Not really, not the very least, but not nearly the Most Important Thing. (pulling this off the back burner, where it has long simmered…)
How is it, I was once asked in so many words, that the Founders of this country could write laws that deprived women (and men without property) of the right to vote? Implicit in this question is the assumption that ‘does not have the right to vote’ = ‘subhuman’. (1) In other words, a right exercised only occasionally and in public defines human worth and freedom in the highest sense, above the rights exercised daily in our private lives. We would denigrate and then sacrifice the social structures – most especially, the family – within which our freedom is routinely expressed, in order to make more universal a right which is by its nature very specifically limited – vote on what? – and in any event exercised only rarely. We run the risk, in our headlong quest for equality, of ending up having the right to vote – and no other rights at all.
This is not to say that women’s suffrage is a bad idea, only that it is a subordinate idea. The Founders knew that life was lived in the home, the pub, the park, the chapel, and only for the sake of those things was a right to the voting booth important at all. Why risk disturbing the higher good of domestic tranquility by introducing the possibility of friction and division over something as relatively trivial as who gets to pull the lever?
Politics, in the broad sense of the process through which we end up with the government we live under, is, as Chesterton would say, a paradox: government is a very good thing, we are assured by Peter and Paul, as well as by the Catechism, yet it amount to nothing without a private life, especially a family life, within which to quietly enjoy its fruits.
Even apart from voting, freedom is devalued when its public expression is considered its highest expression. It is too easy to think that we are free when all we’re really free to do is follow the whims of the crowd.
In the words of the master:
If a wealthy young lady wants to do what all the other wealthy young ladies are doing, she will find it great fun, simply because youth is fun and society is fun. She will enjoy being modern exactly as her Victorian grandmother enjoyed being Victorian. And quite right too; but it is the enjoyment of convention, not the enjoyment of liberty. It is perfectly healthy for all young people of all historic periods to herd together, to a reasonable extent, and enthusiastically copy each other. But in that there is nothing particularly fresh and certainly nothing particularly free. The girl who likes shaving her head and powdering her nose and wearing short skirts will find the world organised for her and will march happily with the procession. But a girl who happened to like having her hair down to her heels or loading herself with barbaric gauds and trailing garments or (most awful of all) leaving her nose in its natural state– she will still be well advised to do these things on her own premises. If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel, when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society. The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle. If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already organised for philanthropic purposes.
My complaint of the anti-domestic drift is that it is unintelligent. People do not know what they are doing; because they do not know what they are undoing. There are a multitude of modern manifestations, from the largest to the smallest, ranging from a divorce to a picnic party. But each is a separate escape or evasion; and especially an evasion of the point at issue. People ought to decide in a philosophical fashion whether they desire the traditional social order or not; or if there is any particular alternative to be desired. As it is they treat the public question merely as a mess or medley of private questions. Even in being anti-domestic they are much too domestic in their test of domesticity. Each family considers only its own case and the result is merely narrow and negative. Each case is an exception to a rule that does not exist. The family, especially in the modern state, stands in need of considerable correction and reconstruction; most things do in the modern state. But the family mansion should be preserved or destroyed or rebuilt; it should not be allowed to fall to pieces brick by brick because nobody has any historic sense of the object of bricklaying. For instance, the architects of the restoration should rebuild the house with wide and easily opened doors, for the practice of the ancient virtue of hospitality. In other words, private property should be distributed with sufficiently decent equality to allow of a margin for festive intercourse. But the hospitality of a house will always be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. But there will always be some difference between the Browns entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns. And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality, of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Chesterton, THE DRIFT FROM DOMESTICITY, The Thing
In a properly ordered society, the greatest care and effort would be focused on supporting and defending the families that raise the citizens that make government tolerable or even possible. When the rights of individuals discovered and enforced by government supercede the rights that support the duties of families, we’re in trouble.
The idea that a government would see it as its duty or within its power to redefine what a family is is a sign of a fatal misapprehension. A culture is not defined by its laws; rather, the laws are defined by the living culture. It’s not like murder and theft become bad because governments enact laws against them. Neither do families become different because judges decide that laws will be misconstrued and votes overturned to redefine what a family is. All that does is assure that the police powers of the state will now be used against anyone who does not go along with the insanity.
This idea that there is, effectively, nothing outside the competence of the state is totalitarianism, regardless of how much freedom the state decides, at any moment, to grant as a boon to citizens.
The fever dreams of Rousseau, where people as individuals voluntarily opt in to a state and grant it specific powers, flies in the face of all experience and reality. In such a fantasy, each person’s fundamental expression of their individuality and rights is this fictional moment where they consciously choose to be citizens. A vote, in other words. Insofar as reality falls short of such a moment, we fall short of our perfect expression as rights-bearing individuals – we *ought* to have had such a moment, only history or chance has deprived us of it.
The Founders accepted this idea to a large degree. ‘Legitimate power from the consent of the governed’ and all that. Some of the seeds of our current state of affairs were planted at our founding, a new political Sola – the lone individual (2) is the basis of all legitimate government. All rights springs from and flow towards him. Not, as history shows again and again, from the legitimate concerns of families.
- I’m leaving out slaves for now, as the ultimate inclusion of slavery in the Constitution was a bitter and tragic compromise, while granting the franchise to women hardly came up at all. That the horror of slavery was enshrined in national law all but compels some people to see women, as non-voters, as in the same boat as slaves. This is clearly unfair to the slaves, who had nothing like the freedom of a white woman.
- In late classical/early medieval times, the Lone Man was always suspect – a man traveling about alone would needs be heavily armed, times being what there were, and would be likely to keep his distance from groups that might overpower him. He was a spooky unknown. Why was he not travelling with his family, broadly understood? Then, he would be known and his business might be assumed to be legitimate. This attitude is echoed in how we view Zorro and Aragorn – dangerous folk! While the Cisco Kid, accompanied by Pancho, and the Lone Ranger, who, despite the name, hangs out with Tonto, are generally seen as more benign persons.