The Therapy Of Distance
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The laws of Massachusetts Bay Colony gradually gave form to the town meetings. A law of 1692 required that meetings be held annually in March and enumerated the officers to be elected. A law of 1715 required the selection of moderators, gave them the power to impose fines on those who spoke during meetings without permission, and authorized any ten or more freeholders to put items on the agenda. But as the drive for independence gathered momentum Britain’s Parliamentary Act of 1774 decreed that no town meeting should be held to discuss affairs of government without written permission from the royal governor.
The transatlantic distance had given to these transplanted Englishmen their opportunity and their need to govern themselves. The tradition of self-government that had been established in England by the weight of hundreds of years was being established in America by the force of the hundreds of miles.
What the Mayflower Compact and the town meetings did for the earliest New England settlers, the state constitutions and numerous state legislatures accomplished for later Americans spreading across the continent. Of course, the United States would have its Civil War, its war for secession. But, significantly, that war was fought between segments of the original seaboard colonies and was involved with deep moral issues and the conflict of economic interests. Of the more remote states only Utah—the Mormon community—would offer any substantial threat of secession.
In the growing United States, paradoxically, distance itself had nourished institutional safeguards against rebellion. Because the states grew in the American void, as they grew they were free to develop and had to develop their own forms of self-government. The American add-a-state plan was not confused by ancient imperial ties. The government of each new unit was shaped by and for the new settlers. The “mother country” headquartered in Washington speedily abandoned efforts to impose its will on remote parts. The main sufferers from this system were, of course, the American Indians, who were treated as mere obstacles on the landscape, to be cleared like the forests to make way for new settlers. Paradoxically, too, the American federal system, and especially the equality of states in the United States Senate, made it possible for these western “colonies” gradually to dominate the politics of the eastern seaboard “mother country.”
Just as the American remoteness dissolved the powers of the imperial bureaucrats in London over the lives of transplanted Englishmen, so too it dissolved numerous petty bureaucracies. Daily life in the English homeland was a domain of specialized monopolies. The nation labored under the burden of privileged guilds and chartered companies who had divided all the subjects’ needs into profitable satrapies.
In seventeenth-century England the command of armies had become an aristocratic monopoly. While the private soldiers tended to be the social dregs drawn from jails and taverns, the officers were usually aristocratic gentlemen who had bought or inherited their commands. This feature of European armies had certain wholesome and even pleasant consequences. It helped produce an age of limited warfare that might equally have been called an age of ceremonial warfare. Members of an international aristocracy were versed in the “rules” of war for civilized nations which were recorded in the writings of Grotius and Vattel. The conduct of battles was a real-life version of chess. “Now it is frequent,” Daniel Defoe observed in 1697, “to have armies of fifty thousand men of a side stand at bay within view of one another, and spend a whole campaign in dodging, or, as it is genteely called, observing one another, and then march off into winter quarters. The difference is in the maxims of war, which now differ as much from what they were formerly as long perukes do from piqued beards, or as the habits of the people do now from what they then were. The present maxims of war are—
And if two opposite generals nicely observe both these rules, it is impossible they should ever come to fight.” It is not so surprising then that between engagements the officers of opposing sides entertained one another with balls, concerts, and dinner parties.
In America the profession of arms was being dissolved into communities of citizen soldiers—not through force of dogma, but through force of circumstances. Firearms were a daily necessity—both for gathering food and skins and for defense against the Indians. “A well grown boy at the age of twelve or thirteen years,” a settler observed in the Valley of Virginia in the 1760’s, “was furnished with a small rifle and shot-pouch. He then became a fort soldier, and had his port-hole assigned him. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoons, soon made him expert in the use of his gun.”