Unfettered Power in American History

There exist numerous examples of power and authority throughout American history.  Be they institutions like government in general, mega cap corporations in the business and the financial world like Amazon or Bank of America and then of course individuals themselves.  It is this latter category of individuals, in fact a very specific and unique group of individuals that I would argue wielded a level of power that was unprecedented and unrivaled in American history.

In 1860 a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War the states that would eventually leave the Union and make up the Confederate States of America were collectively the fourth richest country in the world. The large planters, those southerners that made up roughly 1% of the population were among America’s wealthiest, if not the wealthiest. Large planters were defined as those that had 1,000 or more acres under cultivation and owned at least 50 slaves. They were a unique and distinct class. At this time the South had a population of roughly 10 million in 1860; 4 million slaves and 6 million free.  75% of whites were non-slaveholding. 3% of the free population were African-Americans or free blacks.

Like the feudal Middle Ages power and status were based on land ownership.  But unlike the Middle Ages power was also based on a racially-driven system of slavery.  A system that permeated and stretched to all aspects of Southern society whether one was part of the wealthiest 1% or the 75% that did not own any slaves.  Even poor white yeomen farmers could always say to themselves no matter how bad their situation got “Well, at least I am not a slave.” Consequently, to be white in the Antebellum South was to be very fortunate, to be a white male was even more so, and to be a white male of the 1% was to be a living god.

In his book A History of the American People historian Paul Johnson makes the point that the environment that resulted from society based on slavery was in many ways anti-capitalistic; meaning it did not cultivate the energies that are necessary to maintain a thriving free enterprise system.  Slavery spurned efficiency, free-labor production, innovation and technological progress. Said Tocqueville in Democracy in America “Slavery. . .dishonors labor. It introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the power of the mind and benumbs the activity of man.”  The “Thomas Jeffersons” of the planter class that were deeply interested in nature, science, architecture and the likes were therefore the exceptions to the rule.

Life was designed instead to be easy and comfortable. And it was.  Nearly every trade or skill would have a slave assigned to it- cooking, carpentry, blacksmithing, tailoring, just to name a few.  Moreover, most of the planter class had overseers or managers that handled the day to day activities of the plantation.  These men could literally choose to do nothing and their power status would not be compromised. Remarkable really, but such was the way society was set up.  Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Carnegie certainly ascertained a tremendous amount of power however that power was not a birthright- it was in fact achieved.

Another example of unfettered power in American history was that of the Catholic parish priest during the first half of the last century.  America’s cities were growing exponentially as a result of our country’s extraordinary economic growth. Immigrants since the 1840s were coming from all over the world to America’s shores for various motivations including opportunity and to have a future.  A very large demographic were Catholic immigrants mostly from Europe.  The local church became a salvation, an oasis, a comfortable familiarity for many immigrants dealing with a total new environment and society.  The church served as gathering center for all in the community and its leader, the local priest was very influential.

Over time these immigrants of course had children and they then had children, yet the role of the local church within these communities remained powerful.  How powerful? Well consider this: even today, in 2018, Vatican City, the Papacy is an absolute monarchy. Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.  One needs to also consider that the period I am referring to was very much pre 2nd Vatican.  A time when mass was said in Latin, when weekly and even daily attendance rates at mass were significantly larger in comparison to today and modern reforms had not yet been implemented.  Priests were viewed as agents of God on earth and although canon law maintained they were fallible, in the eyes of their congregations they were very much infallible.  To challenge the authority or the opinion of a priest was akin to challenging God.

I can remember growing up in the 80s and going to a Catholic parish grammar school.  At the end of each quarter would be report card day. Four times a year.  Each student would receive their report card and it was the parish priest that handed out report cards in front of the entire class. We would all be called one by one after he did a look over.  Standing beside him in front of our peers he would give his opinion on what subjects we needed to improve upon if need be.  It was awful. I can remember even at a young age that this seemed kind of like a dry run for when you die- judgement day!  Fortunately for me I did well in school however for others I am sure it was a moment of great trepidation and anxiety.

In many ways we seem to identify this priestly power associated with the Catholic Church as something in the distant past- during the time of Medieval Europe and/or The Crusades and that is certainly true, but really one does not need to look too far back in history to showcase this power.  We are not that far removed.  And of course the exertion of such power played a very large role in the recent child abuse scandals that have plagued the Church.

American history is full of examples of unrivaled power.  But when it comes to individual power I do not think there exist two better examples.

 

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