To Give Voice

I wish to continue my thoughts from Outpost of Humanity. I didn’t explicitly state the inspiration of that post. It formed out of my response to a comment at another post, The Stories We Tell.

That comment was odd. The person who wrote it mixed praise with criticism, a backhanded slap. Looking at it again, I still don’t get the point of it. I already responded to it with several thorough comments. But I wanted to emphasize a central point that brings it back to where my mind is at the moment.

I’ve been in a process of rethinking my life, both in terms of how I spend my time and how I view the world. I wonder about what useful role I can play or simply what is of genuine value to me. I don’t mind criticisms, as I’m perfectly capable of criticizing myself. And I can promise you that my self-criticisms will be far more scathing than anything offered by anyone else.

The funny thing is that this particular critic was attacking me based on my previous admissions about depression, as if that disqualified my opinion as having any validity. I’m fairly open about my personal problems and some people see this as a weakness, a chink in the armor. They don’t understand that I’ve never thought of honesty as a weakness; if anything, a strength. I don’t hide who I am.

I find it telling that this particular critic was writing under a pseudonym. It’s easy to attack others hidden behind a computer screen and anonymity. I’ve had trolls threaten me, even my family, telling me that they knew where I lived. My response was to tell them to come right on over and I’ll invite them in to chat over beer or coffee. That tends to make trolls go away, the threat of meeting in person.

We live in a dysfunctional society. To live in such a society is to be part of that dysfunction. Depression and other mental conditions might not be common in some other societies, but it is common in this one, effecting even the successful and the supposedly well-adjusted. There are many things that make me abnormal. Depression, however, is not one of them. If you’re looking for a reason to dismiss me, look elsewhere and be more thoughtful about it.

In my response to this particular critic, I pointed out that many of the most influential people throughout history were seen as problematic by the defenders of the status quo. They were called malcontents, rabblerousers, troublemakers, blasphemers, and worse. The personal character, lifestyle, etc were often targeted. These people were deemed a threat to society and treated accordingly, victimized in numerous ways: ridiculed, fired, fined, ostracized, banished, imprisoned, tortured, attacked by mobs, and sometimes killed.

This is true for religious prophets such as Jesus to political revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine. I might note that both of these men, when they attracted the attention of the powerful, lacked worldly success or even employment. Each of them spent time wandering homeless and ended their lives as poor bachelors with few loyal friends remaining. They were hated and despised, and for that very reason they also inspired. Yet upon their deaths, they were forgotten by society until later generations resurrected their deeds and brought them back into public memory.

There is another aspect to this. Consider either of these figures. If Jesus had remained a carpenter or found some other kind of respectable work, if he had been successful in his career and was a good citizen, if he had married and raised a family, would that have been a better use of his life? If Paine had continued his father’s trade as corsetmaker, if his first wife and child hadn’t died and his second marriage hadn’t ended, if he hadn’t lost his civil servant job for the sake of a petition to the government, if he hadn’t become a privateer that paid for his educating himself (mainly buying books to read), if he hadn’t known poverty and desperation before meeting Benjamin Franklin, would he have been a better person and the world a better place?

Let me focus on Paine. He lived a rough life. By the standards of his society, his life kept ending up in failure. He found himself in middle age with no prospects or hope, his only merits having been his intelligence and self-education. He had no way of proving his worth to others. Like Jesus, he had given up the trade he was taught when younger. And now he had nothing. When Franklin first saw him, he was probably dirty and smelly, likely with rotten teeth. He was a poor nobody. That didn’t stop Franklin, also of a working class background, from seeing the potential in Paine. Following Franklin’s advice, he headed to America where he was carried ashore sick and close to death.

It was precisely Paine’s rough life that gave him insight and perspective. He saw the world for what it was. And with his own understanding, he sensed other possibilities. But why should anyone have listened to him? He came to the American colonies, upon Franklin’s invitation. He found employment at a printing press where he began his serious writing career. All he knew to do was write what was in him to write. He had no college degree or anything else to demonstrate his opinion was any more meaningful than anyone else’s. If anything, his uncouth ways, bad attitude and drinking habits led people to dismiss him. Yet most of those who dismissed him are now forgotten to history.

Paine was not well-adjusted to the society he found himself in. He knew that as well as anyone else. But why should he shut up simply because some others found him disagreeable? He had the audacity to suggest that maybe the problem was in society and not to be blamed on the victims of society. In a perfect world, his life would have turned out better. Becoming a pamphleteer and then revolutionary wasn’t his first choice of professions nor his second, third and forth choice.

No one knows for certain what their life will become. And no one knows how they will be remembered later on or even if they will be remembered at all. We each have potential within us and most of that potential will remain hidden. We don’t know what we’re capable of, until the conditions bring out what before we didn’t realize existed within us. Everyone is trying the best that they can, in the situation they find themselves. There are probably millions of people in the world right now with talents equal to or greater than that of Thomas Paine, but few of them will ever get the opportunity to develop their potential even slightly. Paine was lucky to find someone like Benjamin Franklin who helped him out of a tough spot for, otherwise, Paine would likely have died forgotten like so many others.

We are products of our environments, the results of luck, good or bad. Life is crap shoot. None of us chooses how and where we were born and under what circumstances. We are all forced to take life as it comes. Our place and time either amplifies or mutes our possibilities, opens or closes doors, clears or blocks our path. An individual of average intelligence and ability might do great things because of her situation, as her particular set of potentials happen to be what was precisely needed in that context to take advantage of it or solve a problem. But an individual of immense intelligence and ability might do nothing at all, no matter how hard they try, if she happened to be born in unfortunate conditions such as having been a peasant in a feudal society or a housewife in early 20th century America.

Sometimes it is the failures of society, the least well-adjusted who have the most understanding. They are those who have struggled the most and have seen the underbelly of society. This often gives probing insight and unique perspective. This is because those low in society tend to give more thought to those above than the other way around. Privilege and comfort can lead to thoughtlessness and complacency, none of which is conducive to depth of understanding. It was the lowly position of the likes of Jesus and Paine that allowed them to so powerfully criticize the social order. The clearest vantage point is from the bottom.

Even so, none of us can escape the limitations of where we find ourselves, no matter how clearly we see those limitations. Jesus was an axial age prophet. He was one of many teachers, philosophers, and leaders who arose over a period of centuries. It was a point of transition and transformation. That is what those axial age prophets gave voice to. Still, for all their insight and vision, none of them could foresee the long term consequences of the new social world that was coming into being. And none of them could know what part they might or might not play beyond their own lifetime.

Consider Jesus again. Assuming he actually existed, he was just some guy wandering about and preaching, no different than thousands of others doing the same in the area, thousands of others claiming to speak for God, to be divine saviors, or even to be godmen. Even his name, Jesus, and appellation, Christ, were common at the time—and so he quite likely wasn’t even the only Jesus Christ in the first century. There was nothing that made him stand out from the crowd, not his telling parables nor his miracles/magic-tricks. Then he was crucified, no more special than a common criminal.

Upon his death, his prophecies didn’t come true and people almost two thousand years later are still waiting. There is no evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a religious movement, much less found a new religion. It wasn’t Jesus but later generations of Christians who built up his reputation. In his lifetime, he was almost entirely unknown, the Romans apparently not noticing his existence as he was never recorded in any official records and not written about even by the most famous Jewish historian of the time. The stories about him weren’t put down on paper until generations after his supposed death.

So, why do so many people care about and feel inspired by a poor homeless guy in the ancient world who liked to tell stories while hanging out with the trash of Roman society such as prostitutes, unemployed fishermen, the sickly, etc? According to both Jewish and Roman social norms, Jesus was an utter failure and a clear example of how not to live one’s life. As such, what did he accomplish that makes him so important? He did one thing and did it well, and the other axial age prophets did the same thing. What he was able to do was simply express a new vision and, by doing this, helped people understand the significance of the changes in society and worldview. No matter how simple, it was powerful. The axial age prophets helped transform all of civilization.

Those changes followed after the collapse of the late bronze age civilizations. There was a thousand years of social chaos and reordering before stability began to fully set in again. The axial age prophets heralded in the new age. But at any given moment in that transition, during any particular generation, the larger view would have been impossible to see, as we can with the benefit of historical and archaeological hindsight. Even today, we still don’t know the full consequences of those changes. Those like Paine were struggling with the new order continually evolving. From the end of bicameralism to the rise of modernity, individuality has been taking hold and taking different forms.

It makes one wonder how far that individualism can be pushed before finally breaking. The bicameral societies, some argue, were the victims of their own success. They developed into such immense and complicated civilizations that bicameralism could no longer operate and maintain social order. What if we are now coming to the point where we too will become the victims of our own success? Who are the prophets of our age standing outside the system? Will many people alive right now listen to them or will they only be taken seriously later on by future generations, after the changes have already occurred? Will the prophets of the present be dismissed and ignored as were the prophets of the past?

I would point out that most prophets likely never think of themselves as prophets. They are simply people living their lives. Finding themselves amidst greater events, they try to make sense of it all. And in doing so, they give voice to what so many others are feeling. The prophets of our age are at this very moment unknown, to be found as homeless beggars, low-level workers, college dropouts, and in so many other places. One is unlikely to come across them among the successful and well-adjusted. Some, God forbid!, might be suffering from depression. Oh the horror!

The prophets of the present probably wouldn’t even recognize themselves as such. Only a crazy person or religious nut would think of themselves as a prophet these days (or even during the era of Paine’s lifetime). Having spent their lives being told they are worthless, their main struggle could be in taking themselves seriously and in sensing their own potential. Most people who have something worthy to say never get the chance to be heard, amidst all the noise. The fact of the matter is none of us can ultimately judge the value of our own understandings. History, as always, will be the judge. All that we can do is speak our truth as best we can.

Anyway, a prophet in this sense isn’t necessarily an individual who says something unique and original, but someone who simply speaks what others are afraid to say or don’t know how to articulate. Playing this role of giving voice might be more an act of moral courage than of visionary genius. Speaking truth to power shouldn’t be underestimated, even when the powerful pretend they don’t hear.

I make no grand claims of myself. Nor do I expect to be praised for my efforts. All I seek to do is give voice to what matters most, to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. I do this for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It is what is in me to do. If some others see me as an opinionated fool or a self-righteous malcontent, then so be it. I’d like to think that what I express has meaning and value, but I can’t be my own judge. Either my words stand on their own merit or they don’t.

The truths that need to be spoken are greater than any of us. But each of us has hold of some small part. I wish others well in seeking their own truth and giving voice to it. This is no easy task, but worth the effort. Truth-speaking shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I prefer peace. But…

My mind often drifts back to Thomas Paine, one of many reluctant revolutionaries. He spent most of his life as a fairly normal person. There was nothing that particularly stood out about him. He didn’t come to America until he was middle aged.

Before that, he had tried to be a good husband and father, a good citizen and civil servant. He was an active member and leader in some communities he lived in back in England. When there were problems or injustices, he sought reform from within the system. He was a respectable figure at one point, a loyal subject of the Crown and a hardworking Englishman.

Then he realized what was needed was for him to be a good rabble-rouser and firebrand and eventually a good revolutionary. I’m sure he’d rather his life turned out easier with less suffering and struggle and instead more comfort and wealth. But that wasn’t the situation he found himself in and he had to deal with reality as it was, not as he wished it were.

As a moral person, this brought him to a simple and unavoidable conclusion. He wrote that, “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” I agree. I prefer peace. But…

On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

* * *

“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/roger-williams-and-american-democracy/

“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/natures-god-and-american-radicalism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-truly-free-people/

Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

* * *

What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

* * *

I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

* * *

I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto

http://jeffersonandspinoza.blogspot.com/

http://www.thomaspaine.us/pdf/paine_spinoza_bisheff.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason#Paine.27s_intellectual_debts

https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/spinoza-virtue-and-american-ideology/

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/07/04/questioning-america-christian-roots/XVNKjkViIzncq9Rr9T7DMM/story.html

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/25993801-nature-s-god-the-heretical-origins-of-the-american-republic

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-jc-matthew-stewart-20140629-story.html

http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=philosophy_hontheses

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/09/14/americas_jewish_founding_father/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/spinozas-vision-of-freedom-and-ours/

http://www.readperiodicals.com/201009/2131675381.html

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the memory of the old order still being fresh enough in the memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

“…from every part of Europe.”

By then, the king’s authority in America had been practically demolished, and his imperial interests elsewhere were being challenged. America was on its way to securing an independent destiny, basing the case for separation upon differences rather than likenesses between the two countries. Yet, the new nation revealed a natural kinship with the old world it professed to reject – not only with England, but with numerous other countries. In his Common Sense, Thomas Paine castigated the “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous” notion that England was the parent, or mother country of America. “Europe, and not England,” he protested, “is the parent country of America.” The New World had for years, he added, offered asylum to the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty “from every part of Europe.” That observation was heartily endorsed just a few years later by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, former French soldier and sometime resident of New York, in his Letters from an American Farmer. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked in a widely quoted passage from that book. “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Such observations were justified. One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants. It was in recognition of the mixed European background of so many Americans that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson later proposed that the official seal of the United States bear the national emblems of Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland as well as of England, thus “pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled.” (This idea was abandoned.) The list might well have been much longer. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and from Spain and Portugal (via South America), Swedes, Walloons, Swiss, and still others. Many came, as Paine stated, in search of asylum. But they also came with an intent to preserve and refresh those aspects of life in their homelands which they best remembered and most highly valued.

In the world of 1776, Europe boasted a rich civilization, alive with dynamic ideas and with flourishing arts, with promising new concepts and methods in the sciences. The rudiments of modern industry and business administration were well founded, and social reforms were being undertaken, which Europeans took with them as they colonized and traded. They had come in contact with Eastern civilizations, above all, China, and this experience added significantly to the cosmopolitan culture of the Continent. The Pacific Ocean had been explored, and Australasia discovered; the knowledge gleaned from such expeditions was accelerating an ecological revolution of universal importance. This abundance of experience and knowledge that characterized the world of 1776 was the inheritance America shared as a birthright.

From The World in 1776
by Marshall B. Davidson
Kindle Locations 237-261

* * * *

This early diversity has been an ongoing interest of mine. I noticed this passage and was reminded again of this less known side of American history.

What particularly caught my attention was that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” It wasn’t just that several of the colonies had non-English majorities. The non-English ethnicity was even a major part of the ancestral background of the so-called founding fathers, among others in the upper classes.

I always wonder why such amazing facts aren’t typically taught in US schools. This is the kind of thing that would make history more interesting to students. Instead, we get over-simplified and dumbed-down boring accounts of our shared past. The actual full history would be too radical for respectable public consumption.

For more details, see my previous posts:

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus

Below are some excerpts from William Hazlitt’s Reply to Malthus’s Essay on Population (1807).

I hadn’t previously given any thought to Hazlitt, but I noticed that David Bromwich wrote a biography about him. This made me curious, as Bromwich dresses himself up as a Burkean, albeit of a left-liberal variety.

Edmund Burke, of course, was the great target of Thomas Paine’s harshest criticisms. But he was also the target of Hazlitt’s low opinion, probably influenced by Paine. Hazlitt and Paine seem of a more similar mindset and political persuasion. Interestingly, Hazlitt’s response to Malthus was published just two years before Paine’s death.

I don’t know what Burke would have said of Malthus’s arguments. Apparently, like Malthus, he was against a right to subsistence; whatever form it might take, whether a social safety net for the poor or Paine’s citizen’s dividend. So, the two were in the same British vein of thought, in defense of plutocracy and aristocracy—as it began to take the form in modern capitalism, specifically in terms of meritocracy (i.e., a proto-Social Darwinian scapegoating of the poor). In this, both were opponents of Paine’s radicalism, which oddly was more in line with ancient British tradition (i.e., the Commons and “The Charter of the Forest”)—especially as it took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.

Paine was always one to see through such pathetic defenses of unjust power, such moral sophistry. He understood, as did other supposed radicals, that the poor were made, not born. The reason he understood this is because he saw it happen firsthand, by way of the enclosure movement or what Marxists refer to as primitive accumulation; theft by another name, in this case theft of land and livelihood. Is it a surprise that people become poor and desperate when the rich and powerful take everything away from them, even their homes, destroying entire villages and throwing the residents to the street? Being a feudal peasant isn’t so bad compared to being a landless peasant, constantly threatened by starvation and disease, prison and the noose.

Hazlitt may not have had the radical vision and revolutionary fervor of Paine, but he spoke with the same tone of dissent against brute power and class supremacy. They both recognized the hollowness of such arguments against the pleas of those made desperate (poverty and unemployment being realities Paine knew from personal experience). The moral outrage motivating Hazlitt’s able dissection of Malthusianism is the same basic complaint Paine penned in his famous takedown of Burke’s glorifying of the oppressive French monarchy while ignoring the violent oppression, the suffering and starvation of the masses.

What turns my mind to such voices from the past is that they still resonate. Other than the writing style, these views could easily be written today.

The present political right likes to insult the intelligence of the well-informed, by pretending that the clarion of progressivism wasn’t heard until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that modern liberalism was invented by hippies or maybe even communists. That is all bullshit and everyone would know it was bullshit, if the American education system did a better job at teaching history. Mass ignorance allows the right-wing to get away with their games of spin and lies. Sadly, many mainstream liberals willingly play along with this game, because too many of them also fear the moral force that flows down the centuries of Anglo-American tradition.

These are old debates that strike deeply upon unhealed wounds. They didn’t arise from the culture wars of the late twentieth century. These contentious issues were creating divisions long before the United States was founded, long even before the entire early modern revolutionary era. The most basic conflict took full form with the English Civil War, but ultimately goes even further back, as the struggle to maintain the Commons (and the common law) began with Norman Invasion. If the gauntlet thrown down by the likes of Hazlitt and Paine was radicalism, it was a radicalism at the heart the Anglo-American tradition and at the foundation of Western Civilization.

That is what scared Burke shitless. It still scares many others shitless, even as (or maybe because) this supposed radicalism has come to be seen as increasingly reasonable and necessary. Reactionary politics thrives on fear.

John Adams, in speaking of the world he saw taking shape, argued that it was no “Age of Reason,” and so, after a litany of failures and horrors, he bitterly quipped, “Then call it the Age of Paine.” He was too early in making such a declaration. It took some centuries for Paine’s vision of justice to take root, although it is far from full ripening fruition.

As Philip Clark explained:

Like Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” (which, in its day, contained anything but “common” or widely-held beliefs), Hazlitt defends the right of the people to self-governance, and does so with a righteous anger worthy of Paine: “…you [speaking about the defenders of monarchy] would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy – that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims…” It is difficult, in the present day, to convey how radical Hazlitt’s argument is; we have largely taken for granted those liberties – freedom of expression, representative government and the rights of the accused – for which Hazlitt is fighting, but it is on the foundations of these arguments that our society has been built, and for this we owe him and his compatriots a greater debt than we recognize.

Despite all the continuing injustices, those old school “classical liberal” radicals would be amazed by how far progressive reform has gone. We continue those centuries-old debates and yet at least the poor no longer starve in the streets. Even conservatives, despite the empty claims of some, wouldn’t genuinely want to return to how bad things once were. That is a sign of progress, however meager it may seem in contrast to ever more radical visions of tangible freedom, beyond mere freedom from the most cruel oppressions.

In that light, read the following words of Hazlitt. Similar critiques, in simpler language, could just as easily be writing against the likes of Ayn Rand, William Buckley, or Russell Kirk. Without ever having heard of Hazlitt, his argument is already familiar, as is what he is arguing against. The past few centuries of Anglo-American politics have been a broken record.

Thomas Malthus’s argument can be summed up in a statement made a few years ago by Andre Bauer, a Republican politician:

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

That is the attitude that the Hazlitts of the world have been endlessly fighting against. It’s a worthy fight, no matter how tiresome.

* * * *

William Hazlitt:

“Mr. Malthus says that the true cause of the difficulties under which the community would labour, would be the excessive tendency to population, arising from the security felt by every man that his children would be well provided for by the general benevolence: by taking away this security then, and imposing the task of maintaining them upon himself, you remove the only cause of the unavoidable tendency of population to excess, and of all the confusion that would ensue, by making his selfishness and his indolence operate as direct checks on his sensual propensities. He would be tied to his good behaviour as effectually as a country fellow is at present by being bound in a penalty of twenty pounds to the parish for every bastard child that he gets. If every man’s earnings were in proportion to his exertions, if his share of the necessaries, the comforts, or even the superfluities of life were derived from the produce of his own toil, or ingenuity, or determined by equitable compensation, I cannot conceive how there could be any greater security for regularity of conduct and a general spirit of industry in the several members of the community, as far as was consistent with health and the real enjoyment of life. If these principles are not sufficient to ensure the good order of society in such circum stances, I should like to know what are the principles by which it is enforced at present. They are nothing more than the regular connection between industry and its reward, and the additional charge or labour to which a man necessarily subjects himself by being encumbered with a family. The only difference is in the proportion between the reward, and the exertion, or the rate at which the payment of labour is fixed. So far then we see no very pressing symptoms of the dissolution of the society, or of any violent departure from this system of decent equality, from the sole principle of population. Yet we have not hitherto got (in the regular course of the argument) so far as the distinction of a class of labourers, and a class of proprietors. It may be urged perhaps that nothing but extreme want or misery can furnish a stimulus sufficiently strong to produce ‘the labour necessary for the support of an extended population,’ or counteract the principle of population. But Mr. Malthus himself admits that ‘the most constant and best directed efforts of industry are to be found among a class of people above the class of the wretchedly poor,’ among those who have something to lose, and something to gain, and who, happen what will, cannot be worse off than they are. He also admits that it is among this middling class of people, that we are to look for most instances of self-denial, prudence, and a competent resistance to the principle of population. I do not therefore understand either the weight or consistency of the charge which he brings against Paine of having fallen into the most fundamental errors respecting the principles of government by confounding the affairs of Europe with those of America. If the people in America are not forced to labour (and there are no people more industrious) by extreme poverty, if they are not forced to be prudent (and their prudence is I believe equal to their industry) by the scantiness of the soil, or the unequal distribution of its produce, no matter whether the state is old or new, whether the population is increasing or stationary, the example proves equally in all cases that wretchedness is not the sine qua non of industry, and that the way to hinder people from taking desperate steps is not to involve them in despair. The current of our daily life, the springs of our activity or fortitude, may be supplied as well from hope as fear, from ‘ cheerful and confident thoughts ‘ as the apparition of famine stalking just behind us. The merchant attends to his business, settles his accounts, and answers his correspondents as diligently and punctually as the shop-keeper. The shop-keeper minds his customers, and puffs off his goods, tells more lies, is a greater drudge, and gets less for his pains than the merchant. The shoeblack piques himself upon giving the last polish to a gentleman’s shoes, and gets a penny for his trouble. In all these cases, it is not strictly the proportion between the exertion and the object, neither hope nor fear in the abstract, that determines the degree of our exertions, but the balance of our hopes and fears, the difference that it will make to us in our situation whether we exert ourselves to the utmost or not, and the impossibility of turning our labour to any better account that habitually regulates our conduct.1

[“1 Thus the shop-keeper cannot in general be supposed to be actuated by any fear of want. His exertions are animated entirely by the prospect of gain, or advantage. Yet how trifling are his profits compared with those of the merchant. This however does not abate his diligence. It may be said that the advantage is as great to him. That is, it is the greatest in his power to make ; which is the very thing I mean to say. In fact we are wound up to a certain pitch of resolution and activity almost as mechanically as we wind up a clock.”]

“We all do the best for ourselves that we can. This is at least a general rule. […]

“Now I shall not myself be so uncandid as not to confess, that I think the poor laws bad things ; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice. This I do not think they could in the present state of things and other circumstances remaining as they are. The reason why I object to Mr. Malthus’s plan is that it does not go to the root of the evil, or attack it in its principle, but its effects. He confounds the cause with the effect. The wide spreading tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness of which Mr. Malthus is so sensible, are not occa sioned by the increase of the poor-rates, but these are the natural consequence of that increasing tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness occasioned by other causes.

“Mr. Malthus desires his readers to look at the enormous proportion in which the poor-rates have increased within the last ten years. But have they increased in any greater proportion than the other taxes, which rendered them necessary, and which I think were employed for much more mischievous purposes ? I would ask, what have the poor got by their encroachments for the last ten years ? Do they work less hard ? Are they better fed ? Do they marry oftener, and with better prospects ? Are they grown pampered and insolent ? Have they changed places with the rich ? Have they been cunning enough, by means of the poor-laws, to draw off all their wealth and superfluities from the men of property ? Have they got so much as a quarter of an hour’s leisure, a farthing candle, or a cheese-paring more than they had ? Has not the price of provisions risen enor mously ? Has not the price of labour almost stood still ? Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing ? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance ? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased ? Have they not heaped up wealth on themselves, and their dependents? Have they not multiplied sine cures, places, and pensions ? Have they not doubled the salaries of those that existed before ? Has there been any want of new creations of peers, who would thus be impelled to beget heirs to their titles and estates, and saddle the younger branches of their rising families, by means of their new influence, on the country at large ? Has there been any want of contracts, of loans, of monopolies of corn, of good understanding between the rich and the powerful to assist one another, and to fleece the poor ? Have the poor prospered ? Have the rich declined ? What then have they to complain of? What ground is there for the apprehension, that wealth is secretly changing hands, and that the whole property of the country will shortly be absorbed in the poor’s fund ? Do not the poor create their own fund ? Is not the necessity for such a fund first occasioned by the unequal weight with which the rich press upon the poor, and has not the increase of that fund in the last ten years been occasioned by the additional exorbitant demands, which have been made upon the poor and industrious, which without some assistance from the public they could not possibly have answered ? Whatever is the increase in the nominal amount of the poor’s fund, will not the rich always be able ultimately to throw the burthen of it on the poor themselves ? But Mr. Malthus is a man of general principles. He cares little about these circumstantial details, and petty objections. He takes higher ground. He deduces all his conclusions, by an infallible logic, from the laws of God and nature. When our Essayist shall prove to me, that by these paper bullets of the brain, by his ratios of the increase of food and the increase of mankind, he has prevented one additional tax, or taken off one oppressive duty, that he has made a single rich man retrench one article at his table, that he has made him keep a dog or a horse the less, or part with a single vice, arguing from a mathematical admeasurement of the size of the earth, and the number of inhabitants it can contain, he shall have my perfect leave to disclaim the right of the poor to subsistence, and to tie them down by severe penalties to their good behaviour on the same profound prin ciples. But why does Mr. Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only ? Why are they to have a perfect system of rights and duties prescribed to them ? I do not see why they alone should be put to live on these metaphysical board-wages, why they should be forced to submit to a course of abstraction ; or why it should be meat and drink to them, more than to others, to do the will of God. Mr. Malthus’s gospel is preached only to the poor! — Even if I approved of our author’s plan, I should object to the principle on which it is founded. […]

“To make this clear to him, it would be necessary to put the Essay on Population into his hands, to instruct him in the nature of a geometrical and arithmetical series, in the necessary limits to population from the size of the earth, and here would come in Mr. Malthus’s plan of educa tion for the poor, writing, arithmetic, the use of the globes, &c. for the purpose of proving to them the necessity of their being starved. It cannot be supposed that the poor man (what with his poverty and what with being priest-ridden) should be able to resist this body of evidence, he would open his eyes to his error, and ‘would submit to the sufferings that were absolutely irremediable with the fortitude of a man, and the resignation of a Christian.’ He and his family might then be sent round the parish in a starving condition, accompanied by the constables and quondam overseers of the poor, to see that no person, blind to ‘ the interests of humanity,’ practised upon them the abominable deception of attempting to relieve their remediless suffer ings, and by the parson of the parish to point out to the spectators the inevitable consequences of sinning against the laws of God and man. By celebrating a number of these Auto da fes yearly in every parish, the greatest publicity would be given to the principle of population, « the strict line of duty would be pointed out to every man,’ enforced by the most powerful sanctions, justice and humanity would flourish, they would be understood to signify that the poor have no right to live by their labour, and that the feelings of compassion and bene volence are best shewn by denying them charity, the poor would no longer be dependent on the rich, the rich could no longer wish to reduce the poor into a more complete subjection to their will, all causes of contention, of jealousy, and of irritation would have ceased between them, the struggle would be over, each class would fulfil the task assigned by heaven, the rich would oppress the poor without remorse, the poor would submit to oppression with a pious gratitude and resignation, the greatest harmony would prevail between the government and the people, there would be no longer any seditions, tumults, complaints, petitions, partisans of liberty, or tools of power, no grumbling, no repining, no discontented men of talents proposing reforms, and frivolous remedies, but we should all have the same gaiety and lightness of heart, and the same happy spirit of resignation that a man feels when he is seized with the plague, who thinks no more of the physician, but knows that his disorder is without cure. The best laid schemes are subject, however, to unlucky reverses. Some such seem to lie in the way of that pleasing Euthanasia, and contented submission to the grinding law of necessity, projected by Mr. Malthus. We might never reach the philosophic temper of the inhabitants of modern Greece and Turkey in this respect. Many little things might happen to interrupt our progress, if we were put into ever so fair a train. For instance, the men might perhaps be talked over by the parson, and their understandings being convinced by the geometrical and arithmetical ratios, or at least so far puzzled, that they would have nothing to say for themselves, they might prepare to submit to their fate with a tolerable grace. […]

“If then this natural repugnance in the poor to subject themselves to the necessity of parish relief has ceased to operate, must it not be owing to extreme distress, or to the degradation of character, con sequent upon it ? How does Mr. Malthus propose to remedy this ? By subjecting them to severe distress, and teaching them patience under their sufferings. But the rational desire of bettering our condition and the fear of making it worse is not increased by its being made worse. The standard of our notions of decency and comfort is not raised by a familiarity with unmitigated wretchedness, nor is the love of independence heightened by insults, and contempt, and by a formal mockery of the principles of justice and humanity. On the previous habits and character of the people, it is, however, that the degree of misery incurred always depends, as far as relates to themselves. The consequence of an effectual abolition of the poor laws would be all the immediate misery that would be produced, aggravated by the additional depression, and proneness to misery in the lower classes, and a beautiful petrefaction of all the common feelings of human nature in the higher ones. Finally, I agree with Mr. Malthus, that, ‘ if, as in Ireland and in Spain, and many of the southern countries, the people be in so degraded a state, as to propagate their species like brutes, it matters little, whether they have poor laws or not. Misery in all its various forms must be the predominant check to their increase: and with, or without poor laws, no stretch of human ingenuity and exertion could rescue the people from the most extreme poverty and wretchedness.’

“As to the metaphysical subtleties, by which Mr. Malthus endeavours to prove that we ought systematically to visit the sins of the father on the children, and keep up the stock of vice and misery in the family (from which it would follow, that the children of thieves and robbers ought either to be hanged outright, or at least brought up in such a manner as to ensure their following the fate of their parents) I feel and know my own superiority on that ground so well, that it would be ungenerous to push it farther.”

Governing Under the Influence

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the Common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the Common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things that we do not own,
But leaves the Lords and Ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common,
And geese will still a Common lack
‘Til they go and steal it back.
~ English folk poem, circa 1764

I never heard that the Creator opened an estate office to issue title deeds to land…. Every proprietor of land owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.
~ Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice

Those are quoted from “The Rule of Property,” a pamphlet by Karen Coulter (in relation to the second quote, check out the proposal of a citizen’s dividend). I picked up a copy from a symposium I just got back from, although the text can be found online as well.

The symposium was Governing Under the Influence. It was held at the local Iowa City Public Library and organized by the Des Moines chapter of the AFSC and East Central Iowa Move To Amend, Iowa City Climate Advocates and Johnson County Greens.

As you can see, it was a decent selection of progressive and leftist politics, although nothing too radical, at least by my standards. Nothing was presented that would likely have been offensive to the average liberal. Still, the presenters were radical enough to challenge the status quo from different perspectives.

The first presentation I went to was “The School to Prison Pipeline.” It was given by Diana Henry, a local teacher who has lived in the area for at least a couple of decades. I noticed that she was the only black person in the room, among mostly older whites. I hadn’t considered beforehand what would be the makeup of the crowd, but I suppose it was unsurprising for an event like this around here.

I left the symposium to go back home for a short while. On my walk outside, I passed by various minorities. It’s a mostly white town, but minorities aren’t an insignificant demographic, as it is a diverse college town. It made me wonder about what kind of disconnect this signified. This symposium seemed to be at least as relevant for minorities as it was for whites. Then again, even most white people in this white majority town probably didn’t know about the event. Why should minorites be any different?

After returning, I next went to Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt’s talk, “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.” He is an expert in leisure studies and has written some books about the topic. I wasn’t initially excited by the title in the symposium schedule, but I went because my friend wanted to hear it. It turned out to be quite fascinating.

Hunnicutt offered a bunch of awesome quotes, from more recent to all the way back to the 1700s. He explained that he had been surprised by how far back his inquiry led him. One choice quote he offered was from John Adams, one of the least radical of the American founders:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Now, that is economic and social mobility. Adams hoped that a couple of generations following him Americans would have the opportunity to live a life dedicated to leisure, education, and personal betterment. What happened to that American Dream?

Hunnicutt explained how our contemporary idealizing of work is rather new. What so many Americans strove for, from early America to the early 20th century, was a world of increasing free time, as an expression of individual freedom in a free society.

Freedom from labor inspired a wide variety of Americans, who envisioned a future when people worked very little. In fact, this future was becoming a reality, as hours worked decreased over most of American history, until the mid-20th century when work became the symbol of prosperity and of the American Dream. That is how we got to this point of fully equating not working with laziness and worthlessness.

Hunnicutt didn’t mention it, but I’m willing to bet that slavery and its abolition played a major role in shifting attitudes. For early Americans, labor was closely linked to slavery. To not work meant living the good life. Some of the founders envisioned a country ruled by an enlightened aristocracy, which meant those who could dedicate their lives to the public good because of independent wealth freed them from having to work, although Benjamin Franklin (the least aristocratic among them) was the only one to ever live this dream (the rest were either poor like Paine or in debt like Jefferson).

Slavery was abolished around the time industrialization went into full force. Reconstruction led to Populism, which led to Progressivism, which led to the New Deal. FDR re-envisioned work as a right and that implied work as an obligation, a civic duty even. Mass unemployment during the Great Depression was seen as a problem, rather than an opportunity for a new society of greater freedom. So, work programs were created. Ever since, politicians use employment rates as an indicator of the health of the economy and of the society as a whole. The number of hours worked on average has increased (even as money earned hasn’t increased), hence reversing a centuries old trend.

Why doesn’t this bother more Americans? Or rather, why are so few Americans even aware of this reality and the history behind it?

I’ve complained that these days even many American left-wingers can’t imagine a world without work. After all, without labor, how can their be labor organizing? Our entire lives are labor. What else do we have to organize around? That is a lack of imagination.

The concluding talk was by George Friday. She was supposed to discuss “Black Lives Matter,” but it was more informal and general. She wasn’t physically present. So, we listened to her disembodied voice calling in from her home in North Carolina. She mostly took questions.

One question in particular connected to my thinking. A white lady made an inquiry related to her professional experience in mental health and youth. She wanted to know how organizations, such as the one she works for, could reach out to the black community.

Friday gave some good advice, although mostly common sense. The main gist was to first develop connections of familiarity, trust, and respect. Then and only then seek more specific ways of helping and contributing. Basically, treat other people like humans who you care about knowing and relating to, not simply as problems to be solved.

However, what interested me was Friday’s assumption about who she was speaking to. She couldn’t see the crowd listening to her. All she knew was that we were in Iowa. As such, she assumed we were a bunch of privileged white people, which is basically what she told us. Well, she was right, more or less.

What occurred to me was this. Did anyone who organized the symposium reach out to minorities in the community in order to get more of them to attend? Instead of just white people, it might have been nice if there had been other blacks there besides the one presenter, Diane Henry. After all, one in sixty people in this town identify as non-white or mixed. I’m willing to bet a black living in this town, especially one who isn’t middle class, would have asked different kinds of questions.

It wasn’t just minorities who were underrepresented. There also weren’t many young people there or what I would perceive as poor people. Certainly, none of the homeless people I regularly see down the block were in attendance. The speakers and the audience were almost entirely older whites who were probably middle class professionals or retired professionals.

The lack of  young people was most noticeable. This is a small college town with a disproportionate number of young people, although many of them have left for the summer, which might lead one to ask why was the event scheduled after the students left town. It was strange to see so many people of retirement age in a town where half the population is under 25 years old.

This last line of thought brought me back to the issue of leisure. Economically well off people have the most leisure. In the US, older middle class white people represent the largest sector of the population that is economically well off. These are the people who, if working, don’t have to hold down multiple jobs (and, if they have children, can afford someone to watch their children) or, if retired, can afford to live off the pensions, savings, and investments from having had a stable well-paying professional career.

Free time isn’t just about leisure in the narrow sense. This symposium was about the serious work of democratic organizing and action in a free society. It takes a lot of work, mostly voluntary, to make a democracy function. Free time is the foundation of a free society and the expression of freedom in general.

Freedom to spend time as one wishes relates to many other freedoms. It is to be free from want, fear, and stress. To have the time is one aspect of having resources and opportunities. So much of the work we do is to get those resources and opportunities. This means the only way to create greater freedom is by offering greater access for all people to the lifestyle that at present is mostly limited to older middle(-to-upper) class whites.

Hunnicutt explains, in Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?, that,

“Then real progress would begin. Humane and moral progress. Instead of perpetual consumerism and the infinite increase in material wealth, we would naturally turn to improving the human condition, learning how to live together “wisely, agreeable, and well,” as Keynes put it. Progress would then take the form of healthier families, communities and cities—the increase of knowledge, the enjoyment of nature, history and other peoples, an increasing delight in the marvels of the human spirit, the practice of our beliefs and values together, the finding of common ground for conviviality, expanding our awareness of God, wondering in Creation.”

There is one thing he doesn’t consider.

Maybe poverty, both of wealth and of time, is intentional, rather than an accidental side effect. There are few greater forms of social control than fear of destitution, the threat of hunger and homelessness. If people are so busy just trying to get by, constantly hustling, whether on the legal or black markets, they will never have the time to imagine a better life and a better society and they will never have the time to act, individually and with others, on such aspirations.

Is a poor person living in desperation actually free in any practical sense? In the US, this is an inevitably racialized question, but more importantly it is a class question involving all Americans of all races. Are we to treat freedom as a fundamental right or a mere luxury for the privileged few?

Freedom is meaningless as an abstraction. Either it is a tangible reality or, if held out like a carrot on a stick, a cruel joke.

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

Nature’s God and American Radicalism

The following is an excerpt from a book I’m reading, Nature’s God. I’m not familiar with the author, Matthew Stewart, but maybe I should make myself more familiar with his writings.

The book fills in some holes in my knowledge of the revolutionary era. I know Thomas Paine well. I’m ever so slightly familiar with Ethan Allen. But I do believe Thomas Young is entirely new to me. I don’t recall having come across his name previously.

All three of these, along with some others, are the real founders.

They weren’t born into wealth, privilege, and education. They had to struggle their whole lives and they all put everything on the line, both their lives and their livelihoods, even their hard-earned reputations, all sacrificed for what they believed. They had a lot less to lose and a lot more to gain by challenging the status quo, but it wasn’t just desperate poverty that compelled them to seek something better. They felt genuine conviction for what others thought impossible or dangerous.

They were lovers of freedom and democracy, defenders of the common man and the common good. They were the rabblerousers and instigators, the radicals and revolutionaries. They lit the fire under the asses of the elite and of the contented, of the likes of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. Without these working class troublemakers, there would have been no American Revolution, no Declaration of Independence, and no new country.

The least we should do is honor their memory. Better yet, we could take seriously the values that motivated them and the ideals that inspired them.

* * * *

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
By Matthew Stewart
pp. 16-23

HOW DO WE DECIDE who deserves a place in history? Generations of devoted American history buffs have spent countless hours reading and writing long books about the American Revolution without ever having come across the name of Dr. Thomas Young. Yet Young was, among other things, one of the people who brought us the original Tea Party. It was he who stood before the assembled people of Boston on November 29, 1773, and first articulated the transparently illegal proposition that the only way to get rid of the East India Company’s loathsome cargo was to throw it into the harbor. 29 It was he who, on the evening of December 16, 1773, kept a crowd of thousands at the Old South Church shouting and clapping with a satirical speech on “the ill effects of tea on the constitution” while his best friends, dressed as Mohawks, quietly set off to turn the Boston harbor into a briny teapot. 30 And it turns out that kicking off the event that many years later came to be called the Boston Tea Party was not the most consequential of Thomas Young’s many unsung contributions to the founding of the American Republic.

If it is true, as John Adams famously observed, that the American Revolution took place “in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 . . . before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington,” 31 then many of America’s most celebrated founders should properly be counted as consequences rather than causes of the course of events. In his diary Adams himself described the Tea Party on the morning after as “an Epocha in History,” 32 and yet he wrote about it as an enthusiastic bystander, not a participant, much less an instigator. George Washington seems to have had few serious doubts about America’s place in the Empire until the summer of 1774, when the ordeals of the people of Massachusetts forced him to reappraise the intentions of the King and his ministers. 33 Benjamin Franklin tarried in London until 1775, nurturing his dream of retiring to the life of a grand pooh-bah of the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, “knew more of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites than he did of what was passing in Boston,” groused the envious Adams in later life. 34 James Madison (b. 1751) and Alexander Hamilton (b. 1755 or 1757) were mere schoolboys when the hard work of changing the American mind began. As America’s busy hagiographers have been keen to observe, the men now exalted as America’s founders and framers, taken on the whole, were revolutionaries by circumstance rather than by disposition. They were ambitious, upstanding citizens, generally happy with their lot in life, who at a singular moment in history were presented with a fateful choice.

Thomas Young, on the other hand, was no accidental revolutionary. He was present at the creation of the movement, and he never left. He was unhappy, brilliant, resentful, and heroically optimistic. He was a plotter, a conspirer, an ideologue, and a provocateur. He did not disguise his belief that in order to make a revolution you have to break some eggs. He vowed always— in his own words—“ to fight the good fight.” 35 Above all, he was a man with a message, so convinced of the merit of the ideas in his head that keeping his mouth shut would have seemed like a crime against humanity.

“He published his first screed championing the natural rights of Englishmen against the injustices of imperial rule in 1764, when he was thirty-three. In the following year, he found himself at the head of a mob on the streets of Albany, leading the protests against the Stamp Act. He rose to the leadership of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty and soon made contact with like-minded activists across the colonies. In 1766, he moved to Boston to join with the radical faction gathering around James Otis and Samuel Adams. As Boston struggled with occupation, he rapidly established himself as the most militant voice in the local newspapers and the go-to man whenever a rabble stood in need of rousing. Governor Thomas Hutchinson regularly named him as one of the four most dangerous men in town. In 1772, together with his fellow radicals, he founded the Boston Committee of Correspondence— a momentous breakthrough in propaganda technology that served to spread both rebellious sentiments and democratic practices throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the colonies. 36

“What an engine!” John Adams exclaimed in 1815. “The history of the United States can never be written” until one had inquired into the activities of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he said. “France imitated it, and produced a revolution. England and Scotland were upon the point of imitating it, in order to produce another revolution . . . The history of the past thirty years is a sufficient commentary upon it.” 37 And Young’s handwriting was all over the project—quite literally. In the files now held in the archives of the New York Public Library, his distinctive script appears on dozens of unsigned pages of Committee papers— more than any other Committee member— including on parts of a draft of the 1772 declaration of the “rights of the colonists” that John Adams later suggested was one of the models for the Declaration of Independence. 38

“In 1775, Young tumbled into Philadelphia, the scene of his greatest contributions to the revolutionary cause, and instantly fell in with Thomas Paine. In his political polemics, Young anticipated many of the ideas and even some of the language that figured in the pamphlet that changed the world: Paine’s Common Sense of January 1776. 39 At the time, the government of Pennsylvania was mostly under the control of conservatives who favored reconciliation with Great Britain. In the decisive month of May 1776, Young, Paine, and a handful of their fellow radicals engineered a Bolshevik-style coup d’état that replaced the legitimately elected government of the province with a pro-independence faction. The new government of the colony in turn tilted the balance of the Continental Congress in favor of permanent separation from Britain, and within six weeks the Congress declared independence.

“In the summer and fall of 1776, Young and his comrades organized a convention and produced a constitution for the newly independent state of Pennsylvania. It was “the most radically democratic organic law in the world at the time of its creation,” one historian has observed. 40 It vested almost all power in a popularly elected legislature, stipulated a variety of measures to ensure that their representatives would remain answerable to the people, and included a declaration of rights along the lines of those that are familiar to us now from the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Franklin handed out copies in Paris, and the people of the salons assumed that such a revolutionary document could only have been the great scientist’s work. “In truth,” John Adams sniffed, it was Young, Paine, and a pair of their radical friends “who were the authors of it.” 41 And when Young finished with the job in Philadelphia, he sent a copy along with an open letter to the people of Vermont— a state whose name Young himself coined from the French for “Green Mountain” 42 —where, with some further modification, it served as the basis for the first state constitution to ban slavery.

“It is the unapologetically democratic character of Young’s revolution that makes him seem such a striking figure today. By birth, by reputation, and by conviction, Young was a man of the people. In Boston he saved his highest praise for the “common tradesmen” who at town meetings displayed “the wisdom and eloquence of Athenian Senators.” 43 As a member of the Boston Committee, he demanded the overthrow of all the governments that put “the most powerful men in every county and every town” over “the common people.” 44 In Philadelphia he invited the hatred of the ruling classes with his bold proposal that all men should be entitled to vote without regard to their property qualifications. As early as 1770, he had predicted, “A very little time will show you Great Britain reduced into absolute monarchy, or exalted into a Republic!” 45 In the years preceding the Revolutionary War, it should not be forgotten, only a tiny fraction of the American colonials desired independence, and only a much smaller fraction thought in terms of a democratic transformation of society and government. Young belonged to a numerically insignificant sliver who, long before their fellow colonials dared to imagine the possibility of a break from the mother country, dreamed of independence as a means to launch a democratic revolution that would sweep through the British Empire and then around the world.

[ . . . ]

Yet Thomas Young remains, in the words of historian David Freeman Hawke, “unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution.” Hawke made that claim in 1970— and it is still mostly true. Apart from a few worthy pieces of scholarship, the “dirty little screw” of the American Revolution continues to languish on the shop floor of history. 50

“Part of the problem is that Young died too early for his own good, succumbing in July 1777 to a sudden fever contracted while serving as a surgeon for the Continental Army. Having done his best work on the streets and in the backrooms of revolutionary committees, he left no one with any great stake in fighting for his posthumous reputation— no one, that is, except the ever-loyal Ethan Allen, who was soon busy immolating his own legacy.

The biggest obstacle that stood between Thomas Young and the history books, however, was his unabashed deism. In a fistful of bracing newspaper columns, not-so-anonymous pamphlets, and private letters, Young left few of his contemporaries in doubt about the extreme heterodoxy of his religious views. “Could we raise up the spirit of one of the murderers of St. Stephen, to tell us what a figure Paul cut, when he breathed out threatening and slaughter against his Savior, then we might form an idea of Dr. Y—— g,” said one outraged Tory. 51 “Suffice it to say, this man stands accused of rebellion, not only against his Sovereign, but against his God.”

“Young’s fellow citizens regularly accused him of being “a man of no morals,” an “infamous character,” and, of course, an “infidel.” 52 And Young— this is perhaps the most unusual thing about him— regularly responded with daring public confessions in which he let it be known, in so many words, that if with such terms his antagonists meant to identify him a deist, then they were right. Rushing to his defense after one assault on the doctor’s unacceptable creed, his fellow members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence marveled that on his journey through life he had accumulated many friends of high character, notwithstanding the fact that “uniform throughout, he appears in all places to have declared his sentiments on all subjects, natural, civil, and religious.” The thing about Young, everyone agreed, was that he could not keep his mouth shut. When he died, the nation he served found it convenient to forget such a troublesome individual. Let him now face the consequences in the afterlife whose reality he so blasphemously denied, they said, and they moved on.

“Young’s philosophical oeuvre is not large or systematic, and it is sometimes obtuse, as one might expect from a self-taught medicine man moonlighting as a global revolutionary. Yet its neglect turns out to be the most damaging of the many unfortunate consequences of his omission from the history books. In the uncomfortably personal confessions he committed to print, Young tells us what it was like to come of age as a deist in prerevolutionary America. In his sundry philosophical treatises, he articulates a form of deism that is substantially more radical than that which has traditionally figured in the stories America tells itself about its philosophical heritage. And he makes clear that, at least in his own mind, this radical philosophy was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion.

 

The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.