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

  1. Sometimes I’m optimistic about the progress we’ve made. And other times I’m like… we’re barbarians. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are the “life, liberty, and property” of today, you’re absolutely right.

    1. I hear you–I’m generally optimistic as well, but when I was teaching “contagion” and Jefferson the other day it clicked for me that this is the same shit, over and over.

      Wait until I tell you about Jackson. The parallels, man…

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