Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

On “Freedom” in the 18th Century

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By Wiz

There has been some discussion on this blog and others about the crude libertarian idea that America today is less “free” than it was in some golden age in the 18th or 19th century.
Two quick and obvious points that seem to have been left out:

1. Freedom is just another word (for whatever you want). People define freedom in completely different ways at different times. This whole debate seems premised on the idea that there is one obvious standard of freedom that is measurable, and all we need to do is determine whether or not that freedom standard is going up or down. (See the absurd Heritage Foundation which tries to do this and finds that Hong Kong and Singapore are the most free countries in the world. )

And yet, throughout American history, different groups have defined freedom in particular ways. Eric Foner wrote a whole book about this. Even today, of course, no one agrees on what the word means. To a businessman, or their paid shills in the Heritage Foundation, freedom means the ability of multinational corporations to engage in whatever business practices they want, to a small-r republican, it means the ability of the community to govern itself, to a modern civil libertarian it means vigorous protection of individual free speech, etc…

So when tea partiers or whatnot goes around whining about the loss of freedom, it really is more meaningful to simply translate that as “we perceive things to be getting worse in some way.”

2. Many of those freedoms are zero-sum. Liberal political theory aside, the fact is throughout American history people have often perceived their freedom to depend on other people’s lack of freedom. Edmund Morgan, of course, famously argued that American, especially Virginian, political theory was able to come to terms with what was then a remarkably free white population, exactly because slavery insured that the majority of the workers were denied that freedom, and racism insured that the poor would never unite against the rich. Freedom and slavery went hand in hand. Chandra Manning has similarly discovered, among letters from Confederate soldiers, that Southern whites defined freedom largely as the ability to control dependents- women, children, and slaves. And the model of the small yeoman proprietor that American ideology, since Jefferson at least, has so equated with freedom and independence was only made possible by a massive reduction in the freedom of Native Americans.

Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the family. A great deal of male freedom was premised on the virtual slavery of their wives. Men could enjoy the ability to sell their labor freely in marketplace (not necessarily a great freedom, but that’s for another day) exactly because women performed the unpaid labor at home that comprised the social reproduction of the working class (cooking, raising family, etc…). Men were “free” to beat their wives or commit sexual violence against them exactly because the woman lacked the freedom to legally resist or divorce. We can say these aren’t real “freedoms,” since they violate someone else’s, but the ability to act as you pleased at home, order around slaves, control your wife, etc… were perceived as freedoms.

The point is, it’s not really enough to say that the existence of slavery, or Indian Wars, or the oppression of women was evidence that freedom wasn’t extended far enough. Rather, those were exactly the things that made freedom possible for many Americans.

Something to think about when you hear those Tea partiers complain about the loss of their freedom. In many ways they are right! Rich white men (the backbone of the Tea Party Movement) are less free than they were 100 years ago, when they could treat their wives as tools to their sexual pleasure, their workers as cheap and expendable, and never had to be bothered by racial minorities agitating for equality or respect.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 12, 2010 at 15:23

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