The Uses of Historical Comparison

Obama leads by a nose length, Hillary on his tail coming around the bend in the last round; who’s on first, who’s on second? The race is really boring — the pundits called it quite a while ago. Still, in a desperate effort to keep everyone on the edge of their seats, they call on every possible historical comparison and analogy they can find: Who else touted change and got the youth vote; Kennedy’s surprise upset in West Virginia.

Does historical comparison get us anything more meaningful than the convenient “hook” or sound bite? Powerhouse historian Eric Foner argues in The Nation that historical analogy “distorts as much as it reveals.” I beg to differ. By definition, history does not repeat itself. But history shapes us -our laws and practices, our ways of thinking about the world. Gotta pick the right history, though.

The appropriate political historical context of the political horse race of "white woman versus black man" is the 1868 passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Apart from Foner’s essay, it hardly ever shows up as a historical sound bite in the mainstream media. Too touchy by half.

Abolitionism and women’’s rights went hand in hand for much of the middle of the nineteenth century. White middle class women joined the fight against slavery in droves. There, they learned to compare their own position to that of the slave, and started their own movement — all the while remaining a mainstay of the good fight. Conversely, former slaves and other abolitionist leaders, like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, joined the call for a woman’’s right to resist being beaten and raped, to own the clothes on her back and the fruits of her labor, and to vote.

The liberation movements remained joined at the hip until the fight over the Fourteenth Amendment, which redefined citizenship and its rights, so as to give former slaves the right to vote. It also opened a can of worms we haven’t closed yet: this legal bastion of citizen rights, which gave us the "equal protection" and "due process" clauses, also prohibited states from denying the vote to any male citizens. Note the adjective: "male." It had not been in the Constitution until then. The fight over the passage of this amendment created a rupture in the liberation movement.

The women’s movement, objecting, was informed that this was the Negro’s Hour. In the interest of former slaves, the argument went, women should set aside their opposition to this legislation that introduced the concept of gender into the Constitution – making law out of the gender exclusion that had merely been practice until then. Some women went along, others resisted. The latter went down in some infamy, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony among them. They felt betrayed, and the cause of liberty was irreparably harmed. Divided, they fell, history shows us.

Sound familiar? Shall the Hillary women now exit right, off the political stage? Fortunately, this isn’’t 1867 all over again. In 2008, we don’t quite go so far as to tellwomen to step aside in so many words. Conversely, Clinton supporters don’t quite have the social freedom to cite racial reasons for defecting to McCain. And herein lies a chance to step away from a rift between two camps in one party that stands to lose a surefire winner of an election before a candidate is even chosen, and allow the other side to walk away with democracy -again.

The history of the fight over the Fourteenth Amendment teaches us that this isn’t about electoral politics – of who believes in which social and fiscal ideology and how should society work. This is about whether the president shall represent all the people – and who the peopleare.

When Jefferson et al wrote the Declaration of Independence, and a decade and a half later, when Hamilton et al explored the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, the word "man" had a specific meaning rooted in British Common Law and laid down in Blackstone’s Commentaries (Book 1, Ch 1,10, 14, 15): A "man" was a legal person with the right to – you guessed it, own property, come and go freely, and generally do as he pleased so long as he didn’t run afoul of the law. A "man" included his wife, servants, and children, who did not have any of those rights.

The Declaration of Independence, a document defending the honor of American men, is full of the grievances of a set of men who felt they were mistreated by others who deemed themselves socially and legally superior, just for the geographic hell of it. That it is very eloquent on the rights of British "men" therefore comes as no surprise.

However, in vain shall ye search for the words "man" or "men" in the Constitution. It employs the term person (and parts thereof) exclusively and measuredly. This should not come as a surprise, either. Whereas the one document demands rights, the other organizes a social contract. And whereas it was assumed that "persons" have no rights unless they be "men"–have legal identity— it would be hard to govern without involving all those others in the equation. Left out, they might run amok.

The political expansion of the franchise in America was thus also a legal process of allowing ever more persons to become "men" in and of themselves. And herein lies the rub. First came male servants (not slaves, obviously), with property requirements waived apace. Next up was the question of women and slaves. This was far more difficult (as we know). To make "men" out of male slaves took the Civil War. That left women as "persons."

In the equation of legal and political enfranchisement, the transformation from "persons" to "men" to "citizens"– it became necessary to dis-enfranchise women in order to en-franchise black men. If women were to get the rights and protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, they would be out from under their husbands’ legal control. Wholesale. Everywhere. It proved a tougher sell to make women “men” in their own right than to give the vote to male (former) slaves. In the end, almost everyone has a wife -and only half the country had former slaves.

This is about politics in the larger sense of the word: the constituting of a body politic who votes, who gets to make up the state and the government. Thus, winning votes has historically been as easy as extending the franchise. It is the essence of machine politics. Those who were not to vote before would be hard-pressed not to vote for you if you courted their vote.

I call this the politics of recognition. We still think that, if we run the right kind of candidate, that candidate’s look-alikes will come running to our camp and start voting. Ye want yer white men? Run a white man. Ye want yer white women? Run a white woman. Yer want a black woman? Well ain’t she a woman?

Those pesky Democrats have read the demographic stats for growth in the electorate: they want white women, black men, and black women. Okay, they made a little mistake when they thought running a minority man would get them the Hispanic vote as well — that’s not working out entirely as planned. None of it is, really. If the politics of recognition remain fully operable, Democrats will self-destruct. Unfortunately, we cannot use history to look into that crystal ball.

Author: Pleun Clara Bouricius

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