American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
A Fourth of July Meditation on the Cause of Liberty in our Day
By Anonymous, July 8, 2010 in Outside the Classroom

On the Fourth of July we celebrate the declaration of our independence from the British. In that declaration we advanced the cause of liberty against the slavery imposed by Britain's Parliamentary usurpation. What was that usurpation? According to Locke (as well as many other British radicals and American republicans), to be enslaved is to be subject to the arbitrary and absolute control of another. John Adams account of slavery and liberty in the well known Massachusettensis-Novanglus debates advances the same idea. Thus, the American claim was that Parliament and King had for some time exercised absolute and arbitrary control over Britain’s North American colonies.

Locke had a good argument for his claim that subjection to the absolute and arbitrary control of another is to be enslaved by them. For to be subject to the absolute and arbitrary control of another is to be treated as if one were the property of another, property to be disposed of in accordance with the wishes of the other. But, said Locke, no person is rightly the property of another merely human person. For we are all the property of one infinitely wise creator. We are God's property. The American founders followed Locke on this point. So in 1776, liberty was proclaimed against that slavery which is being subject to the absolute and arbitrary control of another merely human person.

And yet that institution of chattel slavery and the announcement contained in the Declaration involved us in contradiction and hypocrisy. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution finally removed the hypocrisy formally, though full removal of the hypocrisy awaited implementation of the amendment and then the eventual end of segregation. The ideal of liberty was and is a good one—not the highest ideal, to be sure (for instance, it would be a bit silly to put liberty on par with agape or goodness or even, as Madison says in the 51st Federalist, justice), but a high and noble one nonetheless. The problem with the hypocrisy lay not in the ideal but rather in the distorted instantiation of so noble a thing.

Today we are again involved in hypocrisy and contradiction. Today we again instantiate the ideal in but a distorted manner—and in a distortion precisely like that which obtained in the days that chattel slavery existed among us. For so long as the embryo or fetus is a human person (whatever we believe on the matter), then the abortion license makes the embryonic and fetal person subject to the absolute and arbitrary control of its mother--makes the unborn child, that is, a slave. Allow me to underscore that it matters not what we think about the matter. There were those during the days of slavery who claimed to believe that the enslaved either were not quite persons or were not sufficiently human to lay claim to the right not be enslaved. But the wrongness of Anglo-American slavery had nothing to do with what anyone believed about the personhood of those brought from the African coast. The Black man was a man regardless of what those who defended the institution of slavery thought of him. And so the wrongness of slavery turned on his humanness regardless of anyone’s perception or recognition of that humanness.

So also with the unborn child residing in the mother’s womb. If that child, whether at the embryonic or fetal stage of development, is a person, then the abortion license simply is, once again, institutionalized slavery. For so long as the unborn child is a human being, then abortion liberty (like the allowance of chattel slavery) makes a human person subject to the absolute and arbitrary will of its mother—and it does so regardless of whether anyone perceives or recognizes the humanity of the unborn child. But of course the unborn child is a human being and a human person. What else could it be? Does anyone suppose that it’s a fetal orca developing in the human womb?

The advocates of the abortion license concede that embryonic and fetal life in the human womb is in fact human. But they aver that such human beings are nonetheless not persons. Such arguments are logically flawed. More importantly, however, they seem oblivious to an obvious point. For while it is true that the human person undergoes development in the womb, the development that occurs is that of flourishing and unfolding rather than ontological change from one kind of thing into another (indeed—ontological change is precisely not development; put another way, if x develops then it is necessarily the case that it does not change ontologically from one sort of thing into another sort of thing).

To return to the point at hand, if embryonic and fetal life is indeed the life of a human person, regardless of whether we or anyone else ever recognizes the truth of it, and if those who are subject to the absolute and arbitrary power of others are in fact slaves, then Supreme Court jurisprudence starting with Roe re-introduced into our midst the constitutional protection of slavery. In Roe, Dred Scott rose phoenix like from the ashes, its specter to haunt us once again. Instead of liberating women from oppressive tyranny, Roe and its progeny shackled the unborn. Never was it more truly said that this ought not be.

Therefore, let us proclaim again today liberty and independence from the domination by any person--whether born or unborn--of the absolute and arbitrary control of any other person. For we are all God's property sent in the world to do his business. If America has a distinctive mission in the world, then that mission is the cause of liberty. But the cause of liberty always takes the part of the enslaved. To be for liberty is to be for the liberation of the enslaved. The cause of liberty is the cause of the abolition of slavery—ancient, modern, or present.

If the American revolutionaries were right to denounce Parliamentary and Monarchical usurpation and tyranny, John Wesley was right to note the problem with crying “slavery,” while so many were enslaved in our midst. As a people, we cannot adequately serve the cause of liberty so long as slavery remains. We cannot serve two masters. Either we will allow the absolute and arbitrary control of the born over the unborn, in which case tyranny will prevail, OR we will stand for liberty by siding with the unborn against the slavery that is the abortion license.

And so . . . Now is the time to renew the full measure of our devotion to the cause of liberty. Now is the time to declare the freedom of all persons—born, unborn, young, old, mentally disadvantaged, as well as quick of wit. Now is the time to engage again, with renewed vigor, the battle for the public mind. I believe we can fairly say that in Roe, the views of the rulers prevailed over the views of deliberate public opinion. But as Madison suggests, deliberate public opinion ought, in all free governments, to prevail over the view of its rulers—for in free governments deliberate public opinion is the only rightful sovereign. And let us remember here and now that justice and liberty stand or fall together. Let us be reminded that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to liberty everywhere. The injustice of the slavery institutionalized by the abortion license will ever diminish American liberty until that injustice is finally removed. May we never cease working for the dawning of that great day.

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Lee Trepanier on Jul 11, 2010 at 9:18 am

Your post reminds me of Burke's quip of how society is a contract among generations: the lived, the living, and the unborn.

Anonymous on Jul 19, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I think there's something to that. Of course, that means that Burke understands the nature of the social contract (or compact, as earlier theorists would have called it) quite differently from the way in which Hobbes or Locke or even Rousseau does. For Burke, the essence of a contract has to do with keeping faith. And keeping faith is not one of those things that applies only to the living (Jefferson notwithstanding).

Last updated on Jul 19, 2010 at 4:38 pm.
Lee Trepanier on Jul 20, 2010 at 7:49 am

I agree. There is something about modern social contract theory that emphasizes autonomy for only the living at the expense of the dead.

Paul DeHart on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:20 pm

One thinks of Jefferson's quip about the earth belonging to the living in usufruct (or something like that)--as well as recommendation for having a constitutional convention every 20 years (adopted by NY in the form of a referendum offering for consideration by citizens, every 20 years, as to whether a convention shall be called--for the state, that is).

Going in the other direction, I believe it was in Georgia (in the midst of the 20th century) that a law was proposed that would allow a person to vote in elections up to 3 years after they were deceased. The reasoning seems to have been that the family members would know how the person would have voted--but only, reliably, for about three years after they died. And, after all, so said the bill's proponents, why should the accident of death interfere with a thing like voting in an election. The law, as you might guess, went down to defeat. Ah well.

Still, the strangeness of the bill proposed in Georgia notwithstanding, there's something equally as strange and maybe even stranger about Jefferson's recommendation of institutionalizing our purported disconnectedness with past and future.

Lee Trepanier on Jul 22, 2010 at 6:22 am

I haven't heard about the Georgia law before. It sounds wonderful theoretically, but a nightmare to put into practice.