Thursday, August 12, 2010
An amazing story about a woman who had to extricate herself and her children from the religious cult her husband joined -- at a time when divorce was stigmatized and many individual rights possessed by women went unprotected by the government -- reminds me of an important distinction that deserves attention.
If a father chose to have his children raised as Shakers, the mother had no way to claim custody. Even if the children had been unwillingly abducted from her.In order to gain custody of her children, Chapman had to get a divorce. And that legal battle was, in some respects, just the beginning of getting her children back.
That is what happened to Eunice Chapman... Chapman was a woman born in post-Revolutionary America: therefore, she was dead. Civilly dead, that is, in the harrowing terms of the law, which regarded her as nonexistent. A woman in the early 1800s had fewer legal rights than a freed male slave. The law considered a married couple a single legal entity, and that entity was de facto male. Women could not own property, vote, earn wages or sign contracts. "So wholly did the law consider man and wife united that spouses were not allowed to testify against each other, on the grounds that to do so would be an act of self-incrimination."[minor format edits, link added]
Chapman's story is quite interesting. However, it is the phrase "civilly dead" that interests me here, because it reminds me of a distinction Leonard Peikoff drew on his radio show some time ago between civil rights -- which belong to the citizens of a country and pertain to their participation in its government and legal system -- and individual rights -- which belong to anyone in a society. An example of a civil right would be the right to vote. Freedom of speech would be an example of an individual right (that a proper government would guard for its citizens).
The distinction is interesting to me because I suspect that in addition to the massive confusion there already is among the public about the nature of individual rights (e.g., from the philosophical roots of the concept to their very nature, as evidenced by the plethora of ersatz "rights," like medical care), there is further confusion about the distinction mentioned above. The most glaring instance I can think of where this confusion hampers intelligent debate is in the immigration debate, and specifically when the very idea of open immigration is equated with treating all comers as full citizens.
Similarly, it is interesting to note from the Wikipedia link above how the concept of civil death (and, by implication, civil rights) has changed in the course of its historical development. In Medieval Germany, for example, a felon could be allowed to roam the countryside, but could be killed with impunity (which, depending on context, could be a violation of his individual rights or an abdication by the state of its task in protecting its citizens from threat of harm). On the other hand, there is a movement afoot to allow felons in the United States full voting rights (which strikes me as a confusion of that civil right with an individual right).
This is an important topic, but I am really just beginning to think about it. What say you?