Independence and the 200 Year Hangover
The first independence day was July 4th, 1776. The Declaration of Independence, written by committee but attributed with some cause to Thomas Jefferson, was meant to explain to the world why the gentlemen assembled in Philadelphia did not want to be ruled by Great Britain.
The Declaration carefully skirted at least two of the main reasons that select group of mostly rich men were so eager to split up with England. Before examining them in detail let me say clearly: I believe in democracy. I believe that the U.S. colonies of England should have become independent. I just believe that much bad policy was packaged up in the independence deal.
The idea of independent colonies, bound together or not, was not new in 1776. It had had advocates for decades. But interestingly, until 1772, agitation for independence had gotten nowhere. Why did things change in 1772? Because of a court case in Great Britain.
A slave of African descent from Virginia, named Somerset (or Sommerset or Somersett; spelling was no exact science in those days) had run away from his master, who had taken him to be his servant in London. After lengthy procedings a British judge, Lord Mansfield, declared Somerset to be free. He declared that slavery did not exist in England; that English soil was free soil; that whatever you prior status, when you stepped on English soil you became free. [See Slave Nation by Alffred and Ruth Blumrosen].
This decision, which Ben Franklin wrote about, endangered the livelihoods and thus the liberty of slave owners in Virginia and other U.S. colonies. Thomas Jefferson and other slavers formed the now famous Committees of Correspondence, linking up with certain New England merchants who were also keen on independence. They did not demand representation in Parliament, for that would have made it even clearer that American soil was English soil and that the slaves would have to be freed. Instead they moved the country steadily and inexorably towards independence and their own liberty to continue to own slaves. The American Revolution was underway.
Another thing that was bothering a great number of wealthy (and some not so wealthy) Americans, and here George Washington is the perfect example, was something called the Line of 1763. Most wealth in America was accumulated by land speculation; native American Indian land had to be seized for this game to continue. But the British Crown had negotiated with various Indian tribes for peace and guaranteed that no land would be stolen beyond this line of 1763. State legislatures, being even more corrupt back then than they are now, had granted certain individuals vast lands that lay past the line. Washington belonged to such an investment group. To make the claims good the land speculators had to convince king and Parliament to forget about the treaties and line. The king and Parliament did not want the expense of another Indian war, so they protected the Indians from the colonists.
The two-hundred year hangover came not from independence itself, but from the institution of slavery and greed for other people's land. During the American Revolution the British freed American slaves (funny how we know about the Emancipation Proclamation, but not the earlier granting of freedom), but the freed slaves were handed back to their owners, including Washington and Jefferson, when England lost the war.
The treaty ending the war also ceded lands beyond the 1763 line to the the United States. The fact that these lands belonged to Indian nations was immediately forgotten. The grabbing did not even stop at the Pacific Ocean; the government of the greedy, by the greedy, for the greedy eventually grabbed Hawaii and the Philippines.
For the most part the Native Americans were simply exterminated, but the African slaves became an internal problem, such were there numbers. The Dred Scott decision held the opposite of the Somerset case: in the U.S. you remained a slave even if you lived on the soil of a state that had abolished slavery. In theory slavery was abolished after the Civil War, but the Democratic Party (the party of slavery and the Confederacy) enacted Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the states it controlled that lasted until the 1970's.
Now we celebrate Independence Day (the Fourth of July) in an era of global interdependence. Green house gas emissions in the United States caused global warming that expands deserts in China; plastics manufactured in China accumulate their toxic burden in America's landfills.
Independence Day should be a day for somber reflection and for resolutions to do better. The hangover from today's foolishness looks like it will last much longer than a mere 200 years.
Line of 1763
Declaration of Independence
|III Blog list of articles|