Today is the 235th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. In the political sphere, the Fourth of July is usually a time for trumpeting the perceived greatness of America. Those more nationalistically inclined take the opportunity to repeat various facets of the standard American Exceptionalist line.
Whenever the booming proclamations of American perfection are made, my thoughts always tend to wander into the various criticisms of the rosy picture of America’s founding. Despite the praise that is poured onto this era – especially of late by the Tea Party – most people would certainly be horrified if they were suddenly dropped into the time period of the founding. After all, the founders sought to and did construct a society in which every person was excluded from equal treatment except wealthy white men.
What interests me about the intentional inequality of the system put in place by the revolutionaries is the arguments that were used to support it. There is a fundamental tension that has to be resolved between the liberal ideology that was claimed to motivate the founders and the government they actually installed. Liberalism’s promise of equality and freedom for all is clearly inconsistent with inequality – and even enslavement – for most.
To somehow make this contradiction work, arguments had to be offered to explain the exclusion. For women, the argument of the era was that they were inferior – mentally, physically, and otherwise – to men. For people of color, the argument was the same, but more severe: not only were they inferior, they were not even full persons.
For poor white men however, the argument had to be different. Appealing to inherent inferiority is inadequate to justify the unequal treatment of poor white men since they share the same inherent qualities as wealthy white men. If they are not inherently inferior to wealthy white men, then on what basis can they be excluded from equal rights (e.g. the equal right to participate in the sovereign through voting)?
There were, as with most things, multiple arguments given for this exclusion. Two arose in this period that interest me. First, James Madison famously argued that government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Denying the vote to poor white men, Madison claimed, is necessary because if they had a vote, the government of the country would surely be directed away from the protection of property. The liberal imperative to protect individual property is then practically in conflict with the liberal imperative of equality, and clearly the former trumps the latter for Madison.
The second argument comes from Immanuel Kant who of course is not a founder of America, but a liberal philosopher writing in the era. Kant argued that in order to vote, an individual must be a citizen, a term which he clearly defines in Theory and Practice:
The only qualification required by a citizen (apart, of course, from being an adult male) is that he must be his own master, and must have some property (which can include any skill, trade, fine art or science) to support himself. In cases where he must earn his living from others, he must earn it only by selling that which is his, and not by allowing others to make use of him; for he must in the true sense of the word serve no-one but the commonwealth.
What is interesting about the arguments from both Kant and Madison is how closely they line up with the basic anti-capitalist arguments that pop up later in the writings of communists, socialists, and anarchists, most famously Marx. The idea from Madison that if the working people were truly able to express themselves politically they would tear down the present slate of property arrangements could be ripped right out of The Communist Manifesto.
The idea from Kant that wage workers (which is the class of people he excludes from citizenship) are not truly their own masters, but are dependent on and controlled by those who they work for, is a classic argument in favor of socialism. The supporters of socialism argue that only when workers own the workplace they labor in will they truly be their own masters.
Although Madison and Kant did not have in mind the same remedies as the anti-capitalists did, they did seem to agree on the same description of the state of affairs. Their response to what they saw as the lack of independence and the antagonistic position of poor white men was to disenfranchise them. The response of the anti-capitalist philosophers was to empower them.