Tag Archives: Enlightenment

“… Thenceforward, and Forever Free …”: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Happy New Year. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the implementation of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Although I have noted at length elsewhere the significance of this document and how it changed the goals of the U.S. Civil War, it is still fitting to acknowledge this noteworthy day in U.S. history.

Lincoln issued the preliminary preliminary proclamation on  Sept. 22, 1862, when  it served as a warning to those states in rebellion that if they did not return back to the Union within 100 days, all the slaves in those states would be set free. It also issued an invitation to black Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. This two-pronged economic and military strategy that targeted slavery’s importance to the Confederacy as “the engine of war” (as Lincoln put it) ultimately became one of the chief reasons the North was victorious. With its issuance, both Northern Copperheads and Southern Democrats claimed Lincoln had transformed the Civil War into a race war. Black Americans celebrated its practical effect: More than 50,000 slaves in territory under Union control were immediately freed, despite the obvious fact that the Confederacy would ignore the war-time order and millions remained in bondage. Yet, slaves escaped from the South by the tens of thousands, bound to cross Union lines and join the republic’s military in a fight for their freedom.

Traditionally, the Emancipation Proclamation has fared poorly when estimated by many historians. Richard Hofstadter famously and bluntly stated the document “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading and did not in fact free any slaves.  Surprising no one who knows Howard Zinn’s work, the late Howard Zinn called it a sop given by a racist Lincoln to Radical Republicans in order to maintain unity in a fractious Republican Party. Despite the renown of both scholars, their assessments miss the mark. Lincoln, a man who repeatedly embraced Jeffersonian principles in his personal struggle for success and his political development during public life, issued what Allen Guelzo called the last great Enlightenment political document of 19th century America. Lincoln would expand his understanding of Jeffersonian liberty further in the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical explanation of the Civil War’s role as bloody midwife during the country’s new birth of freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation was no empty gesture, no piece of political wheeling and dealing.  “When the Proclamation was issued,” one former slave told a congressional committee, “that was when I decided to flee my master.”  Another said, “I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the Emancipation Proclamation.” As one Union officer noted, the slaves then had “a spirit of independence—a feeling they are no longer slaves.” You cannot enslave a people who know they are free.



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What Is Liberty? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described an essential premise found in the Declaration of Independence that makes it the most important human rights document in American history. Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power  to strip them of their liberties.
The idea is no small matter. One of the goals of those who exercise arbitrary power is the subjugation of anyone who present a threat. Although this viewpoint is frequently criticized as cynical or even paranoid, history teaches something different. Robert A. Heinlein, the visionary master of science fiction in the 20th century, addresses this issue in Starship Troopers, a book that is really about the nature and responsibilities of citizenship. In one section of the novel, a teacher of a course called “History and Moral Philosophy” (a course required for high school graduation in the fictional world of the 23rd century) refutes the idea that “violence never settles anything.”

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue – and thoroughly immoral – doctrine ‘that violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.

Those who are the enemies of freedom are often those quite comfortable with the use of force, even violence to achieve their ends. It all depends on whether a society is willing to acknowledge that reality. Fortunately, the authors of the Declaration had no delusions regarding the link between “liberty,” “life,” and another closely related idea “the pursuit of happiness.”

Life is a basic right, John Locke wrote, because all are equal under the law of nature, created equally by nature’s God, and independent of subordination – therefore, no one can arbitrarily take another’s life unless it is deprived in the cause of justice. Simply taking life for no just cause not only kills the body, but declares the subordination of the victim, denying the people their equal rights. According to Locke:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”

The American Patriots could not enjoy their liberty and the pursuit of happiness if they were deprived of their lives. Furthermore, they possessed a right to protect not only their lives, but the things that allowed them to maintain their lives (their health, possessions, even the ability to use their bodies). For example, British actions ranging from control over their trade to the Boston Massacre to outright war was all arguably an attack that emphasized the British government’s goal of subordinating Americans into “inferior ranks,” impair life by impairing livelihood, and denying justice based on widely accepted belief’s in natural rights. Listing “life” as an unalienable right sets a standard that the British failed to meet by the measure applied by Jefferson and the Continental Congress.
“The pursuit of happiness” was one of the innovations of the Enlightenment. For centuries, philosophers in the Christian era saw happiness as something ultimately obtainable only in the afterlife; in the 18th century, political thinkers and economists moved it to the realm of everyday life. Many intellectuals of the age dreamed of bringing happiness, which they defined as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, to humanity as a whole through the expansion of liberty and freedom.  Adam Smith writing in The Wealth of Nations described how the pursuit of what he deemed personal economic advantage shaped the possibilities of cooperation without coercion – the stark opposite of British taxation and trade policy imposed on the North American colonies to pay the expenses of the Seven Years’ War – through an “invisible hand” that could promote the good of the community through the free market. “As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it,” said Smith. Technological innovation and social improvement (what we today would sum up as “progress”) could be meted out and its effects measured with a “science of happiness,” according to the Marquis de Chastellux, one of Jefferson’s minor intellectual heroes. The French thinker even established “indices of happiness” based on levels of taxation, working hours, levels of agricultural production, and whether a society possessed slavery or faced war, all of which were impediments to the pursuit of happiness. Of course, Locke, too, had weighed in on the question of happiness, which he linked to the presence of liberty obtaining the greatest good for both individuals and society as a whole:

As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined, whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with our real happiness: and therefore till we are as much informed upon this inquiry, as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands; we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

As far as Jefferson was concerned, the British government deliberately thwarted the Americans’ pursuit of happiness by placing the thirteen colonies in a state of war, taxed them without representation, and (some today might argue improbably) encouraged the colonial slave trade as Jefferson argued in the Rough Draught. It is worth noting that Jefferson had developed many of these ideas two years earlier in a pamphlet that sealed his reputation as a stylist and even a radical. Jefferson had penned A Summary View of the Rights of British North America as policy paper when illness prevented his attendance at a convention of Virginia’s burgesses who were drafting a response of solidarity with Massachusetts after Parliament imposed the Boston Port Act. The Englishmen who had emigrated to the American colonies did so as free men with the highest hopes to improve their lot, paying for the enterprise with lives and treasure. “America was conquered, and her settlement made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlements, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” With a lawyer’s precision, Jefferson pointed out how “his majesty has no right to land a single armed man on our shores,” how British policy had resulted in unfair taxes and stifling regulations that prevented Americans from enjoying the fruits of their own labors (“Men who had spent their lives in extending the British commerce, who had invested in that place the wealth their honest endeavors had merited, found themselves and their families thrown at once on the world for subsistence by its charities …This is administering justice with a heavy hand indeed!”). Jefferson in the Summary View complained about the closure of Boston Harbor and British opposition to colonial efforts at banning the slave trade (“…Our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”) Jefferson’s arguments in the Summary View were hardly mainstream, but they are earlier evidence of his political thinking that Americans had the right to decide their own futures in a way that would best suit their search for political and economic opportunities, the “pursuit of happiness” he later described in the Declaration.

Finally, the Declaration makes a strong statement regarding the necessity of republican government and the right to seek change if a current form of government attempts to destroy the blessing of those rights. In the natural rights statement of the Declaration, Jefferson made it clear that the people can have any form of government they choose. However, it is abundantly evident that he and the other Founders wanted America to have a republican form of government based on the consent of the community of the political involved and firmly rooted in representation of the people’s interests. Jefferson stated that government is strongest when every man feels himself a part. The people secured these rights – government did not grant them – and a just government exercising just powers is derivative of the people and their will. No other form of government would have been “an expression of the American mind” in Jefferson’s words, and since government was to his mind a man-made device for promoting human welfare, guaranteeing self-government was the right and the duty of the American Revolution, not simply of Englishmen. It would provide the best form of government, meeting the expectations of Americans who in 1776 were obviously willing to defend their right to self-government and providing a road map for what a stable and responsible future government of the United States would be. Linking the need to self-government to a call for independence made sense as well, since Jefferson would soon argue in the next section of the Declaration that history showed Great Britain had abandoned its practice of allowing the colonies their own form of just government. As Jefferson makes the case that “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” it is worth remembering Alexander Hamilton later stated in Federalist No. 9 a political philosophy regarded as a self-evident truth by the founding generation: Republican forms of government would help Americans avoid “the perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” According to Jefferson, securing that form of government would only come as the result of the successful establishment of the United States of America and the rejection of Great Britain.
A republican form of government. Limits on governmental power. The recognition that ordinary people know more about their own pursuit of happiness than those in power. These are the ideas worth fighting for, as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They are venerable ideas deeply respected in America’s past. Do these ideas matter today? Or is even the discussion of these ideas found in the Declaration the mark of those oriented toward violence and social upheaval rather than liberty? More about those questions in Part 3.

Next: Why liberty is worth fighting for, and what “fighting for” means. 

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Haiti’s Founding Document, Inspired By the Declaration of Independence, Found in London

A recent discovery by an inquisitive graduate student is a major contribution to both the history of Haiti and the study of the international significance of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

            A story in the March 31, 2010 edition of the New York Times reports that Julia Gaffield, a Duke University graduate history student, discovered the only surviving copy of  Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of  Independence. Gaffield made the discovery in February while examining early nineteenth-century correspondence collected in Great Britain’s National Archives in London. The eight-page pamphlet is the only known surviving copy of the Haitian Declaration distributed by the newly independent government to other countries as an official announcement of the island’s separation from France. The original final draft vanished for unknown reasons not long after the founding of the Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. 

            Not surprisingly, there is keen interest in Haiti to bring the copy home. “It is a very important document for our country,” said Wilfrid Bertrand, director-general of Haiti’s National Archives, in an interview with the Associated Press. “It has every bit the same importance as the American Declaration of Independence.”

            For obvious reasons, the find also is considered a ray of hope and a much-needed source of pride for Haiti, a long-suffering nation before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed about 230,000 Haitians on January 12.  Poverty, political turmoil, and governmental corruption have plagued the nation for decades, leading most to forget (if they ever knew) that Haiti has the distinction of being the first independent black republic in the world.

            Furthermore, Haiti’s declaration is one of many declarations inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, writes that the first draft of the declaration was written by an admirer of Jefferson familiar with the American state paper. However, the principal reviser of the Haitian declaration thought Jeffersonian language too bloodless and insipid to capture the sentiments of former slaves declaring their freedom.

Louis Boisrond Tonnerre, as portrayed on a 1954 Haitian postage stamp.

“All that which has been formulated is not in accordance with our true feelings; to draw up the Act of Independence, we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a writing desk, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for pen,” said Louis Félix Mathurin Boisrond Tonnerre, who served as a secretary to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian Revolution.  Not surprisingly, the American reaction to the Haitian Revolution was to equate it with slave revolt, leading Thomas Jefferson to refuse official recognition of the republic out of fear that such a move would inspire slave uprisings in the United States. (However, Jefferson had ordered the shipment of arms and supplies to the Haitian rebels because he feared a French foothold too close to the U.S. mainland.) In 1862, Abraham Lincoln finally offered formal recognition to Haiti, a year after the shots were first fired in a war he would later proclaim was fought to secure “a new birth of freedom” in the hemisphere’s leading slave-holding republic.

          Ironies abound in the history of Haiti’s struggle for freedom and its links to American concepts of freedom and liberty. However, Jefferson’s refusal to extend recognition to an island nation seeking independence is not the only chapter in the story of the Declaration of Independence and its influence on revolutions such as Haiti’s. Like the United States, the authors of the Haitian declaration cast their arguments in terms of overthrowing despotism and tyranny in the name of liberty and human rights; like the United States, their declaration was a statement of exiting an empire, in this case the French empire of Napoleon I, an entity that is the astounding aftermath and abrogation of much of the French Revolution.  The United States and Haiti are one of many revolutions in the Age of Revolutions, events that tolled the end of monarchies during one of the major geopolitical changes of the last 200 years. We have moved from a world of empires to a world of sovereign states – no small accomplishment when you consider how entrenched monarchy is in world history. As Jefferson wrote in 1795, “this ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe.” It is good that the good people of Haiti, so wracked by national crisis and by natural disaster, have an important reminder of their global significance to look to once again.

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When is the real “Independence Day”?

Is July 4 really "Independence Day"?

Is July 4 really "Independence Day"?

Depending on your point of view, the date that the United States declared independence is something of a moving target. Several events before July 4, 1776, could be rightly labeled “independence day” because of their significance during the course of debate in the Continental Congress about the subject. As scholars point out, July 4 is the date that Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, not the day independence was declared.

Richard Henry Lee (portrait by Charles Wilson Peale)

Richard Henry Lee (portrait by Charles Wilson Peale)

For example, on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution stating, “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”  Although the Congress voted on June 10 to table discussion of the Lee resolution for nearly three weeks, the question of independence was now official business. Considering the outcome, some historians have argued that the June 7 resolution is really the first assertion of the act of independence that followed.

John Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1798)

John Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1798)

However, John Adams always thought otherwise. Although he had seconded the Lee resolution, he regarded a May 15 resolution that he introduced the first real call for independence because it authorized the colonies to organize individual state governments – an undeniable break from the British empire. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams wrote:

Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step, a complete separation from her; a total absolute independence, not only of her Parliament, but of her crown, for such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th… There is something very unnatural and odious in a government a thousand leagues off. A whole government of our own choice, managed by persons whom we love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it, for which men will fight.

Of course, Adams proceeded to serve on the five-member committee that drafted and presented the Declaration of Independence to the Congress. However, the issue that came first was a congressional vote for independence prompted by the Lee resolution. Adams and other proponents of independency spent considerable time marshalling votes for unanimous state support for independence. The vote itself came on July 2, with 12 states voting for independence and New York abstaining, although a week later New York joined its sister states with a “yes” vote after receiving permission from the state assembly. Thus, July 2 could be considered the date for a national statement independence based on the reasons summarized in the Declaration.

When Adams wrote about the monumental events of July 2, he gave his wife the following account:

… The Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.    

            So, according to John Adams we should be shooting off fireworks, firing up the barbecue, and toasting the United States on July 2.

            I am not proposing a change to the calendar of federal holidays – that would be petty for reasons both practical and historical. However, it is worth noting that the multiple times independence was “declared” reflects the dilemma of people in the 18th century dealing with a very human problem: How do individuals attempting not only a political revolution but a revolution in thought move toward their goal in a sound and successful manner? We have the luxury of more than 200 years of hindsight to examine independence. They faced the shock of a new day as independent citizens of the United States with no idea how the “Days Transaction” would fare. History is rarely a story of events seamlessly moving forward with guaranteed outcomes. If we celebrate anything on any day, it should be the success of independence and the nation it created, a nation of unalienable rights, “the last, best hope of earth.”

Gettysburg clip

Detail of the Lincoln "fair copy" of the Gettysburg Address showing the words "all men are created equal."

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Great Scholars of the Declaration: Carl Lotus Becker

Carl Lotus Becker (Source: Cornell University)

Carl Lotus Becker (Source: Cornell University)

Few historians have had more influence on understanding and interpreting the Declaration of Independence than Carl Lotus Becker (1873-1945). Becker’s seminal The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas was first published in 1922 but remained in print for decades because of its lucid writing, well-argued interpretation of the document as a study in natural rights (particularly the philosophy of John Locke, who was well known and admired in the American colonies), examination of Jefferson’s literary style, and (perhaps most importantly to both students and college professors) its brevity. Through the miracle of the Internet the 1922 edition of the book is legally available because of lapsed copyright here and here.

            Becker graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1896 where he had studied history with Frederick Jackson Turner, who had made his mark in scholarship with his “frontier thesis” that explained how the settlement of the American West shaped democratic values of equality in the United States. Becker’s doctoral thesis on political movements in New York during the American Revolution established his credentials as an expert on 18th century political thought and the Enlightenment. He eventually became professor of European History at Cornell University, teaching there from 1917 to 1941.

            Historian Robert Hatch wrote:

            His writing is remembered for its lucidity, force, and grace; his interpretations were well argued and stunning in their originality. Becker’s importance as an historian reflects his broad interest in both U.S. and European history as well as his creative if not iconoclastic interpretations.  As a man of letters, Becker repeatedly claimed he was interested in thinking about history rather than being an historian – his interest in historiography was genuine and consistent.

            Although often criticized for his belief in that the subjectivity of historians was the only driving force in historical scholarship, Becker’s interpretation of the Declaration proved to be long-lasting and his belief in the perennial value of natural rights genuine. During World War II when he looked at the rise of totalitarianism, Becker told his fellow historians that democratic values like those declared by Thomas Jefferson have “a life of their own apart from any particular social system or type of civilization.” Anyone who wants to understand the Declaration needs to spend time with the timeless ideas of Carl Lotus Becker.

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