In a country where all men are created equal with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there seems to be an awful lot of gender inequality and economic and social misery in mid-19th century America. The oppressed, women, free laborers and slaves, are everywhere and the oppressors, depending on your point of view, are men, the ruling elite, capitalists, socialists and/or organized religion. Women, tired of second class citizenship, are demanding the vote and equal treatment under the law. Champions of the working class are calling for socialist revolution, a violent overthrow of capitalism. Others see all of this leading to anarchy and call for an even stronger government to keep the peace. The oppressed are everywhere.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton uses the wording of the Declaration of Independence to make her case that God has entitled women the right to vote and equal treatment under the law. She makes her most effective argument in comparing the rights of women to the rights of slaves. Stanton says the slave has no name other than the one assigned by his master. Women, she argues, also have no name, other than the one designated to them by marriage. Women and slaves have no right to their children. Women, like slaves, have no legal existence. “The prejudice of color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against women.”(Cummings, 253) Stanton pledges the suffrage movement will use both the pulpit and the press to effect change at both the state and federal level.
THE WORKING CLASS
Orestus Brownson envisions violent revolution as ultimately freeing what he sees as America’s most oppressed people, the working class. He actually argues that slaves are better off than free laborers because their masters take care of their every need. Free laborers, on the other hand, have to fend for themselves in a capitalist economy that exploits them at every turn. “The laborer at wages has all the disadvantages of freedom and none of its blessings, while the slave, if denied blessings, is freed from the disadvantages.” (p. 225) Brownson sees an unholy alliance of organized religion and the ruling elite working hand in hand to keep the working class focused on the hereafter rather than the here and now. The system, he says, must be destroyed, including what he calls hereditary monarchy and hereditary nobility. A man’s power over his property ends when his life ends.
ALL OF US
George Fitzhugh believes we are all in this together. He says both North and South are engaged in a wage-slavery system. He agrees with Brownson that the free laborers are actually worse off than slaves because they are “overburdened with the cares of family and household, which makes his freedom an empty and delusive mockery.” (p. 277) Fitzhugh incredulously says because the slaves are not burdened with these worries, they are”the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world” (p. 278) Rather than socialist revolution, he advocates a return to a feudal society of virtually no property owners where a few rule over all.
What strikes me is how each argument attempts to diminish the cruelty and immorality of slavery. Stanton appears to see slavery only in the context of women’s rights. Both Brownson and Fitzhugh argue the slaves don’t really have it that bad. After all, they don’t have to worry about where the next paycheck is coming from or meeting mortgage payments. What a life!
Brownson’s call for an end to wealth inheritance brings to mind today’s arguments over the death taxes, the income gap and redistributing wealth. Is his approach too radical, or do you see some merit to it?