Tags: african american, american indians, continental congress, declaration of independence, First Nations, fourth of july, genocide, history, independence day, july 4, racism, Robert G. Parkinson, roger hollander, slavery, thomas jefferson
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Roger’s note: we hardly need the article I have posted below to remind us that in 1776 genocidal racism directed toward African slaves and First Nations peoples was alive and well. What I do think we need to be reminded of is how today’s orgiastic, exceptionalist, triumphalist (a la Joseph Goebbels) “celebrations,” along with the Trump phenomenon, are clear signs that things have not changed that much in 240 years.
Robert G. Parkinson, New York Times, July 4, 2016
Binghamton, N.Y. — FOR more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.
The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.
In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.
Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.
The 27th and final grievance was at the Declaration’s heart (and on Long Islanders’ minds) because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.
A few months before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation: Two British officials, Guy Carleton and Guy Johnson, had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.” Seizing this as proof that the British were utterly despicable, Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers from Massachusetts to Virginia.
At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”
His expectation, that redemption day was imminent, shows how much those sponsored newspaper articles had soaked into everyday conversation. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were essential in broadcasting these accounts as loudly as they could. They highlighted any efforts of British agents like Dunmore, Carleton and Johnson to involve African-Americans and Indians in defeating the Revolution.
Even though the black Philadelphian saw this as wonderful news, the founders intended those stories to stoke American outrage. It was a very rare week in 1775 and 1776 in which Americans would open their local paper without reading at least one article about British officials “whispering” to Indians or “tampering” with slave plantations.
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So when the crowd in Huntington blackened the effigy’s face and stuffed its head with feathers before setting it on fire, they were indeed celebrating an independent America, but one defined by racial fear and exclusion. Their burning of the king and his enslaved and native supporters together signified the opposite of what we think of as America. The effigy represented a collection of enemies who were all excluded from the republic born on July 4, 1776.
This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.
But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.
Robert G. Parkinson, an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, is the author of “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.”
The Constitution is Unconstitutional August 22, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Political Essays (Roger), The Constitution is Unconstitutional.
Tags: bill of rights, checks and balances, Civil Rights, declaration of independence, electoral college, founding fathers, human rights, liberty, revolution, slavery, supreme court, US constitution, US government, US Senate
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(I recently got a hold of a copy of the United States Constitution, and I read it from cover to cover – it’s not that long a document. I remember having had to memorize the preamble when I was a student. It is quite an idealistic statement; and it is too bad that neither the Constitution itself nor the general thrust of our nation’s history come near to living up to it. In my humble opinion, of course.)
They bought and sold human flesh, had a profound mistrust of anyone who didn’t own real property, and were misogynist to the core. Their only redeeming characteristics were a healthy disdain for organized religion and feudal nobility. Surely you will recognize their names: Nicholas Gilman, Jonathan Dayton, George Clymer, Richard Basset, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, and Richard Dobbs Spright, et. al.
Signers of the Constitution of the United States. Our revered Founding Fathers.
In high school they had us memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, an eminently noble document; and I can only speculate whether it might have been the intention of its authors, perhaps unconsciously, for its stunning idealism to lull the reader into a state of tranquility so as to lose sight of some of what followed.
It jumps right out at you on page one of the United States Constitution – Article I, Section 2, “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 Number of free Persons …three fifths of all other Persons.” “Other Persons?” What could our noble Founding Father possibly have meant by that? Oh, yes, I forgot: slaves. Today we call them Afro-Americans.
The meaning and impact of counting of slaves (those “Other Persons” so dearly important to the nation’s economy at the time) is often misunderstood. It is not, as it appears on the surface, that slaves were considered two fifths less than human. It’s worse than that. Much worse. The Constitution allocated to its resident slaves not three-fifths, but rather zero rights. As human beings they were “worth” nothing, not three fifths. The reason they jacked them up to three fifths of a person in the Constitution was only so that those who governed the Southern slave states –their Masters – could have a larger number of representatives in the House of Representatives (where a state’s number of representatives is determined by that state’s population). This, of course, had the effect of giving the Southern slave states more political power. Three fifths of the slaves’ bodies were thereby enshrined in the Constitution so that those who rule them could have more power to deny their very existence as human beings, consider them property, and deny human rights not only to their bodies, but to their minds and souls as well.
It was a classic and tragic case of adding insult to injury.
The Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment put an end to that little indignity, but, there are others. The disenfranchisement of women, for example, until the Nineteenth Amendment put an end to that political peccadillo in 1920, seven years after the guys gave themselves the right to dun our paychecks with the Sixteenth Amendment. You can see where the priorities lie.
Whereas in recent years Americans have become painfully aware of the Constitutionally ordained method for choosing their president through the arcane and Byzantine Electoral College and the winner-take-all principle of presidential primaries (thereby in effect potentially disenfranchising up to 49.9% of the voters in any given state), there exists what in my estimation is the most unjust and undemocratic principle written into our Constitution, and it is still there, and hardly anyone ever notices the implications, and it is virtually unamendable. I refer to the institution of the Senate of the United States of America.
There it is again in Article I. Section 3 reads simply, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State …” Fifteen of the most undemocratic words you will ever read. Perhaps only second to the President him or herself (some day), the U.S. Senate has emerged as one of the most powerful institutions in the country. Its responsibilities are roughly parallel to those of the House of Representatives (known, significantly, as the “lower” house), but its powers to “advise and consent” on Presidential appointments give the Senate a great deal of extra leverage. And given that there are nearly five times the number of Representative than Senators, it gives each individual Senator just that much more power.
Consider how radically undemocratic is the United States Senate. California with a population of roughly thirty five million gets two measly Senators. One for every seventeen and a half million citizens. Wyoming, with its population of a half million, gets the same number as senators as California, one for every two hundred and fifty thousand citizens. That gives the Wyoming voter seventy times more senatorial power than the California voter. Not exactly consistent with the “one person one vote” principle. How this works in practice is even scarier. Traditionally Southern and rural states have been able to frustrate the will of the majority of Americans through its manipulation and control of the Senate. Their members accrued seniority and exercised power though the Senate’s inviolable Old Boy seniority system. This phenomenon was to a great extent responsible, for example, of maintaining racial segregation in the United States from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the Supreme Court stepped in 1954, and the Civil Rights Movement pressured the Congress into enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That has been the practice. In theory it could be even worse. The population of the United States is approximately 290 million. The largest 25 states (population-wise) make up a full 240 million of that (the population of California and Texas and New York combined is roughly equivalent to the population of the 32 smallest states: in the Senate, 6 votes versus 64). Therefore, representatives (overwhelmingly male and White to this day) of little more than 50 million Americans could in theory constitute a majority in the Senate and frustrate the will of the remaining 240 million. While it may never reach this extreme, it has and will continue to give drastically disproportionate power to a minority of Americans.
And guess what? It will probably never change. The British and Canadians, our two closest ideological neighbors, have made the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate – their two “upper houses” – into largely ceremonial bodies. We could do the same, you exclaim. Thank God for the Amendment provision. Think again. I am no constitutional scholar, but what can Article V. of the Constitution mean if not an undemocratic Senate in perpetuity? It reads, “…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” (my emphasis). Can you imagine in your wildest dreams a State giving up its Senatorial votes? I have nothing against Wyoming, but really.
I choose to judge the Constitution by its own Preamble, which reads in part, “We the people of the United States, in order to … establish Justice.” They capitalized “Justice.” A nice touch, but I would prefer the substance to the image.
You will not find political parties mentioned in the Constitution, but they soon appeared in full force with the election of the second U.S. President, John Adams in 1796. By and large there have always been two predominant parties, although they have changed names and philosophies over the years. This has had the effect of limiting choice and discriminating against visionary points of view. It certainly has favored moneyed interests, given the huge costs of election campaigning, and the lack of teeth in campaign spending legislation. The Founding Fathers would have had no problem with this. They were big on property and money. It just took them a few years to get their act together. Historians and politicians and pundits speak proudly of our two party system. Along with our perfect self-correcting Constitution, they say, it provides for stability.
Oh, in this era of Clintonian “Republicrat-ism” and King Bush the Second’s hijacking of the presidency, how one longs for a little political instability.
And, what is more, nowhere in the Constitution do we see the words “checks and balances,” that principle we were taught in high school civics classes that the Constitution reflects in creating the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. This is the principle that is supposed to guarantee democracy forever and make revolutionary change anachronistic. What it doesn’t account for is a single political party gaining effective control over the three branches. It’s bad enough when a single party controls both the Congress and the Presidency, which combine to make and enforce our Laws, including laws about how we vote, how electoral districts are drawn, how population is counted, etc. (was anyone surprised that President George W. Bush didn’t veto the redistricting legislation that gave the Republican party additional seats in his home state of Texas?). But when the Supreme Court is in their back pocket as well (in 2000 they stopped the vote count in Florida when their boy was ahead), is there really that much left of our treasured Constitutional Democracy?
Our country was born in revolution. Today “revolution” is a dirty word. We have been indoctrinated into believing that our Constitution protects us forever and ever against tyranny and injustice.
Here’s what the Declaration of Independence says:
“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 … That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, 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 in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness … when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object 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.”
Did I read the word “duty?” Did I just see the Declaration of Independence telling us that revolution is not only the People’s right but their duty?
Al Gore, not exactly a wild-eyed left wing radical communist, in a Martin Luther King Day speech a couple of years ago, made just that argument about the current George W. Bush government, that it may have rendered our democracy despotic beyond democratic repair. It is a speech worth reading.
Many treat the United States Constitution the way fundamentalist Christians treat the Bible, that is, as an infallible document. This ignores the reality that it is human beings collectively who, for better or for worse, control their own destiny. As Shakespeare said, “It is not in the stars.” No political system, including and especially democracy in a world of capitalist economics, is infallible. The deeper truth that we must not forget is that the price of liberty lies not in a piece of paper, however elegant, but in eternal vigilance.