Some musings on US Independence Day

Today is US Independence Day, and that’s a good time to share little history lesson.

July 4, 1776 was the day the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which stated that the colonies were now independent from the British Empire. This document held to be true that “all men are created equal.” We’re fond of the myth that every generation before ours was pig-ignorant and therefore never would have conceived of the lofty concepts we now mostly take for granted, but people at the time like Thomas Day noted the hypocrisy of this statement coming from slave owners:

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.

Nor did the women of what was to become the United States of America achieve any form of independence in 1776. Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

“Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.

“Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

“That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up — the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.

“Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?

“Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”

John’s response was telling, and set the scene for Abigail’s prediction – a movement that would take another 144 years to make even one significant stride:

“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.

“We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.

“But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.

“This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.

“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.

“We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Could that be the beginning of radical feminism versus “pussy power” apologists? Abigail’s response:

“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.

“But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”

Thanks to the history of her world, Abigail Adams was so unable to conceive of a woman having enough power to be corrupted by it that she assumed tyranny to be a uniquely male trait. I personally believe it’s a problem of privilege, not gender: if women had absolute power over men, and one specific group of women also enjoyed power over women of all other races and various other demographics, I believe those women would behave just as badly as men have done. To suppose otherwise is to believe women inherently and biologically superior to men, and I’m as uncomfortable with that idea as I am with its ludicrous opposite.

As you probably know, no one in the USA actually has the right to vote. The original Constitution only addresses how the states and their representatives may vote. How the states chose their voters was left up to them: commonly, that right was extended to land-owning white men over the age of 21. From 1776, it took another:

  • 48 years for white men who didn’t own property to be allowed to vote.
  • 94 years for a Constitutional amendment to forbid states from prohibiting black men from voting.
  • 144 years for women to obtain a similar amendment.

The Declaration is not what enabled me to be independent. The struggles of many generations of women like Abigail Adams led to my right to vote, to work for a living instead of marrying for a living, to attend college if I can afford it somehow, etc. Women have not achieved cultural equality, but we have achieved a great deal of legal independence. I prefer to celebrate August 18th as US Independence Day, because that was the day in 1920 the 19th Amendment was enacted and the majority of the US’s human beings were first recognized as citizens.

Comments

  1. sbg says

    *stands up and joins the clapping*

    I don’t agree with Abigail’s assessment about tyranny being a gender thing, but I can absolutely understand why that was her viewpoint; it was all she bore witness to. I’ll bet that was neither the first nor the last time her husband gave her a virtual pat on the head and called her a silly little woman, without saying it in so many words.

  2. lilacsigil says

    This is fascinating for someone not from the US – in my country, all non-Aboriginal people got the right to vote at or shortly after Federation in 1901, depending on which state they lived in. Aboriginal people did not get the vote or even become citizens of their own country until 1967.

    Your musings on Abigail Adam’s depiction of male tyranny are spot on, I think – but I wonder how she felt about white women’s treatment of slaves? Or was that, to her worldview, not tyranny but normal?

    • says

      lilacsigil, it’s possible white privilege prevented her from being aware of much of that. Not only does one enjoy the privilege of not *needing* to know what it’s like for one’s neighbor, but I think communities try to shelter you from realizing what’s going on, just in case you’d try to change it. The second possibility that comes to mind is that she knew, but didn’t see it the same way for some unknown reason, which would still be a privilege issue, but one that can’t be excused by ignorance. So, I dunno!

        • says

          LOL, did I just miss the whole point?

          I took lilacsigil’s question to be “How could she think tyranny is a male trait when women slave owners could be so tyrannical?” and was attempting to answer that with speculation, since I doubt we’d ever find documentation addressing it quite that specifically.

        • MaggieCat says

          I think the letter you’re talking about is here: http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm?id=L17760331aa (including an image of the original!), third paragraph down.

          “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.”

  3. says

    FYI, I have deleted an exchange on veganism between a commenter and myself. Her original point, that the cultivation of livestock is a form of slavery, was valid and interesting. But it quickly changed into the usual: “There’s no excuse not to go vegan because we can all survive on rice, grains, beans, etc.” Well, no – no we can’t, and if vegans were a bit less privileged, perhaps more of them would know this. If you are insulin-resistant (diabetics, PCOS cases, etc.) a low carb diet in which rice, grains and beans are often specifically forbidden or allowed in such minute quantities as to not be used as staples by medical practitioners. And no, soy* is not a reliable alternative because it’s one of the most common allergens and despite US commercial interests’ rallying, is beginning to be understood to cause endocrine problems, which is the last thing someone who’s insulin-resistant needs. Soy may even be a major factor in the so-called “obesity epidemic” in the US, and a culprit in the rise of insulin-resistant disorders.

    None of which invalidates the vegan lifestyle – not at all. It just means vegans have not presented a viable alternative diet for the insulin-resistant (or a number of other disorders I’m not going to get into here – there simply IS no single perfect diet for humans), so their claim that veganism is practical for everyone hurts their credibility.

    Anyway, I wanted to preserve the original thought that perhaps cultivating livestock is a form of slavery, because that thought was relevant and worthwhile.

    *Links on soy: http://www.thyroid-info.com/articles/soydangers.htm
    http://www.heavenearthhealing.com/article_soyabean2.html

    Here’s a woman who stopped menstruating from soy: http://www.utne.com/2007-07-01/Science-Technology/The-Dark-Side-of-Soy.aspx The PCOS I mentioned above is a collection of poorly understood disorders which have one thing in common: cessation or extreme irregularity of menstruation. It affects 1 in 4 women.

    • Patrick McGraw says

      During the three years that I was on dialysis, I would not have been able to survive on a vegan diet. My medical restrictions meant that I had to rely on meat as my primary source of protein, and that I needed a fair amount more of it than a healthy person.

      So yeah, “there’s no reason not to go vegan” is an argument based on privilege.

      • says

        Yep. I ran this whole exchange past the rest of the Hathor staff to make sure I was being fair, and it turned out there are more physical conditions that require a special, non-vegan diet than I was aware of. And now you’ve just added another one.

    • says

      Vegan is a step too far for me, anyway. The main issue I see is with suffering and with animals having a right to happiness, as well. And there are farmers out there whose animals do have a great life, still – it’s just not possible at the moment to farm like this and produce as much meat.

      I think a healthy person from the western world can have at least a mostly vegetarian diet, though cheap food is often bad food, and healthy food is more expensive if you can’t grow it yourself. Almost every restaurant or café or school / university food hall has vegetarian meals on offer, you can buy a variety of vegetarian foods at your grocer, etc.

      And there will come the day when we can produce artificial meat.

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