Colonial Era

Why Did Feudalism Fail in the American Colonies?

Feudalism has its advantages, at least for the feudal lord, feudal merchants, feudal managers, and other allied agents. Feudalism, if understood as an economic system oriented around a specific class process, is all about indentures --- contracts of labor bondage. The feudal serf/direct producer is contracted to a specific agent, the feudal lord, to perform surplus labor, either on the feudal lord's manor or in some external worksite, which is then appropriated by the feudal lord. All of the various trappings of a specific instance of feudalism can be understood as influential upon this indenture relationship (and vice versa). In other words, the indenture relationship is constantly being pushed and pulled by the other political, economic, cultural, and environmental conditions present in the same society. If these conditions are not compatible with the continued existence of the indenture relationship, then feudalism would go into crisis, perhaps collapse altogether.

Indeed, the indenture relationship and the manorial system built up around the indenture relationship was already in a state of crisis in England at the time of the settlement of the American colonies. There has been considerable debate over time about the various changed conditions in England that sparked the crisis for feudalism, including changes in market conditions, the rise of corporatism in international trade, the colonial project itself, changes in technology, and so on. In England, the feudal lords had iniated a widespread crisis in feudalism by expelling feudal serfs from the land and converting their feudal domains into capitalist enterprises (enterprises employing "free" wage laborers). This enclosure movement simultaneously generated a widescale crisis in feudalism and provided an important condition for the growth of capitalism: the creation of a pool of individuals eager to take wage labor employment: the creation of a capitalist labor market.

Despite this top-down revolution against feudal indenture and in favor of capitalist wage labor in England, there were many attempts to transplant the indenture system to the colonies. Indeed, in some places, such as the Carolinas, the attempt was so elaborate that the aristocrats granted authority over the colonial area tried to establish the manorial system and supportive political institutions and laws.

Why didn't this attempt to create a feudal America succeed? The problem in the Americas was that the preexisting conditions were not conducive to the growth and health of feudal indenture. First of all, the environmental conditions were a problem. Land was abundant and labor scarce. It was much easier to have an enclosure movement in England that forced direct producers to choose between starvation and the wage labor market than in the Americas where it was possible to pull foot and find "free land" far from the authority of the would-be feudal lords. And speaking of this authority, the political institutions were also far weaker in reach and power in the colonies. The ability to punish (or even capture) those who had broken their indenture and fled were relatively underdeveloped.

And then there was the problem of a mixed economy: attempts to build feudalism were being undertaken in an environment rich in alternative economic relationships. Many settlers in the colonies were free to be self-employed and even many who had come under indenture contracts had graduated to self-employment. Most direct producers would prefer self-employment to either feudal indenture or capitalist wage-labor. And contact with a dramatically different society was also frequent in many of the colonial settlements. The indigenous peoples of the Americas tended to be organized around communal organization of labor and the distribution of the fruits of labor. The historical record is rich with testimonials of colonial settlers who ended up living in Native American communities and found these communities far preferable to the colonial settlements. (We will discuss this in the context of the film Little Big Man.)