It’s no secret that over the last 30 years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth, with wealth flowing from the middle-class to the richest Americans. The consolidation of wealth to the wealthiest Americans has come as the result of unfair tax and trade policies, as well as a realignment of laws from middle-class and labor friendly laws to those favoring corporate interests. In fact, historians now claim that the income inequality is greater than it has ever been in our history.
Income inequality is no news in our history – it has been a part of American society since the founding of Jamestown – but what is unique is the response of Americans to this social injustice. In the past, whenever the economic injustice even started to approach what it is now, common people had a common response. Consider this brief history…
In 1676, there was Bacon’s Rebellion. After Bacon’s “Declaration of the People” denouncing the unfair distribution of land and wages by the wealthy land owners, colonists violently rebelled. By 1660 8 families, roughly 10% of the population, owned 40% of the land, which was the only real measure of wealth at the time. (In comparison, today 10% of the wealthiest Americans control 70% of the wealth.) Land owners eventually put down the rebellion with troops, but had to reform land ownership laws and taxation. In fact from 1650 to 1689 there were at least five violent revolts by people confronted with economic disparity by governments which had “gamed” the system to support the wealthy. In 1689, there was Jacob Leisler’s “Farmer’s Revolt”; in 1713 the Boston Bread Riots; in 1730 the “Dock Square” riots in Boston to protest merchant monopolies. In the 1740s and 1750s there were dozens of local riots protesting economic injustices. For example, in 1745 a farmer named Samuel Baldwin had his land repossessed by a wealthy banker in Newark, and he was imprisoned until a riot of fellow farmers freed him.
In 1747 New Yorker Cadawaller Colden wrote an address that became the popular rallying cry for the common people, denouncing “freeholders” as wealthy tax dodgers unconcerned with the welfare of the poor.
By the 1760s, the wealthiest Americans had learned to use their wealth to control local and town hall meetings by land owners and people indebted to them. Populist discontent was tempered by a combination of small land grants and other insignificant reforms and the use of the fear of slave revolts and Indians to divert attention. What little wealth was allowed to Colonials was made to feel threatened by slaves and Indians and laws became dominated by these fears.
All of this sounds pretty familiar in today’s America, doesn’t it?