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2018 Society of Fellows Summer Seminar

August 7-10, 2018

Our annual dress rehearsal for the beginning of the school year, the Kinder Institute’s fifth Society of Fellows Summer Seminar was held this time around from August 7-10 at the Tiger Hotel. A full schedule for the conference can be found here, and below are recaps of the three sessions that we managed to sneak out of the office for, starting with Truman State Professor of History and 2018-19 Kinder Institute Distinguished Research Fellow Dan Mandell’s opening night keynote talk.

The American Tradition of Economic Equality
Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Working backward from the present, Prof. Mandell began by pointing toward a certain cognitive dissonance that can sometimes cloud consideration of his lecture’s topic. It should not come as new news, he suggested, that the U.S. today is more economically unequal than ever, a disparity that is at the forefront of both political discourse and conflict. Somewhat incongruously, however, the philosophical root of this problem—widespread commitment to classically liberal ideas regarding the unencumbered right to private property and wealth accumulation—receives far less, or at least far less focused, scrutiny than the problem itself, to the point that it is often taken for granted that this right has always been a core component of shared national values.

As he would go on to show throughout the remainder of the talk, the opposite is true. For a majority of the 18th and 19th centuries, large swaths of the nation believed that the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few would compromise the nation’s republican foundations and that some semblance of equal property distribution was thus essential to maintaining a form of government beholden to serving the common good. And early Americans traced this tradition of economic equality back to a wide variety of theological and philosophical antecedents, including: the Hebrew Jubilee, as articulated in Leviticus, through which lands were returned to their original owners every 50 years; the Levellers of mid-17th-century England, who equated private property with original sin; and Locke’s labor theory of value, which held that, because it is human labor that gives land worth, wasteland is claimable by the landless.

In fact, interpretations of these egalitarian traditions began appearing in the United States while the fate of the nation still hung in the balance. Delegates at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1776 were so concerned that wealth concentration would be destructive to the happiness of mankind and the ends of government that they lobbied for constitutional provisions for the seizure of excessive property. And during the Revolution, vigilant efforts to prevent monopolization via price-fixing were undertaken as a result of similar beliefs that a superabundance of supply held by a single individual or corporation was morally destitute, and that the pursuit of wealth should never be permitted to infiltrate upon need.

However, Prof. Mandell noted that it was also during this time that a liberal counter-argument was coalescing around the idea that the right to control property without government or cultural meddling was not simply protected but was the very same sacred ideal over which the war was being fought.

America’s first decades, he explained, would feature frequent republican/communitarian pushback against this growing liberal consensus regarding the right to private property. And not just from the fringes. Driven by an increasingly apparent correlation between property accumulation and political power, the 1780s and 1790s saw Jefferson lobby for progressive taxation; a nearly nationwide end to the practice of entail; and Thomas Paine’s radical recommendation that, via a 10% tax on estates over 500 pounds, the national government should provide citizens with a lump sum payment at 21 years of age and a pension at 50. If property is a social right, Paine argued, it is thereby taxable for social need.

For a number of reasons—the association of wealth with good character in philosophy and literature; the widening gap between church and state; universal white male suffrage and the implication that political power should be considered as distinct from economic concern—individual property rights came to be accepted as a norm and wealth disparity as inevitable. But even as 19th-century political society progressed in this direction, the tradition of economic equality remained alive in manifestations ranging from harmony settlements and communal living phalanxes, to workingman’s political parties, to the National Reform Association, which called for a 160-acre limit on land ownership, free homesteads for all, and a ten-hour workday.

The vision of a Great Republican Jubilee even re-surfaced in the post-Civil War era, with some members of Congress pushing for confiscated Confederate lands to be redistributed to recently freed slaves. Alas, Andrew Johnson thought otherwise, ruling that voting and civil rights should be ensured over property rights and that such confiscation and redistribution violated basic political structures. If this normalized a pro-property, dichotomous thinking about rights, it did not by any means erase the tradition of economic equality, which has continued to fuel the work of the IWW, pro-New Deal economists, and the Occupy movement, to name only a few.

Arguments for Women’s Suffrage
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

As MU Professor and Chair of History Catherine Rymph explained in outlining “Phase One” of her talk on the history of women’s suffrage in the United States, the suffrage movement’s antislavery origins would also end up being the source of its early fault lines, with the 14th Amendment in particular driving a wedge between suffragists. One faction of the movement—which included Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—was appalled that the Amendment’s second clause introduced ‘male’ into the U.S. Constitution in relation to voting rights and demanded that language explicitly granting women the franchise be included in the 15th Amendment. Another faction—including Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Frederick Douglass—thought that efforts should be concentrated on securing black male suffrage, and that expanding the argument’s frame to include women’s voting rights would compromise this objective.

Thus the 1869 fracture of the movement into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which was led by Anthony and Stanton and pursued action at the national level, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Stone and Blackwell and focused on state-by-state change. It was soon after this schism, Prof. Rymph noted, that Anthony was famously arrested in New York for casting a ballot and that a similar, though far less frequently told, story was unfolding in Missouri. Virginia Minor, a St. Louisan and first president of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri, attempted to register to vote in 1872, was denied, and went on to sue the state registrar, arguing that the 14th Amendment gave all citizens, including women, the right to vote. Her petition made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in 1874’s Minor v. Happersett, ruled that had the writers of the Constitution meant for women to have the vote, they would have explicitly stated so much.

The ruling made clear that suffrage would not be won quietly, via constitutional reinterpretation, and it set the stage for “Phase Two” of Prof. Rymph’s talk, which began with a brief reunification of the NWSA and AWSA, under the leadership of Stanton and Anthony. Again, however, strategic disagreement over national vs. state-level action—exacerbated by some measure of success in state referendums—would divide the movement, this time into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt, and the National Woman’s Party (NWP), led by Alice Paul. And this 20th-century schism would be even more pronounced than its 19th-century forebear. Having been in Great Britain during the successful push for woman’s suffrage there, Paul would emulate the confrontational, “un-ladylike” British model, publicly attacking whatever political party was in power throughout the nineteen-teens. NAWSA members, on the other hand, would pursue the more “respectable” strategy of continuing to fight for voting rights on a state-by-state basis, with an eye toward eventually creating a network of national allies in Congress that was large enough for constitutional amendment to become a reality.

After a contentious WW I era—NAWSA supported the War, while the NWP picketed the White House, with signs highlighting the irony of Wilson so strongly advocating for the defense of Europeans’ right to self-determination and yet doing so little for women—suffrage would be won in 1920. But as Prof. Rymph drew attention to in closing her talk, arguments for the franchise had changed since the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted in 1848. Specifically, the Declaration’s philosophical arguments concerning citizenship, equal rights, and equality before God remained, but they were supplemented, and in many respects overshadowed, by more pragmatic claims concerning what women would do if they received the vote: prohibit child labor, prevent war, stamp out prize fighting and alcohol abuse, and perhaps most notably, provide a middle-class counterbalance to the votes of black males.

And this was not the first time that the corrosive history of racism in the United States overlapped with the movement to secure women’s rights. When the suffrage movement first split, NWSA members, bitter over what they felt was betrayal by the radical republicans whom they had supported, appealed to Southern Democrats with the argument that granting the vote to women would neutralize the political capital of recently enfranchised black males. And when the 19th Amendment was taking shape, efforts were made to explicitly limit suffrage to white females alone, a condition which wasn’t reflected in the Amendment’s language, though it would still be decades before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 more dutifully protected African American men and women from racist policy and violent intimidation at the polls.

Beauty and Politics in Wendell Berry’s Poems
Thursday, August 9, 2018

In a talk that would double as her un-official introduction to the Kinder Institute’s undergraduate community, newly minted Assistant Professor of Constitutional Democracy and Public Affairs Sarah Beth Kitch opened discussion by placing her subject—poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry—within an intellectual tradition that includes, among others, Alexis de Tocqueville, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Flannery O’Connor. Each was a healthy skeptic of democracy, Prof. Kitch remarked, viewing it both as an experiment full of the potential to positively shape what makes us humans, neighbors, and citizens and, when construed more rapaciously, as an invitation to a strain of individualism that was capable of obstructing, even destroying, this outcome.

As she would go on to unpack, addressing the relationship between beauty and constitutional democracy, through examination of Berry’s “Sabbath Poems” or otherwise, also requires sorting through a certain degree of skepticism. An inherent suspicion often arises when beauty and politics are held within the same critical framework, Prof. Kitch noted, and she traced this back to Tocqueville as well, specifically to what he saw as Americans’ ingrained, Enlightenment-derived tendency to place a premium on utility (and, in turn, science and reason) at the expense of attending to the vital function that beauty can play in the political sphere. She added that the historical experience of unimaginable violence has also put a dent in our first confidence in beauty, resulting in the frequent association of it with abstractions that diminish its significance: nostalgia, romanticism, or adolescence.

This is, however, suspicion or skepticism that we can—many would argue that we must—overcome by reorienting ourselves to the conversation’s key terms, defining politics in the Aristotelian sense of how to live well together, and beauty as a pleasure that exalts the human mind and soul, and without which we are lost. As Prof. Kitch and this year’s fellows teased out by going to the text of Berry’s poems, these new definitions allow us to see the many ways in which the experience of beauty can shape our conception of the point of politics: by allowing us, for example, to think beyond utility, and of particular importance to Berry, to think beyond utility in relation to the land; by giving us a language for difficult truths and for making communal the experience of the dyad of grief and hope; by spurring the recognition of universal rights; and by loosening our devotion to control.