So last week my dashboard was lit up with posts and reposts of the same claim: that economic inequality at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed was much less severe than it is today. “Aha!,” the posters seemed to scream: “we’re not living up to the Framers’ legacy!”
At which point my “bad history alarm” started to go off.
Folks, it’s possible that the income differential between highest and lowest earning persons in 1776 was much less profound than it is in 2012. Actually, given the comparative wealth of the two economies (we’re much, much wealthier now), I’d be staggered if 2012 wasn’t more unequal: we have CEOs of global corporations and an information economy that moves at literal light speed. They had, you know, mules. Wider ranges of activity afford opportunities for wider ranges of compensation. Our income differential is a sign of our wealth, not our poverty.
But that isn’t what really bothered me about this “we’re worse off now” thread. No, what bothered me was the casual way the posters and reposters seemed to ignore the obvious: ALMOST NO ONE IN 1776 EARNED AN INCOME. The United States enslaved a third of its population. It disenfranchised and economically dominated half its remaining population (non-slave females). It practiced indentured servitude. And, particularly among the Southern elite, it was a society based on land wealth, not income. For example, George Washington owned a huge portion of what today is West Virginia. What, exactly, was his wealth in 1776? Compared to some dude working in a textile mill? Or a slave working on Washington’s farm? Care to offer a calculated guess, adjusted for 236 years of inflation … and the fact that we now know West Virginia has lots of coal?
At most, 15% of the US population in 1776 was earning an income. It was probably less. So, is it possible that of that tiny fraction of persons earning an income, the income differential between best and worst paid persons was lower than it is today? Absolutely. But given that 85% (or more) of their population was enslaved, disenfranchised or otherwise outside the “income” economy, do you really want to claim things were more economically equal then than they are today?
I didn’t think so.
In 1865, Col. P.H. Anderson wrote Jourdan Anderson, a man the Confederate colonel once owned as a slave, and asked him to come back and work for him for wages. Jourdan dictated the following reply, which has been on the internet for years but went viral this week because of Facebook.
P.S. The photo above is not Jourdan Anderson but another elderly ex-slave.
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
So Rick, “maybe Texas should think about seceding” Perry has offered a couple of new proposals for his campaign that stand as Constitutional howlers.
In the first, he has promised to end lifetime appointments to federal judgeships. In the second, he has promised to cut Congress’ pay in half.
At least two things stand out about this for me.
First, there are real, historical reasons that federal judges get lifetime appointments and Congresspeople are paid meaningful salaries. As for judges, anyone who has ever read the Declaration of Independence in full—in other words, almost no one—would have read that one of the King’s techniques to abuse the colonies was to remove judges for political reasons, or otherwise manipulate their jurisdictions if they took actions the King disapproved of. The federal court was given lifetime appointments in the Constitutional system in order to ensure—or enhance the probability—that court actions were taken without political considerations. It doesn’t always work, but that was the intent.
Similarly, members of Congress get paid to make it possible for relatively ordinary citizens to have a chance to serve. The whole notion of paying the legislature was to open it to middle class people who would otherwise have to work full time to pay their bills, and so could not engage in public service. Again, this doesn’t always work as intended, but it’s certainly the case that if you cut Congressional salaries, it is even more likely that only the well-to-do could possibly afford to serve in Congress. I get why Perry might think this is a good idea, but whatever visceral joy there might be in squeezing Congressional salaries, it won’t make Congress work any better.
Second, Perry appears to have little to no understanding of how the amendment process works. As it happens, the president has no—zero, zilch, nada, keine—formal role in the process of amending the US Constitution. There are two paths by which the Constitution can be amended: 1) Congress proposes an amendment which then has to be ratified by 3/4 of the state legislatures; and 2) 2/3 of state legislatures call for a Constitutional Convention, and if any proposed amendments emerge from that Convention, they require the approval of 3/4 of the state legislatures. (Note that process 2 excludes Congress from the amendment process. It has never been used.)
Likewise, he appears to have no political sense of how Congress gets paid. Like it or not—and pretty much no one likes it—Congress decides how much Congress gets paid. Notably, under the terms of the 27th Amendment Congress can’t raise its own pay until an election has passed—e.g., after we have a chance to toss them out. But otherwise, it’s an act of Congress that sets Congressional pay, and while the President does have to sign the bill to make it a law, presidents always sign the Congressional pay act as the result of a simple political calculation: exactly how much of his or her legislative agenda is a President likely to get after vetoing Congress’ salary?
So, what exactly are the odds that Congress will approve a law to reduce its pay? Or to end lifetime appointments to the federal bench?
Some proposals are indeed sound and fury signifying nothing. Others are tales told by idiots. It takes a special mind to combine both: to make Shakespeare’s MacBeth real:
MacBeth, Act V, Scene 5