Edmund Morgan
Inventing the People

The glorification of the yeoman had begun with a denigration of the peasant and carried on with a denigration of paupers and landless laborers, who spent their earnings on drink and went on relief when the jobs gave out, people whom land-owners had to support with taxes that ate away at their property. Nor did glorification of the yeoman involve much sympathy with the slaves who manned the American plantations of the South. When Thomas Jefferson talked about those who labored in the earth being the chosen people of God, he did not mean slaves. Englishmen and Americans in the eighteenth century regarded slaves, paupers, and destitute laborers as an ever-present danger to liberty as well as property. From the poor an ambitious monarch or executive might forge an army and impose a tyranny. And they were also the material out of which the new capitalists would recruit workers for their factories. If they were allowed to vote, their employers might march them to the polls to vote down the independent yeomen. The best way for the yeoman to deal with the danger was to line up behind his big neighbor, who had the experience, the resources, and the political clout to defend the land and the liberty of both of them.

In other words, the glorification of the yeoman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which seemed to elevate the ordinary man, served paradoxically as the central ideological tenet of deferential politics, (especially for the so-called country parties whether in England or America). The paradox appears only from our modern perspective. We assume too easily that popular sovereignty was the product of popular demand, a rising of the many against the few. It was not. It was a question of some of the few enlisting the many against the rest of the few. Yeomen did not declare their own independence. Their lordly neighbors declared it, in an appeal for support against those other few whom they feared and distrusted as enemies to liberty and to the security of property—against irresponsible kings, against courtiers and bankers, stockjobbers and speculators—and against that unsafe portion of the many whom they also feared and distrusted for the same reason: paupers and laborers who held no land.

In the last resort the yeomen might have to be bullied or bought, along with other voters; but just as the fictional exaltation of the king could be a means of controlling him, so the fictional exaltation of the yeomen could be a means of controlling them. Landed gentlemen, those who touted themselves as 'the country' against 'the court,' proclaimed the yeoman's independence—and claimed his vote as the proper exercise of that independence. They were the 'natural' superiors the yeoman would defer to, if his independence were not subverted by the wiles of courtiers and court politicians (even if those courtiers were themselves landed gentlemen). In their common ownership of land, yeomen and gentlemen could make common cause and join hands, in election time at least, in a curious combination of camaraderie and condescension on the part of the big men and of deference and self-respect on the part of the small.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.