Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862

By Jamie L. Bronstein | Go to book overview
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6
Under the Banner of Land Reform in Britain and America

It is not now difficult . . . to understand the extraordinary appeal which the Land Plan had for working people. Far from being an alien imposition upon the labouring masses, it evoked a direct and striking response from them. This was what they wanted: an escape from dependence upon wage labour, or, as in the case of the semi- independent domestic workers, to avoid encroaching proletarianization. The varied occupational background of the allottees is evidence of how widely diffused was the passionate desire to be liberated from the grim industrial society that was closing around them. 1

While land-reform leaders operating within the Anglo- American tradition imagined and pursued the appeal of the land in similar ways, those who answered this appeal in Britain and the United States came from substantially different backgrounds. In the United States, as this chapter will show, tens of thousands of men would respond to the call of National Reform, affixing their signatures to petitions requesting either free homesteads or the exemption of the homestead from debt. From the industrializing areas of Massachusetts to the Fourierite settlements of Wisconsin, influenced by National Reform arguments as propagated through labor newspapers and lecturers, workingmen of varied occupations came to believe in and support the idea that land could and should be a "safety valve" for American labor. Land reformers were factory workers and farmers, artisans, and reformers--the names they signed to homestead petitions provide a footprint which we can trace, to add them to the historical record as individuals. The average land reformer was an archetype of antebellum Northern man--an established, married artisan, usually lacking much property, and often a proponent of other reform issues or agendas.

In contrast with the American case, about one-quarter of Chart

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