COLONIAL AGRICULTURE, INDUSTRY, AND COMMERCE
THE LAND AND THE WESTWARD MOVEMENT
=The Significance of Land Tenure.=—The way in which land may be acquired, held, divided among heirs, and bought and sold exercises a deep influence on the life and culture of a people. The feudal and aristocratic societies of Europe were founded on a system of landlordism which was characterized by two distinct features. In the first place, the land was nearly all held in great estates, each owned by a single proprietor. In the second place, every estate was kept intact under the law of primogeniture, which at the death of a lord transferred all his landed property to his eldest son. This prevented the subdivision of estates and the growth of a large body of small farmers or freeholders owning their own land. It made a form of tenantry or servitude inevitable for the mass of those who labored on the land. It also enabled the landlords to maintain themselves in power as a governing class and kept the tenants and laborers subject to their economic and political control. If land tenure was so significant in Europe, it was equally important in the development of America, where practically all the first immigrants were forced by circumstances to derive their livelihood from the soil.
=Experiments in Common Tillage.=—In the New World, with its broad extent of land awaiting the white man’s plow, it was impossible to introduce in its entirety and over the whole area the system of lords and tenants that existed across the sea. So it happened that almost every kind of experiment in land tenure, from communism to feudalism, was tried. In the early days of the Jamestown colony, the land, though owned by the London Company, was tilled in common by the settlers. No man had a separate plot of his own. The motto of the community was: “Labor and share alike.” All were supposed to work in the fields and receive an equal share of the produce. At Plymouth, the Pilgrims attempted a similar experiment, laying out the fields in common and distributing the joint produce of their labor with rough equality among the workers.
In both colonies the communistic experiments were failures. Angry at the lazy men in Jamestown who idled their time away and yet expected regular meals, Captain John Smith issued a manifesto: “Everyone that gathereth not every day as much as I do, the next day shall be set beyond the river and forever banished from the fort and live there or starve.” Even this terrible threat did not bring a change in production. Not until each man was given a plot of his own to till, not until each gathered the fruits of his own labor, did the colony prosper. In Plymouth, where the communal experiment lasted for five years, the results were similar to those in Virginia, and the system was given up for one of separate fields in which every person could “set corn for his own particular.” Some other New England towns, refusing to profit by the experience of their Plymouth neighbor, also made excursions into common ownership and labor, only to abandon the idea and go in for individual ownership of the land. “By degrees it was seen that even the Lord’s people could not carry the complicated communist legislation into perfect and wholesome practice.”