Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Real 4th of July

George Bernard Shaw once said that "patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." In that debunking spirit, I would like to re-examine the Fourth of July.

First of all, it should really be the Second of July.

It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress approved a resolution "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." This is known as the Lee Resolution, approved July 2, which later formed a part of the larger declaration written by Thomas Jefferson between then and the 4th.

Second, even Jefferson's declaration is riddled with inconsistencies.

In speaking of "one people" dissolving bands with another, Jefferson was merely speaking of the very few represented in the Congress. Purportedly the aim was to form a society in which "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," borrowing the thinking of John Locke (see The Second Treatise of Civil Government, especially chapter IX). However, the consent of the governed was sorely lacking.

North American colonial society consisted in a variety of strata, starting from the bottom,
  • Native so-called Indians, whose lands had been stolen and who were about to be pushed out further and further out west until they were decimated.
  • Slaves imported from Africa, traded for molasses and ultimately rum, treated as chattel.
  • English colonists who came without wealth or title and whose passage was paid for by indenture as quasi-slaves, subject to a similar range of abuses as slaves, albeit with the legal right to release from this state after a fixed number of years. (Early plantations were worked by white indentured servants, not African slaves.)
  • Free women, whose right to property and economic independence of any kind, was severely limited.
  • Craftsmen, farmers and small merchants, who were largely subsistence workers free to ply their own trades, but from the assets point of view, they owned little or no property.
  • Large and wealthy merchants, ship-owners, bankers and landowners.
Only the very last stratum was represented in the Second Continental Congress, whose declaration Jefferson drafted. Its members were the only ones whose undisputed right to vote and to decide was respected from the beginning.

All men -- and the slave-owning and -mistressing Jefferson did mean only men -- may have been created equal, but thereafter quite a lot of inequality had seeped in and the august fathers of the so-called "revolution" were giving little thought to reversing the process.

To be fair to Jefferson, his own first draft of the declaration contained a denunciation of slavery, as follows: "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." (In this he was also consistent with Locke, see chapter IV of the Treatise.)

His colleagues in the Continental Congress suppressed the anti-slavery clause.

Third, as to the grievances, these propertied muck-a-mucks were complete liars.

No other province of Great Britain had self-governing local parliaments. Every single one was expected to quarter soldiers for the common defense and they were expected to pay taxes for the same.

The charge that Britain had abolished freedoms in Quebec ("For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies") was utter nonsense. The British Parliament had in 1774 established a charter of rights guaranteeing, among other things, the practice of the Catholic faith in Quebec -- which was more freedom than was then available even in England, where Catholic worship remained illegal and Catholics were still denied the vote.

In citing Quebec's alleged loss of freedoms, along with which went the expansion of the borders of the province, what the Continental Congress was cleverly disguising was a justification for an American land-grab -- one which was attempted militarily and failed at Quebec City.

The land grab was again attempted in 1812. Laura Secord, the Massachusetts-born daughter of a loyalist, is widely remembered in Canada as one who warned the British of an imminent American attack. Every Canadian city has Laura Secord chocolate and ice cream shops to this day.

The class system in all the British provinces was as stratified as in North America. What these American upstarts, who were largely descendants of disinherited younger sons of the nobility, were really after was a peerage and realm of their own without interference from their elder brothers.

In sum, it was the blood bath of the Civil War and the struggles of the feminist and civil rights movements that have extended U.S. civil liberties, to some extent, to parties the so-called founding fathers never envisioned, or never explicitly took action to treat equally. Inasmuch as civil liberties were never extended, despite the struggles of unionists and other reformers, to democratize the economic relations and powers between citizens, Independence Day celebrates a travesty.

A group of slave-owners and investors too cheap to pay taxes to pay the soldiers who were defending them cooked up a rigged system that for more than a century gave them and their heirs untold privilege in the guise of liberty for all.

They are still at work today, in the likes of George W. Bush and many others who stand for white, male privilege in the guise of freedom; who defend profits for the predominantly rich, white, male company directors of interlocking corporate boards at the expense of the lives of poorer, younger, less privileged men and women suckered into volunteering in a reverse-jihad for oil; and who would rather pauperize and enslave the world than yield a single penny or cede a single inch of power.

That's the real story of the Fourth of July.


anne said...

Real, but I look to the ideal. It was just a beginning with "liberty and justice for all" beyond any possible imagination of the time and one that even to this day is evolving.

(As far as the date, it reminds me of my father telling us that he jumped into Normandy on the 5th...which makes little difference to the collective memory.)

But, as usual, I enjoy the truth of your summary.

thailandchani said...




Julie Pippert said...

I don't like (or agree with) that Shaw quote but liked this post. Then again, total geek for history here. Well said. ;)

Jo said...

I'll just say ditto to what Julie said in her comment. lol. I'm a history nut and enjoyed your post but of course when I tried to get my 16yo to read it he noticed it was history and almost ran screaming from the room. *sigh*

At least he has my eyes and chin right? ;)