that could be converted into valuable commodities. Like other Englishmen of his day, he equated wastelands with commons, forests, and fens—those lands that sixteenth-century agrarian improvers eyed for prospective profits. Wasteland served the interest of private owners in the commercial marketplace, when the commons was enclosed and sheep and cattle grazed there; forests could be cut down for timber and cleared for settlements; fens or marshes could be drained and reconstituted as rich, arable farmland.9
It was not just land that could be waste. People could be waste too. And this brings us to our most important point of embarkation: Hakluyt’s America required what he classified as “waste people,” the corps of laborers needed to cut down the trees, beat the hemp (for making rope), gather honey, salt and dry fish, dress raw animal hides, dig the earth for minerals, raise olives and silk, and sort and pack bird feathers.10
He pictured paupers, vagabonds, convicts, debtors, and lusty young men without employment doing all such work. The “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” Merchants would be sent to trade with the Indians, selling trinkets, venting cloth goods, and gathering more information about the interior of the continent. Artisans were needed: millwrights to process the timber; carpenters, brick makers, and plasterers to build the settlement; cooks, launderers, bakers, tailors, and cobblers to service the infant colony.11
Where would these workers come from? The artisans, he felt, could be spared without weakening the English economy. But the bulk of the labor force was to come from the swelling numbers of poor and homeless. They were, in Hakluyt’s disturbing allusion, “ready to eat up one another,” already cannibalizing the British economy. Idle and unused, they were waiting to be transplanted to the American land to be better (albeit no more humanely) put to use.12
This view of poverty was widely shared. One persistent project, first promoted in 1580 but never realized, involved raising a fleet of hundred-ton fishing vessels comprising ten thousand men, half of whom were to be impoverished vagrants. The galley labor scheme was designed to beat the famously industrious Dutch at the fishing trade.13 Leading mathematician and geographer John Dee was another who imagined a maritime solution to poverty. In 1577, as the British navy expanded, he proposed converting the poor into sailors. Others wished for the indigent to be swept from the streets, one way or another, whether gathered up as forced laborers building highways and fortifications or herded into prisons and workhouses. London’s Bridewell Prison was chartered in 1553, the first institution of its kind to propose reformation of vagrants. By the 1570s, more houses of corrections had opened their doors. Their founders offered to train the children of the poor to be “brought up in labor and work,” so they would not follow in the footsteps of their parents and become “idle rogues.”14
In this sense, what Hakluyt foresaw in a colonized America was one giant workhouse. This cannot be emphasized enough. As the “waste firm of America” was settled, it would become a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets. The land and the poor could be harvested together, to add to—rather than continue to subtract from—the nation’s wealth. Among the first waves of workers were the convicts, who would be employed at heavy labor, felling trees and burning them for pitch, tar, and soap ash; others would dig in the mines for gold, silver, iron, and copper. The convicts were not paid wages. As debt slaves, they were obliged to repay the English commonwealth for their crimes by producing commodities for export. In return, they would be kept from a life of crime, avoiding, in Hakluyt’s words, being “miserably hanged,” or packed into prisons to “pitifully pine away” and die.15
As he saw it, the larger reward would be reaped in the next generation. By importing raw goods from the New World and exporting cloth and other commodities in return, the poor at home would find work so that “not one poor creature” would feel impelled “to steal, to starve, and beg as they do.” They would prosper along with the growth of colonial trade. The children of “wandering beggars,” having been “kept from idleness, and made able by their own honest and easy labor,” would grow up responsibly, “without surcharging others.” Children who escaped pauperism, no longer burdens on the state, might reenter the workforce as honest laborers. The poor fry sent overseas would now be “better bred up,” making the lot of the English people better off, and the working poor more industrious. It all sounded perfectly logical and realizable.16
Seeing the indigent as wastrels, as the dregs of society, was certainly nothing new. The English had waged a war against the poor, especially vagrants and vagabonds, for generations. A series of laws in the fourteenth century led to a concerted campaign to root out this wretched “mother of all vice.” By the sixteenth century, harsh laws and punishments were fixed in place. Public stocks were built in towns for runaway servants, along with whipping posts and cages variously placed around London. Hot branding irons and ear boring identified this underclass and set them apart as a criminal contingent. An act of 1547 allowed for vagrants to be branded with a V on their breasts and enslaved. While this unusual piece of legislation appears never to have been put into practice, it was nonetheless a natural outgrowth of the widespread vilification of the poor.17
By 1584, when Hakluyt drafted his “Discourse of Western Planting,” the poor were routinely being condemned as “thriftless” and “idle,” a diseased and dangerously mobile, unattached people, everywhere running “to and fro over all the realm.” Compared to swarms of insects, labeled as an “over-flowing multitude,” they were imagined in language as an effluvial current, polluting and taxing England’s economic health.18
Slums enveloped London. As one observer remarked in 1608, the heavy concentrations of poor created a subterranean colony of dirty and disfigured “monsters” living in “caves.” They were accused of breeding rapidly and infecting the city with a “plague” of poverty, thus figuratively designating unemployment a contagious disease. Distant American colonies were presented as a cure. The poor could be purged. In 1622, the famous poet and clergyman John Donne wrote of Virginia in this fashion, describing the new colony as the nation’s spleen and liver, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Others used less delicate imagery. American colonies were “emunctories,” excreting human waste from the body politic. The elder Richard Hakluyt unabashedly called the transportable poor the “offals of our people.”19
The poor were human waste. Refuse. The sturdy poor, those without physical injuries, elicited outrage over their idleness. But how could vagabonds, who on average migrated some twenty to eighty miles in a month, be called idle? William Harrison, in his popular Description of England (1577), offered an explanation. Idleness was wasted energy. The vagabonds’ constant movement led nowhere. In moving around, they failed (like the Indians) to put down healthy roots and join the settled labor force of servants, tenants, and artisans. Harrison thought of idleness in the same way we might today refer to the idling motor of a car: the motor runs in place; the idle poor were trapped in economic stasis. Waste people, like wastelands, were stagnant; their energy produced nothing of value; they were like festering weeds ruining an idle garden.20
Wasteland, then, was an eyesore, or what the English called a “sinke hole.” Waste people were analogized to weeds or sickly cattle grazing on a dunghill. But unlike the docile herd, which were carefully bred and contained in fenced enclosures, the poor could become disruptive and disorderly; they occasionally rioted. The cream of society could not be shielded from the public nuisance of the poor, in that they seemed omnipresent at funerals, church services, on highways and byways, in alehouses, and they loitered around Parliament—even at the king’s court. James I was so annoyed with vagrant boys milling around his palace at Newmarket that he wrote the London-based Virginia Company in 1619 asking for its help in removing the offensive population from his sight by shipping them overseas.21
As masterless men, detached and unproductive, the vagrant poor would acquire colonial masters. For Hakluyt and others, a quasi-military model made sense. It had been used in Ireland. In the New World, whether subduing the Native population or contending with other European nations with colonial ambitions, fortifications would have to be raised, trenches dug, gunpowder produced, and men trained to use bows. Militarization served other crucial purposes. Ex-soldiers formed one of the largest subgroups of English vagrants. Sailors were the vagrants of the sea, and were often drawn into piracy. The style of warfare most common in the sixteenth century involved attacks on nearly impregnable fortifications, and required prolonged sieges and large numbers of foot soldiers. Each time war revived, the poor were drummed back into service, becoming what one scholar has called a “reserve army of the unemployed.”22
The life of the early modern soldier was harsh and unpredictable. Disbanded troops often pillaged on their way home. In the popular literature of the day, soldiers-turned-thieves were the subjects of a number of racy accounts. John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) and others of its kind depicted the wandering poor as a vast network of predatory gangs. Ex-soldiers filled empty slots in the gangs as “uprightmen,” or bandit leaders. “Cony-catchers” literally bagged their booty. These consummate robbers had as one tool of their trade the hook, which was jammed through open windows in order to steal valuable goods. In proposing to ship “our idle soldiers” overseas, Hakluyt aimed to turn con men into actual cony-catchers, shooting rabbits to give hearty substance to the American colonists’ daily stew. In other words, sending veteran soldiers and convicts to America would reduce crime and poverty in one masterstroke.23
Whatever else their lives entailed, vagrants, children of beggars, and ex-soldiers who might be transported to the New World and transplanted onto its soil were thought to be fertilizing wasteland with their labor. Their value was calculated not in humane (or even human) terms, but as a disembodied commercial force. If that proposition seems cold and calculating, it was. In death, they were, to use the operative modern phrase, collateral damage. They had more value to the realm as dead colonists than as idle waste in England. In his grand scheme, Hakluyt imagined disciplined children of English beggars who survived in the colonies as nothing more than a future pool of soldiers and sailors.24
Planting unwanted people in American soil meant fewer temptations to take up lives of crime. Some might actually thrive in the open, vacant land of America—because surely they had no chance at all in the overpopulated labor market back home. Still, one cannot resist the conclusion that the children of the poor were regarded as recycled waste. Their destiny, once these same folk were “bred up” as soldiers and sailors, was to fill out a colonial reserve army of waste men, to be sent to die in England’s wars. Brutal exploitation was the modus operandi of the English projectors who conceived an American colonial system at the end of the sixteenth century—before there were colonies.25
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When Jamestown, the English outpost along the Chesapeake Bay, was finally founded in 1607, the hardships its settlers experienced proved the general flaw in Hakluyt’s blueprint for creating real-life colonies. Defenders of the Virginia Company of London published tracts, sermons, and firsthand accounts, all trying to explain away the many bizarre occurrences that haunted Jamestown. Social mores were nonexistent. Men defecated in public areas within the small garrison. People sat around and starved. Harsh laws were imposed: stealing vegetables and blasphemy were punishable by death. Laborers and their children were virtual commodities, effectively slaves. One man murdered his wife and then ate her.26
After the miscarriage of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke, Jamestown was christened England’s first infant child. Bidding the English patience with Jamestown, the poet John Donne sermonized in 1622, “Great Creatures lye long in the Wombe.” Jamestown’s was a slow, painful birth, attended by scant confidence in its future. That year, a lopsided Indian attack nearly wiped out the entire population.27
The pervasive traumas throughout Jamestown’s early years are legend. Before 1625, colonists dropped like flies, 80 percent of the first six thousand dying off. Several different military commanders imposed regimes of forced labor that turned the fledgling settlement into a prison camp. Men drawn to Jamestown dreamt of finding gold, which did little to inspire hard work. Not even starvation awoke them from the dream. A new group arrived in 1611, and described how their predecessors wallowed in “sluggish idlenesse” and “beastiall sloth.” Yet they fared little better.28
There were few “lusty men” in Virginia, to repeat Hakluyt’s colorful term. It remained difficult to find recruits who would go out and fell trees, build houses, improve the land, fish, and hunt wild game. The men of early Jamestown were predisposed to play cards, to trade with vile sailors, and to rape Indian women. A glassblower was sent to make colored beads—trinkets to sell to the Indians. This was Hakluyt’s idea. But where were the husbandmen needed to raise food?29
Impracticality, bad decisions, and failed recruitment strategies left the colony with too few ploughmen and husbandmen to tend the fields and feed the cattle that were being shipped from England. Jamestown lost sight of the English creed expressed in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516): that every productive society prized its tillers of the earth. More wrote that in failing to promote husbandry, “no commonwealth could hold out a year.”30
John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, took these words to heart. In 1609 he introduced the strain of tobacco from Bermuda that Virginia’s settlers succeeded with, and tobacco quickly became the new gold—the ticket to wealth. Its discovery led to a boom economy, bringing high prices for the “filthy weed.” Tobacco was at once both a boom and bane. Though it saved the colony from ruin, it stunted the economy and generated a skewed class system. The governing council jealously guarded what soon became the colony’s most precious resource: laborers. The only one of Hakluyt’s lessons to be carefully heeded was the one they applied with vengeance: exploiting a vulnerable, dependent workforce. 31
The governor and members of his governing council pleaded with the Virginia Company to send over more indentured servants and laborers, who, like slaves, were sold to the highest bidder. Indentured servants were hoarded, overworked, and their terms unfairly extended. Land was distributed unequally too, which increased the class divide. Those who settled before 1616, who had paid their own passage, were given one hundred acres; after that date, new arrivals who paid their own way received only fifty acres. More important, from 1618, those who brought over an indentured servant received an additional fifty acres. The headright system, as it was known, allotted land by counting heads. More bodies in a planter’s stable meant more land. Significantly, if a servant died on the voyage over, the owner of the indenture still secured all of his promised acreage. It paid to import laborers, dead or alive.32
Contracts of indenture were longer than servant contracts in England—four to nine years versus one to two years. According to a 1662 Virginia law, children remained servants until the age of twenty-four. Indentures were unlike wage contracts: servants were classified as chattels, as movable goods and property. Contracts could be sold, and servants were bound to move where and when their masters moved. Like furniture or livestock, they could be transferred to one’s heirs.33
The leading planters in Jamestown had no illusion that they were creating a classless society. From 1618 to 1623, a good many orphans from London were shipped to Virginia--most indentured servants who followed in their train were adolescent boys. As a small privileged group of planters acquired land, laborers, and wealth, those outside the inner circle were hard-pressed to escape their lower status. Those who did become poor tenants found that little had changed in their condition; they were often forced do the same work they had done as servants. A sizable number did not survive their years of service. Or as John Smith lamented in his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia … , “This dear bought Land with so much bloud and cost, hath onely made some few rich, and all the rest losers.”34
Among the more insidious practices in the colony, wives and children were held accountable for their husband’s or father’s indentured period of labor. After the Natives attacked in 1622, a colonist named Jane Dickenson was held by them in captivity for ten months. When she returned to Jamestown, she was told that she owed 150 pounds of tobacco to her husband’s former master. Unable to pay, she would be forced to work off her dead husband’s unmet obligations. She appealed to the governor, writing that her treatment was identical to the “slavery” she experienced among the “cruel savages.” Had English civilization been sacrificed in this colonial wasteland? That was Dickenson’s unspoken message. Nor was her treatment unusual. John Smith acknowledged in his Generall Historie that “fatherless children” were left “in little better condition than slaves, for if their Parents die in debt, their children are made bondmen till the debt be discharged.”35
The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labor in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset. It was a world not unlike the one Shakespeare depicted in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. Virginia planters felt entitled to their flesh and blood in the forms of the innocent spouses and offspring of dead servants.36
If civilization was to be firmly planted, Jamestown would have to be given the look of a normal English village, along with efforts to promote good habits among the people. The colony needed to shed its image as a penal colony and to plant firmer roots. It needed more than tobacco. It needed herds of cattle, fields of crops, and improved relations between masters and servants. Most of all, it needed many more manageable women. In 1620 the Virginia Company sent to the colony fifty-seven “young, handsome, and honestlie educated Maides.” Over the next three years, 157 more women made the crossing. They were thought of as emissaries of a new moral order. Company records hint at something else as well: the “greatest hindrances” to “Noble worke” rested on “want of comforts”; men deserved to “live contentedlie.” The transportation of female cargo would “tye and roote the Planters myndes to Virginia by the bonds of wives and children.” Sexual satisfaction and heirs to provide for would make slothful men into more productive colonists.
All that was required of the women was that they marry. Their prospective husbands were expected to buy them, that is, to defray the cost of passage and provisions. Each woman was valued at 150 pounds of tobacco, which was the same price exacted from Jane Dickenson when she eventually purchased her freedom. Not surprisingly, then, with their value calculated in tobacco, women in Virginia were treated as fertile commodities. They came with testimonials to their moral character, impressing on “industrious Planters” that they were not being sold a bad bill of goods. One particular planter wrote that an earlier shipment of females was “corrupt,” and he expected a new crop that was guaranteed healthy and favorably disposed for breeding. Accompanying the female cargo were some two hundred head of cattle, a reminder that the Virginia husbandman needed both species of breeding stock to recover his English roots.37
Despite everything, Jamestown never became a stable agrarian community. The Virginia plantation remained strangely barren during the first half of the seventeenth century. First, the anticipated harvest of the region’s natural resources did not occur. Nor did the various ranks and stations (balancing skilled laborers and manual workers) form according to plan. As late as 1663, Governor William Berkeley was still advocating for the goods Hakluyt had proposed: flax and hemp, timber and tar for ships, and exotics such as silk and olive oil. The “vicious ruinous plant of Tobacco,” as Berkeley condemned it, left Virginia without a diversified economy.38
At the heart of the Jamestown system was the indentured contract that made laborers disposable property. In so harsh an environment, survival was difficult, and the unappreciated waste people were literally worked to death. Young men and boys who came without families were the most vulnerable and most exploited of all. Unable to plant roots, many failed to produce heirs and secure the cherished English ideal of attachment to the land.
Class divisions were firmly entrenched. The ever-widening gap in land ownership elevated large planters into a small, privileged faction. At the same time, the labor system reduced servants to debt slaves, and, living so far from home, they had little recourse to demand better treatment. Isolation, then, increased the potential for abuse. The only liberty for colonial servants came with their feet—by running away. Jamestown’s founders reproduced no English villages. Instead, they fashioned a ruthless class order.
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Despite Jamestown’s intractable problems, a group of English investors and religious separatists secured a patent from the Virginia Company and set their sights on land near the mouth of the Hudson River. Whether by accident or, as some have speculated, by secret design, their first ship, the Mayflower, landed on Cape Cod, beyond the purview of the Virginia Company, in 1620. The small, struggling band lost half their number to starvation and disease during the first year. The wife of one of the leaders, William Bradford, mysteriously disappeared over the side of the Mayflower. It would be a full decade before the English settlers in Massachusetts made significant inroads in attracting new settlers to the region.39
When the mass migration of 1630 did take place, it was the well-organized John Winthrop who led a fleet of eleven ships, loaded with seven hundred passengers and livestock, and bearing a clear objective to plant a permanent community. Far more intact families migrated to the colony than had to Virginia, and a core of the settlers were Puritans who did not need the threat of a death sentence to attend church services on the Sabbath—one of the many examples of heavy-handedness practiced in the early days of Jamestown.
Land ownership was New England’s most tempting lure. During its first decade, the Bay Colony received some twenty-one thousand settlers, only about 40 percent of whom came from East Anglia and the coastal towns where a high percentage of Puritan converts lived. For every religious dissenter in the exodus of the 1630s, there was one commercially driven emigrant from London or other areas of England. The majority in these years came as extended families accompanied by their servants. And almost 60 percent of the arrivals were under the age of twenty-four—one-third of them unattached males.40
When Winthrop defended the colony, he wanted to create a religious community that would be saved from the “corrupted” bastions of learning, Oxford and Cambridge. Beyond fighting corruption and the Catholic antichrist, however, the new governor proved himself a pragmatic man. To attract settlers, he boasted that the amount of money required for purchasing a few measly acres in England translated into hundreds of acres in Massachusetts. In overpopulated Britain, he said, the land “groaneth under her inhabitants.” Nevertheless, Winthrop had no plan for redeeming all the poor, whom he referred to as the “scum of the land.” His vision of vile waste people differed little from that of the Anglican cleric Richard Hakluyt’s.41
Inequality was a given in the “Citty upon a Hill,” submission was regarded as a natural condition of humankind. In “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop declared that some were meant to rule, others to serve their betters: “God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.” Lest there be any doubt, Governor Winthrop despised democracy, which he brusquely labeled “the meanest and worst of all forms of Government.” For Puritans, the church and state worked in tandem; the coercive arm of the magistracy was meant to preserve both public order and class distinctions.42
In Puritan society, the title of “gentleman” usually applied to men with some aristocratic pedigree, though wealthy merchants who held prominent positions in the church could acquire the same designation. “Master” or “Mister” and “Mistress” were for educated professionals, clergymen, and their wives. “Goodman” attached to the honorable husbandman, who owned land but did not occupy a prominent position as magistrate or minister. New Englanders used these titles sparingly, but they were certainly conscious of them; the government they abided by, after all, imitated English county oligarchies in which the landed elite monopolized government offices.43
The Puritan elite depended on a menial labor force. At the top of the pecking order were apprentices and hired servants. Lower down were those forced into servitude because of debt or after having committed a crime, as we have seen in Virginia. Case in point: in 1633, Winthrop presided over the trial of a man accused of robbery. Upon conviction, his estate was sold and used to repay his victims. He was then bound for three years of service, and his daughter, as added collateral, bound for fourteen. This was typical. The 1648 Laws and Liberties established two classes of an even lower order who could be divested of liberty: Indians captured in “just wars,” and “strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us.” The “strangers,” in this case, were indentured servants from outside the colony as well as imported African slaves.44
For servants, seventeenth-century New Englanders relied most heavily on exploitable youth, male and female, ages ten to twenty-one. By law, single men and women were required to reside with families and submit to family government. Children were routinely “put out” to labor in the homes of neighbors and relatives. The 1642 Massachusetts General Court’s order for the proper education of children treated apprentice, servant, and child as if all were interchangeable. Parents and masters alike assumed responsibility to “breed & bring up children & apprentices in some honest Lawfull calling.” Family supervision policed those who might otherwise become “rude, stubborn & unruly.”45
Monitoring the labor of one’s own offspring became the norm, as landed families retained control over the males well into adulthood. Young men could not leave the family estate, nor escape their father’s rule, without endangering their inheritance. So family members worked long hours, as did servants of various ranks. While the extended Puritan family functioned with less recurrence to acts of ruthlessness than the system adopted during the tobacco boom in Virginia, legal and cultural practices muddied the distinction between son and servant.46
Thus the Puritan family was at no time the modern American nuclear family, or anything close. It was often composed of children of different parents, because one or another parent was likely to die young, making remarriage quite common. Winthrop fathered sixteen children with four different wives, the last of whom he married at age fifty-nine, two years before his death. Most households also contained child servants who were unrelated to the patriarch; during harvest season, hired servants were brought in as temporary workers, and poor children were purchased for longer terms as menial apprentices for domestic service or farm-work. The first slave cargo arrived in Boston in 1638. Winthrop, for his part, owned Indian slaves; his son purchased an African.47
While servants were expected to be submissive, few actually were. Numerous court cases show masters complaining of their servants’ disobedience, accompanied by charges of idleness, theft, rudeness, rebelliousness, pride, and a proclivity for running away. In 1696, the powerful minister Cotton Mather published A Good Master Well Served, which was an unambiguous attempt to regulate the Bay Colony’s disorderly servant population. Directing his words toward those who served, he insisted, “You are the Animate, Separate, Active Instruments of other men.” In language that is impossible to misunderstand, he reaffirmed, “Servants, your Tongues, your Hands, your Feet, are your Masters, and they should move according to the Will of your Masters.” Those of mean descent would learn from a sharp tongue or a ready whip that submission was expected of them.48
Puritan wariness did not end there. Among servants, and those of “meane condition” above them, were men and women of enlarged ambition who were deemed undeserving. At least according to anxious oligarchs. Puritans never opposed commerce or the acquisition of wealth, but they were clearly conflicted when it came to social mobility. The government enacted sumptuary laws, penalizing those who wore rich silks or gold buttons in an attempt to rise above their class station. Overly prosperous people aroused envy, and Puritan orthodoxy dictated against such exhibition of arrogance, pride, and insolence. In the 1592 tract On the Right, Lawful, and Holy Use of Apparel, the English Puritan clergyman William Perkins had shown how appearance demarcated one’s standing in the Great Chain of Being, God’s class hierarchy. Unsanctioned displays of finery were disruptive, an infraction on the same order as masters who treated servants too leniently. Both were perceived as early indicators of a society falling from grace.49
One had to know his or her place in Puritan Massachusetts. Church membership added a layer of privilege before the courts and elsewhere to an already hierarchical regime. Expulsion from the church carried a powerful stigma. Heretics such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer were physically banished, cut off and ostracized. Only those who begged forgiveness and humbled themselves before the dual authority of court and church returned to the community. Dyer returned unrepentant, determined to challenge the ruling order. Between 1659 and 1661, she and three other Quakers were charged with “presumptuous & incorrigible contempt” of civil authority. After trial, they were summarily hanged.50
Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated from the Boston congregation and expelled from the Bay Colony in 1638 for refusing to bend to the authority of the town fathers. She was sternly advised: “You have rather been a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer, and a Magistrate than a Subject.” Hutchinson had held religious classes in her home, and had acquired a large following. Turning the social order upside down, she had undermined the carefully orchestrated moral geography of the Puritan meetinghouse. Male dominance was unquestioned, and ranks so clearly spelled out, that no one could miss the power outlined in something so simple as a seating chart. Members and nonmembers sat apart; husbands and wives were divided; men sat on one side of the room, women on the other. Prominent men occupied the first two rows of benches: the first was reserved exclusively for magistrates, the second for the families of the minister and governor, as well as wealthy merchants. The more sons a man had, the better his pew. Age, reputation, marriage, and estate were all properly calculated before a church seat was assigned.51
Puritans were obsessed with class rank. It meant security to them, and they could not disguise the anxiety that even the thought of its disruption—or dissolution—produced. After the bloodletting of King Philip’s War (1675-76), Mary Rowlandson’s cautionary tale, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, appeared widely in print, offering up a forceful example of the role of class at a susceptible moment of rebuilding. At the outset of the war, Narragansett Indians dragged Rowlandson from her burning house in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and held her as a prisoner for eleven weeks. Her 1682 account detailed the psychological struggle she had endured as she sought to preserve her identity as a member of the English gentry after being forced into servitude by her Indian captors. As the wife of a minister and the daughter of a wealthy landowner, Rowlandson told a double story: on one level it was a journey of spiritual redemption, on another a tale of the loss of breeding, followed by the former prisoner’s restoration to her previous class rank.52
Rowlandson’s Indian mistress is the story’s villain. Weetamoo was a powerful sachem (queen) of the Pocasset Wampanoags, who had inherited her station after displaying the savvy to marry three other prominent sachems. Dressed in girdles of wampum beads, wrapped in thick petticoats, and adorned with bracelets, Weetamoo spent hours on her toilette. A “severe and proud dame,” she ordered Rowlandson around and slapped her. In Rowlandson’s eyes, her detested mistress was the Indian equivalent of the English noblewoman, a royalist of the New World who flaunted her power. Submission—the same quality Puritans demanded of their own servants—did not come easily to Rowlandson. The once-proud minister’s wife had been reduced to a lowly maidservant. In this way, she did not equate the Natives with primitive savages, as the captive Jane Dickenson did in Virginia; instead they were usurpers and posers, who grossly violated the divine order of assigned stations.53
The Puritans used family authority, reinforced by the law, to regulate their servant population. Distrustful of strangers and religious outsiders, they also granted privileges to the religious “Elect,” or those who comprised the core constituency of the church laity. Children of the Elect gained the inherited religious privilege of an easier path to church membership. Indeed, the “halfway covenant” of 1662 established a system of religious pedigree. As Cotton Mather’s long-lived father, Reverend Increase Mather, put it: God “cast the line of Election” so that it passed “through the loins of godly Parents.” Excommunication alone ended this privilege, saving the flock from a corrupt lineage. Minister Thomas Shepard agreed, projecting that a child of the Elect would be pruned, nurtured, and watered, so as to grow in grace. By this method, religious station reinforced class station. And by celebrating lineage, the visible saints became a recognizable breed.54
✵ ✵ ✵
Colonizing schemes all drew on the language of breeding. Fertility had to be monitored, literally and figuratively, under the watchful supervision of household and town fathers. This was the case in disciplining unruly children, corralling servants, and dispensing religious membership privileges to the next generation (i.e., the offspring of the godly). Good breeding practices tamed otherwise unmanageable waste, whether it was wasteland or waste people; breeding sustained the pastoral tradition already associated with the Elizabethan age, which found its best literary expression in testaments to rustic beauty and cosmic harmony.
What separated rich from poor was that the landless had nothing to pass on. They had no heirs. This was particularly true in Jamestown, where the orphans of dead servants were sold off like the possessions of a foreclosed estate. As “beggarly spawn,” the poor were detached from the land. Only proper stewards of the fertile ground deserved rights.
It was something more than a figure of speech to describe the lovely Indian princess Pocahontas, the mother of America, as a child of nature who had married into the English community. A common trope had it that English explorers “married” the land they discovered. Marriage implied custodial authority, a sovereign right to a corner of the earth. In dedicating a book to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587, Hakluyt the younger reminded his patron of the “sweet embraces” of Virginia, “that fairest of nymphs,” whom the queen had conferred upon him as his bride. The land patent was thus a marriage contract.55
Visual images likewise celebrated the fecundity of the land. In Flemish artist Jan van der Straet’s classic drawing The Discovery of America (1575), exploration was metaphorically a sexual encounter. Depicting Amerigo Vespucci’s landing in the New World, the artist has the explorer standing erect, surrounded by ships and tools of navigation, while a plump, naked Indian woman lies languidly on a hammock before him, extending her hand. English writers took up the same potent theme, claiming that the feminine figure of North America was stretching out her hand (and land) to “England onelie,” her favored suitor.56
The richest embellishment of New World fertility came from the pen of Thomas Morton, whose New English Canaan, or New Canaan, containing an abstract of New England (1637) offered humorous double entendres amid lush descriptions of the land. Historians are divided over what to make of the controversial Morton. Some reckon him a scoundrel and libertine, while others regard him as a populist critic of Governor John Winthrop and the Puritan establishment.57
He arrived in 1624, with thirty servants in tow, and set himself up on a pastoral manorial estate. From there he established an outpost to trade in furs with Native tribes. He served as a lawyer in defense of a royal patent pursued by other non-Puritan investors to the northern part of New England. But he also battled Winthrop’s Puritans, was arrested three times, had his goods confiscated and his house burned down. He was banished from the colony twice, writing New English Canaan while in exile in England, where he worked (unsuccessfully) at getting the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s patent revoked.58
His dislike of the Puritans is manifest in his observations about their use of the land. They were no better than “moles,” he wrote, blindly digging into the earth without appreciating its natural pleasures. It bothered him that the Puritans had no real interest in the Native people beyond converting them. He dismissed Winthrop and his followers as “effeminate”—as bad husbands of the land. He satirized the Puritans in New English Canaan as sexually impotent second husbands to a widowed land, which Morton (who had married a widow himself) and his business associates could rescue. They were ready to move in on the incompetent Puritans—strutting nearby, attractive and decidedly more virile lovers waiting in the wings.
Morton’s New England landscape contained “ripe grapes” supported by “lusty trees,” “dainty fine round rising hillocks,” and luscious streams that made “so sweet a murmuring noise to hear as would ever lull the senses with delightful sleep.” He connected fertility to pleasure in the prevailing medical context: women, it was said, were more likely to conceive if they experienced sexual satisfaction. Morton was so consumed with the fertility of the physical environment that he marveled at the apparent ease with which Indian women became pregnant. The region’s animals were especially generative too, with wild does bearing two or three fawns at a time. With fewer women and a shorter history, New England had produced more children than Virginia, at least according to Morton. He could not resist including in his New English Canaan the strange story of the “barren doe,” a single woman from Virginia who was unable to conceive a child until she traveled north.59
As compelling as these passages are, Morton was actually stealing from earlier accounts. Ralph Hamor had written apocryphally in 1614 that in Virginia, lions, bears, and deer usually had three or four offspring at a time. This was the fulfillment of Hakluyt’s claim that Raleigh’s bride Virginia would “bring forth new and most abundant offspring.” Others would repeat similar claims. In A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), John Lawson contended that “women long married without children in other places, have removed to Carolina and become joyful mothers.” They had an “easy Travail in their child-bearing, in which they are so happy, as seldom miscarry.” The argument went that happy, healthy European women moved closer to nature in America. Like deer in the wild, women in the New World became instinctive, docile breeders.60
Breeding had a place in more than one market. In Virginia and elsewhere in the Chesapeake region in the early seventeenth century, a gender imbalance of six to one among indentured servants gave women arriving from England an edge in the marriage exchange. Writing of Maryland in 1660, former indentured servant George Alsop claimed that women just off the boat found a host of men fighting for their attention. Females could pick and choose: even servants had a shot at marrying a well-heeled planter. Alsop called such unions “copulative marriage,” through which women sold their breeding capacity to wealthy husbands. In language that was decidedly uninhibited, he wrote that women went to “market with their virginity.” Another promoter, writing about Carolina, went so far as to say that a woman could find a husband in America no matter what she looked like. If, newly arrived, she appeared “Civil” and was “under 50 years of Age,” some man would purchase her for his wife.61
“Copulative marriage” was one option, remarriage another. Men of Jamestown found they could increase their acreage and add to the sum of laborers by marrying a widow whose husband had bequeathed land to her. In the scramble to get land and laborers during the tobacco boom, members of the council devised various means to get their hands on land—and not always ethically. One man married a woman because her first husband shared the last name of a wealthier dead man. He scammed the system by confusing the two names in order to get title to the more desirable property. Widows were obvious conduits of wealth and land, and with high mortality rates prevailing throughout the seventeenth century, those who survived rampant disease would likely have married two or three times.62
Battles over class interests, land, and widows came naturally to Virginians, and at times grew quite deadly. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was one of the greatest conflicts the colony witnessed. It pitted a stubborn governor, William Berkeley, against Nathaniel Bacon, a recent immigrant of some means but also of frustrated ambition. Historians still debate the causes of the crisis and its ultimate meaning, but there is ample evidence to show that the participants made it about class warfare. Bacon wanted Berkeley to launch attacks on a tribe of Indians who ostensibly threatened the more socially vulnerable people of Virginia’s frontier, and he made himself a leader of the disaffected. A power struggle ensued.
To the governor in Jamestown, only the meanest of men, those who had recently “crept” out of indentured servitude, could find common cause with the rebels. Berkeley dismissed Bacon as an upstart and a demagogue. Other prominent supporters of the governor called the rebels “ye scum of the country” and—here is where the language gets especially evocative—“offscourings” of society. “Offscourings” (human fecal waste) was one of the most common terms of derision for indentured servants and England’s wandering vagrants. Meanwhile, landholders who sided with Bacon were summarily dismissed as “Idle” men, whose “debauchery” and “ill husbandry” had led them into debt. The rebels were directly compared to swine rooting around in the muck.63
Slaves and servants joined Bacon’s force too, being promised their freedom after the expected showdown with Berkeley. Nothing like this had occurred in Virginia before. Slavery had been slow to take hold, with only around 150 slaves counted in 1640, and barely 1,000 out of a total population of 26,000 in 1670. Massachusetts and English possessions in the Caribbean, not Virginia, were the first colonies to codify slave law. By the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, there were some 6,000 servants in the southern colony, and roughly one-third of all freeholders, many of them former indentured servants, were barely scraping by, weighed down by debts and unfair taxes. Indeed, Governor Berkeley had thought even before Bacon’s challenge that a prospective foreign invasion or large-scale attack by Indians would automatically devolve into class warfare. The “Poor Endebted Discontented and Armed” would, he wrote, use the opportunity to “plunder the Country” and seize the property of the elite planters.64
The struggle also was concerned as well with the status of friendly Indians residing in the sprawling colony. Bacon claimed that Berkeley and the men around him were protecting their own lucrative trade with preferred tribes instead of saving frontier settlers from raids and reprisals. Taxing colonists for forts made of mud were not only useless, the rebels held, but were yet another means for Berkeley’s “Juggling Parasites” in the Assembly to increase taxes without offering meaningful protection in return. Virginians living farther from the capital (and coast) felt they were not reaping the same advantages from the land that the wealthier planters in older parts of the colony were. As one drifted west from the seat of power, class identity felt less secure.65
It is likely that a fair number among Bacon’s following wanted to push the Indians off desirable lands, or felt an impulse to lash out against them in retaliation for recent frontier attacks. There is little doubt that a sizable number of Bacon’s men were frustrated by declining tobacco prices amid an economic downturn that made it more difficult to acquire good land. Valuable acreage was hoarded by those whom one contemporary called the “Land lopers,” who bought up (or lopped off) large tracts without actually settling them. The “lopers” had inside connections to the governor. Discontent was unavoidable when men were unable to support their families on the little land they had.66
The problems faced in 1676 were not new, nor would they ever disappear from the American vocabulary of class. Distance from power intensified feelings of vulnerability or loss. Bacon died of dysentery the same year the rebellion began, and Berkeley was gratified to learn that his adversary met his maker covered in lice—a cruel commentary on the filth and disease that attached to an enemy of the ruling class. It is worth repeating that although Bacon himself was from an elite family, he consorted with the dregs of society; his lice-covered body proved he had become one of them. Some of his followers were executed, while others died in prison. Berkeley did not escape untarnished either. He was escorted by troops to England to face an official inquiry. He died in London, outlasting Bacon by only eight months.67
Nor was the power struggle confined to strong-willed men. The wives of the mutineers also assumed a prominent role in the rebellion. Elizabeth Bacon defended her husband’s actions in a letter to her sister-in-law in England, hoping to build a metropolitan defense for his frontier cause. Because she came from a prominent family, her words had weight. Other women who vocally supported the resistance were heard as well. The “news wives” told everyone within their circle that the governor planned to take everything they owned (down to their last cow or pig) if they failed to pay a new round of taxes. Beyond spreading seditious rumors of this kind, women assumed a symbolic role in the conflict. At one point, Bacon rounded up the wives of Berkeley supporters—his phalanx of “white aprons”—to guard his men while they dug trenches outside the fortified capital of Jamestown. The women were meant to represent a neutral zone (white aprons standing in for a white flag, the sign of truce). They were too valuable a resource for either side to waste.68
One of the most dramatic moments in the trial of the rebels involved Lydia Chisman. In a scene that resembled Pocahontas’s dramatic gesture (whether or not true) to save John Smith, Chisman offered up her own life for that of her husband, confessing that she had urged him to defy the governor. Her plea fell on deaf ears, and her husband, who was probably tortured, died in prison. While Berkeley damned Chisman as a whore, the female rebels were largely able to avoid the most severe penalties. In English law, the wife and children of a traitor were subject to an attainder in blood—the loss of all property and titles. But widows Bacon and Chisman were permitted to regain their estates. Both remarried, Bacon twice and Chisman once.69
How could such a catastrophe occur and yet the women evade punishment? Though Governor Berkeley had hoped to confiscate as much property as he could from the rebels, his reckless pursuit of vengeance led to his downfall. The royal commissioners, their authority reinforced by the ships and troops sent to quell the rebellion, quickly turned against the governor. They insisted that the king’s pardon was universal, they overturned many of Berkeley’s confiscations, and they called for his removal. To preserve the colony, peace and justice had to be restored. One of the ways to restore order was to show mercy to rebellious wives.70
These facts matter. Keeping the land and widows in circulation was more important to the royal commissioners than impoverishing unrepentant women. In 1690, English playwright Aphra Behn wrote a comedy based on Bacon’s Rebellion, aptly titled The Widow Ranter. The plot centers on a lowborn, promiscuous, cross-dressing, tobacco-smoking widow (she wrongly thinks smoking is a sign of good breeding) who twice marries above her station. Despite her uncouth ways, she knows her worth. As she tells a newcomer to the colony, “We rich Widdows are the best Commodity this Country affords.”71
Fertility was greatly prized in colonial America. Good male custodians were needed to husband the land’s wealth. Widows were expected to quickly remarry, so that their land did not go to waste. Some women used this practice to their advantage. Lady Frances Culpeper Stevens Berkeley Ludwell (1634-95) married three colonial governors, including William Berkeley. She bore no children and was consequently able to keep a tight rein on the proceeds of the estates she inherited. She husbanded the land instead of allowing her trio of husbands to control her. Nevertheless, Lady Berkeley was a highly controversial figure during Bacon’s Rebellion, blamed for egging on her husband and behaving as a treacherous Jezebel by sexually manipulating the much older man.72
Husbanding fertile women remained central to colonial concepts of class and property. This dictate became even more fixed as Virginians began to regulate the offspring of slave women. In a law passed in 1662, a slave was defined not only by place of origin, or as a heathen, but also for being born to an enslaved woman. In the wording of the statute, a law without any British precedent, “condition of the mother” determined whether a child was slave or free. It was Roman law that provided the basis for treating slave children as the property of masters; the English law of bastardy served as a model for children following the condition of the mother. It was the case that a slave followed the condition of the mother as far back as Saint Thomas Aquinas. The analogy Aquinas used associated the womb with the land: if a man visited the island of another man, and sowed his seed in another man’s land, the owner still had a right to the produce. The 1662 Virginia law could as easily have been based on a breeder’s model: the calves of the cow were the property of the owner, even if the male bull belonged to someone else.73
Fertility played an equally significant role in defining women’s and men’s places in society. A woman’s breeding capacity was a calculable natural resource meant to be exploited and a commodity exchanged in marriage. For slave women, fertile capacity made the womb an article of commerce and slave children chattel—movable property, like cattle. (The word “chattel” comes from the same Latin root as “cattle.”) Slave children were actually listed in the wills of planters as “breedings,” and a slave woman’s potential to breed was denoted as “future increase,” a term that applied to livestock as well.74
At the opening of the century of settlement, English philosopher Francis Bacon noted in 1605 that wives were for “generation, fruit, and comfort.” To compare a woman’s body to arable land that produced fruit made perfect sense to his readers. The act of propagation and issue encompassed children as much as calves, alike valued as the generation of good stock. Women and land were for the use and benefit of man.75
Land held power because of its extent, potential for settlement, and future increase. Knowing how to master the land’s fruitfulness was the true definition of class power. It is important that we understand Bacon’s Rebellion for what it revealed: the most promising land was never equally available to all. The “Parasites” who encircled Governor Berkeley held a decided advantage. Inherited station was mediated by political connections or the good fortune of marrying into a profitable inheritance. By 1700, indentured servants no longer had much of a chance to own land. They had to move elsewhere or become tenants. The royal surveyors made sure that large planters had first bids on new, undeveloped land, and so the larger tracts were increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Then, as more shipments of slaves arrived in the colony, these too were monopolized by the major landholding families.76
For all their talk of loving the land, Virginians were less skilled in the art of husbandry than their English counterparts. Few ploughs were used in seventeenth-century Virginia. The simple hoe was the principal tool in the raising of tobacco, an implement that demanded considerable human labor. The majority of those who landed on American shores did not live long enough to own land, let alone to master it. Slavery was thus a logical outgrowth of the colonial class system imagined by Hakluyt. It emerged from three interrelated phenomena: harsh labor conditions, the treatment of indentures as commodities, and, most of all, the deliberate choice to breed children so that they should become an exploitable pool of workers.
Waste men and waste women (and especially waste children, the adolescent boys who comprised a majority of the indentured servants) were an expendable class of laborers who made colonization possible. The so-called wasteland of colonial America might have had the makings of a New Canaan. Instead, waste people wasted away, fertilizing the soil with their labor while finding it impossible to harvest any social mobility.