TF’s No BS History Corner: Fear of the “Contagion of Liberty”

Hello, dear ones. How are you holding up?

Today we’re going to talk about an important historical phenomenon that just won’t die, though we don’t talk about it as people used to. Today we’re talking about fears of the “contagion of liberty,” those insidious beliefs of our mythologized founding fathers (lo, the paternalism!) which limited their rhetoric about the republic and freedom to them and their buddies.

Yeah, I know.

For the first several decades in the life of our fair nation, access to basic liberties such as the right to vote (in local, state and federal elections, though the first two varied place to place) was sharply limited. You had to be white. You had to be male. And you had to own property.

As an aside–did you know the original declaration of independence said colonists had the right to “life, liberty and property” but was revised to “pursuit of happiness?” Telling, isn’t it?
Contagion of Liberty
Thomas Jefferson. A man of great political acumen, but not worthy of the mythology that surrounds him.

How much property you had to own varied, but you needed to check all three boxes to have access to liberty-related things. Thomas Jefferson, writer of “life, liberty and property” had some pretty serious ideas about the importance of property; he envisioned a country dotted with farms, gathered into villages, in which every white dude–having a real stake in the community because of his farm–was an informed voter, because of that stake. He thought republicanism–that is, a government system with representatives of the people–could only flourish in these conditions. If you didn’t own land, tough titty for you.

He and his fellow “fathers” spoke fearfully of what they called the “contagion of liberty”–that people outside their little landed white dude circle could want what they had in terms of political access and rights. This, they felt, was to be avoided–just look at their language! Liberty=good but contagion=bad. Urban mechanics? Nope, no liberty for them–they weren’t wizened enough to use the vote well. They didn’t own land, after all, even if they were white. Privilege was intensely bound up with property rights, and men like Jefferson firmly believed that a vote had to be wielded only by those with the greatest knowledge. Or, acres. Since the two were, evidently, interchangeable.

Sigh.

Fear of the contagion of liberty was highly inspired by other fears: that of slave insurgency, and abolitionism (the end of slavery) more generally. They saw the uprising in Haiti–historically, the only successful slave rebellion–that led to a free nation. French colonizers were run right off the island. Again, let’s look at Jefferson–the man’s plantation was large and hundreds of enslaved people were compelled to labor there. Should such men and women come to identify–and many did–with the ethos of the American revolution of liberty and life, well, damn. America had more slaves than Haiti; shit could get very real.

So again, the Founding Paternalists doubled down on their rhetoric–no liberty and justice for all, but for the few. White, male, propertied. Their legacy is alive and well: gerrymandering–redistricting areas to benefit one party, and often to defraud people of color of the vote–is one example. Very specific voter ID requirements and related legislation has also led to the lower turnout of voters, primarily voters of color, in states like Wisconsin, by making it much harder for them to meet voting qualifications. Ari Berman at Mother Jones–a left-leaning publication that has some top-notch reporting–has a thorough new report on Wisconsin’s rigged system. When politicians work to reduce access to the franchise, they’re expressing fears of the contagion of liberty–and that’s a pretty way of saying they prefer a world where only they have access to freedom, to “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Given the perspectives of the same people on reproductive health and women, we can see paternalism reeking in here as well–they know better than us about so many things! Bound up in the privilege of whiteness, maleness, and wealth, the sinister practices of the past continues in our present.

 

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A Personal Impact of Awful Politics: I Haven’t Been Frugal, and I Miss my Kitchen

Lord, y’all.

The nation’s political situation feels, when I’m not optimistic, like the nation is wrecked. It’s never been perfect, but it’s always had fantastic ideals worth striving for. It has always proclaimed it was exceptional for its freedom, its liberties: a point I always thought was nonsense (we’re not exceptional, we’re like much of the rest of the world) but the country’s dedication to an ethos of liberty and justice feels utterly abandoned lately. Combined with my busy schedule and the financial exhaustion of the two kittens when they were in the vet’s weekly, well, I’ve kind of abandoned my frugality. I’ve been wrestling with unfrugal politics.

An accounting:

Target makes abandonment of frugality easy: I’d go in for something I needed, and walked out with stuff I wanted. first I got a new wreath for the door. And a new nail polish. Then a new base coat for the nail polish. And a new handbag. And then I needed moisturizer and to “save” money, I didn’t get my overpriced jar at Sephora but a less-expensive-but-still-expensive one at Kiehl’s. I don’t feel too guilty about any of that, which makes me wonder a little. In addition, we’ve eaten out a fair amount, and I’ve returned to more-frequent coffees on the go rather than in my office or at home.

Isn’t it lovely on our blue door? So autumnal! Like everything’s fine!

I kind of miss cooking, but I think what I truly miss is the sense of contentment I had that was linked to cooking–an “all is right with the world” feeling that allowed me to really enjoy the process of creating in the kitchen. Even when I cooked to alleviate stress or anger, that stress or anger wasn’t usually as existential as my stress and anger currently is. I’ve been wanting to be out instead in part to avoid the chore of thinking about cooking and to keep myself entertained by others rather than by Twitter, which only fuels my anger.

At some point I need to reconnect with the me who loves to create in the kitchen. I need to persevere beyond my frustration, sadness and anger at the current state of the nation. Self-nourishment can be one way to do so. I need to reconnect with the “things don’t buy happiness” mantra I’ve long abided by, as well. It felt good, tho, to splurge a little on stuff for myself–I rarely buy stuff for myself.

Rather than head for take-out for my lunch/dinner today, I made some chicken pot pie filling from frozen rotisserie meat and some fridge/freezer veggies, ladled on a bowl of egg noodles. I might bake some sweet potato muffins later. A little comfort food goes a long way sometimes.

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On Ambition

on ambition
It won’t be long until this is my office and you can’t find me.

I took on another committee position at my job. I’m a tenured professor who overdoes it in the “service to the university” category regularly. In addition to being the vice chair of the faculty, I’m now the chair of promotion and tenure–the committee which initially handles and judges all applications for promotion and tenure. I was terrified of this committee when I first started my job. Now I’m the boss.

I took the spot in part because no one else wanted it–three of us were qualified, and the other two were “not it” before I could speak. “Not it” is a pretty common phenomenon in higher ed–in part, because we’re all teaching and already doing a zillion ‘service’ jobs (service is the name for committee work and other voluntary activities done outside of teaching. It’s one of the three legs of the higher ed stool–if you’ve got a coveted and unicorn-rare tenure-track position, you usually need to provide evidence routinely of the three legs in order to move through the pipeline to tenure. The third leg is research).

Major positions like this one have long been the bastion of men, as they’re pretty powerful in terms of one’s campus. I didn’t think much of it, because my university is heavily populated by women. But when I told another group of women from other unis that I would have to leave my work with them in order to take on chairing promotion and tenure, they were full of congratulations–not just because I’d gotten the position, but because I’m one of few women to do so.

That gave me some real pause. And what had felt, in part, like a job I had little choice in doing, I now felt loomed with significance. I was proud to take on the chairperson-ship. And I began to think about my ambition, however subtle, in wanting the spot to begin with; and why I’d been quiet about it, deferring to the others (all women) before saying I’d chair.

Are we as women sometimes ashamed of our own ambition, particularly when it’s not expected of us? Even those of us who are really tuned into the way our sexist society works have evidently consumed enough of the Kool-Aid to participate in sexist thinking from time to time, as I did. I was all “well, if you want me to chair,  I will” rather than “I’d like to be chair, everyone.” Women have long learned to couch what they want in subtle language, deferring to others, apologizing. How often do you start a convo, ladies, with “I’m sorry to bother you but…” Hell, I apologize to inanimate objects when I bump into them. I am not so different from most women, even though I’m tuned into the “don’t take up space, don’t demand” ethos in which women are socialized.

Even so. In any case, as my colleague at work said, I’m now “a really big deal.” And I’m glad of it.

 

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