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The American Poor as a Buffer
Musings on Hierarchy and Humanity Part 2 of 3: 3/27/22
Oakland, California, Waterfront Hotel
“I read mostly lefty history, like A People’s History of the United States by [name forgotten by author]. For instance, he states that in Early America—and he does recognize white slavery—that the elites used The Poor as a buffer against the Indians.”
-Vaxx Zombie DeGaulle, 3/26/22
The poor were rarely used as a buffer against the tribes. [1] Of course, in the American view, we forget the poor utterly, and speak of the middle class as the poor. When referring to medieval history, we will discuss peasants as the poor, when they were the equal of today’s upper middle class and held slaves themselves. This might be because the poor have never had the ability to rise and organize, what with the boot of hierarchy firmly upon their dirty necks.
What revolts there were in the late medieval and early modern period were by the peasant class in the main. Wat Tyler was a peasant in the late 1300s, not a poor man by the standard of the age. In the 1540s, the peasant revolt, was in part an ethnic revolt of propertied Cornish Middle Class men. The Acts of Enclosure that in part sparked this last gasp of the peasantry in England, was itself largely caused by the rise of a portion of the peasant class to new nobility. How they achieved this, along with the nobility, was to arm their slaves and drive the poorer peasants who did not have slaves from the “Commons” and enclose those lands.
The above is the exact means by which the enslaved poor were used in Anglo North America against the free poor [vagabonds, rogues, hillbillies runagates and squatters] and against the tribes, who included increased numbers of the free poor among their members as adopted tribal individuals. The most obvious means was substitution for military service, by which a man who owned a man who was called to militia duty might have his slave take his place in the ranks. This slave had no stakes in the fight and would be disarmed and returned to bondage, often without credit for time served in the ranks against that served in the fields. If such a man ran away or “deserted” men like George Washington and Anthony Wayne would have him shot.
From the earliest times in Anglo America, it was the Indians who were the buffer—and exterior pressure buffer, a seal—between the enslaved poor and freedom. Tribes operated as slave catchers from the earliest dates, in times predating settlement, when chiefs returned runaway sailors [all of whom were slaves] to their master, the ship’s captain. Lord Calvert, Governor of Maryland paid tribes in powder, shot, muskets and even canon for returned slaves [circa 1660] and also paid in English slaves for hides and furs in about [1670]. These facts inform the reader that the tribes were in the habit of keeping some of the runaways to replace disease and war losses. [2]
When Bacon’s Rebellion was fought in the 1670s, one of the gripes on the part of rising freemen [recently free poor with no vote or property] was that the tribes could bear arms and they could not. 110 years later, when Merryweather Lewis served during the Whiskey Rebellion, warriors of the Shawnee Nation, who were a consistent war foe of Americans, were paid $20 a scalp for any men they caught deserting from the ranks. [3] Even in the 1780s and 90s Indians were used as a pressure seal against the poor.
But the American Elite openly declared that the indigenous tribes and poor squatters must all be driven from any valuable land and that the ability of tribes and working men to organize must be crushed.
But there were not enough of these tribes men and in the main, the poor yearned to join the tribes and swell their ranks. This is best illustrated by the 1763 fiasco in which the “captives” held by the Indians from the french and Indian War, had to be forcebly returned by military decree and ran away back to the tribes. This event was a major cause of Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1765, as the resolution of the war had broken up tribal families formed during the war.
A generation later, the largest defeat suffered by the U.S. Government was at the hands of Turtle, in which 800 men [almost all poor conscripts forced into the ranks and 200 camp followers, all poor hookers and laundresses] were slain in an afternoon. Thus the deaths of these poor bastards and whores herded into danger, was used to claim that the body politic had been attacked, when simply the equivalent of barbershop hair clippings had been swept away by the defending tribes.
The above, indeed, is a case in which the poor were used as not a buffer as some historians suggest, but as a touch stone against the tribes. Poor people running away from the plantation system in the east were encroaching on tribal lands and other poor who had joined the tribes during war when their masters’ plantations had been burned, were forced back into bondage. The U.S. government desperately needed to form an army for protection against its poor and for acquisition of tribal lands that could be sold, not to the poor, but to the avaricious middle class. When the poor managed to go into debt to live on such land, they would often be pushed further west by the government and its laws and the middle class as well as the plantation aristocracy and its African slaves.
Period documents show that British and later American officials and the ruling class hated the poor of Appalachia, who were derided in terms bracketed above, now generally limited to hillbilly, white trash and trailer trash. Rather than being regarded as a buffer against the tribes, the American poor were seen as a nuisance, that could prevent engagement in treaties written to be broken and orally misrepresented to the tribes, by their very presence. The unique aspect of American poor, is that their very existence outside of the plantation system suggested, and often did indicate, a rejection of that system, where in Europe the poor were typically the worst off and least organized. In Europe, the poor were a natural bond outcome of the systemic exploitation of humans. In America, with its wild tribal frontier, the unbound poor ranked as an affront to Government and would be pursued across the continent. [4]
Footnotes appended to Part 2.5.
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