"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 6, 2023

The Myth Of Income Inequality - Wealth, Fortune, Privilege And The Legacy Of The Salem Witch Trials

Harrington Potter came from one of the most storied families in Boston.  His ancestors were among the first to arrive in America and found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, first to travel with John Davenport to New Haven and establish a religious colony to rival that of the Boston Puritans, and first to assure his economic and spiritual legacy to New Jersey and beyond. 


The Potters were not just evangelists, but hardnosed businessmen.  While New Haven offered the opportunity to begin again - to establish an originalist, pure Calvinism; a spiritual enterprise which had lost its discipline energy because of the entrepreneurial energy and economic enthusiasm of the new Americans who looked first to wealth and second only to God.

The Davenport expedition was inspired by the penitential but necessary lessons of Salem many of whom were their direct ancestors who hoped to restore Calvinism to its fundamentalist origins.  Davenport and Potter who were both radically conservative Calvinists and economic entrepreneurs, felt they could found a new colony based on these originalist religious tenets and a bold new economic  enthusiasm and vitality. 


As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote much later in his Charter House preface to The Scarlet Letter, Salem's religious extremism although responsible for a certain deformation of religious sentiment, let alone the burning at the stake of reprobate women, was noteworthy for its originalist Puritanism - an unshakeable belief in God and individual liberty.  Hawthorne was never shy in expressing his gratitude to the Puritans for their early political struggle for liberty; and near the end of the novel he makes clear his admiration for the first Puritan rulers who were elevated to power by the early choice of the people, and had fortitude and self-reliance.  

They demanded liberty of conscience and freedom from their British rulers.  Perhaps most importantly, the sole purpose of their severe rule as to control the behavior of man at all times.  Crime and punishment in a Puritan society, law and religion were closely entwined and almost identical. 

The New Haven plantations would be as strict as those of Salem, and only the first such religious-economic settlements. Potter and Davenport had no idea of the immeasurable vastness of the New World to which they had come; but with the spirit, energy, optimism, and enterprise derived from their oppressed English ancestors, their  economic adventurism, reactionary faith, and belief in their moral righteousness were to be the elements of American exceptionalism. 

Along the way, and part of the expansionist zeal of the breakaway Bay Colony rebels, was making money; and first come, first served helpings to the natural resources, felicitous climate, and geographical advantage of the new American lands were theirs; and it was not long that the early New England colonies prospered and families like the Potters made millions from the Three Cornered Trade, burgeoning small industry, logging, and whaling. 

It is surprising that in this new, polyvalent, diverse land that the Potters could have remained intact and preserved their wealth and privilege; but there was a fierce pride in the family.  Wives and husbands would be thoroughly vetted, no suitor would escape the defiant scrutiny of Ezra, Isaiah, Henry, and Jedediah Potter; and the wealth of the family accumulated and was passed down in airtight trusts. 

 Black sheep were dealt with; romanticism, always a strain of American idealism, was squelched and dismissed.  The dalliance with Emerson and Transcendentalism and the Utopian colonies of New York were given short shrift; and the Potter family remained secure in its stolid faith in God and opportunity. 

Harrison Potter, the latest in the line of the Potter family and up to the challenge of moral rectitude and fierce economic ambition made his fortune thanks to Calvinist discipline and family legacy.  The Potters, true to their religious roots and imbued with the spirit of economic vitality and purpose, saw the accumulation of wealth as both an expression of their faith and their proud Americanism.  There was never a twinge of guilt or remorse over the great disparity between their wealth and that of other Americans.  Their way was the model of the new American ethos, to be admired, emulated, and followed. 

The Potters did exceptionally well during the Robber Baron era of the early Twentieth Century.  While the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts were, compared to the history of their family nouveau riche, and their predatory, all consuming economic passion was considered a bit off-putting; they were the new wave of American enterprise.  The Potters would be partners with these industrialists and would profit from their crassly opportunistic way of doing business while retaining the rectitude and  good taste that had characterized them since Plymouth. 

The rest of the century went well for the Potters who became well-known on Wall Street for their canny instincts and a propriety which protected them from government inquisition.  They made hundreds of millions invested wisely, never crudely - offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, and the later stock swaps and creative bundling were never for them.  There was plenty of money to be made without these questionable financial products. 

The Potters needed more than the usual unsuspecting cover during the Roosevelt years, the first concerted attempt to derail American economic enterprise, to create big government, and engineered social reform; but there was money to be made from FDR's generous financing of infrastructure.  If he and his advisors chose to upend the great American economic juggernaut because of a painful discombobulation only needing correction, the Potters would profit.  

The Potters were not politicians nor political philosophers.  They saw what Roosevelt's ambitions would do to America, but as always they chose to keep a low profile.  With discipline, insight, creativity, and ambition money could be made regardless of the political complexion of the time. 

The current time of neo-progressivism was a particularly upsetting time for Harrington Potter who could not believe nor understand its political hysteria.  The case against socialism was closed, the history of privately negotiated and contracted enterprise valid and operational since cowrie beads and barter clear and unchallenged, and the evidence of a self-interested human nature undisputed; so why the fol-de-rol? Why the sudden rise in the valuation of Utopia and 'a better world'? How anti-historical and counter-intuitive.  

Perhaps the most illogical and hopelessly idealist notion of all was that of income equality - the idea that wealth should be distributed to assure one and only one economic stratum.  The poor, regardless of ability, ambition, or talent, should benefit directly from the enterprise of the wealthy.  Economists know that the poor always benefit indirectly from the generation of wealth by the top one percent who do not keep their money under the mattress but invest it in economic productivity which requires labor; but the progressive agenda requires financial transfer, direct unearned emoluments, universal welfare. 

The screw would turn, America would right itself, and the fantasies and childhood fairy tales of progressive idealists would soon disappear; but until then, it was not for Harrington Potter to fuss.  There was money to be made, good, honest, morally correct investments in the brave new world of the future.  

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