Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, but no mention of Property

Conservatives will often misrepresent the intentions of the Founding Fathers with regards to property. They do so by presenting a little bit of revisionist history through finding quotes that they can take out of context, or by simply fabricating a 18th century intentions and mannerisms through the prism of modern times.

Generally, such people will present themselves as wholly reasonable. They will call themselves critical thinkers. (One has only to look at the laughable name of the Libertarian magazine "Reason" to recognize expropriation - aping an aspiration is not the same as being it).

But, for the most part, these types of Constitutional fundamentalists, these strict constructionists fail to see that there rhetorical ploy is nothing more than that logical fallacy known as a Red Herring. (In other words, there assertion actually has nothing to do with anything that can be found in the Constitution). There are usually more than one logical fallacies mixed up together, but this one will suffice.

Why do I say this? Because, quite simply the society and the people who lived in those times are completely alien to us now. Not "alien" in the sense of foreign, but "alien" in the science fiction sense of almost incomprehensible. For conservatives (Tea Partiers, etc.) to assume that they can speak for that generation of men which included the Founding Fathers is completely fucking stupid.

They lived with a mindset that was wholly medieval. They lived (and this is before the concept of "class" existed) in a hierarchical arrangement that went from God to King to Noble to Gentleman to Yeoman Farmers and Merchants to Serf to Slave. Each role was legitimate, completely natural, and eternally sanctioned and divinely approved. One had better know one's place and be prepared to suffer the consequences of attempting to exercise equality.

Yes, yes, they made noise about liberty and freedom, but those liberties and freedoms were caste specific and stratified. A slave had a certain amount of freedom which, within the confines of his category, were his to enjoy, but only thus. (A woman, no freedoms at all). And the Founding Fathers were intent upon only the slightest modifications as to personal liberties for those under them. Their vision - and it can be found in quotes taken wholly in context and understood properly only in context - was a republic run by a well-educated, well-informed, enlightened, idle, landed gentry through disinterested (and therefore incorruptible and transcendent) representation. No rabble running things for them! No dirty fingernailed, illiterate, ill-mannered filthy mob mucking things up in the halls of government. Mind your place and your tone, my man, and be thankful we exist to govern! No universal suffrage! Gentlemen only in the governing ranks, if you please! (As to one of the foremost proponents of universal suffrage, one who helped to dismantle of the early aristocracy, one has to look, not to Jefferson, but to a compatriot of his, an unpleasant man called Abraham Bishop).

Here, perhaps is a classic example of what a gentleman is, one whose appendages are wholly useless to him. The future president John Adams, on traveling to England, was asked to man the bailing pumps aboard his sailing ship, a duty to which every passenger was bound. John Adams refused. He would rather drown than perform undignified, ungentlemanly manual labor. (It was only later, through appropriate face saving narratives that our other great historical figures were seen to somehow perform labor, thus George Washington could be seen to be a hard worker, riding his horse from sunup to sundown, managing his interests through his slaves).

Universal suffrage, the ability form the common man to represent himself in government, was still some thirty to forty years in the future at the time of the signing of the Constitution. In fact, such is the complaints and grumbling of our Founding Fathers about the failure of the Revolution, that once universal suffrage had come to pass, "any common jackass could run for office".

What is unrecognized about the Revolution, perhaps the most radical and fundamental change to come about, was the transformations Americans made in their understanding of property. We went from a medieval to a modern worldview. (In fact, it can be argued that the classic "propertarianism", your standard modern bonehead Libertarian view, is nothing more than an attempt to return to feudalism - in that the social contracts regarding property take precedence over all other contracts).

In classical pre-universal-suffrage thought, property, landed property required no representation or protection. It was wholly proprietary, part of a gentleman's identity and the source of his authority. It was not a commodity, not something to be acquired through labor, nor bought nor sold upon the market. And being so, free of the caprices of the market, a gentleman was unassailably free from special interest (the incorruptibility mentioned above), and the thus perfectly suited to govern. (This philosophical position, unassailable through logical analysis, quickly fell apart under empirical - more worldly - conditions).

If property were a mere material possession, why then any jackass had an equal right to acquire it, and it (the right to property) would become, as the 1820 convention notes of the New York Republicans put it, "only one of many incidental rights of the person who possessed it", but still "insignificant and trifling" compared to "other essential rights". This, then is why there is no mention of property in any of the so-called "hallowed" texts of the conservative fundamentalists - neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the Constitution.

This no doubt, if it were ever truly comprehended by today's conservatives, if it could make it through the thick gelatinous wall of ignorance constructed around their fossilized skulls, would probably drive them into an apoplectic fit. But then, the Founding Fathers would look down on these moderns pipsqueaks anyway: peasants, proletarians, dirty filthy laborers daring to live above their station.

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