Sunday, March 13, 2005

Historical Context & the Founding:

I think we need to keep historical context in mind when trying to better understand political and moral issues.

The phenomenon of historicism -- judging people and places not through present or timeless moral standards, but rather in strict historical isolation of that particular place and time in question -- sometimes confuses more than it enlightens. And plucking from historical context to argue for or against a particular agenda often results in a distortion or abuse of history.

The Left and the Right engage in both historicism and out of context citations of historical matters when it fits their respective agendas.

Take the Founding, for instance. Social conservatives often isolate the beliefs and practices -- the "original intent," if you will -- of the People in the late 18th Century in order to win arguments over the proper interpretation of the Constitution, or to otherwise shed light on what exactly it is that Founds America.

If you look at the role that religion played in American public life, what the Founders permitted in practice was a far cry from the ideal "Separation of Church & State" that the ACLU desires.

Moreover, they were a lot tougher on crime -- the common law penalty for all Felonies generally was execution, and the punishments were meted out within days. Prisons were a novel invention around the time of the Founding. Franklin enthusiastically supported them. Before prisons, you were either executed or if not a felony, then fined, whipped, or put into the stockades.

And the Founders certainly didn't tolerate public indecency as we would understand it -- Jerry Springers and Howard Sterns (although privately, many were probably kinky -- perhaps Jefferson and Paine, most definitely Franklin). "Sodomy" was universally a felony (although "homosexuals" as a constitutive class of people were unknown).

Okay, score some points for the social cons there.

But then again, plucking from historical context and comparing then to now, we might rightly conclude that our Founders tolerated monstrous evil far worse than we do today, that their participation in grossly inhumane institutions -- slavery being the worst, but other things as well, like dueling, tarring & feathering, and other forms of barbaric punishments, treating women as property of their husbands -- made them such morally flawed individuals that we can't seriously use them as any kind of moral guidepost against which we would judge our present day actions. George Washington was a man who exhibited more public dignity than Jerry Springer. True, Springer terribly exploits members of the Black Underclass. But at least he never owned blacks as slaves and George Washington did.

Aha, and there is where social conservatives start to make historically relativistic arguments (even though historicism is something generally associated with the Left): Don't judge the Founders according to our present moral standards.

And I agree with these conservatives on this point: I don't agree with "debunking" the founding as racist, sexist, classist, slavery evil. We do have to put things in context. Slavery was an institution that was universally, Cross-Culturally Practiced, for as long as time could record. It is the second oldest institution, right behind the family. Slavery was an unquestioned natural fact of life. You can't blame people for doing wrong if they didn't know what they were doing was wrong.

Now is it true that the founders didn't know slavery was wrong? No, many knew it to be wrong. But slavery's immorality was only established or "discovered" fairly recently in historical terms, before the Founding. From time immemorial till shortly before the Founding, slavery's moral legitimacy went unquestioned. So while our Founders knew it to be wrong, they had inherited an institution and had not yet found a way to end it. Even though many of them did want to end it and other Western nations (but no non-Western nations) were in the process of ending slavery in that relative time period (late 18th Century, but mostly early to mid 19th Century).

So we founded a nation that at once permitted slavery but nonetheless rested our public principles on a "natural rights" foundation that denied the moral legitimacy of the practice: "All men are created equal." Our natural rights understanding led to restrictions on slavery (even where it was permitted), the abolishing of the slave trade, and eventually a bloody-civil war that put an end to legal slavery in Western Civilization once and for all.

So if rather than plucking from context, we look at where the Founders were coming from and in which direction they were moving, our Founders practically looked like progressive liberals, for their time (at least, a great deal of them did).

But here's the problem for social conservatives: The Founders -- especially those idealist, philosophically-minded (natural rights) ones -- practically looked like progressive liberals on a whole host of other issues as well, viewed in historical context. Take Religion -- plucked from context, and looking at what the Founders permitted (as I understand, even Jefferson and Madison used public Federal grounds for Church Ceremonies) it appears that most Founders would disagree with the ACLU's application of their principles. Yet, put into historical context...the same natural rights principles that put an end to slavery also resulted in the greatest disempowerment of religion from government (or "Separation of Church and State") that the Western World has ever seen.

Under the Old order, the Churches were the State and vice versa. Religious orthodoxy was enforced through public law. And it's true that while our Constitution of 1789 permitted states to retain their Establishments, just as it permitted states to practice slavery, by 1833 the last state Establishment was ended in Massachusetts. That was 32 years before slavery was ended, and we didn't need a civil war to fully disestablish religion in America, Thank God.

The same Natural Rights ideals that put an end to slavery also demanded that the religion of "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination" be put on an equal legal footing with one another (and obviously, having a legal establishment of religion and living up to that ideal was impossible). Now that was a truly radically progressive sentiment for the time. And in some ways, even for today. But it represented the Madisonian-Jeffersonian natural rights ideal. In short, it represented the Declaration of Independence, properly understood.

Even John Adams, thought to be more socially conservative than Jefferson and Madison, was deeply suspicious of Calvinistic-organized Christianity. You'd have to look at his private correspondence in order to learn this. But that's only because the Churches -- even though History was not on their side -- still possessed a great deal of at least social, if not legal influence. Adams as a Unitarian disbelieved in the Trinity. Yet he didn't go around publicly bashing that doctrine because he could find himself in a whole heap of Trouble were he to do so. Thomas Paine did publicly take shots at Religious Sacred Cows and paid a great price for it, dying a pauper. Even in the one letter to Thomas Jefferson where Adams lets Jefferson know why he disbelieved in the Trinity, the context of that letter was that it was 1813 and Britain had just decriminalized their law making it a crime to publicly deny the Trinity! That alone should tell us much about the theocratic point in time they were coming out of and in which direction our Founders were moving.

How to properly understand the Founding does indeed depend on how we look at it and in what context. But if we look at the Founding, idealistically and in which direction History was progressing, social conservatives are bound to be disappointed (just as social liberals are bound to be disappointed by the practices and understanding of public morality common at the time of the Founding).

Harry Jaffa famously said that America ought to be understood according to its ideals, not its compromises with its ideals. Jaffa is a social conservative and not every social conservative -- wisely enough (for their agenda) -- endorses Jaffa's sentiment. Robert Locke hits the nail on the head as to why they ought not do so.

To argue that the essence of the Constitution lies in "the ideals of the Constitution, not its compromises," as Straussian scholar Henry [sic] Jaffa has done, is precisely the opposite of the truth. The compromises are of the essence of the thing, and these compromises deliberately and ruthlessly subvert attempts to abstract "propositions" out of it. The founders were perfectly well aware of the trouble abstract ideology can cause: in the 18th century, it produced the French Revolution; in the 20th, judicial activism.

But in this article Locke also freely admits, even embraces the "Truth" that many social conservatives shy away from:

Crucial facts about what America was founded on are deliberately hushed up by both liberals and conservatives and admitted only by the non-respectable Left and the non-respectable Right. Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. The Constitution, as originally written, holds that our ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid.

Francis Fukuyama probably fits somewhere between Locke and Jaffa:

Now, by the French Revolution, we don't mean just the limited historical event; what we mean is the emergence of what we understand as modern liberal democracy because in the French Revolution, ultimately what it was about was a revolution in favor of the principles of liberty and equality. Now you could substitute the American Revolution for that because, I think in that kind of ideological sense, those two revolutions were equivalent. I mean, they were both revolutions to create what I earlier defined as a liberal democracy as a political system based on popular sovereignty with guarantees of individual rights.

In other words, ideals of liberty and equality abstracted from the Founding can get us out of slavery, giving us an anti-slavery Founding; but these ideals just as easily could give us the French Revolution and the so-called Judicial Activism of the modern era.

1 comment:

Panther said...

I hope you don't mind I'm straight. As a person it is unfathomable the cruelty conservative religion imposes on you. "Love thy neighbor" is a commandment not "Thou Shalt not love Thy male neighbor".

It's not their business anyway.

"You know religion has a lot to answer for" (Iron Maiden)