Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn my recent journey following the life of Frederick Douglass, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged, and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching as a whole.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer for black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape, it was inflicted for petty crimes, supposed insubordination or impertinence, drunkenness, competition, and so on. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they consisted a form of social control, a replacement for the terrorism of the slave system.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and wrote a letter praising Southern Horrors as an introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I visited a second site associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

Please follow the links below to learn more about Ida B. Wells. If I manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘, episode 25 of the History Chicks podcast by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

McBride, Jennifer. ‘Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice‘. From Webster University’s website.

McNally, Deborah. ‘Barnett, Ferdinand Lee (1858-1936)‘, in BlackPast.org

Steptoe, Tyina. ‘Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931)’, in BlackPast.org

Wells, Ida. B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Wells, Ida. B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892, via Project Gutenberg

Wikipedia contributors. ‘Ida B. Wells‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wintz, Paul Finkelman, Cary D. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y. 2004.


Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist

Ken Morris, image credit Kenneth Morris.jpgListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

I’m honored and excited to introduce my next guest for Ordinary Philosophy’s 58th podcast episode, Ken Morris.

Ken Morris is closely linked to Frederick Douglass, the subject of my most recent history of ideas travel series, and carries on his legacy by working in a noble and very important cause, anti-slavery activism. He has an incredible family history and personal life story and array of accomplishments which you’ll be sure to find as impressive and fascinating as I do, but I’ll stop here and let him tell you all about it….

For more about Ken Morris and his work, please visit:

The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website
Bio: http://fdfi.org/ken
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FrederickDouglassFamilyInitiatives/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/kmorrisjr
and Picturing Frederick Douglass, to which Mr. Morris contributed and sales of which benefit the FDFI: http://fdfi.org/book

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Political Philosophy in the World Part 1: Human Rights, an interview with Samuel Moyn

Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights Declaration, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn this fascinating interview, The Philosopher’s Zone Joe Gelonesi interviews Samuel Moyn about the political concept of human rights and its utility. As Moyn points out, though we like to talk abut human rights as if they’re evident and sacrosanct, we actually live in a world where many communities and nations still suffer widespread political and economic corruption, implement policies that foster foster inequality of wealth and opportunity, don’t provide adequate healthcare to many or most of its citizens, fail to prevent or mitigate racism, sexism, violence, even slavery, incarcerate huge numbers of its citizens for even minor  (or some might think non-) crimes, and in other ways don’t live up to the ideal of universal human rights as outlined, say, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So what are human rights and what does it mean to have them? That’s as tricky a question as it ever was. Though we like to think it’s a given, it’s not at all clear that all, or even most, people agree on even the most basic answer to this question. For one thing, ‘human rights’ starts sounding like such an abstract thing once you start trying to define what thye are.  For another, there’s this big conundrum I see in the human rights theory that I think relate directly to Moyn’s comments.

If human rights are something innate, something we’re born with, then why do so many disagree about what are rights and what aren’t, and why do we have to fight for them? But then again, if we we say that everyone is born with them, then we can and should be outraged when human rights are not recognized and protected.

If they’re something we create for ourselves and one another, than how are we justified in saying that everyone should have them, regardless of context or culture? But then again, if we say they don’t naturally exist so we have to create them, then that motivates us all the more to have to come up with excellent justifications for why we think everyone should have them, and forces us to work all the harder to make sure everyone does.


Sources and inspiration:

‘Political Philosophy in the World: Human Rights’. Interview with Professor Samuel Moyn by Joe Gelonesi. The Philosopher’s Stone podcast, April 3 2016



What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!


Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Ordinary Philosophy

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought…

View original post 1,483 more words

Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, image Public Domain

In his lifetime and to this day, Frederick Douglass is a hero to the religious and non-religious,to believers and skeptics alike, each claiming him as a champion and exemplar of their values. Why the discrepancy? In his speeches, letters, and published work, Douglass reveals himself as both believer and doubter, a man of deep Christian faith who experiences a great deal of religious skepticism throughout his life.

Douglass is a self-professed believer in God and a Christian, yet he’s a vocal critic of most Christian denominations of his day, especially those of the United States. As a young man, Douglass struggles with religious doubts as he observes, time after time, that the most pious slaveowners are the most cruel. His master Thomas Auld, Edward Covey the slave-breaker, Reverend Daniel Weedon and the neighboring Hamiltons in Baltimore, among others, routinely and mercilessly whipped and abused their slaves, often to the point of great injury and near death, all justifying their behavior through Bible passages. In his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass writes: ‘…The religion of the south…is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…. Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard …being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me’ (159). In fact, he discovers to his surprise that the most decent master he ever had, William Freeman, was the only one without religion.

In his early days as an abolitionist activist and speaker, his accounts of his youthful doubts occasioned by his bad experiences with religious people cause many to accuse him of irreligion. But over time, he makes it clear that’s not religion itself he hates, it’s what he considers ‘false religion’. And no religion is as false as that which endorses slavery, which, first and foremost in Douglass’s time, was the Christian denominations of the American south.

But Douglass’s condemnation of American Christianity only begins with the southern churches; it by no means ends there. He calls on his fellow black people to leave any church, shaking the dust off their feet as they go, if their pastors or fellow parishioners subject them to indignity or unequal treatment. If anyone is segregated into balconies or back rows, or required to wait to receive communion after other colors or classes of parishioners, or their pastors preach against resistance to slavery, or the church in any other way indicates that black people are not deserving of the exact same respect, in degree and kind, as fellow children of God, then their church is revealed as just another peddler of false, corrupted religion. And all of these betrayals of the true Christianity, as Douglass perceives it, were as nearly pervasive in the northern churches as in the south.

Douglass believes that these practices, disrespectful of certain of God’s children, are not only unjust; they’re blasphemous because they’re direct attacks on the goodness and true nature of God. That’s because Douglass perceives the true God as not only ‘the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob’, but more broadly, the God of the oppressed. He sees this theme, this common thread, linking the plundered and oppressed desert tribes of Biblical Canaan (not mentioning that they did some plundering of their own) to those in his day who are suffering, reviled, and denied their natural rights: black people, women, the Irish, the abolitionists. Time and time again, Douglass relies on his interpretation of God as the God of the oppressed to show how the fugitive, the disenfranchised, the famine-starved left to die by their own governments, the righteous, reviled, and steadfast opposer of slavery and defender of the downtrodden, are actually those closest to him, are those who understand and share in his true nature.

But Douglass’s faith also appears at least as naturally derived as it is scripturally revealed. That’s because Douglass uses nature as a litmus test to reveal the truth and integrity of religion. Since by nature all people need and take joy in food and drink, physical and spiritual comfort, love, and beauty whatever their color, sex, or place of origin, and all people suffer alike from cold, hunger, thirst, cruelty, and neglect, and all people are just as capable of improvement through education and moral edification, then all people share the same nature, possess the same dignity, and have the same rights. Scripture may appear to allow for bigotry, unequal treatment, and bad behavior and even require it, but nature is observable and incontestable. So, if an interpretation of scripture seems to allow or require one to treat any of their fellow human beings as less than equally beloved, equally valuable children of the one God, that interpretation is certainly wrong since it violates the natural God-authored order of things.

In the end, Douglass relies on Jesus himself to tell us how to recognize true faith in true religion: ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’ (Matthew 7:20). It’s not whether or not one professes belief in a religion, or can quote passages of scripture or the work of theologians, that reveals the worth and nature of faith. Douglass believes that true religion (which for Douglass, is true Christianity), always reveals itself by how well its adherents defend and promote justice and the equal dignity of all human persons. Conversely, if a religion commands or even permits injustice, it must be false. Where you find kindness and justice, there you find faith, and nowhere else.

It’s not the outward form or classification which indicates the true tree of religion to Douglass, it’s the sweetness and wholesomeness revealed in the fruit of true faith.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

O.P. Recommends Freakonomics: Is Migration a Basic Human Right?

Airport Terminal in Salt Lake City, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

I just listened to this episode of Freakonomics Radio podcast the other day, which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from, and I think you’ll love it too. Freakonomics Radio is hosted full time by Stephen Dubner, one of the two authors of the famous book of the same name, published in 2005, with occasional guest hosting by its other author Steven Levitt. The book and podcast consider individual, social, and political situations from the view that human behavior is best explained in terms of the incentives that motivate us.

The podcast episode I’m recommending here is called ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ and I can hardly think of a more timely question. As Syrians fleeing death and destruction flee their war-torn country, we are invited to consider this question: do nations’ rights to maintain secure borders trump (how funny …no, actually ironic that I need that particular word right here!) the individual human right to survive and to flourish?

I love Freakonomics, despite the fact that it adopts, at times, a dismissive and even scornful tone towards philosophy (as do some of my other favorite podcasts), but that’s okay: there’s so much good information and clearheaded processing of it that its informative values trumps (groan) what might be philosophically lacking. After all, I believe, philosophy is at its best when it’s informed and disciplined by evidence, and it’s such a firmly established, fascinating, and eminently useful discipline that it can withstand critique and dismissiveness from economists, science enthusiasts, and so on. But to my edification and delight, the guest in this episode, Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a spirited defense of philosophy almost right off the bat.

Here’s a little excerpt for those of you in a hurry, but for the rest, I recommend you just skip this and go listen to the whole thing. Enjoy!

DUBNER: …As much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.

TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. …

DUBNER: …I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.’” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.

TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else …Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. …


Sources and inspiration:

Dubner, Stephen. ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’, Freakonomics Radio podcast, episode 231.


From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure, beginning with research and study in Oakland, CA, then off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. He spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a historian-philosopher; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail that we have certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

So I’ll begin my tale here in my home city of Oakland, CA, where I begin my research and exploration into Douglass’s life and ideas, then off to the east coast of the United States I’ll go, from March 19th thru April 2nd! There, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

~ Listen to the podcast version of this series intro here or on iTunes

Here is the story of Frederick Douglass as I discover him:
Traveling Philosophy Series: Frederick Douglass Edition, Prologue, Oakland, CA
Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt
Frederick Douglass on the Constitution
Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist
Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites
Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 1
Frederick Douglass, Easton and St. Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 2
Frederick Douglass Havre de Grace and Philadelphia Sites
Frederick Douglass New York City Sites
Frederick Douglass New Bedford, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Boston Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites
Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist & Descendant of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

More about Frederick Douglass:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, in Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Photobook: Frederick Douglass and Edinburgh, Old and New
O.P. Recommends: ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That: Frederick Douglass in Scotland’ by Andrea Baker for BBC Radio 4
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Originalist Interpretations of the United States Constitution
O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Race Relations
Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Patrons of the Frederick Douglass series: RH Kennerly, Elizabeth Lenz, Alex Levin, Cory Argonti Cools, Bryan Kilgore, Michael Burke, Gaia So, Veronica Ruedrich, Blair Miller, Alex Black, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Roxanne and Fred Smalkin and family, and Jim Callahan and Nerissa Callahan-Stiles and family. ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

As a citizen of the United States, I’ve spent more than a little time wondering if it’s entirely a good thing that our culture is so very individualistic.

American individualism does originate from some excellent roots. The colonies that became the United States were largely founded by farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, the dispossessed, and others with a bold, adventurous spirit that animated them to cross the seas and start a new life from scratch in an unknown country.

These migrants included religious dissenters who struck out on their own and founded new faiths, devising theological arguments to demonstrate the righteousness of their doing so. Their arguments would later be adopted for secular purposes as they were used, barely altered, to support the right to freedom of thought and speech, and were embraced widely by many independent-minded communities. They were also open to new ideas, and were often more ready to accept innovative moral and political theories of the Enlightenment which emphasized individual rights and self-sovereignty over traditional authoritarian and elitist social systems than were their European counterparts, and more ready and able to implement them. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all essentially Enlightenment documents, embodying that intellectual movement’s conception of human nature and of the just society founded upon individual human rights.

The American project has always depended on free, forward-thinking individuals, and our national creed is founded on these three core beliefs: that individual human lives are valuable for their own sake, and that human rights not only exist, their defense should be our highest priority, and that all legitimate governmental authority originates with the people as a whole. Political systems founded on these beliefs, conceived in Britain and established first in America, reveal the strength of this view, and over time proved that individuals and society alike benefit enormously when the rights and interests of individuals take highest priority.

Over time, as free-market economics and other liberalizing social forces have expanded the rights and opportunities of the individual, some have come to believe that society, as a concept and as an institution, should play a secondary role in matters of public policy and morality. Margaret Thatcher, for one, famously claimed there’s no such thing. ‘Society’, to Thatcher and others whose views of human social arrangements might best be called atomist, is more or less a shorthand term for a population of individuals in a certain place and time. In this view, it’s the individual, not the group, that matters. Focus on protecting the the rights and interests of individuals, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

For one thing, they claim, the more individual rights are emphasized, the better off everyone is. Compare constitutional democracies, republics, and free-market societies which emphasize individual rights with societies that emphasize the interests of the group, and we can see that the former do a much better job overall of enhancing people’s lives. There’s more wealth, less poverty,  more opportunity, and greater autonomy in the former. The reason it works out that way, they argue, is because human nature is naturally individualistic first, and social second. For example, Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer who leans libertarian, argues that just as the individual is the object or target of evolutionary selection (or in other words, what selection acts upon), so it is the individual who should be the object or target of ethical concern and legal protection. (See my response to Shermer’s article here.)

Some such individualists, which often identify as libertarians and some as classical liberals, object to all or most taxation, saying it amounts to a sort of slavery because it forces individuals to pay for, and hence to work for, things they didn’t personally choose to contribute to. Others also object to public debt; Thomas Jefferson famously did so (though as President, the realities of governing the infant nation caused him to mitigate his views) saying it also amounts to further enslavement of future generations by forcing them, through their labor, to pay a debt they played no part in incurring. Still others object to laws limiting the ownership of guns, to the military draft, to eminent domain, to all manner of laws that subordinate the liberties of individuals to the interests of the group.

But there are some problems with these arguments. For one thing, it’s not historically true that societies that have done the most to improve lives focus almost exclusively on individual rights without regard to the interests of society. The laws of the United States, for example, are very concerned with the interests of the society as a whole as well, and are structured so as to find the correct balance between the rights of individuals and the interests and responsibilities of the people. ‘We the people’, a collective term, was chosen to as the introduction to the United States Constitution, not ‘we the individual persons’! In fact, the Bill of Rights, enumerating the rights of individuals, was only added after the Constitution, balancing the rights and interests of the people as a whole, was adopted, though its eventual inclusion was a condition for many states to agree to ratify it. The weakness of the United States government under its original Articles of Confederation, a document paying lip service to the political unity of the states without giving the federal government much real authority, was quickly recognized by leaders of the new nation struggling to maintain its newfound autonomy as it struggled to fund the American Revolution and to pay its debts, defend itself, and establish viable systems of trade. The original problem facing the infant United States, in other words, was too much concern for individual liberty and not enough for the welfare of all. The Constitution was adopted to correct this imbalance.

For another, we find that most societies generally considered anti-individualist and generally referred to as socialist, communist, or authoritarian, have not actually promoted the interests of society over individuals, for all their proclamations that that’s what they’re doing. Historically, they have exclusively promoted the ideology of one individual leader or a small group of elites, and imposed a political structure derived from it on the rest of society by crushing political dissent and severely restricting both individual and collective rights. If their policies ended up harming society as a whole, as they generally did, it didn’t matter much, so long as they carried out the will of the leader or the ruling elites. In fact, these sorts of governments could be better described as hyper-individualistic, promoting the interests of one or a few individuals regardless of the cost to society.

So how do we make sense of it all? How can we live together in societies, as we invariably do, and organize ourselves so that we can be as free as possible from the oppression of government and of other individuals? How do we achieve both negative freedom, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, freedom achieved through purposeful action? For human beings, we find that the ability to live a full and free life is tied up with our interconnectedness with our fellow humans as well as with respect for everyone else as individual persons whose worth is equal to our own. Any definition of human freedom or conception of human rights that doesn’t take sufficient account of both of these is incoherent, and not useful for understanding or for devising a better way of living, for individuals or societies.

To see this, let’s imagine what life might be life if the radical individualist view of human nature we just described won out and society operated on the principle that it (society) didn’t really exist. Imagine if the tax-equals-slavery argument was turned around so it was applied consistently: if those who built our tax-funded cities and infrastructure didn’t expressly consent to our personally using them, we shouldn’t be allowed to use them, since we would be benefiting from the fruits of their labor without their consent. This goes for anything paid for by public debt as well: since consent is central to the argument, it’s the consent itself that matters, not the money per se. In fact,So this would apply to anything achieved by collective action if people were compelled by law to contribute.

So in this scenario, we’d need to remove everything that collective action built and taxes and public debt paid for. Remove most roads and bridges, except the small ones on private property built by their owners. Remove the internet. Remove the armed forces, except for local militias. Remove police forces. Remove the polio vaccine, other vaccines, indeed, all medical advances that were achieved through the NIH and as a result of the space race and wars, both tax-funded, hugely expenses, large-scale government endeavors. Remove public lands, national and regional parks, and so on.
And we’d have to go further: remove all other laws of positive obligation which require us to do certain things, and leave only those of negative obligation, which prevent us from interfering with one another’s personal autonomy. Remove laws which require individuals to care for children, the elderly, the incapacitated, and the mentally ill. Remove Good Samaritan laws. Remove laws which require doctors, product manufacturers, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and others to provide, in good faith and to the best of their knowledge, goods and services that won’t harm their clients.

Now imagine the ‘free’ life of the individual living in such a society. We go around constantly on the alert, knowing everyone else is armed, and while there might be laws against harming one another, the only ones who can enforce the law is ourselves. We must remain vigilant at all times, knowing that while most people, due to our evolved human nature as social creatures, don’t wish to kill or hurt one another most of the time, there are always a certain number who are able and willing to hurt others to further their own short-term interests. We may be crippled or die early from polio, or tuberculosis, or a virulent flu, or some other microbe-caused illness unless it just so happens that an enormously wealthy, long-lived philanthropist comes along willing to bankroll the decades-long, probably never-profitable project of discovering the microbe that causes it and developing vaccines which must constantly be updated due to evolution. We would probably never have the opportunity to see a buffalo, almost certainly extinct along with many other species killed in droves in the interests of short-term personal gain.

We can only travel roads, such as they are, by permission of the owner, and will likely have to stop often along the way and pay the tolls necessary to fund their building and upkeep. Because of this, most small businesses would have a terribly difficult time getting their supplies in shipped in or their products shipped out and probably never get off the ground, if runaway monopolies, never limited or broken up by government, didn’t eliminate their competition in the first place. Unless enough people happened to band together voluntarily or one extremely wealthy philanthropic person came along to make such a gigantic land purchase at the right time, we could not choose to rest our bodies and feast our eyes at great, rare natural landscapes such as Yosemite and Yellowstone; such places would be closed off at the whim of the owners; only the wealthy could afford the exorbitant entry fees the owner decided to charge; or they might have been destroyed if, say, an owner at some point decided they could make more money with Half Dome by dynamiting it for its rock or carving it into an image of his own face. The internet may have come into being at some point, but was was the case with the polio and other vaccines, the vast expenditures of time, money, and cooperation of effort required to develop it may have prevented it from ever existing except as funded by a superbusiness, and therefore, entirely controlled by it.

None of this goes to show that only a significant level of taxation and a strong government of laws could ever achieve all of the great advances of civilization and promote the use and preservation of natural resources to their fullest advantage. History shows us that while many liberties and freedoms were only ever obtained when governments intervened, it also tells us that many were brought about through other means: revolution and public unrest, markets, social institutions such as religions and universities, and so on. What this thought experiment does reveal is the intimate ways in which our lives are tied up together with those of others: what others chose or don’t choose to do provides opportunities and places limits on our freedom to choose, and vice versa.

This thought experiment also helps us see how easy it is to think that freedom and liberty are the same. I make this disclaimer from here on out: the two are often used interchangeably, in everyday as well as academic use. But I think that’s a mistake: to help explore the importance issues related to them, we need two words that are related to one another but which contain different shades of meaning, and freedom and liberty are ready and widely understood candidates. So, I’ll use them here more or less as I’ve often otherwise encountered them. Freedom, which enables one to actually chose and act upon as many alternatives that will enhance one’s ability to live a good and happy life as possible, can often come into direct conflict with liberty, which allows one to chose from the widest range of options regardless of consequences. Sometimes, when one is granted the liberty to do as they choose, they restrict the freedom of others. Consider the history of states’ rights’ activism in the United States, ostensibly all about promoting the rights of states to make most of their own laws (do states really have rights?), we find it was actually about giving states free rein to effectively strip away the Constitutional rights of certain of its citizens, and granting individuals license to do the same to one another.

Let’s consider libertarianism, a political philosophy which appears to promote personal liberty as the primary object of a society, sometimes to the extent that freedom seems relegated to a side effect or by-product. Why do I say this? Libertarianism calls for far less restriction of individual liberties than any other political philosophy except anarchism, often regardless of consequences except how it effects the liberty of others. A famous example is the issue of gun rights: libertarians generally regard the right to own guns a fundamental individual right, regardless of the evidence that more gun ownership in a population almost always correlates with far higher rates of gun-related death and injury. So while the liberty of people to own guns is protected, the total amount of freedom enjoyed by people is reduced because, of course, no one gets to enjoy freedom while they’re dead (Those who believe in life after death may disagree, but here I’m speaking in matters of law and society, which belongs entirely to the realm of the living.) There are also less demands placed on individual persons to pitch in and create public goods which enhance people’s lives, give people more choices, relieve people of the burdens of merely maintaining one’s survival, and otherwise promote the freedom to do more things even while specific liberties, such as how to allocate all of one’s own earnings, are curtailed. Whether or not more freedom is achieved, then, appears to be almost beside the point, since individual liberties are sacrosanct, not to be limited or regulated regardless of how this affects the total freedom of the individual or of society as a whole.

My intention is not to pick on libertarianism, since it’s not the only political philosophy whose adherents often fail to recognize the degree to which freedom and liberty can often diverge and to emphasize how much human individuality depends on interpersonal cooperation. While this movement is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of how freedom is best attained, it’s often modified to such as extent that many of its adherents hold very reasonable and enlightened views, and they do right to protest against governmental and corporate abuses of power. We all make such mistakes, on the left as well as on the right of the political spectrum. Many liberals demand more social responsibility in terms of tax-and-spend welfare and government investment in green technology while refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of easily preventable disease, and insist on muzzling people who voice unpopular or uncomfortable opinions by demanding they be fired for what they say in private and disinvited from speaking at universities, and so on. Many conservatives demand that markets remain free from government intervention while voting for legislation that gives corporations free rein to form monopolies and stifle competition, and champion religious freedom while demanding that the religious views of some people take precedence over others in matters of public policy, and enshrined to the exclusion of others in publicly funded spaces, and so on.

I, for one, value actual freedom over actual liberty, since the first is a good which directly affects my ability to live a full and happy life, and liberty is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it promotes actual freedom. And that’s why I, for one, prefer a political system that values freedom over liberty as it simultaneously values liberty as among the most freedom-promoting social good we can bestow on ourselves and one another.

Liberty is not the only way to freedom, far from it. That’s why, politically, I think I could best be described as a progressive, or a democratic republican socialist, since I believe political systems such as these do the best job of balancing individual rights with social well-being, which I think means making the increase of freedom, not just liberty, the primary goal. The reason progressive governments are on balance so successful, I believe, is that they best reflect the reality of the human condition as I’ve just described it: the desire of each individual for complete personal liberty is often in conflict with the ability of each individual to enjoy actual freedom. They protect the individual from unjustified governmental encroachment on their rights; they prevent individuals from encroaching on the rights of one another; they coordinate human efforts in great projects which reap huge benefits for huge numbers of people which smaller-scale efforts are unlikely to achieve; they have a built-in system of public input and of checks and balances through voting, taxation, appointment and hiring of experts in relevant fields of expertise, recall or impeachment of government officials, and so on.

And as we look around the world, where we find societies in which the largest number of individuals and groups enjoy the most freedom and liberty, we also find a constitution with a built-in system for amendment, robust enforcement of the rule of law, equal rights protections which neither the government or citizens are allowed to infringe on, a mixed economy, and a welfare system. And looking throughout history, we fail to find either an autocratic or a libertarian nation that achieved this balance of liberty and freedom through an infrastructure which facilitates both. Either the rights and interests of individuals are routinely ignored and trampled upon by governments in the interests of a few elites (monarchist, communist, and fascist governments fit into this category, even if they present themselves as acting in the name of the people), or individuals routinely ignore and trample upon the rights and interests of other individuals because the government is too weak and ineffectual to defend the people from each other, let alone from other nations (the United States in its first decades of existence, and countless other infant democracies and developing nations). While I find it difficult to imagine how a libertarian or autocratic society could achieve all of these things, I would be interested to see if it could be done. After all, the United States was an experiment in governance, and it did much better than many other nations at protecting individual freedom for many, if not for all; that’s why Abraham Lincoln was so anxious to keep the country together. But frankly, given human psychology and the lessons of history, I’m not holding my breath.

To many, the trick of attaining maximum freedom while simultaneously engendering maximum liberty for all seems like a tall order, if not impossible. That’s why, I suspect, so many of us so readily lean so far to one side or another, since the two seem disparate. But since the two are intertwined and inseparable due to the deep interconnectedness of humanity, for better or for worse, we need to think of the two as just different aspects of the same thing.

There are simple, practical ways of carrying this out, in legislation and in the ways we interact with others in day to day life. When it comes to policy, a good classic example of effectively balancing personal liberty with overall freedom was the old practice of restrictions on carrying guns in American towns. In the country and in their homes, people depended on their guns for food and protection and could have them handy to fight in militias if they choose to join up. However, law enforcement well knew, the close quarters people found themselves in in town could lead to a person with a gun to, in a fit of anger, drunkenness, accident, or poor judgement, permanently remove every freedom another could ever enjoy with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Therefore, when people chose to enter within town limits, they were required to give up their guns so that all could enjoy the freedom of going about their business unhampered by fear, knowing that while in town, no-one’s packing. The liberty of the gun owner was temporarily suspended in favor of the freedom of the many without placing too much of a hindrance on the gun owner’s ability to sustain their daily life. While the distribution of American society has changed, with most Americans now living in urban and suburban communities, a balance different in kind but similar in purpose might be struck. Perhaps all Americans could be allowed to own a gun if and only if they joined a state militia or local reserve branch of the military (as the actual wording of the Second Amendment provides for) so that all gun owners would be registered, trained, recognizable, and publicly accountable.

Thus far, we’ve discussed freedom and liberty extensively without once talking about rights. What are rights, and how are they related to freedom and liberty? A right is a much more nebulous concept, much harder to define or identify, and much more difficult to trace to its origin. For example, is it just something we’re born with? If so, why have human societies differed so much on what they are and whether we even have them, and why must we fight to get them? Are they, then, something we create? If so, why create some and not others? The topic of rights really needs to be the subject of another piece, one which I plan on writing about and about which countless others have written far more ably than I feel sure I ever could. But when we start discussing much more difficult cases in which freedom and liberty conflict, the subject of rights inevitably, and must, come up, if for no other reason that the concept of rights is a cornerstone of American law as it it for all nations who value and promote freedom and liberty. In the meantime, let’s talk about rights as some sort of thing tied up with personhood, we won’t say exactly what, without which persons enjoy neither freedom nor liberty. I think that’s a pretty good starting place, more or less reconcilable with every conception of right I’ve ever explored.

So sometimes, we find that in nature as well as politics, individual human freedom is intimately bound up with the rights and liberty of others, and it sometimes seems nearly impossible to tease out where individual interests, freedom, liberty, and rights begin and end. To explore this, let’s consider an ultimate doozy of a political and moral issues, one that perennially absorbs and divides the public like no other issue: abortion. Particularly, we’ll consider probably the most common argument commonly used in its favor, and perhaps, the most difficult to challenge.

This argument is the bodily rights argument, which holds that an individual’s right to their own body is inviolate. That being the case, a pregnant women has the right to expel or separate anything from her body that she doesn’t want there, just as anyone else would. This must, if that right really is inviolate, includes a fetus. In other words, no-one can ‘force’ a women to remain pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, since that would be a violation of her right to do with her own body as she sees fit.

But do we really believe that our rights to use our own bodies can and should be be unlimited? That’s not the case either. The law, just like other human beings and in fact, nature itself, ‘forces’ us to do things with our own bodies all the time. In fact, there is no such thing as moral or social obligations at all without some sort of demand on our bodies, since, of course, everything we think and do involves its use. For human beings, our freedom, our rights, and our very lives depend on whether or not others support our existence, at least some of the time, with their own bodies. There is no other law that I can think of where the bodily rights argument is the be-all-end-all.

For example, in addition to parental instinct, society uses enforcement of the law to compel parents to care for their children if social expectations haven’t done the trick, and rightly so. A parent must feed, clothe, house, and protect their children, and every single one of these obligations is dischargeable only by the use of the parent’s body, requiring labor, proximity of the parent to the child, and so on. The reason why we demand this is that we believe the child has the right to live, to enjoy the freedom and liberty that only life can bring, but no child can live without the help of their parents or other adults responsible for their care. We would not allow a mother to withhold breastfeeding, for example, if it was the only way a child could survive, or withhold cuddling, embraces, and all other physical manifestations of affection which we know children can’t be deprived of and still grow up healthy. In response to all of this, a bodily rights proponent could object that the fact that the fetus is inside the body, using the resources of the body itself, makes the case of a pregnant woman different and the demands of the fetus more egregious than we can force the mother to accept. However, I don’t see why these objections are particularly compelling, as this is a mere matter of location, not of demands on the body. All parental obligations place significant demands on the parents’ bodies whether or not the fetus’ physical location is within or without; in the case of very young children especially, these obligations hold round-the-clock. In fact, caring for a newborn or offspring of any age is often far more exhausting, far more expensive, demanding, and stressful to the mind and body that rearing a fetus inside the body.

I have yet, in fact, to encounter a defense of the bodily rights argument that’s convincing when it comes to abortion and not convincing in other matters. (‘Officer, I refuse to let you arrest me, since placing me in handcuffs and imprisoning me violates my bodily rights.’ ‘No, judge, I didn’t take my mother to the hospital or call 911 when I observed she was having a heart attack since that’s not what I decided to do with my own body.’ ‘May it please the court to note that when my client purposefully slammed their body into that other person, knocking them off the bridge, they were merely exercising the right to do with their body as they saw fit.’ Etcetera, etcetera.)

The inevitable interconnectedness of human life and its intimate relation to human freedom and liberty is what makes all societies function and upon which all law is built. It’s why, when it comes to arguments for unfettered personal liberty, including abortion rights, I don’t accept arguments such as the bodily rights argument as sufficient justification, since such arguments are derived from artificially atomistic, hyperindividualistic views of human nature,. In the case of abortion, it takes further arguments, such as whether a fetus is a person or whether the mother has the right of self-defense against the fetus that’s putting her life in jeopardy, to decide whether or not a mother has the moral obligation to provide for the development of another human life within her body. (I think that there are arguments that justify abortion in some circumstances; I explore this issue more fully in another piece.)

In all matters of law and order, of personal liberty and freedom for all, of the individual and society, the question of what we want to do, what we should do, and what we allow ourselves and others to do can only be satisfactorily and successfully addressed if our answers are informed by the basic assumption that, for each and every one of us, for there to be any I, we depend on them, and vice versa.

*Listen to the podcast reading of this essay here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”

Shermer, Michael. ‘How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings’, Scientific American, Jan 20, 2015 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-science-can-inform-ethics

Thatcher, Margaret. ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’, Sep 23 1987, archived at MargaretThatcher.org http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/

Jefferson and Slavery

Throughout my history of ideas travel series following Thomas Jefferson, slavery was on my mind a lot: the institution as a whole, and Jefferson’s relationship to it. I was reminded of it constantly: by an original book from his own collection titled ‘The Horrors of Slavery’ now in the Library of Congress, which also displays a slave sale contract between himself and James Madison from 1809; the slave quarters and artifacts at Monticello; museum displays and plaques in D.C., Williamsburg, and Philly; and signs telling the story of his brief but telling correspondence with Benjamin Banneker.

As every student of American history learns early on, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and his stated beliefs contrast sharply with his life as a slaveowner. And nearly every place I find something written about Jefferson, this contradiction is addressed but never really resolved.

Jefferson was in favor of the abolition of slavery early in his career as a lawyer and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Having made little headway in the antislavery cause as a younger statesman, he rather abruptly gave up the fight in the 1790’s, proclaiming it unwinnable in his generation. While he continued to argue now and again that slavery was a moral and political evil, he chose to continue the expensive lifestyle of traveling, entertaining, building, and collecting fine wine, books, and art that he loved. This kept him in debt, so he funded it all the the familiar way: he remained a slaveowner for the rest of his life.

When I was in Philadelphia’s Old City, I visited the site of the President’s House and read the posted stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there during George Washington’s tenure. As I read, I thought of how often I’d heard and read excuses made for Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners, another common theme I encountered throughout my trip. Some sought to minimize their moral responsibility for slaveowning on the grounds they were ‘stuck’ in the institution already so they just had to ‘make the best of it’; others claimed that many were actually working on the problem in their own way but had to go slowly because of how entrenched the institution was, and so on. The most common excuse I encountered was that they weren’t really all that bad as slaveowners; in fact, they were benevolent because ‘they treated their slaves so well’, and their slaves were really better off than many free people of the laboring classes.

These ring hollow to me: they all sound like pretty lame attempts to make sense to ourselves of our history as self-professed champions of liberty who have simultaneously oppressed racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities throughout our history. I had read accounts before of Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and others’ so-called benevolent brands of slaveowning, but when I look around at these artifacts and displays, I really can’t see how true benevolence can ever coincide with that institution. As Jefferson himself wrote in his Notes on Virginia, The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.’

The real answer to that conundrum is: it never made sense, and it never will. Jefferson knew it, evident not only in his embarrassed response to Benjamin Banneker, he said so over and over again, explicitly in some cases, between the lines in others. George Washington knew it too, as evidenced by his changing attitudes on slavery; indeed, all of our nation’s founding generation knew it.

That’s why they fought over the words of the Declaration of Independence, especially the original draft which more plainly revealed the stark contradiction between the colonies’ demand for liberty for themselves while they remained enslavers of others. That’s why they fought over slavery again during the Constitutional Convention and how that weird three-fifths clause got in, because they couldn’t solve the problem of how slaves could be persons deserving representation while neither free nor citizens. That’s why debates over how to treat black Revolutionary war veterans were never satisfactorily resolved, why the John Brown plot happened, why the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War and the Plessy vs Ferguson decision and the 1963 firehosing of the Baltimore Children’s Crusade and the Baptist Church bombing and the riots in Baltimore in 1968 and again this spring happened, and so on and so on.

The only excuse I’ve heard in defense of slaveowners like Jefferson and Washington that makes a particle of sense on the face of it is that freed slaves would likely have a worse time of it on their own than they might have under their protection. Free black people often did suffer terrible mistreatment, including terrible wages, racist criminal codes, segregation, kidnapping, and re-enslavement; freed slaves often had to choose between living where they had few prospects and leaving their still enslaved loved ones behind. Therefore, the argument goes, the attempts of some conscience-stricken slaveowners to keep their slaves while treating them more humanely were really quite benevolent. 

While there’s evidence indicating some good intentions on the part of some slaveowners, this argument just doesn’t hold up that well either when examined in the full light of history. To his credit, Washington kept more slaves on his plantation than was financially healthy for him so that families would not have to be split up, and tried to work out a way to eventually emancipate all of them with some financial provisions. Jefferson was squeamish about allowing slaves to be beaten in front of him and rarely allowed it, and paid many of them bonuses for good work. It seems on the whole, Washington has a far better record when it comes to gentler treatment and concern for the slaves’ own interests, and he freed all of them in his will though he couldn’t bring himself to do it during own his lifetime. It turns out there’s plenty of evidence Jefferson often had others whip his slaves when he wasn’t there to see it, especially when the profits from his nail business dropped off. And Jefferson’s habit of accruing large debts by his habit of living far beyond his means caused almost all of his slaves to all be sold at his death, and many slave families to be broken up, parents, children, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands torn away from one another. 

And many freed slaves actually did do quite well for themselves, or at least as well as they might have otherwise. Plenty of other plantation owners freed their slaves, and many free black people did very well for themselves in the North, West, and even in some areas of the South. Jefferson and Washington could also have allowed their slaves to make the choice for themselves whether or not they wanted to remain under their protection. They had both (Jefferson earlier in life, Washington later) come to the firm conclusion that slavery was morally wrong. They just couldn’t bring themselves to make the hard choices and personal sacrifice to fully act on their convictions.

So it’s not that, as the cliche goes, that we’re judging Jefferson, Washington, and other slaveowners by the standards of our own time, not theirs. Here’s what makes it all the more painful and injurious to our American self-image as bearers of the standard of liberty: we’re judging these Founding Fathers by their own standards, and by the standards of others in their own time, those principled lovers of freedom who did free their slaves, who decided to do the difficult but the right thing, according to the principles of the Declaration and those Washington professed later in life.

As to the issue of ‘treating their slaves so well’: consider what really went into keeping people enslaved besides whippings.

Slaves were denied the chance to make their own decisions and to enjoy the full range of human relationships that free and happy people need. The marriages of slaves were not held sacred by their masters and they could not enjoy the security of family bonds and affection. At any time, wife, husband, sister, brother, parent, and worst of all, children could be taken and sold elsewhere, never to be seen again. This happened all the time, since there was no plantation large enough to hold exponentially increasing slave families. They were provided no incentive to enjoy fulfilling occupations, since they are denied the fruits of their labor, they had a narrow field of roles to choose from or none at all (surely noone chose to be a field hand!) and there was not much personal reward for a job well done. They could be and very often were whipped, denied food and other necessities, and otherwise punished for any infraction, despite wishful hypotheses that slaves were too financially valuable to be treated badly. (Sorry, Pollyannas, history’s not on your side). They often were treated harshly even if the plantation owner didn’t desire or order it because slaveowners relied on their overseers, which they couldn’t watch most of the time, to get results.

And worst of all, because it left slaves most vulnerable to every sort of oppression and robbed them of great solace, slaves were denied education, especially higher education. Enforced ignorance was one of the surest ways to keep slaves from plotting escapes and revolts, to keep them from learning about the wider world they could wish to be a part of, from learning moral and religious arguments against slavery, and from the prospect of a good job if they ran away.

The Bible was often used to justify slavery: there are many instances of slavery in the Old Testament that Yahweh seems perfectly comfortable with, and Paul advises slaves to be obedient to their masters and to return to them if they ran away. Paul does say you should be nice to your slaves, but that’s the farthest his morals go in the matter. Like the myth of the Garden of Eden, Paul tries to instill in his readers a particular moral virtue. But if Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners had read their Genesis a little more carefully, they might have discovered that there’s more there than a simple morality tale about obedience.A closer reading of the Garden of Eden story reveals a much deeper insight: human beings of spirit and will, of wit and intelligence, of curiosity and integrity always have, and always will, long for knowledge and self-determination. And they must and will have it, even if danger, privation, suffering, or destruction be the price.


Sources and Inspiration:

‘Benjamin Banneker’, Africans in America, PBS.org
Letter to Jefferson: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h71t.html
and Jefferson’s response: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h72t.html

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997. https://books.google.com/books/about/Thomas

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves”, Frontline, PBS.org

Wiencek, Henry. ‘The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson’, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2012.