Americans Have Always Imagined and Demanded Better Alternatives; Those Alternatives Have Been HiddenHistorians in the News
tags: inequality, intellectual history, radical history, Thomas Skidmore
In my column this year, I’ve tried to emphasize the extent to which there are competing traditions — competing notions — of American freedom and republican democracy.
One says that freedom is a matter of noninterference and limited government — that we are free when the state steps aside and individuals are left to flourish, or fail, of their own accord. It says that government, or at least the national government, has no real role to play in shaping our social and economic order and that, as the aphorism goes, “the best government is that which governs least.”
The other tradition takes a more activist view of government and a more expansive view of democracy. It says that economic domination by wealthy, entrenched interests is just as dangerous to liberty as an overbearing government, and that majoritarian democracy is the necessary and essential safeguard against the narrow interests of otherwise unaccountable elites.
To close out the year, I want to highlight one argument from the latter tradition of American democracy, written in the early days of the age of Jackson on behalf of the many against the few.
Thomas Skidmore’s 1829 treatise “The Rights of Man to Property! Being a Proposition to Make It Equal Among the Adults of the Present Generation” begins with a blunt statement of his position: “One thing must be obvious to the plainest understanding; that as long as property is unequal; or rather, as long as it is so enormously unequal, as we see it at present, that those who possess it, will live on the labor of others, and themselves perform none, or if any, a very disproportionate share, of that toil which attends them as a condition of their existence, and without the performance of which, they have no just right to preserve or retain that existence, even for a single hour.”
It is not possible, Skidmore asserts, to “maintain a doctrine to the contrary of this position, without, at the same time, maintaining an absurdity no longer tolerated in enlightened countries; that a part, and that a very great part, of the human race, are doomed, of right, to the slavery of toil, while others are born, only to enjoy.”
Skidmore was not a political theorist. He was, at the time of his writing, a machinist who had taken a prominent role in the newly formed New York Working Men’s Party. He wrote its platform, which included a call for land redistribution to every man and unmarried woman over the age of 21, an end to commercial monopolies and an end to the hereditary transfer of wealth.
Much of that platform came from his book, which takes its title from Thomas Paine’s 1791 work, “Rights of Man.” And like Paine, Skidmore was a universalist who rejected the notion that rights were limited to people of a certain class or station. “There can exist no power whatever to destroy equality of rights, but the power of violence and injustice,” Skidmore writes. “Having been originally equal, they remain so, and nothing but force or ignorance can keep them out of the rightful owner’s possession.”
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