In the book, I point out that America’s “Founding Fathers” (as well as most of the white, male, leaders of the European Enlightenment and historic Liberalism) proclaimed their support for individual liberty in universal language (“we the people”) while creating societies with brutal racial, gender, domestic, and colonial hierarchies. Despite the fact that there has always been such a large gap between the rhetoric and the reality, those words described ideals that have inspired people ever since by allowing the marginalized to demand their own inclusion in legitimate enjoyment of the “rights of the people.”
I wrote that the white, male, generally not poverty-stricken drafters of those history-shaping visions were not self-conscious hypocrites. They spoke in universal and inclusive terms while actively subordinating others because they believed that they embodied all of society rights, needs, and personhood within themselves. The rights, needs, and personhood of everyone subordinate to them – the women, children, servants, employees, slaves, and indigenous peoples – could and was only possible to be expressed and fulfilled through their own liberty.
Tyler Stovall’s new book, White Freedom, explores the racist, patriarchal, and imperialist underpinnings of the philosophical and psychological dynamic that I describe. Stovall describes the effort to legitimize in political philosophy the several-century long fight against the tyranny of divine-right hereditary monarchs and the confinement of individuals into the category of subject, while seeking ways to also legitimize the existing social hierarchies of marketable wealth, male domestic dominance, and expanding colonial conquests. The result was an underlying belief that “personhood” was itself hierarchal, with “cultured” white European men at the pinnacle and everyone else – both women and all non-whites – as incapable of rational thought, productive self-direction, or able to be, in the words of John Stewart Mill’s seminal On Liberty treatise, “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.”
Generalizing the universal from the imperatives of one’s own situation is not unusual. Saying that “what’s good for GM is good for America” is a classic example, equally insidious in its assumptions. But for all their shallowness, the fact that our racist, sexist, and class-snobbing Founders wrote in such universal terms has served us well. As with history in general, the meaning of those words and the way they are operationalized is not about “original intent” but about the evolving needs and power of the people – including those originally treated as being outside the boundaries of that word.