Week 2

Furstenberg and Mehta: how do their arguments explaining the exclusion of certain groups from a liberal society differ or resemble each other?

While both Uday S. Mehta, in “Liberal Strategies of Exclusion,” and Francois Furstenberg, in “Beyond Freedom and Slavery,” argue that the exclusion of particular groups from liberal society does not necessarily contradict the prevailing ideologies, based on the character of certain seventeenth-century political philosophies, and specific conceptions of freedom in the early nineteenth century.

Furstenberg argues that, while “scholars have been apt to associate the meaning of American freedom with the declaration,” in reality, Americans defined freedom during the early national period as autonomy, linking freedom with active resistance (1295).  Through an analysis of the writings of Revolutionary figures like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others, in addition to later writers as disparate as John C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass, Furstenberg asserts that, working from the assumption that human agency is the motor of history, post-revolutionary Americans “held that people gained either freedom or slavery through individual action” (1316).  This view allowed them to maintain the position that, by not actively resisting slavery, the slaves themselves held responsibility for their position; “[b]y choosing to submit, slaves had proved themselves unworthy of freedom” (1316).   Furstenberg claims that this “narrative promoted a liberal-republican ideology that linked freedom to resistance, grounding slavery in an act of individual choice – consent, even – and thereby legitimating slavery on principles consistent with the American Revolution” (1296-7).  While holding humans in bondage contradicted the themes outlined in the Declaration of Independence, Furstenberg argues that during the post-revolutionary period, Americans defined freedom not according to the spirit of the Declaration, but rather through a liberal-republican ideology that supported the American slave system.

Mehta also holds that the exclusion of particular groups from participation in a liberal society did not contradict prevailing liberal ideologies, but rather than focusing on the writings of post-revolutionary figures, looks to those of seventeenth-century political philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.  Mehta argues that “the exclusionary basis of liberalism does…derive from its theoretical core…not because the ideals are theoretically disingenuous or concretely impractical, but rather because behind the capacities ascribed to all human beings, there exist a thicker set of social credentials that constitute the real bases of political inclusion” (429).  These “social credentials” are described most saliently in Locke’s Thoughts Concern Education, in which he describes the need to learn certain cultural norms (honor, discretion, for example) in order to gain political inclusion.  These pre-conditions for political inclusion “circumscribe and order the particular form that the universalistic foundations of Lockian liberalism assume. It is a form that can and historically has left an exclusionary imprint in the concrete instantiation of liberal practices” (438-9).

Both Mehta and Furstenberg hold that the character of liberalism (for Mehta) or a liberal-republican ideology (for Furstenberg) allowed Americans to resolve the disparity between notions of universal freedom and the exclusion of certain groups from political participation.  Although Furstenberg analyzes the writings/views of figures influenced by a “liberal-republican idology,” while Mehta looks to an earlier period, at the writings of the seventeenth-century political philosophers who helped shape that ideology, both agree that despite espousing universalist conceptions of freedom, slavery/political exclusion did not directly contradict these philosophies.


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