As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, American liberalism that sounded very good in theory has a serious flaw in practice. It is not too far out of the realm of possibility that this flaw may have contributed to John Henry Newman’s inability to see any difference between the English and European types of liberalism and the American type. We refer, of course, to chattel slavery.
|George III, House of Hannover|
When George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, his first paragraph ran as follows: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
As we also saw in the previous posting, if this sentence was allowed to pass unchallenged, the implication was that slave owners were themselves engaged in doing the very thing for which they were condemning George III and his parliament, viz, violating natural law. Thus, as Robert Rutland described the events surrounding the discussions leading up to the ratification of the Virginia Declaration in his short biography of Mason,
|Thomas Ludwell Lee|
After each delegate studied the proposals, the general debate opened on a sour note. Thomas Ludwell Lee [Mason’s aide on the drafting committee] lamented in his nightly letter-writing sessions that “a certain set of aristocrats” had thrown up a line of defense in an effort to keep control of the Convention in conservative hands. Led by Robert Carter Nicholas, the old guard “kept us at bay on the first line” of the draft, Lee reported. Nicholas challenged the statement that all men are created equally free and independent. In a slaveholding society, the argument ran, all men were obviously not born free and equal. To pretend otherwise, the conservatives suggested, was to invite civil war on their own estates. (Robert Rutland, George Mason, Reluctant Statesman. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1961, 51-53)
Consistent with the political philosophy many of the delegates had imbibed from Locke and, to a greater degree, Sidney, the conservative members amended Mason’s language. This was necessary, as raising such an important issue in the very first line of their Declaration could derail the entire Convention, and thus undermine the efforts of the colony many considered the most important to the Revolution. As Florette Henri reported in her biography of Mason,
|Robert Carter Nicholas|
Those opening words of Mason tore the convention apart.
“‘All men are born equally free and independent’ — pray, what does that mean?” demanded the conservative Robert Carter Nicholas. “Does it include my slaves?”
Nicholas’ supporters joined the outcry. Were slaves to be set free? They would not accept such a declaration. With one hand it guaranteed Virginians the right to hold property, and with the other it snatched that property away — slave property. What sort of radical document was this? Was it intended to abolish slavery?
Of course, Mason secretly hoped it might. (Florette Henri, George Mason of Virginia. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1971, 93.)
The reasoning of the conservative delegates is a little hard to follow, but it appeared to go something like this. Man in a state of nature has all rights. That fact is beyond dispute. People agree to form and enter a society, however, in order to gain protection for their rights, surrendering some of them in order to secure their remaining rights.
Rights held in a state of nature cannot be exercised, even natural rights such as life, liberty, and private property, for society does not exist by means of which rights can be exercised. If rights cannot be exercised in a state of nature, it is permissible to violate the rights of anyone who has not entered society!
Obviously, there are a number of logical leaps in such an argument, but a sound syllogism was not the goal. Rather, the real justification for slavery was that they believed it to be more profitable than free labor. That, in essence, was the case former abolitionist David Christy would make in 1855 with Cotton is King, in which Christy argued the economic survival of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on the slave cultivation of cotton.
In any event, Mason was forced to give way. With Virginia’s status as the first colony and the one that had provided many of the leaders of the Revolution, intransigence on slavery could have stopped the movement for American independence dead in its tracks. As a result, Mason took note of the few — very few, but substantive — changes the other delegates had made in the draft, “some of them not for the better,” as he wrote later — and let it pass. As Rutland reported,
As finally approved, the first sentence read “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; . . .” The italicized phrase, with its implicit proposition that slaves are not members of society, placated the opposition. (Rutland, George Mason, Reluctant Statesman, op. cit., 54.)
While important, however, the focus on slavery and the natural right to be free overshadowed another natural right named in the first sentence of the Virginia declaration, the right to “the means of acquiring and possessing property.” Part of the reason that private property was sidelined during the discussions may have been that it was not anywhere near as controversial a subject as slavery, and thus did not excite any discussion in the Virginia Convention. The resolution adopting the Virginia Declaration of Rights passed on June 12, 1776, with copies sent to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where Jefferson was soon to struggle with the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, however, property was inextricably tied in with the slavery issue. The institution of black chattel slavery in the United States consisted of owning human beings as private property. To assert a natural right to be free for all men, and then equivocate by keeping some in bondage without the justification that they were criminals was a question not too many people had either the inclination or the ability to deal with. The issue at hand was political freedom for the American colonists, not natural freedom for people held in slavery.
|Colonial America: Land + Slaves = Wealth|
Adding in the fact that a slave owner believed that his or her economic survival was tied to slavery just as much as to his or her ownership of large tracts of land, discussing slavery and private property at the same time made for an extremely volatile mix. Asserting that private property in human beings — slavery — was illegitimate, it was a short leap to maintaining that all private property in anything was equally illegitimate.
So, yes, in theory American type liberalism is fully consistent with the Aristotelian-Thomist view of natural law and the human person, but in practice it ran headlong into what many people believed to be economic necessity. Not by coincidence, fixed beliefs about how new capital formation is financed would also seem to mandate the concentrated capital ownership of both capitalism and socialism, with most (if not all) people working for wages.
These facts lent a religious fervor to the arguments advanced in favor of both capitalism and socialism in the early nineteenth century. Socialism, in fact, was first known as “the democratic religion” because unlike traditional forms of Christianity that promised only “pie in the sky,” socialism focused on people’s needs in there here and now.
Still, John Henry Newman’s general failure to distinguish between the different types of liberalism does not adequately explain the relationship he enjoyed (if that is the right word) with the one individual who, after Alexis de Tocqueville, exemplified liberalism in America for Catholics: Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876).