How to Destroy the Meaning of a Word
by Ben Stone
(audio article below)
For anyone who has spent very much time investigating the nature and habits of the State, one thing should stand out; the State seems to be fascinated with distorting the meaning of words and phrases. Particularly those words or phrases that the State deems dangerous or against its interests. An example of this would be “social security”. Prior to the 1930’s, if you said someone was “socially secure” it was an indication that they possessed “independent wealth” or at least the ability to produce wealth without depending on others. Someone would be considered socially secure if they had inherited a large sum of money or even if they owned stock in a mine that was consistently producing. Or social security could be a description of a person who had a major stake in a general store that produced a steady profit. However used, it inferred financial independence. Of course this is a direct threat to the State so for all those of us who grew up after the 1930’s Social Security means dependence on the government dole and a paltry income barely at the poverty level. In other words, it used to mean the State couldn’t control you, now it means the State owns you.
The word “homestead” has suffered a similar fate. John Locke used the word to describe the act of taking unowned or raw property and utilizing it in a productive manner thereby establishing ownership of said property. So then, if you found land that no one had ownership of, and you cleared it and planted a garden or an orchard, you homesteaded that land. This definition immediately rang true and obvious to the honest thinker, but it cast doubt upon the legitimacy of land claims on far away continents by kings who had never visited them. The State couldn’t stand by and allow this message to catch on, so it sprang into action to both embrace and pervert the word. Within a few short years, the simple act of surveying land became acceptable to the State to claim utilization of land and thereby ownership. But before that happened some half a million Ulster Scots and displaced Presbyterians from Scotland and the English border moved into the no-man land of Appalachia, built cabins and barns, planted fields, and scratched out a mark of ownership on land no one else was suited to tame.
This would be a good point in our narrative to introduce an opportunistic young man who’s father died when he was only eleven, leaving him to be raised on his brother’s inherited farm in the shadow of the powerful Thomas Fairfax (so called-Lord Fairfax) estate. I can’t help but think that much of young George Washington’s drive for glory came from being the second rate half brother gazing across a fence at the estate of one of the most powerful families in Virginia. As a young man, George found he could make a good living using his talent as a surveyor for the Fairfax family. Being a talented surveyor in those days meant having the opportunity to influence how raw property was divided among the richest families in Virginia. This often resulted in the surveyor being privy to information about available land in desirable locations ripe for “homesteading”. Our ambitious George eventually acquired something in excess of 52,000 acres as a result of his talent as a surveyor. And today, far more Americans recognize the name Washington as belonging to a man and Fairfax as a place.
In the years following the French and Indian war, wealthy and well connected gentlemen began the practice of surveying occupied land and then claiming ownership of that land by the king’s proclamation. Very quickly this small group of “land speculators” and gentry swallowed up the prime land east of the Appalachian Mountains while the rightful occupants were told they would have to pay a yearly quitrent to stay on their own farms. It’s unclear how much young George utilized this easy path to a steady income, as his portfolio of land ownership blossomed. But as good properties became more scarce, George and his fellow speculators began attempting to bring their version of land management into Appalachia and beyond to the rich Ohio Valley. The problem was that the Scotch-Irish occupants of Appalachia had played this game before in Ulster and even before that on the English/Scotch border, and they were determined to win this time around.
Even though Washington didn’t realize it then, the king of England may well have saved George’s life with The Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbid land grabs west of the Allegheny Mountains. Between the nasty Hillbillies with their fancy Kentucky rifles, cutting edge technology of the day, and the king’s refusal to acknowledge the land titles, Washington was forced to change his business model. Very quickly the clever young man figured out a new scheme. The way he saw it, eventually the king’s proclamation would either be lifted or would have no force behind it. Perhaps George could see the change coming or perhaps he just knew that kings are temperamental and rarely hold to one view. Either way, George decided that the more of the Ohio Valley he could survey the better he would be when the proclamation fell away.
In 1767 George sent a letter to his partner William Crawford in regards to a land surveying scheme in Ohio, that read in part, “All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game, which you may, I presume, effectually do, at the same time you are in pursuit of land. When this is fully discovered advise me of it, and if there appears a possibility of succeeding, I will have the land surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to time and my own assiduity.” So Washington twisted the rules of not only homesteading, but of the existing State.
Just so I’m not accused of picking on Washington, a few years later, once Thomas Jefferson was president of the fledgling United States, a deal was struck to fund the cash desperate Napoleon by the sale of the so called Louisiana Territory. There was a catch with this priced-too-good-to-be-true deal. Almost forgotten now, the borders of the Louisiana Purchase were anything but agreed upon. Spain had a much older claim for much of the land and England and Russia both had a better claim to some of it than France. So the Louisiana Purchase didn’t secure the ownership of the land in the eyes of many Americans and certainly not in the eyes of the British, Spanish, and Russians, or the French living in North America. The raw land was still up for grabs until surveyed. Jefferson desperately scrambled to secure the “rightful ownership” as quickly as possible by sending a troop of semi-military surveyors, explorers, and amateur naturalists across the purchased land and well beyond to the Pacific Ocean.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition did two things: it claimed the land for the US Federal Government and it grabbed the land not included in the Louisiana Purchase, west of Great Falls and Three Forks. This action presents the observer of the State an interesting phenomenon. The State, without the luxury of an actual monarch, claimed to own land by way of homesteading. In the past it could be argued that the State owned property because the monarch was a specific person who was the Head of State. But with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a non-person was attempting to claim ownership of land. This is a radical departure from Locke’s original definition of homesteading. Not only have we abandoned the practice of improving the land and transforming it for production, now we have land being “owned” by a non-human entity. If a king’s claim on land he had never visited seemed weak, how strong is the argument that an entity that exists only in our imagination, can somehow own land?
At the time the average American failed to notice the significance of the event. There was still plenty of land available because the Federal Government was only actually claiming exclusive ownership of the land its agents had specifically surveyed. Therefore the bulk of the West was still open for homesteading. It’s true, Washington DC was sending out teams of surveyors who were scooping up all the best land as fast as possible, but the country was so big that it wasn’t hard to find a good plot where the surveyors hadn’t trod. So waves of pioneers expressed independence in its purest form. Free of taxes, regulations, and silly laws Americans made a new society without anyone’s permission. Homesteading became a threat to the dominance of the State yet again.
As anyone familiar with the nature of the State knows, independence is the eternal enemy of tyranny, so something had to be done to stop these wild pioneers. The Preemption Act of 1841 fit the bill nicely. On its surface it appeared to be a way pioneers could homestead land already owned by the State, but in reality it was simply a step on the path of destroying homesteading. This is a typical trick of the State. First forbid something, and then when enough of a fuss is made, allow the thing under conditions guaranteed to strengthen the position of the State. So from 1841 until 1862 a convoluted version of Locke’s vision was officially legal. Then the “Homestead Act” along with eminent domain became a direct tool of the federal government to reward its big money banking, lumber, and railroad supporters while punishing any individual who stood in the path of State dominance.
One would think that homesteading on State land with State permission is as far removed from Locke’s original concept as the word could possibly be twisted to mean. No so. Today, cities and counties are offering discounts on quitrent (now called property tax) through something they call a “homestead” classification. Favored voting blocks of homeowners, generally retirees on Social Security, are offered tax advantages and sometimes lowered utility bills in return for supporting higher taxes and school levies on working home owners and renters.
The State is downright amazing. It’s able to take “homesteading” and turn it into a way to extract quitrent. You have to appreciate an enemy with that kind of audacity.