Attitudes Toward Freedom And Equality

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

My last post on The Dawn Of Everything ends with a pair of quotes describing the judgement of the Americans of the invading French; they make a nice introduction to this post. Next David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the reaction of the French missionaries to the way the Americans lived and thought.

The authors rely on The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610–1791. 73 vols., Reuben Gold Thwaites, editor, 1901. This appears to be a collection of reports of a large number of missionaries, and perhaps others, of their interactions with the Americans living in New France, the area colonized by the French. It extends roughly from Newfoundland across Canada to the lands north of the Great Lakes, and south from the Great Lakes to Louisiana.

The authors focus on the Northeastern Woodland areas, the area inhabited by the Iroquois and the Wendat. The Wendat (or Huron or Wyandotte) lived north of Lake Huron, and the Iroquois were their neighbors to the South and East, as best I can tell. The two groups were mortal enemies. There were frequent wars with enslavement, torture, and human sacrifice. This aspect of their lives is not discussed. Link, link.

The Wendat were sedentary, living in longhouses, 20 to 30 families in each, behind high palisades. According to the authors, they made decisions in council meetings open to everyone. They had leaders, but their power arose from their persuasiveness, not from material possessions or skill in battle. All the men and women regarded themselves as free.

The very idea of freedom was contrary to the social structure of the French of that day. They lived under rigid hierarchies. Everyone was subservient to someone. The soldiers had a chain of command that went all the way to the King of France. The missionaries lived in a similarly hierarchy of clerics all the way to the Pope, with a side order of subservience to the King. Everyone, including the King was subservient to the Almighty through the Catholic Faith.

The Americans aggressively rejected the idea that anyone could make them do anything they didn’t want to do. As one Jesuit missionary, Le Jeune, put it in 1642, referring to the Montagnais-Naskapi who lived in Newfoundlad,

They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts, rendering no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue’s end; for he is powerful in so far as he is eloquent; and, even if he kills himself talking and haranguing, he will not be obeyed unless he pleases the Savages. P. 41, fn omitted.

In the same vein, the French Missionary Father Lallemant described the Wendat as the most free people on earth because they didn’t feel any compulsion to give allegiance or homage to anyone except as each chose. For example, women were assumed to control their own bodies in all respects. They had specific and important roles in community life, gendered, but apparently roughly equal, including participation in group decisions. That kind of freedom upset the missionaries. One observed:

This, without doubt, is a disposition quite contrary to the spirit of the Faith, which requires us to submit not only our wills, but our minds, our judgments, and all the sentiments of man to a power unknown to our senses, to a Law that is not of earth, and that is entirely opposed to the laws and sentiments of corrupt nature. Add to this that the laws of the Country, which to them seem most just, attack the purity of the Christian life in a thousand ways, especially as regards their marriages … . P. 43.

Besides vastly different ideas about freedom and purity, the American and French people had wildly different attitudes toward material possessions. The authors point out that the Wendat didn’t have money for exchange. The women held a form of ownership of land, and were responsible for food production. The food was distributed by women’s collectives. I assume that clothing, tools and weapons were manufactured and distributed in ways that didn’t involve money.

The Wendat did have wampum, strings of worked beads and shells, that were considered valuable, but were ceremonial, not for exchange.

Wealthy Wendat men hoarded such precious things [like wampum’] largely to be able to give them away on dramatic occasions .… Neither in the case of land and agricultural products, nor that of wampum and similar valuables, was there any way to transform access to material resources into power – at least, not the kind of power that might allow one to make others work for you, or compel them to do anything they did not wish to do. P. 43.

This too must have seemed alien to the French, for whom the desperate search for possessions was a driving force, and for whom sexual freedom was a “wicked liberty”.


1.It looks like these Americans had generated a completely different social organization than we have today, and certainly different from the French of their day. I’ve come to think of them as apex hunter-gatherer societies.I wonder how they might have continued to evolve after contact with the Europeans under different circumstances.

2. In my series on the ideas of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, I describe her view of the terms freedom and equality. Index here. Here’s a quick overview taken from this paper.

There are at least three conceptions of freedom — negative, positive, and republican — and three conceptions of equality — of standing, esteem, and authority. …

… Sarah has negative freedom if no one interferes with her actions. She has positive freedom if she has a rich set of opportunities effectively accessible to her. She has republican freedom if she is not dominated by another person — not subject to another’s arbitrary and unaccountable will.

… There are at least three conceptions of freedom — negative, positive, and republican — and three conceptions of equality — of standing, esteem, and authority. …

… Sarah has negative freedom if no one interferes with her actions. She has positive freedom if she has a rich set of opportunities effectively accessible to her. She has republican freedom if she is not dominated by another person — not subject to another’s arbitrary and unaccountable will.

… In hierarchies of standing, agents (including the state) count the interests of superiors highly, and the interests of inferiors for little or nothing. In hierarchies of esteem, some groups monopolize esteem and stigmatize their inferiors. In hierarchies of authority, dominant agents issue arbitrary and unaccountable commands to subordinates, who must obey on pain of sanctions. . Citation omitted.

I’d say that the Americans were free from interference and domination compared to the French. I’d say that they had fewer interesting opportunities for personal projects than at least a fair number of French. The Americans seem to be more equal in standing, more equal in esteem, and free from authority compared to the French.

3. The authors make the point that among the Wendat material wealth could not be converted to political power. Pierre Bourdieu says that various forms of capital, social, economic and cultural among others, can be converted into other forms of capital, and thus into power. in our current version of capitalism rich people can use their wealth to secure political power that cements their position. Of course, we are unequal and unfree on the other forms of freedom and equality.

20 replies
  1. Badger Robert says:

    Your description of the Americans is consistent with a low density population society. There was plenty of land and few people. And there were not yet herds of domesticated animals.
    So all but a few seniors were equal in knowledge, expertise, and wealth. Its different even from SE Asian societies that had boars grown for ceremonial tusks by time Europeans found them.
    The Americans had not yet began to compete intensely for land. They not yet been Romanized. Similarly they had no resistance to lethal pathogens that could spread so quickly in a larger population.
    One has to wonder if a population impacted by constant war and multiple pandemics was a degraded society.
    Once the Romans pushed the Europeans into the iron age, the difference with the low density populations of the past were growing.
    It was Roman law, surveying and engineering that made everything subject to ownership.
    Which relates to your earlier question as to whether complex societies are inherently unequal.

    • skua says:

      “… low density population society. There was plenty of land and few people …”
      Some hypothesise that what you describe was a situation following massive numbers of deaths caused by waves of Old World diseases introduced by Colombus et al. If this hypothesis is correct then the observed an-archy may have functioned in far more highly populated times too.

      • skua says:

        E.g. From table of specific die-offs:
        1617–1619 North America northern east coast Killed 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Indians
        Generalised statement:
        “After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, some believe that the death of 90–95% of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[45]”

        from https:LINKBREAK//

  2. Badger Robert says:

    Were all societies once organized like your description of American society at the time of contact with Jesuits, even the Etruscans? The women owned everything and the men were too busy with other activities to interfere?

  3. Joe says:

    I like these posts – thank you.
    I can imagine the French clerics trying to come to grips with the Americans’ context, their frame of reference. It must have been utterly bizarre. Not sure I could have accepted it as reasonable. I do now, but then? Probably not, me thinks….

  4. sleutherone says:

    A recent episode of Secrets of the Dead (“The Lady Sapiens”) was an enlightening look at a prehistoric society through the eyes of science. Examination of skeletal remains indicates women were quite active members of the society. They were smaller but well-muscled and dressed and equipped for hunting. There was evidence that birth control existed and was totally in the control of the women. This was critical to society as it limited the number of mouths to feed in times of famine. Examination of child skeletons indicates they were breast fed for several years. Once the women became pregnant again the grandmothers took care of the older children. Paintings and carvings that depicted women’s genitalia, indicated respect for the childbearing role. Women were also buried with reverence, just like the men. All the equality may have been based on need, but it appears to have existed. Whether it existed as the default and every other society evolved from there, we cannot say without more evidence.

    Perhaps the low-density society as mentioned by Badger Robert allowed equality to exist.
    Equality is a different concept than freedom, and IMO could have developed naturally. Freedom only became an issue once other people gave an isolated society a basis for comparison.

  5. Ed Walker says:

    Why was the population density low in the Americas? Could that have been a choice? People just didn’t have huge families because they didn’t want them?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Plus, how would indigenous people measure population density and weigh the advantages of one level over another. I cannot even contemplate how they would do that. The more likely assessments would focus on geography, weather, seasonal variations in food resources, competition for it, tradition, and so on.

      Their techniques for living and surviving would not take the forms associated with modern social science and political priorities. And how, btw, do contemporary societies “plan” their population densities, and how well does that work? Anachronisms abound in such discussions.

      • posaune says:

        Interesting that the Wendat lived so densely (20-30 families in a long house), and how they arrived at that: protection, conservation of heat, the first co-housing? and we brought forth the SFH on 1/4 acre.

    • sleutherone says:

      Last week’s NOVA episode was a repeat of “Making North America” a geological and settlement history. They reminded me how long it took for the migrants out of Asia to reach what we now consider central Canada and the Midwest due to the glaciers, and then as they melted, the bodies of water created. There is also scientific evidence that migrants kept moving. Why they migrated is still a question, though. As has been pointed out, natural disasters, climate change and disease could have been reasons.

      It is recognized that migrating hunter-gatherers had fewer children as compared to agrarian societies. Here is a Finnish study that gives some of the background discussion on maternal condition, and agrarian versus nomadic societies:

      Individuals and groups did not migrate themselves; it was successive generations. If migrating women had shorter lifespans and poorer nutrition resulting in infertility and fetal death, it might take a while for that society to arrive at the far reaches. Fewer migrants mean less density, at least for a while. It took a few thousand years for the ice shield to recede further slowing the spread.

      The question you ask is complex issue with few data points as scientists point out. There are just more questions.

  6. Tom says:

    The First Nations peoples and the European settlers also differed in their attitude towards their children. Europeans found indigenous parents to be far more openly affectionate, patient, and indulgent with their young ones than they were with their own children. Indian children were rarely, if ever, physically punished. For their part, native Americans were appalled by the white parental policy and practice of “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This was likely one of the reasons European children taken captive in frontier raids were so quickly assimilated into Indian culture.

    Also, we should remember that not all First Nations peoples were hunter-gatherers with a loose social structure. When Cortes and his expedition arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in November 1519, they were amazed to see a highly sophisticated city of about 250,000 people, its population size rivaled only by Naples, Constantinople, and perhaps some cities in China, with urban design, stone craftsmanship, public sanitation and lighting superior to any European city of the time. See “Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico” by Hugh Thomas, 1993.

    • Eureka says:

      Right, Tenochtitlan is an example I was going to offer Ed @ 12:04 PM, and Teotihuacan before that (at about half that pop.) not far from each other in space (on different sides of Lake Texcoco, and both ca. modern-day Mexico City). Among others.

      They had domesticated corn (Zea Mays) from teosinte by ~ 9k years ago in Central Mexico (and exported/diffused to South America).

      See e.g.:

      • Eureka says:

        I have no idea who made this map but it gives a _generally_ reliable sketch of subsistence methods in the pre-Columbian Americas, showing the farming, h/g, and other areas (obviously anywhere with a coastline or other water source would include fishing/seagoing*, which is largely omitted):

        [NOTE: there is a text legend to this image on the “Pre-Columbian era” wiki page that is _incorrect_ about different colors matching with “simple…” versus “complex farming societies”, so ignore it.]

        Aztec, Maya**, and Inca are considered to have had “complex civilizations” (states or city-states, in other parlance) with city-works, specialized large structures, “officials” (roles), trade networks, etc.

        * sea creature parts were also used ritualistically throughout Mesoamerica, e.g. penile bloodletting with stingray spines.
        some here:

        **some Maya-occupied territories had chiefdoms instead

      • Eureka says:

        Population pressure, (human-induced) climate troubles (drought, with heating), deforestation — to increase arable land and make their stone building materials — sounds familiarish:

        The Fall of the Maya: ‘They Did it to Themselves’ | Science Mission Directorate

        For 1200 years, the Maya dominated Central America. At their peak around 900 A.D., Maya cities teemed with more than 2,000 people per square mile — comparable to modern Los Angeles County. Even in rural areas the Maya numbered 200 to 400 people per square mile. But suddenly, all was quiet.

        This is another volley (compatible with decades-old research) in trying to solve the “Classic (period) Maya Collapse”, meaning the abandonment/decline of their large cities, with smaller settlements/cities elsewhere later. Set aside the press-release breathlessness as it feeds a certain jargon, too (there are plenty of Maya folk still with us). [The drought and other environmental problems are generally agreed upon; people debate whether those causes were more important than, say, warfare (which wouldn’t be mutually exclusive) or something else.]

        cont. @ Ed 12:04 PM since Tom kicked it off here.

        • Tom says:

          Thanks for those links, Eureka, but I’ll probably have to wait until I can drive into town and check them out at the local library as my internet connection isn’t up to the strain.

  7. Tom says:

    One thing to remember about the French in North America is that they arrived in such few numbers that the Indians generally perceived them as less of a threat than the more numerous and land-hungry English colonists to the south. As historian Allan Greer writes, “the French moved into this … landscape [i.e., the St. Lawrence River valley of the early 1600s], not as conquering invaders, but as a new tribe negotiating a place for itself in the diplomatic webs of Native North America.” Quoted by David L. Preston in “The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783, 2009. Preston goes on to say that the society and culture of New France and its Indian neighbours became “so intertwined … as to make the two almost indistinguishable.” In fact, “a Franco-Indian world.”

    New France had a social hierarchy, but it was a very flattened and flexible one. By the mid-18th century, most of the local parish militia captains and landowning seigneurs were drawn from the ranks of the habitants. Horses were plentiful and habitants rode everywhere in the manner of European aristocrats and the gentlemen planters of Virginia. Canadians were noted for their sense of personal pride and one Governor-General in the 1740s was forced to request servants from France as no Canadians could be found willing to go into service for him. The law was administered fairly and with restraint and there were far fewer executions in New France than in the home country. There was also the constant presence of the native peoples and the influence of their culture and way of life. Even senior officers in the French regular forces, the Troupes de la Marine, could speak several Indian languages. Some of them married into native families and formed extensive inter-tribal relations which became the basis for the Metis Nation of today.

    In 1757, Colonel Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Montcalm, would write: “The ordinary habitants would be scandalized to be called peasants. In fact, they are of a better stuff, have more wit, more education, than those in France. This comes from their paying no taxes [not exactly true], that they have the right to hunt and fish, and that they live in a sort of independence.” Indeed, Bougainville worried that the regular French troops under his command would be corrupted by “the example of the Indians and the Canadians, breathing an air permeated with independence.” Quotes from Preston above and W.J. Eccles, “France in America”, 1972.

    In short, given their station in life and the standards of the time, I think the average Canadian living in New France would have considered themselves free, certainly more so than their countrymen across the Atlantic.

    • Rayne says:

      In re: “scandalized to be called peasants” — Quite a few of the early French in Nouvelle France were members of the aristocracy — not the eldest sons but the youngest who might have preferred a larger portion of new land to a small portion of a much-divided estate in France under pre-Napoleonic custumals. Land grants also shaped attitudes. Owning land may have elevated the class of new arrivals or bolstered the position of lower aristocracy. They may have had more freedoms in Nouvelle France but they brought the pre-existing class distinctions with them.

  8. skua says:

    ” … had fewer interesting opportunities for personal projects than at least a fair number of French”
    Unless I had evidence to the contrary, I’d leave open the probability that every adult American was a free economic agent who would manufacture goods and provide services, and trade as they saw fit. This would seem to provide many opportunities for “personal projects”.
    Though I suspect that their “personal” was embedded in a clan identity in ways that make modern fervent fans of pro-sport look barely attached to their club.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Following Anderson, he idea of personal projects a rich choice of accessible opportunities, economic, political, social and so on. Writing and reading books like The Dawn Of Everything is one of my personal projects, but I have done many other things with my life, a range of choices not available to everyone.

      I hope that helps explain my view.

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