Sunday, September 23, 2012

Monuments to freedom, reminders of power and privilege

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit two places I’d always wanted to see - the homes of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Both are the mansions of their day, and reflect the men who lived in them, their lifestyle and the age in which they were born and lived.  They are monuments to freedom, but they are also reminders of power and privilege.

While Madison is billed, with his wife, Dolly, as the most powerful couple of their day, Jefferson was, going by the size and elaborateness of his estate, the wealthier man.  He also spent half of his adult life serving his country, mostly away from his property.  Madison was a small man, unhealthy and sickly, so he didn’t travel well.  He never left the US and spent as much time as his service to the US allowed at his home, Montpelier.

George Washington also spent a lot of time away form home, and begrudged every minute, according to his many friends and associates, attested to in his many letters noting that unhappiness.  But he had much the larger estate and a much more self-sufficient one than the other two, apparently.  Plus, it was closer to Washington.

What did these three men have in common, apart from their obvious fame as Founders of this great country?

Money, inherited social station and the power that came with it, and land.  All three were powerful and wealthy landowners, influential in their local colonies and throughout the thirteen as time went on.  This was, as it turns out, a powerful reason why the colonies got into strife with England.  The various actions England took hurt the pocketbooks of the more powerful and wealthy of the movers and shakers in the thirteen colonies, and together, they eventually got together and decided to do something about it.  It never hurt that much of England’s activities in this regard hurt a lot of the common folk too, as their support was crucial to the eventual success of the Revolution, but I’d wager that if folks like Jefferson and Washington hadn’t felt that pain too, it might have never gone anywhere.

Why?  Plain and simple, power.  Jefferson, Washington and Madison represent the elite of the colonies, men who manipulated the strings of power in their local legislatures.  Other people listened to them, because they were the landed aristocracy.

Don’t forget, this was still a feudal system.  All of the land in the colonies was ceded to them by land grants from the King.  You didn’t own your property, the King did and you just kind of rented it from him.  Of course, there was a complex form of sublease and outright purchase of grants, but in the end, the king was the Big Kahuna.  (Remember, it’s good to be the king!)

Slavery was accepted as a common thing, and a natural part of life.  The economy depended in part on this low cost labor, and the elaborate lifestyle of the wealthy was not possible without that forced labor.

Yes, that included the men who, in our Declaration of Independence, declared that all men are, and of right ought to be, free and independent from the oppression of the landed aristocracy of Europe!  Jefferson owned, in his lifetime, over 600 slaves.  Madison owned around 200, and Washington around the six hundred figure, some his, some his wife’s and some leased from a neighbor.

At least these three, and probably others, expressed misgivings about being beholden to a system which allowed them to enslave others, and only Washington successfully ended up freeing his, albeit after his death.  Both Jefferson and Madison’s families had to sell slaves to hold onto the property, and all of them left huge debts which eventually required their estates to be sold to satisfy.  But none of them could find it in themselves to sacrifice their own personal lifestyle to apply their high principles to their own circumstances.

The framework of the society they were born into and raised to rule was a feudal one, and brutal in the extreme by modern standards.  There was no health insurance, few doctors, almost no hospitals at all, and if you went broke, you were on the streets overnight.  Debtor’s prisons were legal and full of the unfortunate. Slaves were fed and cared for at a minimum level, as cheaply as possible, and even free men were paid little for their honest labor.

Materials were expensive, though.  Much of the cost of almost anything was due to material cost.  Transportation was slow and subject to banditry and piracy, necessitating the additional cost of armed protection at times.  Production methods were primitive, meaning slow and difficult in many ways.   There was no mass production, everything was produced one at a time, by craftsmen, limiting the numbers which could  be produced.  Go back to your Economics classes - fewer goods meant higher prices!

These were the conditions existing in the thirteen colonies in the late 1700’s.  Life was hard, short and brutal.  Disease was often fatal, as medicine was primitive.  Political power was wielded by a landed aristocracy which inherited that power and wealth by blood.  It was maintained by brute force - dissent was brutally eliminated.

Enter the Founders.  Men of power and privilege, landed and wealthy, somehow, they found, in the Enlightened educations they received, the principles which led them to boldly propose a new and dangerous experiment upon the success of the Revolution:  Democracy.  The idea that all men were equal in rights and able to become Enlightened enough to participate in the ruling of their own society!  Imagine!  To propose the idea that their own class of social privilege should be stripped of its exclusive power - what a bold and Enlightened ideal!

Bold, yes, and dangerous.  Each man so dedicated to the cause that he risked his fortune, his honor, even his very life and that of his family to the proposition that the King could be stripped of his connections to the thirteen colonies of the New World.  Many of them spent literally years in this endeavor.  Travel was hard.

Monticello is over a hundred miles from where Washington was to be built, a distance of over a week's travel.    Philadelphia was weeks beyond that.  Even Montpelier and Monticello, only thirty miles apart, were a hard day’s travel from each other.  This kind of travel meant hardship and time away from their families and leaving the oversight of their extensive estates to wives or other trusted family members, for most, years at a time.

The commitment of these men to the birth of a new nation, dedicated to a set of principles which was likely to sweep away the very framework of their power and privilege, is remarkable.

When I was a kid, we were taught a history about these guys, one which set them up as almost demigods.  Perfect representations of an ideal character, selflessly risking all to bring freedom and liberty to a new nation!  Cherry tree and all.

Lost were the things which would have made them real people.  The privilege, the slaves, the wealth.  The little things, like Jefferson’s attempt to take mockingbirds to Europe to teach them the wondrous songs of the warblers of the Continent - which resulted in birds who only learned to repeat the creakings of the ship’s timbers in the holds in which they were transported back and forth!  Or Washington’s instructions to his overseers allowing them to beat his slaves for infractions - even the female slaves.  Madison’s outrage at 14 when he was made to assist in moving furniture into his parents new home - with a slave!

These stories were literally white washed.  Made clean and unobjectionable, perfecting them for history, making this country’s birth into a clean and proud process of struggle against oppression.  Gone was the brutality, the filth, the slow agonizing deaths, the maimed and sick.  The closest we ever got was the descriptions of the harsh winter at Valley Forge, included to illustrate heroism in the face of hardship.

Gone was the colonial strife over religion, imprisoned preachers for preaching the wrong sect’s teachings or leading an illegal worship service, or the forced imposition of taxes to support a single, privileged sect at the exclusion of all others.

Today, after two hundred plus years of scholarship, many of these details are being rediscovered.  Many on the right wing of our political spectrum have been outraged at the “contamination” of these nice clean stories by what they see as attempts to tear down our heroes, to make them seem weak and less than demigods.

The reality is that these details provide a better depth and breadth to the story.  They fill in the gaps, giving the reasons for why people did things, and making the sacrifices greater and more remarkable.  Instead of being demigods, the Founders become real men, men of wealth and privilege who nevertheless agonized over their choices, realized the hypocrisy of their actions, but were unable to overcome their very real concerns about personal lifestyle.  Their actions become more remarkable when you see the enormous risks they took and the dedication becomes more intense as you see the sacrifices they made in their efforts to build this great political experiment.  We see that the Revolution wasn’t the end of the Enlightenment of this country, but the opening of a new era of enlightened growth, enabling Americans to begin the process of developing the next great stage of bringing the world out of the darkness of feudalism and into an age of humanity and justice.

Democracy and justice have taken root in Europe in the intervening two hundred years, and indeed, have almost exceeded our own hopes and dreams, so that Jefferson and Madison would feel great hope for mankind knowing that the seed of liberty has spread beyond these shores.

But be warned.  The enlightenment is NOT over.  The forces of feudalism, oligarchy and religious oppression have not been defeated!  All three are alive and fighting hard in this country and are doing everything possible to undermine this first experiment in modern democracy.  The Citizens United decision by the SCOTUS is living proof that their capacity for unpleasantness and influence in the halls of power here are as strong and insidious as ever.  The groups pushing Dominionism still work to limit the freedom of religious worship and enforce their barbaric, ancient code of patriarchal power and oppression on a society too distracted by materialism to know the danger involved.

This election is an important waypoint on the road to enlightening the world.  It is important that the forces of darkness which seek to limit man’s freedom, re-enslave womankind and bring us back to the carelessness of the colonial era’s brutal treatment of the less privileged classes of society are defeated, finally and for all time.  This isn’t a final turning point, but it is an important election in its own right, liable to put another nail into the coffin of power and privilege for the few and the self-important.

I don’t know if those who have been fooled by the lies and the distortions of the oligarchs and the clerics will ever be able to see how their good intentions have been twisted and diverted to supporting the demise of their own freedom, but one can still hope that their eyes can still be opened.

Let’s hope so, the liberty and freedom of us all depend on it.


Tom Drisdale said...

I totally agree with you

Robert Ahrens said...

Thanks, Tom!