In a recent article, I wrote about Thomas Paine and his defence of the French Revolution of 1789, Rights of Man, which was published two years later, in 1791:
Fifteen years earlier, on July 4th 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence had also been a major step on the road to freedom.
Back towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Americans were more than a little dissatisfied with the treatment they received at the hands of the British, and rightly so:
The document, originally composed by Thomas Jefferson, explains why people, have the right to rebel against their government. I have tried to make the language a little easier:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Government becomes destructive, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers such as to them shall seem most likely for their Safety and Happiness.”
Prudence will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
Fine words, and you can hear Thomas Paine clapping in the background.
King George III, of course, around this time, was beginning to show the very first signs of his madness.
Most typical was his talking at great length, with enormously long sentences. Four hundred words per sentence. He repeated himself. Talked so much that he frothed at the mouth. Page boys would have to hold him down on the floor for his own safety. He spoke to dead relatives and thought he was in heaven. He talked with the angels. We don’t know what was wrong with him. Bipolar disorder, perhaps. Porphyria, maybe. It may have been his doctors who gave him “ James’s Powders” until his arsenic levels were 300 times the level of being merely toxic. After all, he did get better when his doctors stopped treating him.
Wearing a big hat, though, is no recipe for stable government, and you can understand why the Americans left the Empire. Their declaration contained one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sentences ever written by Man:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even when the Declaration was being signed though, the inevitable question of slavery raised its ugly head. Thomas Day wrote:
“If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
Thomas Jefferson owned two hundred slaves and freed only five. George Washington had 317 and of the other ten presidents who had slaves, the totals were James Madison (100), James Monroe (75), Andrew Jackson (200), Martin van Buren (1), William Henry Harrison (11), John Tyler (70), James K Polk (25), Zachary Taylor (150), Andrew Johnson (8) and Ulysses S.Grant (5).
Clearly, a difficult and awkward problem, and one to be returned to in the near future.
26 responses to “Freedom and the Americans (2)”
It is a good sentence.
An excellent sentence, but one that takes an enormous amount of living up to. I’m not sure that the USA is doing all that it might, but it’s all a question of degree. There are plenty of countries in the Middle East where there is neither life, liberty nor happiness, and we must make sure that our Western countries do not go down the same sorry road.
Hypocrisy is a terrible thing John!
Absolutely. Those presidents fought so hard against the tyranny of the Georgian kings…and rightly so, But how could they keep hundreds of people in slavery at the same time. They needed William Wilberforce for President!
It is always staggering to imagine the seriousness of overthrowing one’s government. And I know the American patriots considered themselves British, and were willing to reconcile until well after the shooting started. But I also know the British Crown had violated the charters of every one of the 13 colonies; basically the King wasn’t following his own laws.
It is always particularly interesting to look at the similarities and differences between US and Canadian history at this point. I know the new United States fully expected Canada to join with them for many years, I read somewhere that the whole provision for ” new states” was with the expectation Canadian provences would soon join the US. But apparently the disaffection in Canada simply never rose to the level of personal insult and outrage that fueled the Revolution.
The list of slave holding presidents is interesting, but I notice you left George Washington off the list. Washington did free all his slaves, just as US Grant did… and Robert E Lee did (that is, before they were forced to).
I think Grant’s slaves came to him from his wife’s family; he himself never had the means to be a slave owner, even if he were so inclined. And of course, no man except Lincoln did more to make the end of slavery a reality than Grant.
There may be a bit of hypocrisy in it, but hypocrisy is an inevitable consequence of having standards or principles. Anyone who’s ever set out to follow a life of principle surely knows what it is to fail, unless those principles are very low!
Thank you for such a detailed reply. I used two sources for George Washington, both on Wikipedia. They are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States_who_owned_slaves
The second one says in one paragraph “George Washington held people in slavery for virtually all of his life. His will provided for freeing the enslaved people he held upon the death of his widow Martha Washington. In January 1801 Martha freed her husband’s slaves, just over a year after his death. However, while she lived, Martha did not emancipate any of the people she held, because she held only the lifetime use of them. When she died, on May 22, 1802, at the age of 70, all of those enslaved people went to the descendants of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis”
I would have to admit that I don’t really understand the force of “lifetime use”. And don’t worry! I’m not picking on the American Presidents here. There will be at least three more posts about other countries in history.
No doubt there’s a little convenient morality in freeing your slaves after death!
But I think its also true every great person or hero will disappoint if you look at them too closely. Human nature. Some of those inconsistencies are what make history so fascinating. I always look forward to your coming posts!
” Whenever any Government becomes destructive, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers such as to them shall seem most likely for their Safety and Happiness.”
~ History repeats itself.
It certainly does. And I won’t live to see it, I hope. but a lot of the self seeking politicians in the USA and Europe are playing with fire at the moment. They treat the working class terribly with inadequate pay and they oppress the middle class with the price of accommodation so high here in England that many people can’t afford even to rent somewhere to live. And the President in Germany invites a million people to come and live in their country. No checks on them. Hardly any are refugees from Syria. most are from Africa or other unknown countries. And in our newspapers it reports that there are on average now 10 sex attacks a day, and women go round in groups. Somebody wrote above that ” History repeats itself” and she is absolutely right. What we may get is the French Revolution and/or the rise of Fascism. If ordinary people are not given what they want and need to live quietly, they will take it for themselves.
A rather severe case of double standards I suspect!
I just don’t know how you could do those things. I am always reminded of those old badges with a picture of a black slave and the sentence “Am I not a man and a brother?” Try googling that sentence and look for images.
They certainly are powerful!
I had forgotten that poor George wasn’t well, but thanks to him maybe – we got the U.S.!
It sounds like a module in a university history course “Who did most to give us the U.S.?” I would say Abraham Lincoln but that is more a case of a famous name I know and lots of other people I don’t! Perhaps that module should be “”Who did most to almost lose the U.S.?” I wouldn’t have a clue for that one, but it might liven up one or two boring seminars.
We have enough ‘blame-games’ going on – please don’t start another one! haha. Clinton is still in the news today blaming everyone but herself for her loss.
I wonder what the reaction would be of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were given a look to how American is now?
I think only an American could answer that one! Most old people seem to think that anything new is terrible so I presume they would disapprove. Surely though, if you kept slaves all your life like Wikipedia says George Washington did. you’d be a little upset by a black president or black people having a vote. Having said that, a lot of British politicians from 1776 would be pretty miffed that even women had a vote or people under 30 did. And what would they think of a House Of Lords where the Commons can just tell them to “Get stuffed” and take no notice of them?
It has always struck me as hypocrisy of the first order that the putative ‘ Land of the Free’ adhered to slavery well into the 19th century. Great Britain was the biggest offender in the slave trade, accounting for 2/3 of all traffic. A former Bishop of Exeter was a slave-owner. So much for Christian charity. In 1857 one Hinton R Helper wrote against slavery on purely economic grounds, arguing that it was impeding the economic development of the southern states. He was right. The Confederacy lost the civil war largely because the north had greater industrial power. Even then, the south was supported financially and otherwise by British merchants keen to ensure a continued supply of cotton to their mills in Lancashire. The emancipation of the slaves achieved little real progress, less so given the later imposition of segregation under the Jim Crow laws. It took almost another hundred years from the end of the civil war to abolish segregation and even today its legacy poisons the US.
To be honest, I have had the feeling that the US has never got over the Civil War and that a good few people are still fighting it. The very worst thing is the way that the police seem to kill black people with impunity. Yes, I know that lots of criminals in the US carry guns but I’ve seen films where they killed 50 year old vicars and so on. There are more of these posts about slavery to come and the British will get their fair share of criticism, so nobody need bother really about there being any biass.
It is sad that slavery has always been a part of human life. I suppose controlling a person gives a feeling of power. I wonder if there will ever be equality among people? Regards, Lakshmi
Well, we have it in theory, so it’s just a case now of trying our hardest to implement it. Over here, it is wealth and fame we worship. Elsewhere it is something else. Let’s stay positive!
Yes, we have to stay positive. But it really hurts when we see physical and emotional violence. It happens always.
Really good sentences!…
Thank you for your kind words.
Paine remains one of my favorite personal heroes. While he is far from the most complex or even in-depth American political thinkers, he remains one of the best political rhetoricians of all time in my view.
I think the very fact that he was feted in both France and the fledgling USA says it all. Here in England, nobody has heard of him. He is very much a prophet without honour in his own country.