Reason Is Treason

With the huge movement of both civilian and military populations in and out of nearly every major seaport from Savanannah to Boston between 1775 and 1781, urban slaves had unprecedented chances for making their personal declarations of independence and for destabilizing the institution of slavery. Similarly, as loyalist and patriot militia crisscrossed the countryside plundering the farms and plantations of their enemies, slaves found ways of tearing holes in the fabric of slavery.

A turning point came in November 1775, when the royal governor of Virginia, Lord John Dunmore, issued a dramatic proclamation that guaranteed freedom to slaves and indentured servants who escaped their masters and reached the King’s forces. Against this concrete offer of unconditional freedom, slaves could only hope that the American patriots would respond to calls for the end of slavery advocated by the first abolition society established in Pennsylvania just a few months before. Waiting for freedom as a gift at some indeterminate point turned out to be a poor substitute for immediate freedom. When word of Dunsmore’s proclamation quickly spread through the South, hundreds of slaves fled their masters to British lines where officers formed them into the Black Regiment of Guides and Pioneers. Some marched in uniform with the inscription on their breasts, “Liberty to Slaves.”

Dunsmore’s proclamation galvanized the South against England, for it conjured up a vision of a large body of free Negroes, armed by the British, abroad in the land. “Hell itself,” wrote one southerner, “could not have vomited anything more black than this design of emancipating our slaves.” But thousands of slaves did find freedom by reaching British lines. The black war for independence occurred in every part of the country  and was especially intense whenever slaves were within running distance of the British army or navy.

In the South, the pursuit of freedom through flight to the British was so large that the British army was often hard-pressed to provision the fleeing slaves. Thomas Jefferson, Virginia’s wartime governor, reported that 30,000 slaves fled their masters during the British invasion of Virginia in 1780-81. Twenty-three of Jefferson’s slaves fled his plantation to join the British, as did 17 of Washington’s slaves. In South Carolina and Georgia, probably one-third to one-half of the enslaved fled to the British during the southern campaigns between 1779 and 1781. Without doubt the American Revolution marked the greatest slave rebellion in the long history of American slavery.

–Gary B. Nash, “Forgotten Americans,” in The American Revolution, Official National Park Service Handbook (undated), pp. 75, 78.

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You Say You Want a Revolution

Perhaps the most radical consequence of the American Revolution was the creation of a self-governing republic in North America at the expense of the Native Americans whose land that republic would occupy–and expand into. The new republic, which guaranteed the rights and liberties of its citizens, excluded Native Americans from these, thereby rendering those rights privileges. Article 1, section 2, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution as ratified in 1789 stated:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons (emphasis added).

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Let Him Not Have Thy Coat (of Arms)

It is also a federal offense, again carrying a potential penalty of up to six months in a federal prison, if you use the Swiss coat of arms in any advertising for your business. I would include a picture of that coat of arms here so you could see what I am talking about, but I cannot take the chance that I might be sent to prison.

–James Duane, You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, p. 17

Disagreeing with Plato at Medium

I have a piece over at Medium, On Disagreeing with Plato: Reflections on Plato, Popper, and Mill. I suspect it will meet with disapproval from the libertarian-leaning readers of this blog, but you might find it of interest anyway. I discuss a recent article by classicist James Kierstead, who offers a qualified defense of Popper and takes classical liberals like Popper to task for their limited commitments to democracy as genuine popular rule.

In the meantime, I have been and will continue to be scarce in these parts for a few weeks, but I’ll make my way back to pester you all in the comments section soon enough.

Taking the Opportunity

The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Abba Eban

While you’re at it, why not do something practical to end U.S. support for the Israeli occupation, now in its 52nd year? I feel safer in the average synagogue or mosque in New Jersey (and I spend time in both) than I do when I visit the West Bank (as I also do) and face Israeli soldiers who come into the town where I’m living or the university campus where I’m teaching, engaging in gratuitous violence on flimsy pretexts. Your support for Israel is “unbreakable,” but your support for its occupation seems about as stable. It’s hard to see your condemnations of “hate” as anything more than empty rhetoric considering where you stand on the Israeli occupation.

We live in a country that started a war over a 2-year-long military occupation much milder than the Israeli one. Palestinians have shown amazing forbearance in putting up with the Israeli one for decades longer than that. The least we could do is to acknowledge its existence, acknowledge its significance, and speak and act accordingly. I don’t see even that minimal response to reality from any legislator in New Jersey and haven’t, for decades. I regret to say that you’re not an exception to that rule. Consider this note an invitation to become one.

Irfan Khawaja
Readington, New Jersey

Stoicism and Free Will

It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.

What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue. Continue reading

on Bernard Williams’ BLD (second installment)

So far (from points [1]-[3]), it looks like BLD essentially involves the following things (content-wise): (i) the state offering or being in a good position to offer, to each under its power, a justification of its power and (ii) the justification or justifications being such that the interests of each person under the power of the state are adequately addressed (however we are to fill in ‘adequately’).

(4) BW (pp. 4-5):  BW considers the case of a coercive state regime in which some, but not all, of those under its power are “radically disadvantaged” (RD) in that they have more to reasonably have much more to fear than others with respect to “coercion, pain, torture, humiliation, suffering, death.”  Assuming that the RD are aware of their situation, the state is not in a position to offer them the right sort of justification of its power. Apparently, this is because the state has failed them in the primary task of politics (PT) and they know this.

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Bernard Williams’ “basic legitimation demand” (BLD) — some thoughts

I’ll be making a series of posts on Bernard Williams’ essay “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory.” (David R. and Derek B. and I have read and discussed this recently.)  My purpose is pretty narrow: to get some idea of the content (and normative status) of what BW calls the basic legitimation demand (BLD). According to BW, when a state, in addition to adequately solving the “Hobbesian” problem of providing basic security (“the first political question”), meets BLD, it is legitimate (it comes to be permitted to make and enforce laws within some range of possible laws).  

Of note, in contrast to Rawls’ liberal principle of legitimacy, BLD is supposed to apply generally –  not just to liberal states or to states in conditions that are ripe for liberal constitutional democracy.  According to BW, at least in principle and in some historical contexts, non-liberal states can be legitimate and BLD is meant to explain how this could be (or is or was) so.  I don’t think Rawls denies this, but neither does he formulate or justify a general principle for state legitimacy. I’m interested in BW’s attempt at doing so.  I have some thoughts. Continue reading

The Cloud Is Moving Nearer Still

Consider two countries, X and Y.

X and Y sign an agreement. X unilaterally pulls out of the agreement at will, then attacks Y through the imposition of sanctions. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

X then imposes secondary sanctions on any countries that do business with Y. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

Time passes. X attacks Y again with more sanctions. The sanctions begin to take their toll. Y still complies with the original agreement.

Eventually, Y, the weaker party, decides to attack a third party, Z, which X had (unilaterally) pledged to defend. Y’s rationale: in attacking this third party, Y pulls X into a conflict where it, Y, enjoys a certain advantage that it doesn’t enjoy in a direct, frontal attack on X, which Y cannot win. The attack creates physical damage but no human casualties. Continue reading

Economic Inequality: Three Takes


In June 1963, when Nathaniel Branden published a piece on “Inherited Wealth” in The Objectivist Newsletter, he was still the beloved disciple of Ayn Rand, who reprinted his piece in her 1966 collection Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and continued to include it in subsequent editions despite her break with Branden in 1968. As Rand famously did not allow opinions deviating even in the slightest from her own to appear in journals or books that she edited, we can assume Branden speaks for Rand when he writes:

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