Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and something I just learned today, a savvy and successful financial speculator. She is one of the most well-known figures in American history because of the voluminous and well-preserved correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

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!

Photobook: Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag Captured by Union Soldiers on June 14th, 1861

Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag captured by Union soldiers on June 14th, 1861, Old State Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois.

The claim that the Southern states seceded primarily over the Constitutional issue of states’ rights issues is an oft-repeated one, and I think a troubling one for many reasons. For one thing, it’s part of a long tradition of trying to sidestep or minimize the problems of race-based slavery and the resulting intransigent racism that has plagued our country since its formative years, often on the part of people who don’t want to support laws that promote racial equality. For another, this states’ rights claim was as disingenuous then as it is now: the Southern states seceded not because the federal government was trying to stop slavery in their states. There was, as yet, no concerted attempt to do so. They were incensed that the federal government, in their view, was not doing enough to enforce the legal right to own slaves in free states: by forcing local governments and private individuals, against their own philosophical and religious convictions, to return escaped slaves; to allow slaveowners to retain their rights to own slaves when they traveled and even moved to free states; and to extend the rights to own slaves to new territories.

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Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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!

Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington!

Booker T. Washington sculpture in the Mission Inn gardens, Riverside, CA, photo by Amy Cools 2017

‘My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia. After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there. Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents. At Hampton I found the opportunity — in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous — to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.’ ~ Booker T. Washington, ‘The Awakening of the Negro‘, Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess.

Be that as it may, Washington’s ideas drove him to work harder to create educational and economic opportunities for his fellow black citizens than just about anyone else we could name. And given his hard work, his integrity in staying true to his vision despite attacks from all sides, and his premature death by stress and overwork, the charge of ‘coward’ often leveled at him is, in my few, manifestly false and undeserved.

Learn more about the great yet controversial Booker T. Washington here, in fact, in praise, and in blame:

The Awakening of the Negro – by Booker T. Washington for the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) – by Lawson Bush for Blackpast.org

Booker T. Washington and the White Fear of Black Charisma – by Jeremy C. Young for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog

Booker T. Washington: American EducatorEncyclopædia Britannica

Pride and Compromise – Shelby Steele’s review of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell

Speech to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia – September 18, 1895 – Booker T. Washington radio broadcast at American Radio Works

*I had the honor of interviewing Kenneth Morris last year; he’s an activist against modern slavery (wage slavery, sex trafficking, and other forms of coercive exploitation) and a direct descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, each a preeminent figure in American civil rights history and each with a radically different approach to achieving equal civil status for their fellow black citizens. However, they had three things in common: an essential pragmatism combined with as much idealism, a deep love of their people, and an abiding trust that the universal human instinct for justice would win in the end.

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

On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

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!

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!

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson, Jan 16th 2016

I’m ple6759b-amy2band2bjeffersonased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.

I’m a long time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

I highly, highly recommend you give the Thomas Jefferson Hour a listen, you can find it at www.jeffersonhour.com, along with many other resources on the life and ideas of Jefferson, and Clay’s other work in the humanities.

You can find the accounts of my two series on Jefferson, as part of the Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, here and here.

I interview Clay here in character as Thomas Jefferson, as he does on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, discussing various issues as Jefferson himself might have viewed them, informed by Clay’s extensive scholarship on his life and expressed views.

I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!

You can also subscribe to the Ordinary Philosophy and Thomas Jefferson Hour podcasts on iTunes.

*Thank you, Shane and David, for your help and technical support

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