Feudalism in the USA

stephen-van-rensselaer
Stephen Van Rensselaer III – the last patroon in an American feudal dynasty. Died 1839.

Many writers and commentators of the present day have often remarked that America is moving ever closer to that distant and extinct mode of society, feudalism.  In this hierarchy, power is derived from the owning of property, particularly land, on which the masses must toil and eek out an existence as vassals, in exchange for protection from the land-holding lord.  The feudal lord had absolute dominion over the land and his tenants, creating the laws, exacting tribute, marshaling a police force, and dispensing justice.

While the exact functions of the system 600 years ago are a bit outdated, the general concept can still be readily applied.  The exploited masses woefully indebted, and laboring for a mere subsistence as slaves to a small group of wealthy elite, may sound shocking. Yet it is a pattern perhaps, that some in our society are beginning to see.  It has been termed in the alternative media as neo-feudalism, a more recent incarnation of the old system.

But just how distant a relic was feudalism?  If you have been following our podcast series on the History of Americas 1%, then you will know that land lords with feudal rights colonized America, particularly in New Netherlands (which eventually became New York).  In Parts 1, 2, & 3, we touched on many of the old landed aristocrats, one of the foremost being the Van Rensselaer estate, which comprised a large chunk of New York. These feudal lords remained intrenched there, exacting a ferocious and arbitrary rule over their territory.  However, with the American Revolution came sweeping changes of freedom and manhood suffrage and wiped out the old feudal conditions.  Or did it?

Seating chart at the 1846 New York Constitutional Convention.
Seating chart at the 1846 New York Constitutional Convention.

Here we will let muckraking author and historian, Gus Myers take over the story and present a chapter in history that has oh-so-conveniently been wiped from the pages of mainstream books.  Reading from Volume I, Part II Chapter I of History of the Great American Fortunes, Gus Myers writes of the agitation sweeping across the country for the abolishment of anachronistic feudal lords in America, around the middle of the 19th century:

Affrighted at the omnious unrest of a large part of the people and hoping to stem it, the New York Constitutional Convention in 1846 adopted a Constitutional inhibition on all feudal tenures, an inhibition so drafted that no legislature could pass a law contravening it.

Of course a constitutional amendment, does not directly imply a continuing state of feudalism in America.  Perhaps it was just a mere formality, or a political mollification for the unruly masses?  The impeccable research of Gus Myers quickly dispels these notions (emphasis added):

The debates in this convention showed that the feudal conditions described in this chapter prevailed down to 1846. — New York Constitution; Debates in Convention, 1846; 1052-1056.  This is an extract from the official convention report : “Mr. Jordan [a delegate] said that it was from such things that relief was asked: which although the moral sense of the community will not admit to be enforced, are still actually in existence.”

Yes you read that correctly, feudal conditions existing in America in 1846.  Only 20 years prior to the Civil War, when this country allegedly threw off the chains of slavery, it had barely even removed the yoke of feudalism.  The primary documents are included below with no further comment.  For more information on the feudal conditions alluded to in these exerpts, see our podcast History of Americas 1% – Episode #6, or check out Gustavus Myers excellent work, History of Great American Fortunes, which is available online for free in ebook format.

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