Conquistadores and Cowboys:
An Occasional Discourse on the Feudal Origins of American Institutions (Part I)

1. INTRODUCTION and Prefatory Remarks A couple of years ago, Mistral accepted a commission from TDR to write an article. It was intended to be a piece on the place […]

1. INTRODUCTION and Prefatory Remarks

A couple of years ago, Mistral accepted a commission from TDR to write an article. It was intended to be a piece on the place of race within political theory at the intersection between political philosophy and practice. The resultant piece was titled ‘The ‘Good European’ versus ‘La Raza Cósmica’ ’ (which now appears as a Mistral Archive reprint on The Devil’s Review). Initially, I didn’t intend to write a response or clarification; a reference to the essay in my own news piece about the Falklands trouble in 2010 was sufficient. Now, upon re-reading the piece retrospectively (especially in light of Alfred Smith’s highly successful and much discussed article at AltRight), I have realized that it deserves both response and, moreover, an historical clarification.

So, I have decided to write an occasional essay to mark the recent re-publication of this piece.

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2. The Provenance of the Ranching Tradition

The tradition of the cowboys, often regarded as quintessentially American, was in fact a vestigial after-image of European feudalism.

One has no way of understanding the ranching tradition out of which the “cowboys” arose without understanding the system of haciendas and encomiendas and no way of understanding this system without understanding its origins in European feudalism.

Feudalism is a concrete confluence of specific material conditions. Once these conditions are in place, they are remarkably durable. Several factors enter into these material conditions may, factors which for the sake of illumination we may largely distinguish into two (albeit overlapping) groups: biological and environmental. There is also a third category, based on the interplay of the other two over time — and we may call these factors ‘historical’. In this case, the biological factors are covered by the Spanish stock which we find from the  Middle Ages to the hacienda system. The Iberian peoples (various forms of Spanish and Portuguese) at the time of the Reconquista and the discovery (and later Conquista) of the Americas were a mix of inter alia Celts, indigenous Iberians, Visigoths and various other influences (including, yes, the Moor or Berber enemy).

The system of land-owning which led to the American traditions of ranching was born in the distinctive environments of the Iberian peninsula, from the plateaus and mountains of Central Spain to the rugged landscapes outlying in all directions, for hundreds of miles. Touring through the wide open spaces of the Spanish interior, one would be forgiven for having the surreal feeling of being transported to the American Southwest. So, it is little wonder that in the United States the region most evocative of these originally Iberian (and predominantly Spanish) traditions is the Southwest itself. Quite simply, they are alike. In similar environments, the raising of the same livestock — in this case, cattle — by the same means — i.e. hacienda-style herding on horseback — will proceed in largely the same way. They present like opportunities for the organic development of like traditions. The material conditions of the Southwest seem and ramify in ways substantially the same as those of inner Iberia, albeit the American experience provided a larger canvas on which to develop these traditions and more pressing economic and demographic demands to stimulate such development.

A question of existential importance remains: Supposing these traditions are thus formed, retained and nurtured, how are they reflected in the stratification of the New World?

The Spanish caste system in the New World was an effective (and flexible) transposition of the feudal hierarchy. So, just as there were in the Mediæval Europe nobles of varying rank, along with their chivalric retainers and the serfs in the fields, there were also corresponding ranks in the Spanish New World. The difference between the hacendado and the ‘mere’ ranchero is the difference between the ricohombre and the caballero, the lord and the gentleman. This seems a slight distinction, bit it is a significant one. The point of contrast is between man who has a vast household and a network of dependents and a man of parts who ‘merely’ owns land.

Potentially, this could be comparable to the difference between an hereditary general and the gentleman, just one of many such, called to that general’s banner. It is, in some ways more clearly, an analogy (and more than simply this) to the Roman differentiation between the patron and the free-born citizen, respectively the patronus and libertus. This is, incidentally, why the Latin American landowner is also known as the patrón.

These classes are, furthermore, both distinct from the peón or serf. Still, the knight need not necessarily be noble and, as a corollary, the knightly ‘class’ as a whole is not strictly noble, albeit that its existence and functions depend upon the nobility, institutionally and infrastructurally. Traditionally, knightly service is repaid in grants of subsistence and honours; the knight still depends upon a lord. This is what gives rises to the ‘knight’s fee’. This convenient martial-logistical way of sub-dividing a noble’s land has the additional benefit of providing a practical delineation of a noble’s military might, by the ubi finitur armorum vis or limited reach of arms.

On this concrete, worldly foundation a noble’s power and status is built.

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About S. J. Irving

S. J. Irving is a writer from Scotland. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Devil's Review.