Malthus - The Gathering
Storm in Jane Austen's Time
A Male-Voices Web Page
December 17, 2001
There's a fear down here we can't forget.
Commissars and pin-stripe bosses
So the kids they dance
Goya's The Fire
Mary Wollstonecraft was the focus in the first of these pages, but here the focus switches to the writings of her husband, William Godwin, the father of her second daughter, Mary Shelley. In particular, we study Godwin's theoretical controversy with the clergyman, Thomas Malthus. (Malthus was a distant neighbor of Jane Austen.) In my view, reason lies on the side of Malthus, but William Godwin's ideas seem better to fit the facts that have played out since that great debate - the historical data supports the side of Godwin. It is an argument of crucial importance that inspired subsequent generations of intellectuals including Marx and Engels amongst many others. It is one of the foundations of economic theory.
More to the point, the study might help us better understand what Jane Austen was not. Surely, that might help us understand what she was - that is always our first goal. We can be sure of what Jane Austen was not where we consider social conditions and intellectual trends that had not fully begun at the time of her death. That is why I will place so much emphasis on the timing of these things.
We have discussed William Godwin as a novelist in another place.
Here is a link to the
for this Page
Jane Austen lived most of her life in the county of Hampshire. Her father and two of her brothers were clergymen there. Another clergyman, living in the neighboring county of Surrey, was Thomas Malthus who was about the age of Jane's oldest brother. Malthus was one of the founders of population theory and an early contributor to theories of economics. In spite of all the danger and turmoil, those were optimistic times that Jane Austen was living in, and Malthus was a pessimist. For that reason alone, he must have inspired a great deal of discussion - only an optimist can bear to discuss the views of a pessimist at length.
|Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)|
I seem to have come full circle at this point because, as it turns out, Malthus mentions William Godwin quite prominently in his essays. In fact, it is said that Malthus began his researches as an outgrowth of his debates with his father who was an ardent admirer of Godwin. There is another tangency: Malthus frequently referred to Dr. Price, who was mentioned here as an inspiration and mentor for Mary Wollstonecraft.
William Godwin was ten years older than Malthus; he was a London printer, and a working-class radical. He was also a devout atheist. But their debate was not about religion; rather, it was about the potential and destiny of mankind. In particular, the debate was about the limits to growth of human population numbers. And, of course, Godwin was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley.
I can say a few more things, parenthetically, about religion. First of all Godwin actually began as a clergyman; in fact, he was the son and the grandson of clergymen. Also, Malthus did not neglect religion in his essay on population; however, since that is not our focus here, those chapters are discussed elsewhere.
It is important to say some things about Malthus's father because Malthus himself is considered an arch conservative in some quarters. That's not unfair, but we mustn't think that he came from a conservative background, quite the contrary. In fact, when Rousseau visited Britain, at Hume's invitation, the Malthus home was one they chose to visit together. (That at a time when Thomas was too young to be aware.) In this interesting way then, Malthus was somewhat like Mary Shelley.
Malthus became a clergyman; but, at Cambridge, he achieved the rank of "ninth wrangler", which means that he was the ninth-most proficient mathematics student of his year. We are to be impressed - I am impressed. This explains why he couched his arguments in mathematical terms. However, you can take it from me that his mathematics are correct but unimpressive and unimportant to his main thesis. I will confine my discussion of his mathematics to the final section of this topic; so, if you are mathematically challenged, you can easily skip over the clutter at that point.
The First Essay
Malthus's first essay appeared in 1798 when Jane Austen was 22 years old. I have seen no indication whatsoever that our Lady was ever interested in the debate and can see no reflection of those ideas in her novels. However, the short study I am proposing will give us still another idea of the considerable intellectual ferment of her time. What Malthus called a second edition of the first essay was actually a significant expansion of his ideas and scholars recommend that we think of that as a "second essay", and I agree. Later he published an encyclopedia article which is referred to as his Summary View of the Principle of Population. My observations are drawn from his First Essay (1798) and his Summary (1830). (Jane Austen passed away in 1817.)
Malthus began by talking mathematics, by declaring that human populations grew geometrically (grew by multiplication) while subsistence could only grow arithmetically (grow by addition). What all that means, whether or not he was right about that, or whether or not he even thought correctly about the definition of "subsistence" are interesting discussions - interesting but perfectly irrelevant. (I will discuss the mathematics, but only in the last paragraphs of this section where most of you can avoid such arcane matters.) Here, I will give a short summary of what he meant, and that can be said in plain, everyday, perfectly understandable English.
The essence of his initial assumption is that human passion is such that, if left unchecked, population growth rates would be many times higher than those actually observed. As a result we have
Malthus's basic assumption: economic, environmental, and social factors limit - "check" population growth; that is, we don't breed anywhere near the maximum biological rates possible. Said another way, it is economics and health conditions, and not biology or diminished passion, that bound the growth rates of human populations.
Believe me, that is all there is to Malthus's axioms even though many are desperate to explain that his axioms are more complex and more worthy of study. People who think that are wrong and they confuse themselves; some even imagine that they can refute Malthus by quarreling with some detail in the beginning of his essay. Actually, it is obvious that Malthus was correct in his basic supposition; although, we might complain that he took five chapters to say something that we all might have agreed upon from the get-go.
The next thing to understand is that he very much wanted to discern the exact nature of these "checks" to population growth. It is in those parts of his essay that Malthus's true contributions lie. Therein lies the complexity and therein lie the roots of debate and controversy.
Here is a point that many miss, they don't perceive an implication of Malthus's axioms. That is, we have the
Implication: where we observe the long term changes in population numbers of, say, the entire world, we are, in fact, observing the growth of human subsistence and persistence, which are aspects of human technical advance!
Malthus divided the checks into two categories - positive and preventative. The "positive" checks are the ones that you and I might have named "negative" because these are the checks of famine, disease, and warfare. "Preventative" checks are the rational decisions made by society to marry later and bare fewer children under certain conditions. Malthus suggested that the positive checks only sometimes applied to human populations. He suggested that these checks were the primary controls that regulated animal populations. Malthus believed that the preventative checks were an outgrowth of the rationality of mankind - the rational assessment of economic conditions and prospects. It seems that most folks associate Mathus's name with his positive checks - war, famine, and disease; but, in my reading of the essays, it seems clear that Malthus places far more emphasis on the workings of the preventative checks. Go figure!
I recommend that you be skeptical of humanists, of any stripe, when they try to say something about animal populations. For example, you can safely ignore anything that includes
Malthus himself used his basic assumption to establish a prediction; this was a prediction of an "oscillation" or cycle in population numbers. Malthus, most often, thought "subsistence" to be measured by food supply; although, at other places he used "wages" as the quantifier. (Don't get hung up on that, measure it any way you please, and his conclusions are the same.) He then proposed that human passion was such that population would outstrip the support for that population (the subsistence), food would become scarce so that costs would increase, the supply of labor would increase so that wages would drop. At that same time, population growth must stop because, as Malthus explained,
"... The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of raising a family are so great that population is at a stand. ..."
[First Essay, Chapter II]
However, at the same time, farmers and other capitalists could then exploit the reduced cost of labor to bring more land into cultivation and thereby increase subsistence. This feedback effect - this increased food supply (or subsistence) - would reduce subsistence prices so that a new round of increased fertility would ensue. Do you understand? Do you see that a basic "oscillation" or cycle is predicted in this way?
Malthus then explained that the reason that there were no records of such cycles is because historians had tended not to record what had happened to the lower classes. He felt that if such records had been kept, we would have discovered oscillations in population numbers. I don't agree and yet I consider his theory of oscillation to be basically correct. Correct but, as I will suggest, more complex than the great man understood in Jane Austen's pre-industrial times.
The problem is that we do not see the Malthusian cycle where we examine the total number of persons in a given population. However, we certainly might see a Malthusian-like cycle where we look, instead, at the relative number of persons in certain age groups - where we look at the changes in time of the age structure of a population. Those are variables not thought of by Malthus.
In fact, the United States currently may be in the second cycle of a Malthusian-like oscillation. The phenomenon is more commonly known as the baby boom. I was born in the latter stages of The Great Depression when the birth rates among the blue-collar class were extremely low; this was a clear consequence of very high unemployment rates. (How did blue-collar folks keep the birth rates down? - Guess, or do some research. There are probably a lot of correct answers.) Shortly after World War II - or maybe during - economic conditions greatly improved, a great deal of pent-up fertility was unleashed, and extremely high birth rates ensued. That boom lasted until the late '50s.
The result was that things were a whole lot easier for me than for my baby brother who was born in the midst of the fertility "boom." It was easier to enter a college of one's choice, it was easier to find a job near campus, it was easier to earn a fellowship, to get a good job after, etc., etc.
The baby-boom oscillation operates this way. First of all, there is a simple biological effect. When the baby boomers went through the marriageable ages, there was a second rash of high birth rates. That was only natural. This was a distant echo of the end of the Great Depression. Some of you may remember that, a few decades ago, high schools were being shut down because of a redundancy. Currently, high schools are being built again as the second wave crest is headed through that particular age class.
An economic effect is the fact that these children, as well as retired persons, must be supported by the wage-earning, mid-aged classes. The oscillations in age structure might, therefore, have significant effects on taxation vs. disposable income. You must have heard all the concern about the fact that baby-boomers are about to pass into the Social Security age-brackets. The extent to which these tax-burden effects feed back onto birth rates is one of the many things I can't describe to you because I haven't a clue. (My guess is that other factors, perfectly unrelated to age structure, dampen or accentuate the economic feedback.) And, of course, there was the feedback that Malthus himself proposed, the effect that baby-boomers had on the labor supply. I am no economist - so don't take my word for it - but I can't help but observe that the influence of labor unions greatly declined in just that period when the boomers reached the employable ages. Coincidence? The Malthusian oscillation?
The point that I wish to make is that this one simple example illustrates that Malthus's eighteenth-century thinking is relevant to our own time. That same example also illustrates just how Malthus made himself a saint to conservatives and a pariah to the rest of us.
Malthus theorized that society made a mistake during that part of the cycle when the number of workers was high so that wages were low. He explained that, historically, societies diverted cash to the relief of workers instead of applying all resources to the increase of subsistence. He concluded that, in this way, the problems of the workers were exacerbated in the long run. In modern terms, he suggested that we don't increase minimum wage in those times; rather, he recommended that we divert all resources to investment, say, by reducing corporate taxes. (I bet you thought that Ronald Reagan had invented "trickle-down" economics.) In other words, we should stop providing the instinctive mutual-aid, that almost defines us, and become, instead, fine economic planners. Apparently, fine economic planners are not mammals.
There are a great many other details in the early part of the First Essay that deserve one's attention, but that should be the subject of two or three other web sites maintained by folks far more knowledgeable than myself. I will content myself with that single example of the "oscillation", and now move on to the latter part of his essay in which Malthus confronts the theories of Godwin then currently in vogue.
Godwin's Political Justice
Malthus turns to criticism of other philosophers who previously had published ideas that might be taken to oppose his own. His object in Chapters 8 and 9 is, primarily, the Marquis de Condorcet (who we meet in another context.) Malthus turns to Godwin beginning in Chapter 10; in particular, to Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
Godwin thought that all evil was generated by government and social institutions and mused about a human society in which all such institutions were done away with. The institution of marriage was one example of a generator of evil, and religion was another. He imagined that such a society would require no more than a half-an-hour of work per day per man. He foresaw that produce would be divided up according to individual needs and that the greater part of the day would be devoted to study and contemplation. Everyone would unselfishly contribute to the research of others where possible and if asked. I think that this was to be the case even on Sundays during the NFL season! Free love reigns and no one much cares who fathered which woman's child. (I don't know about you, but I am beginning to feel uneasy.)
Malthus begins by applying his principles of population and subsistence to show how this idyllic situation, once established, would degenerate. In fact, he argues that within one or two doublings of population, society would naturally evolve back to what it was in 1798. In other words, the England of Malthus's own day was the natural state of society - the condition to which all human societies must gravitate. (I don't know about you, but I am beginning to feel uneasy.)
In fact, Malthus does not defeat Godwin's view in this way and he understood that. Also, Godwin was no fool and so we should expect that he anticipated what critics might say in this regard. You see, Godwin avoided any problems attendant to population growth by positing that growth would come to a virtual standstill because of a lessening of the "commerce between the sexes". In other words, this was to be a nearly perfect society and such individuals would have become disinterested in all the yucky stuff. Malthus attacks that notion in his Chapter 11, and in such a manner as to make me feel a kinship to him and to sense that Godwin lived somewhere on the Mars of my own private solar system. There, Malthus breaks through his clergyman shell and sets down some manly feelings about love, sex, and feminine beauty that I want to share with you. (Incidentally, this chapter may remind you of the very different things said about romantic love by Henry Fielding (1749) and then by Godwin's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792).)
Malthus seems to express the crucial idea in his very first paragraph:
"... No move towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes has taken place in the five or six thousand years that the world has existed. Men in the decline of life have in all ages declaimed against a passion which they have ceased to feel, but with as little reason as success. Those who from coldness of constitutional temperament have never felt what love is, will surely be allowed to be very incompetent judges with regard to the power of this passion to contribute to the sum of pleasurable sensations in life. Those who have spent their youth in criminal excesses and have prepared for themselves, as the comforts of their age, corporeal debility and mental remorse may well inveigh against such pleasures as vain and futile, and unproductive of lasting satisfaction. But the pleasures of pure love will bear the contemplation of the most improved reason, and the most exalted virtue. Perhaps there is scarcely a man who has once experienced the genuine delight of virtuous love, however great his intellectual pleasure may have been, that does not look back to the period as the sunny spot in his whole life, where his imagination loves to bask, which he recollects and contemplates with the fondest regrets, and which he would most wish to live over again. The superiority of intellectual to sensual pleasures consists rather in their filling up more time, in their having a larger range, and in their being less liable to satiety, than in their being more real and essential."
And then Malthus, the clergyman, played the complete man to Godwin's, the atheist's, puritanical:
"... a sensual pleasure not attended with the probability of unhappy consequences does not offend against the laws of morality, and if it be pursued with such a degree of temperance as to leave the most ample room for intellectual attainments, it must undoubtedly add to the sum of pleasurable sensations in life. Virtuous love, exalted by friendship, seems to be that sort of mixture of sensual and intellectual enjoyment particularly suited to the nature of man, and most powerfully calculated to awaken the sympathies of the soul, and produce the most exquisite gratifications.
Mr Godwin says, in order to shew the evident inferiority of the pleasures of sense, 'Strip the commerce of the sexes of all its attendant circumstances, and it would be generally despised' (Bk. I, ch. 5; in the third edition, Vol. I, pp. 71-72). He might as well say to a man who admired trees: strip them of their spreading branches and lovely foliage, and what beauty can you see in a bare pole? But it was the tree with the branches and foliage, and not without them, that excited admiration. One feature of an object may be as distinct, and excite as different emotions, from the aggregate as any two things the most remote, as a beautiful woman, and a map of Madagascar. It is 'the symmetry of person, the vivacity, the voluptuous softness of temper, the affectionate kindness of feelings, the imagination and the wit' of a woman that excite the passion of love, and not the mere distinction of her being female. Urged by the passion of love, men have been driven into acts highly prejudicial to the general interests of society, but probably they would have found no difficulty in resisting the temptation, had it appeared in the form of a woman with no other attractions whatever but her sex. To strip sensual pleasures of all their adjuncts, in order to prove their inferiority, is to deprive a magnet of some of its most essential causes of attraction, and then to say that it is weak and inefficient.
In the pursuit of every enjoyment, whether sensual or intellectual, reason, that faculty which enables us to calculate consequences, is the proper corrective and guide. It is probable therefore that improved reason will always tend to prevent the abuse of sensual pleasures, though it by no means follows that it will extinguish them. "
Malthus concludes the chapter with a telling fact:
"It is a truth, which history I am afraid makes too clear, that some men of the highest mental powers have been addicted not only to a moderate, but even to an immoderate indulgence in the pleasures of sensual love. But allowing, as I should be inclined to do, notwithstanding numerous instances to the contrary, that great intellectual exertions tend to diminish the empire of this passion over man, it is evident that the mass of mankind must be improved more highly than the brightest ornaments of the species at present before any difference can take place sufficient sensibly to affect population. ..."
But alas, Malthus then reminds us that he is Thomas Malthus.
"... I would by no means suppose that the mass of mankind has reached its term of improvement, but the principal argument of this essay tends to place in a strong point of view the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement."
Chapter 12 is devoted to Malthus's critique of Godwin's conjecture on the indefinite prolongation of human life - an approaching immortality. Godwin was a smart man, there is no doubt about that; but, he was not a wise man and his reasoning here is so foolish that I won't take much space to cover this aspect of the debate. I will only reflect Malthus's own astonishment that,
"Mr Godwin's conjecture respecting the future approach of man towards immortality on earth seems to be rather oddly placed in a chapter which professes to remove the objection to his system of equality from the principle of population. ..."
I can only imagine that Godwin felt that the "commerce between the sexes" would diminish to nearly the point of extinction.
Chapter 13 is Malthus's reply to Godwin's axiom that man was a purely rational being. Malthus preferred to think of us as "compound beings", a mixture of the rational with the instinctive. Godwin was quite explicit about this:
"... In strict consideration it will not admit of debate. Man is a rational being. ..."
Incidentally, at this place in the essay, the character of the critique is very much like that of the modern debate over the predominant influence on the minds of man - nature or nurture. Godwin was all for nurture while Malthus argued for a mixture.
"I am willing to allow that every voluntary act is preceded by a decision of the mind, but it is strangely opposite to what I should conceive to be the just theory on the subject, and a palpable contradiction to all experience, to say that the corporal propensities of man do not act very powerfully, as disturbing forces, in these decisions. ..."
All of this was related to Godwin's suggestion that the commerce between the sexes would diminish in a world in which rationality was allowed to reign. A good deal of the rest of Chapter 13 is Malthus's reply to Godwin's insistence that prisons do no good and, so, should be abolished. That is a very interesting aspect to the debate, so I strongly recommend it to you. However, I go no further with it here because it would take us too far from the principles of population.
Chapter 13 concludes with Malthus's observation that whatever the extent that rationality influences man's behavior, we cannot expect that one man might completely win over another on the basis of a sound argument. Even while the first may be able to gain credulity in the mind of the other, credulity is not the same thing as conviction - perhaps only fortuitous experience can produce the necessary conviction.
I recommend Chapter 14 of The First Essay. There, Malthus makes some ingenious points about this very interesting five-point credo of Godwin's:
"Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weaknesses of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words, susceptible of perpetual improvement."
Malthus first wonders what "adequately communicated" might mean? If it means a communication that is victorious over error, then Godwin's first proposition is correct by virtue of circular reasoning - not exactly a great philosophical axiom.
In the latter part of the chapter, Malthus does argue for the possibility of a perfectibility that is quite different from that of Godwin. If you are mathematical then you will understand me when I say that Malthus characterized Godwin's vision of perfectibility as an unbounded sequence of improvements, while Malthus saw perfectibility as a bounded set of human improvements that does not contain its limit point. If you are a normal person, you would prefer that I say that Godwin thought of perfectibility as unlimited in scope while Malthus saw the perfect human nature as finite and inherent, and that humanity might come ever so close to this state of perfection while never quite achieving it - the approach might be made closer with each generation without surpassing some fixed, finite possibility.
Incidentally, Godwin was considered an anarchist by some, and Malthus replies to that point of view as well in this Chapter 14.
My own comment is that both men seemed to think that there are only a single truth and a single vision of perfection. That strikes me as naive.
There are 19 chapters in the First Essay, and Chapter 15 is the last in which Godwin is mentioned. The latter chapters deal with economic theory - indeed, the same may be said of Chapter 15 - and that is a little out of the way of our goals for this web page. So I conclude my discussion of the debate with a few observations on Chapter 15.
Malthus compares some ideas of Godwin with those of Adam Smith and finds - wouldn't you just know it - Godwin's lacking. He points out that Godwin confuses "miserly" with "frugal" in his discussion of the condition of labor and capitalists ("proprietors") in society. Clearly, Malthus is correct in suggesting that hoarding is not productive while the re-investment of savings into the means of production is very beneficial to labor. Godwin seemed to believe in a labor theory of value and Malthus, in large part, agrees; but, the two men part company where they come to the matter of a redistribution of wealth. Godwin was all for it but Malthus had doubts and added that the severe social dislocation of an immediate redistribution would not work to the benefit of labor, quite the contrary.
Malthus concludes his First Essay in the final two chapters where he reconciles his "principle of population" with religious belief and metaphysical speculation. Those would carry us too far afield here; however, I have placed a discussion of them in another place.
The Mathematics of Malthus
You might enjoy this next section if you liked your high school calculus course. If not, you won't miss anything important if you use this link to escape to a set of conclusions on the Godwin-Malthus debate.
To begin with, Malthus postulated that an unchecked population would grow in a geometrical progression. That is to say that a doubling would occur in a fixed period of time independent of the starting point. Malthus estimated that this doubling-time period would be 25 years. The law of geometric progression can be related to simple exponential growth. Suppose that "p" represents population and consider the differential equation
It is easy to quarrel about the validity of the differential equation. For example, no allowance is made for age distribution. When focusing on human population growth in twenty-five year increments, one should recognize that newborns will spend something like half that time in the pre-pubescent (pre-fertile) ages, and no such delay is accounted for in the exponential equation. If you should ever learn some modern mathematical demography, you will learn that age-distribution effects are the very first issues addressed in such courses.
True enough, but remember that an implication of Malthus's axioms is that, in actuality, it is the growth in subsistence that we are observing when looking at long-term population data. Malthus was very clear in stating that short bursts of exponential growth can occur in only rare instances such as in a newly discovered, fertile land, or after a great pandemic or devastating war. Otherwise, he believed that time dependent subsistence bounded the population numbers. To my limited knowledge, this simple fact is completely ignored by modern demographers. As a result, demographers seem to think that they can predict future population by empirically determining age-dependent "fertility" (natality less mortality) rates. I don't think so, and the nearly perfect failure of UN demographers to predict population reinforces my prejudice - more on that later. This disciplinary blindness strikes me as very odd! My impression is that the discipline considers the subject of subsistence too complicated to engage. However, Malthus thought it crucial and so do I; but, as I will now indicate, his axiom that subsistence grew only linearly with time (grew as a linear progression) was woefully inadequate.
I know of only one effort to model long term growth of human population consistent with the Malthusian implication. That effort was at the crudest possible level, was empirical, and was performed with tongue firmly in cheek. I mean it was as intentionally funny as it was scary. The effort was that of H. von Foerster et. al. at the University of Illinois, and summarized in a paper in Science with the amusing title, Doomsday: Friday 13, November A.D. 2026. That effort drew a number of outraged reactions from mathematicians and demographers who, in my mind, did not seem to get the point. Von Foerster et al made an especially effective reply to critics in a follow-up article - food for thought for young, aspiring demographers.
The von Foerster model is summarized in the simple differential equation
In any case, you can easily verify that the solution of the von Foerster differential equation is
Notice that "t1" can be interpreted as "Doomsday" because p(t) becomes infinite on that date. Von Foerster and his co-authors fit data from the modern era to find that the Doomsday singularity will occur on the date
And you thought the Y2K problem was going to be bad! Say, whatever happened to the Y2K problem? Well, we can safely put the Doomsday problem in the same file with Y2K - von Foerster would have been the first to tell you that. Still, he and his co-authors had a lot of fun projecting back and forth with their equation; the mathematics and demography community didn't laugh with them. Look guys and gals, the idea is to call attention to the population problem - so, loosen up!
One thing is sure, when we compare the von Foerster curve with historical data, we are deeply impressed. That is done in this figure. The solution to the von Foerster equation is shown in gold and the data points in purple. The parameters were determined from the data from 1650-1960 AD; so, the data point for 2000 AD is a measure of the goodness of a prediction for that year made some forty years earlier - pretty good! Oh, that graph is on a log-log scale and time runs backwards on the horizontal scale - think of that as t1 - t, the time left until Doomsday.
And, it becomes quite clear that Malthus's axiom, the "linear progression" in subsistence, was a hopeless underestimate. There is one other important observation: if human population had doubled every 25 years since Malthus's first essay, the current world population would be 256 billion instead of only 6 billion. Whew! - That means that, as Malthus supposed, subsistence technology and not biology (maximum possible fertility) has bounded population growth.
O.K., so let's hold everybody's feet to the fire. A good way to do that is to compare what folks predicted with what actually happened. All these analysts began to predict what the world population would be in the year 2000 A.D. and they did that starting five decades ago. Well, this is 2001 and so we now know what happened and prediction can be compared with fact. The results are summarized in the following figure where the actual value of world population in 2000 is shown by the horizontal red line. Von Foerster's prediction, made in 1960, is indicated by the horizontal white line. The predictions of the U.N. demographers for 2000 actually changed over time as is indicated by the yellow graph. Beginning in the year 1958, the U.N. began to put error bounds on their estimates and I indicated those here with "H" for the high estimate and "L" for the low estimate.
There are a lot of amusing aspects to this. First of all, as time went on - and, presumably, as their methods and data improved - the demographers' projections came up to actually encompass Von Foerster's forecast even though the two methodologies had absolutely nothing in common. The other thing is that either forecast was fairly good - within about 8%. Of course, if the predictions were compared for the year 2026, the Von Foerster forecast would be fly off the graph, while the U.N. projection would seem more reasonable.
Incidentally, demographers' insist that the word "projection" be applied to their predictions because they are merely "indicating what would happen if current trends in mortality and birth rates continue." That always seemed mealy-mouthed to me.
This is the main conclusion: Von Foerster's equation matches the human population data over the entire historical period including today's value, but the prediction for only 25 years hence is impossible. Something else will have to happen in order to make historical growth rates untenable - dramatically untenable. So, what will happen? Shouldn't we be at least interested in the limits to growth that are about to come into play? I recommend that you tease your friends with von Foerster - tease them and then ask those questions.
Well, I hoped to impress you, a little, with a demonstration of the intellectual atmosphere of Jane Austen's time. In particular, I hoped for the impression that matters of great importance to you and I were already being noticed in that remote era. But, it seems to me that I should make a little effort to mention some related concerns of our own time that were not foreseen by the intellectuals of Jane Austen's time.
Perhaps we now have a more complete view of what is meant by "subsistence". In particular, we understand that there is an infrastructure to subsistence; some may call it that, while others refer to the "biosphere". And, we understand that this infrastructure, including air and water, has a fragility that must be protected, otherwise the number of persons that can be sustained will diminish, rather than increase as it has for the last five thousand years.
The damage to the biosphere will continue at an increasing rate. We can remove a large part of the stress through technological advance, but it seems to me that the only real way to remove the stress and bring the American lifestyle to the rest of the world is by reducing population. I don't know what has gone into the thinking of the Chinese on this matter; but, it seems to me that their stricture of one child per couple is exactly what is needed. If this policy were adopted world wide, there would be less than one half as many families as today and that would be accomplished in one generation. What a tremendous gift for future generations! Of course, most of the world would then lack the drones that could be exploited to initiate industrialization - or so everybody thinks. But maybe Godwin had it right - maybe the already industrialized nations would freely share and distribute their technologies. Wouldn't that be grand.
There is one other issue not considered in Jane Austen's time. For lack of a better word, that issue has to do with the collective soul of humanity. How could we live with ourselves if we betrayed our stewardship of life on this planet? We owe everything to our fellow creatures and in a world far grander than even William Godwin could imagine, we would honor that stewardship and celebrate our greater kinship - it may all be a matter of awareness, of culture. Imagine a bright blue ball!
One can often find unfortunate attitudes expressed in the novels of Jane Austen's contemporaries. The excuse is often made that we cannot expect authors of the eighteenth century to always reflect the progressive attitudes of the twentieth. I don't believe that - that's nonsense. Did the Ten Commandments come with a "use by" date? To support my view, I can offer excerpts from the novels of Jane Austen. That author consistently expressed attitudes compatible with those of our own better angels.
In particular, let us reflect on Jane Austen's mentions of slavery in her novels. I will use those to make a point about the diversity of attitudes toward slavery in her time. The point is this, the attitude of the country gentry was a good deal like that of the typical, educated families of today.
I begin with an excerpt from Emma. In Jane Austen's day, the transatlantic slave trade was controlled by the British in ships operating out of Bristol and Liverpool, and Mrs. Elton, as you will see, is very self-conscious about that fact. Jane Fairfax is complaining about the fact that she might have to go to work and she starts things off in this way:
" '... When I am determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something--Offices for the sale--not quite of human flesh--but of human intellect.'
'Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.'
'I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave trade' said Jane; 'governess-trade was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.' ... "
Chapter XVII, Volume 2
To me, it is crystal clear that the acceptable opinion amongst the English gentry was that of the abolitionist! In particular, that must have been true in the homes of clergymen, men like Jane Austen's father and elder brothers.
The subject is broached only one other time in the novels and that is in Mansfield Park. Here it is: Edmund and Fanny are in private conversation and Edmund, as usual, is trying to bolster his young cousin's confidence and to draw her out.
" '... You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at.--You must try not to mind growing up a pretty woman.' ... 'Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more.--You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.'
'But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?'
'I did and I was in hopes the question would be followed by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.' ... "
Chapter III, Volume 2
Incidentally, for some unfathomable reason, the accepted, orthodox reading of this passage is that the Bertram family became silent only after Fanny offered up her question about slavery. And, that must have been because of some deep, dark involvement with and sense of guilt over the practice. I don't know about you, but I find that orthodox reading far-fetched.
It may be that this orthodoxy misled or confirmed Patricia Rozema in her unfortunate flight of imagination. For my part, I read the passage from Mansfield Park as compatible with that from Emma, compatible with the notion that abolitionist's was the acceptable attitude amongst the gentry. There is no other mention of slavery in Mansfield Park; so, this passage casts great doubt on Patricia Rozema's contention that slavery existed at the Bertram holdings in the West Indies; the reactions of Fanny, Edmund, and Sir Thomas simply seem all wrong for that possibility. (Incidentally, one of our community members passed along some interesting information that sheds some light on the Bertrams' trip to Antigua; here is the link to that.)
My basic point is this: people of Jane Austen's time were much like us. No right-thinking person would have thought of anything but a condemnation of slavery. Before you protest that there must have been something different about those people, they could not have been the abolitionists that Jane Austen pretends, or else there would have been no slave trade, let me stop you with this. Think about our own times, think about all that exploited labor in the world today. Much of it borders on involuntary servitude and is used to produce many of your - our goods. You and I stand against these well-known and infamous practices and, yet, they continue to exist. I am not thinking about only that slave labor held by the Axis powers during World War II, I am referring to that involuntary servitude used to produce your clothing and electronics and to gather your food. Every ethnic group is given its turn; early in this century it was the daughters of Jewish families, newly emigrated from Germany and Russia, and now it is the misfortune of others to labor for our comfort. That is to say, we might be able to understand how slavery could be allowed to exist in Jane Austen's time by simply learning how it is that despicable labor practices are allowed to continue in our own.
Incidentally, you can read of another perspective on slavery in another famous novel, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. Mansfield Park was published in 1814, Emma in 1816, while Moll Flanders was published in 1722. So Defoe's perspective comes from a much earlier period. His representation shows a far greater ease with slavery and no hint of an abolitionist impulse. (The last fifty or so pages of Moll Flanders are the relevant passages in this context.) As was the real custom in the south, slaves are not called "slaves" in Defoe's novel, they are called "servants." An interesting aspect is that Moll thinks about white indentured-servants in much the same way as African slaves; so, for example, she mentions her purchase of a white serving girl along with a black slave youth in the same breath - almost as part of the same transaction. That is a perspective that has been lost in our time.
One last point that is supported by these quotes from Jane Austen's novels: it would be well for Americans to remember that Europeans didn't introduce only slavery in the Americas, they also introduced the abolitionist sense and sensibilities. The abolitionists were numerous, well, and hardy and they arrived early in the lands that would become our nation. Our neo-European, American forebears thought about, and suffered over, the slavery question all the time; and, they conducted their labors in the European languages and often in the phrases borrowed from their European counterparts. The practice could only end with American blood spilled in American fires, but we owe a great deal to the inspiration and sensibilities of progressive Europeans.
The United States
In many ways, Jane Austen's England was much like the America of my generation. I mean that the American Revolution had much the same impacts in England that the Vietnam War had in my own country. The British army was the best in the world, and they won nearly every battle in America. However, the southern loyalists were the worst kind of allies, under-educated men who had their own bitter scores to settle, and men who would commit one atrocity after another. It was not long before there were retaliations in kind. The British Army was militarily sophisticated and politically inept so it became guilty by association. As it became isolated and increasingly demoralized, this great army was then sunk to the level of its worst allies and into the same stupid habits. In this way, an initially indifferent American populace was converted into a fierce, innovative, and dedicated enemy. As these facts became known on the other side of the Atlantic, great divisions and rifts were created in the English society, divisions that were the main reason for the eventual victory of the opponent. Does any of this sound familiar?
Another similarity is that the England of Jane Austen's time feared the invasion of a foreign super-power, a reasonable fear that would last for nearly Jane Austen's entire life. This was the power of France that had, at times, the support of the liberal elements of many other nations. Even some dissident elements of England thought, at first, that Napoleon might bring democracy to the European continent.
Of course, America, even at that early date, was far more diverse than England. There had been a large influx of Germans and Scots-Irish earlier in the eighteenth century; it is said that, in the middle colonies, each of those populations was as numerous as the English. Also, there were many French, Dutch, Spanish, native American, and African-American inhabitants. Still, even there, the culture was overwhelmingly British, especially among the founding fathers. On the other hand, we should recognize the patchiness of ethnicity at the founding; for example, while there was diversity in the middle colonies, it is said that 95% of the European settlers in New England had come from England - not Britain - England! And as for the ethnic makeup of the west! - but, let us not stray into that enormous subject.
I once watched an expert expound an interesting theory on CSPAN; he tried to establish his theory that the American Revolution was an echo of the English Civil War of 120 years earlier. That is an idea that cannot be set aside easily. Think about it, the hot bed of revolutionary fervor was in the New England and "Middle Colonies" areas. New England culture was dominated by Puritans and other "dissenting" or "separatist" religions, the very groups that fought against the King in the English Civil War. In fact, several men from that first generation of American-born Puritans had gone back to England to join Cromwell in his fight against the King. So, there was precedent in the minds of that region for the discharging of weapons at the King's army. Also, the largest bands of American loyalists were in the agricultural South, amongst that economic class of men very similar to a significant subclass of the English Tories, the rural gentry of Jane Austen's novels. More significantly, a number of English loyalists ("Cavaliers") migrated to Virginia just after Parliament beheaded the King in 1649. It is little wonder that the Church of England was, by far, the dominant religion of the southern colonies.
"Echo" of the English Civil War is the right word, of course, because there were also unique aspects to the grievances of the American colonists. For example, the reason that there were any patriots at all in the southern region was the fact that British policy was such that the southern economic elite was forced to become highly indebted to English merchants. Needless to say, that policy was sorely resented by some. Incidentally, this echo theory also seems to help us understand the American Civil War to a limited degree.
Independence - 1776
Next, I turn to the two most important American political documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. I will summarize my reading and understanding of only two issues in the documents - the treatment of slavery and the rights of women. I try to open discussion of the "Rights of Women" because Jane Austen was a woman, but "slavery" out of respect for the African-American ancestors of my daughter and grandson. My primary focus is to understand the idealistic political attitudes that formed Jane Austen's intellectual environment.
I believe that western European thought - progressive thought - was the intellectual basis for both American documents. That is not to be wondered at because the founding fathers spent most of their lives as British men; British was their culture, the basis of their education, and the foundation of their value system. How might we imagine the intellectual basis of either document as anything other than British thought?
Jane Austen was not quite seven months old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Revolution was not over until she was almost eight years old, an age when she would have been aware. She must have remembered the prayers offered up in her father's church for the safety of their soldiers in America.
The larger situation in America in 1775 was this: at the exact same time that the quality of American political leadership was the highest it would ever be, that of the British leadership was at its lowest. I mean, because of accident, illness, and inattention, English numbskulls had somehow gained temporary control. The biggest boob of all wore the crown. If the quality of leadership of either country had been more like the average, we would all still be saluting the Union Jack.
The Declaration of
& Thomas Paine's Common Sense
The simple truth is that, even as late as January 1776, there was precious little sentiment in the American colonies for Independence. The assembly that would eventually write and promote the Declaration was already being organized and the estimate is that less than one third of that body favored Independence in January.
Here is the sequence of events: the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775; Jane Austen was born in December 1775; Common Sense was published in January 1776; and, the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776.
Common Sense was an influential political pamphlet; the author was Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a native Englishman, newly arrived in America, who had taken up the patriotic cause. That is to say, Paine published Common Sense nearly nine months after the war began but six months before Independence was declared - the declaration that gave direction and focus to the hostile actions of the colonists.
What changed public sentiment by July 4, 1776? Many credit the impact of Common Sense. Personally, I put the blame on George III, but I am no expert so I will summarize the argument for Tom Paine. Common Sense is a call for independence and democracy. It reads beautifully and is very inspirational; you should read it - if you are an American, you must read it - it won't take long and it's easy going. This pamphlet is sometimes described as the first American best seller. The numbers are staggering - listen to some of those. It went through 56 editions in the first year alone, 120,000 copies were sold in the first three months, and an estimated 500,000 in the first year. I have seen the population of the nascent United States estimated as between 1.5 to 3 million, so these sales estimates are impressive in the extreme. It is little wonder that some enthusiasts claim that the sole basis for declaring Independence was the wide-spread dissemination of Common Sense.
The Declaration of Independence & Slavery
Personally, I think that too much is made of the fact that a slave holder, Thomas Jefferson, is considered the author of the Declaration of Independence. The complete truth is that a three-man committee was appointed to draft the document and the other two, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, were strict abolitionists. Virginia was a populous and very rich colony. Only community leaders had the political clout to give the Declaration any real meaning; so, it was a political inevitability that a slave holder would be put out in front in this declaration of war against the mother country.
I have seen a photograph of Jefferson's first draft, and it is clear there that the other two committeemen made many alterations and additions. As we all know, Jefferson was an intellectual schizophrenic so we are not surprised that he actually included a anti-slavery passage in the Declaration (blaming King George for the save trade) that passed from the committee to the full convention. There, the southerners would only be placated with the removal of that passage.
Adams's commitment to abolition was congenital - a characteristic of his region. Franklin's was an acquired commitment but was as ardently held. Actually, Franklin briefly held two slaves when a young man; but, his thinking had evolved to the point where he founded one of the most important abolitionist groups in the middle region - and that long before the Revolution.
Thomas Paine's The Crisis
Thomas Paine's contributions to the war effort continued. He published these next words in North America when Jane Austen was only a few days past her first birthday. They seem eerily appropriate to our present time after September 11, 2001.
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. ..."
The words appeared in a newspaper on December 23, 1776; this was to be the first of a series of newspaper articles that Paine wrote to bolster American confidence and resolve. Paine can be said to have "walked the walk" because he combined his journalism with his duties in the American Continental Army. He was widely read and admired, and, in this way, Paine performed the same vital service for our founding fathers that Winston Churchill would perform for the British in the darkest days of World War II. (You can find the articles collected in any number of places, usually under the heading of, The Crisis.)
From there, the war progressed with its ups and downs, but that discussion would take us too far astray. So, we will skip ahead to 1787 and the writing of the Constitution.References
U.S. Constitution - 1787
Women's Rights and Slavery
A word of caution before I begin here - our wise ones always know, and most of us eventually learn, that the devil or the better angels reside in the details. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the framework of American ideals and intentions; however, the details of our civil lives are located in the state constitutions, federal and state legislation, and in city and county ordinances - or, more importantly, in the attitudes, culture, and habits of the citizenry. That is to say, the treatment of women, economic classes, and non-European minorities in the framework and then by society might be two different things. You might not have too far to look to find all the racism and male dominance you can deal with in those details; however, I leave the details to you. My point will be that details are changeable and evolve with time; our solid framework enabled Lincoln, Dr. King, and others to introduce the grace of better angels into the details of American civil life.
While western-European thought - progressive thought - was the intellectual basis for both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the practical basis was purely American. If you study that long colonial period, you will realize that our Americans fathers had far more experience in writing constitutions than any European group had at the time - at any time. This was especially true at the beginning of the Revolution when British governors and administrators made themselves scarce; the Americans had to quickly write constitutions in order to secure civil efficiency and public safety.
The same may be said for practical experience in self-government - one historian has characterized the colonies during those 150 years of colonial experience as a "research station in self-government." Yes, there were some prerequisites that could not be met with the mere knowledge of the intellectual history of Europe. However, even here, we can notice that the American experiments were variations on English institutions; it could not have been otherwise. Of course, the thing that Americans were not very good at, at first, was union ("federation"); but, the war itself taught them the rudiments of that.
The U.S. Constitution can be read with good understanding in only a few hours. We should all do that from time to time. Of course, it must take a lifetime to acquire the proper understanding of everything. There are all those crucial nuances, historical and social contexts, and the all-important traditional interpretations - the legal "precedents". But, the U.S. Constitution is eminently readable; Jane Austen might have written it, it seems so clear, precise, and efficient. (Actually, she was only eleven at the time - so, maybe somebody else wrote it.)
Government writers don't write like that anymore. Perhaps this is because the Constitutional Convention appointed a "Committee on Style". That committee was headed up by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania (don't confuse that with "governor"). Given its readability, it is surprising to learn that many of the conventioneers were lawyers. They were also landed people - the upper crust - and relatively conservative. The purest democrats (Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, etc.) were not invited; the most democratic state, Rhode Island, refused to attend. That is a surprise because the document turned out to be so radical, nothing like it in the world or in the history of the world.
Basically, the Constitution sets up the three branches of the federal government, with checks and balances and enumerated powers. That is, a branch had only the powers explicitly laid down in the Constitution and no others. All that was the recommendation of the best abstract thinkers in England and France. A uniquely American aspect was the set of privileges reserved to the individual states. For example, only a state could determine the qualifications for voting for citizens living in that state. So, the Constitution does not give anyone the right to vote in itself. That is still true to this day.
The word "slave" does not appear in the Constitution, but the term "free persons" does. Also, there is no reference to enthnicity of any kind except to "Indians not taxed." (There is no reference to "white" or to "black" for example.) Both of those references appear very near the beginning of the Constitution, in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3. That is the clause containing the famous 3/5 ths rule rendered infamous by Malcolm X in a moment when he was at his most ignorant or at his most cynical. This rule apportions representation in the House of Representatives (and direct taxes) to the states. The rule set down for counting slaves is that five slaves would count as three free persons or indentured servants. The exact wording is,
"3. Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole numbers of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons. ..."
While true that "all other persons" (slaves) were black, it is also true that not all blacks were slaves and that a person once a slave could become free - could be emancipated. My reading of the rule is that free black persons were counted the same as free whites. Now, understand that even this was not some racist estimate of the intrinsic value of human beings, it was a political compromise between the slave-holding states, who wanted to increase their representation by counting the slaves fully as everyone else, and the abolitionists, who did not want to count the slaves at all. In other words, if Malcolm X truly thought that the Constitution would have been fair only by counting the slaves the same as others, then he was supporting the position taken by the slave holders.
One interesting aspect to this clause is that indentured servants ("those bound to service for a term of years") were treated differently than slaves. I say that because indentured servants were white and slaves were black. Perhaps, though, the fathers saw the important difference to be the difference between voluntary and involuntary servitude. African-Americans of my generation would bristle at any comparison of indentured servants to slaves; so, I won't do that. But, I would bet a few doughnuts that many indentured servants would not have been impressed with this distinction. In fact, the way I read Clause 3 leads me to conclude that the fathers thought "free persons" might be interpreted as distinct from the class of indentured servants ("... those bound to service for a term of years".) - That says a lot I think.
Incidentally, Ben Franklin was indentured when an adolescent, and then became an escaped servant. Read his autobiography and learn of the clever way he pulled off his escape and flight so that he would not be arrested and returned to his master (his own brother). In fact, Franklin's maternal grandmother had been an indentured servant who had been sold to the man who would become her husband - Franklin's grandfather.
Here is an example of the fact that you must be something more than a good reader to acquire a proper understanding. I suspect the term, "free person", means what you and I think it means; but, I do remember hearing somewhere that, in those days, "freeman" sometimes was a synonym for "qualified voter" (remember that voters are qualified by the states.) I don't think that is the intended meaning here, but don't quote me. Can you post on the Bulletin Board to clarify this matter?
By the bye, take note of the repeated use of the word "persons" in Clause 3 - I will come back to that.
As I say, we cannot find all references to slavery in the Constitution merely by being careful, good readers. I needed expert opinion (history books) to help me understand that Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 was just such another reference.
"1. The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person."
Congress was to regulate immigration and "importation", but this regulatory power was not to be completely assumed until 1808. (Incidentally, the British slave trade was not outlawed by the British until after that date.) This clause was still another concession to the slave states who evidenced growing paranoia that the other states intended to use all legal means to end the odious practice. Also, the clause does not extend the temporary privilege to any new states and the tax applied to "importation" was not to be applied to "migration."
Again, notice the use of the word "persons" in this clause.
This same clause is referred to in Article 5 in a very interesting way. (Article 5 is the article providing for the possibility of amendments to the Constitution.)
By the way, one must be careful with the use of the term "slave state". Technically, twelve of the first thirteen states allowed the holding of slaves at first. However, the populous New England and middle states were hot beds of abolitionist agitation and everyone understood that. Soon after the Constitution was ratified, the abolitionist states "joined the side they were on" and abolished the practice. Most often that was the action of progressive political leaders, such as Alexander Hamilton in New York, who sponsored legislation to that effect. For me, the most impressive abolition occurred in Massachusetts because slaves achieved state-wide abolition there by using the courts. Bravo!
The only other reference to slavery in the main body of the Constitution, that I could find, is Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3.
"3. No person held to service or labor in one State under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
Makes you cringe, doesn't it? Well it made a lot of folks cringe at the time, but union with the slave-holding region was the first priority, so compromise was made. Safety and survival could come only with union. (I suspect that one might be able to sustain a theory that the seeds of our Civil War were planted with this clause; but, that is not our purpose at this web site.) My guess is that the difference between "service" and "labor" was the difference between "indentured servant" and "slave".
And yes, as elsewhere, we see the use of the gender-neutral word "person" in this clause.
This is the place to point to that gender neutrality in the Constitution, and in its first ten amendments - the so-called Bill of Rights. A striking contrast between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States Constitution (1787) is that more care was taken to write the latter in a gender-neutral form. So, for example, in the Declaration it was, "... all men are created equal; ...", while the Constitution begins, "We the people of the United States, ... ".
It is best not to put too fine a point on that - the Declaration contains some gender-neutral phrases, while the Constitution, someplaces, slips into the use of the masculine pronouns. However, most often, the masculine pronouns were meant as a synonyms for "people" and "persons" - for "mankind". That may not be so true everywhere; the place in the Constitution, where the masculine is used most consistently, is Article 2. That is the article that enumerates the powers of the President; there, we might wonder a bit. In fact, the use of the masculine occurs most often in the other articles where interactions of other branches with the President are delineated.
Let us turn to the Amendments.
Most of the true democrats were not invited to the constitutional convention because it was clear that the powers of the central government were to be strengthened and pure democrats would only cause rancor at such proceedings. And rancorous they became when the Constitution was made public and its ratification was sought. The democrats were especially furious that the rights of individuals were not given explicit confirmation in the document. Eventually, the opposition was debated into submission; one tactic there was a commitment to the effect that the rights of individuals would be explicitly enumerated in amendments to the Constitution. And so they were - they were enumerated in the first ten amendments that were added soon after ratification. Americans call this particular set, our Bill of Rights. Composing an acceptable Bill of Rights was fairly easy to do because the inclusion of such a thing was a feature of many of the early American experiments in constitution writing. Actually, the wonder is that the framers of the United States Constitution did not include this "Bill" from the get-go. (If I remember correctly, "Bill of Rights" was an English term.)
The Bill of Rights is written in gender-neutral form with the exception of a single type of reference. For example, the First Amendment reads,
"Article 1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
That's it! - a single sentence - short and sweet! Of course, what it means exactly, is the subject of the legal precedent of the past and the ever-present litigation of the present. It is a good thing we have such a thing because, for example, the right to free speech is always under attack. Currently, certain women's groups are among the more aggressive attackers, and the Right seems least well understood at our American Universities. There always have been attackers and civil-rights sump-holes; the identities of the demons or the locations of their habitats are diverse and have changed dramatically over time. It seems that there are always those willing to volunteer to impose limits on what we can say. To me, the Right of Free Speech is absolute (which is not to say that I have never wished that some particular person or other would shut up.)
However, we can point, with certainty, to the gender-neutral language in this First Amendment.
The lone exceptions to the use of gender-neutral pronouns, occur in Amendments V and VI of the Bill of Rights. That is where references are made to persons charged with crimes - hardly a distinction for the male sex. For example, it is stated in Article V that that "No person ... shall be compelled to be a witness against himself. ..." Notice that, even here, the Amendment begins in gender-neutral form. A similar type of reference is made in Amendment VI.
I will conclude with a short discussion of women's suffrage and voting rights of African-Americans. It is clear that there is no language in the original Constitution that would prohibit anyone from voting - not even infants. Any restrictions that developed, developed in the laws of the individual states. Now, male suffrage is mentioned in a later amendment (an amendment beyond the first ten, the Bill of Rights.) Paradoxically, that is the Fourteenth Amendment that was intended to enfranchise the former slaves! Here are excerpts from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
"Article XIII; Section 1 (December 18, 1865)
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
"Article XIV (July 28, 1865) ... Section 2
Representatives shall be apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, representatives in congress, the executive and judicial officers of a State, or members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion in which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
... Section 5
The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."
Notice that the power of the individual states to qualify voters was not taken away from the states. However, it was made possible to punish the states for any discrimination; except, of course, for discrimination based upon sex. That is odd isn't it? Well, all that was rectified by the Nineteenth Amendment.
"Article XIX; Section 1 (August 26, 1920)
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.
The Congress shall have power by appropriate legislation to enforce the provisions of this article."
Short and sweet - fini.
My basic point is this, the Constitution was written two decades before Jane Austen published her first novels. And, it was written by men, and men who were (and are) considered representatives of the establishment. These were not radical men, and yet, the ideals and attitudes expressed there are compatible with the progressive thinking of our own time. We must also think of these men as British men because their cultural and intellectual framework was more British than American. So, they are representative of Jane Austen's culture and times. (In many ways, they are more representative of Jane Austen herself than of some of her sister authors.) The abolitionists were well represented at the Constitutional convention - well represented and then frustrated. Notice that they heeded Abigale Adams's admonition to "remember the ladies"; that shows in the very wording of the document. What better, what more true perspective on Jane Austen's time can we find than that?References
Here are links to the
... or to the
... or to the