The Polislice Doctrine: It’s Unfair to Ask Past Personages to Adhere to Future Moral Positions, Just That They Be Ahead of Their Time

Jeff Stein in Vox looks at the Founding Fathers’ Revolution of 1776, and echoing Gordon Woods’ great work “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” pushes back on the leftist idea that the revolution should be discounted because the fathers of the country were all wealthy racists.

Over the last generation, liberals have become increasingly emboldened in their denunciations of America’s founders, says Yale historian Steven Pincus. The American left stands poised to throw the Revolution overboard, to dismiss the spirit and legacy of 1776 as merely the cause of a racist, sexist, hypocritical aristocracy we should firmly reject.

These analyses ignore the greatest, and sadly, less known and appreciated consequences of the revolution.  It was an economic revolution as much as anything, rejecting primogeniture and certain feudal practices as much as hereditary monarchy.

From Gordon Wood:

[The Revolution] brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics.

The Revolution did not merely create a political and legal environment conducive to economic expansion; it also released powerful and popular entrepreneurial and commercial energies that transformed the economic landscape of the country. In short, the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.

I’ve heard self-righteous smart asses deny the genius of Thomas Jefferson because of Sally Hemings and I thumb my nose at their short-sighted small mindedness.  That same instinct also pushes people to find odd justifications for other FFs, like George Washington freed his slaves so he’s superior to Jefferson and more worthy of reverence. The problem is all of these stories are, like most of life, more complex than the simple hearsay stories told by one historian or another.  You simply cannot impose one century’s moral conclusions on the denizens of another period.

That’s besides the fact that all of these people were flesh and blood humans who were right some of the time, wrong some of the time, argued and debated with each other and often changed their minds on things.  There was no FF hive mind, for sure and it’s a good thing that the simplistic hero worshiping understanding of the FFs is dead and buried.

To judge anyone living in the 18th century by the 21st is as ludicrous as asking someone with antipathy to capitalism to forego any holdings in stock or real estate to prove their bona fides.  Can we demand such purity that we begrudge investment in the most common ways to build wealth in our time?  By the same token, how fair would it be to demand that anybody in the 18th or 19th centuries eschewed one of the most common possessions of wealth of their time and had to have taken a position on slavery that only a small percentage of the most progressive and enlightened took?

The Polislice doctrine is that you cannot ask someone in the past to have held a radical position that was not held in common in their time, but is held as truth in the future, you can only ask that they be ahead of the thinking of their time.

By that standard almost all of the FF were radically ahead of their time.  The revolution itself should have locked that into our historical understanding of them.  But even on the thorny topic of slavery they were mostly ahead of their time as individuals who believed that slavery was morally questionable.  Many, like Jefferson and Madison, believed wrongly that slavery would collapse under its own weight.  Almost all of the northern FF disagreed with slavery, even though they may have financially benefited from it.

I believe it’s unfair to ask for more.

Stein argues, as do historians, that no matter what the FFs individual positions on slavery, their revolution fueled emancipation.  It was the beginning of the inevitable end of slavery, even as the compromises of 1776 and the Constitution kept slavery in place and strengthened it politically for a time.

When the Revolution began in 1776, slavery was legal in every colony. Only Pennsylvania even had an abolition society. Slavery had existed on American soil for two centuries without being substantially challenged by whites.

The American Revolution changed that. Pennsylvania’s emancipation act of 1780, the first of its kind, was written by revolutionary leaders and explicitly cited the fight against British rule as its inspiration. Similar Northern emancipation acts followed: in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, and then in Connecticut and Rhode Island the next year.

“Politicians, preachers, and propagandists unfurled the rhetoric of natural rights,” Paul J. Polgar, a historian at the College of William & Mary, wrote in a 2011 essay for the Journal of the Early Republic, “and the immediate post-Revolutionary period witnessed the emergence of abolition societies as far south as Virginia.”

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