A manor is far more than just another large country estate. It’s also the birthplace of dynasties. The manor system has existed in many societies under many different names. All of them, however, have depended on the premise of an elite upper-class controlling the lion’s share of political power and natural resources while the rest of the population works on the estates owned by that upper class. The manor system’s pattern of amassed private wealth at the cost of others is partly mirrored today by the large divide in influence and income between America’s 1% and the general population. Whether one calls it a manor, a plantation, or a corporation, history suggests that a wealthy class facilitates democracy as much as it corrupts it.
History reveals that wealthy private estates in some form or another have served as the economic backbone of ancient Rome, feudal Britain, the slave-era American South, and the early stages of just about every other democratic state in history. Every civilization with agriculture and written laws has inevitably created the stability that leads to large tracts of private wealth. That wealth in many ways both helps and harms the democratic process.
The west credits ancient Greece’s Athenian assemblies of old for establishing the pillars of today’s modern democratic practices of citizen’s rights, voting, and political compromise. But in truth, that’s only half the story. Ancient Greece, and the much larger Roman Empire that followed it, operated on the premise of massive social inequality. This premise entitled only men who owned large tracts of land worked by slaves, essentially manors, with the right to vote and exercise political influence, making them the only full citizens of their society. Because most people were slaves, the overwhelming majority of the population did not have citizens’ rights.
The succeeding Roman Republic actually lost much of its democratic heritage to the people who ran the manors of its day. The Roman manor, now called a villa, but in ancient Latin called a latifundium (lets call them lats, for short), was the corporate oligarchy of its day. In the early Roman Republic, well-connected senators and military generals were granted massive estates along with a large slave-bound underclass of laborers to produce food and manufactured goods for them. Roman owners of lats had the same control of capital and natural resources that a modern day CEO or Halliburton-backed U.S. representative has today.
Rome’s early republic eventually dissolved into a universal empire due to lats gaining a disproportionate amount of power. Conquest of lands in Gaul (modern day southern France), opened up land and resources that were divvied up among a select few in the Roman world. These few were essentially Julius Caesar, a mere trust-fund baby at the time, and his military generals, who gained unprecedented amounts of resources and enslaved labor from conquered populations almost overnight. From massive estates in Gaul, and elsewhere, corruption of public institutions by private wealth, an end as much sought out by public servants as private backers, eroded the ability of public institutions to operate as intended.
Eventually, lats gained so much wealth and so much distrust of the very government that they largely ran, that wealthy land owners began raising their own private armies to defend themselves from one another. Regionalism, personal connections and family ties disfigured economic opportunity and civic concerns in the same way that they do today. But in Rome this situation blew up into the end of their democratic state. An alliance of several lat-owned private armies are what allowed Julius Caesar to eventually rise up and flip Rome’s weak republic into an authoritarian empire.
The manor system also long outlasted the Romans. The only real order in the post-Roman dark ages (aside from the Catholic Church, the pop-culture of its day) came from feudal estates, from which we derive the term ‘manor system.’ They were quite literally fortified lats, owned by the descendants of the military leaders of the many Germanic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire at the end of its days. The upper classes were known as “nobles” instead of senators or generals, and the underclass were known as “serfs” instead of slaves. Otherwise there is fundamentally no difference. The most successful of them went on to be the monarchs of Medieval Europe. Centuries on, many members of England’s nobility would go on to set up manors of their own, known as “plantations” in the American south.
The English nobles who settled America were also often second-born children (The first born inherited all of a family’s land so as to prevent estates from fragmenting among siblings). America, they thought, was a haven for them to form a stable democracy. But what they meant was a classic Greco-Roman style democracy, where the wealthy landowner was essentially king of his estate and an enslaved underclass provided all of the labor. Thomas Jefferson, an aristocrat of this era, clearly had this perception. Jefferson, a man who among many other things studied architecture, was a large influencer over why modern day Washington DC’s civic buildings are built in the Greco-Roman fashion. Jefferson also grew up on a massive estate where he could participate in government and pursue higher learning while a slave underclass served his basic daily needs.
Democracy is at some level a reflection of hierarchy. All hierarchy is victim to the tribal tendencies of human beings, who trust themselves, their families, and their immediate friends above all others. This tendency, although not all bad, is what enables and perpetuates social class, culturally divides legislatures, and gives the wealthiest citizens disproportionate amounts of influence over a government’s affairs. The manor is truly more than a big country house. It is proof that great wealth is not at odds with democracy, but enables it.