It seems clear that the cause of white liberty in America was advanced by the subjugation of blacks and Indians. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the colonists increasingly saw England as an impediment to their liberty. The Catholic King, James II, had established a new organisational structure in 1686 to take power from the colonists and give it to the crown. Although he was highly unpopular in England and removed after only three years his colonial policy was continued under both subsequent Stuart monarchs. None aroused more resentment, and fanned the revolutionary flame, however, than the Hanoverian King, George III. It was he who enacted two violently opposed laws; the Proclamation of 1763 and the Stamp Act 1765.
There is no doubt that during the second half of the eighteenth century liberty was the subject of continual debate in America. Eric Foner notes that “no word was more frequently invoked by critics of the Stamp Act than liberty.” It is crucial, however, to ask what the colonists meant by liberty? It is a popular myth that the colonist fought for, what we would call, human rights. This was a later, and somewhat conditional, development. The majority of rebellions, boycotts and uprisings were aimed at achieving British liberty and establishing the colonist’s rights as free Englishmen. Even in 1776 a great many people sought a renegotiated relationship with England rather than a separation.
Thomas Paine was one of the earliest to realise that there could be no reunion with England. In his famous work Common Sense he argues this point; “I have heard it asserted by some, that as America had flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness…. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument.” If, even in 1776, Paine had to argue for complete independence from England, it must be deduced that liberty came into its modern meaning only gradually. Foner adds that “many colonists shied away from the idea of independence [as] pride in membership in the British Empire was still strong and many political leaders … feared that a complete break with the mother country might unleash further conflict.” Few, if any, would have predicted that a new nation was about to be birthed. Consequently, the question facing Americans after the revolution was what kind of society should be created?
The founding fathers of the American constitution are shrouded in so much myth it is often hard to discern fact from fiction. Within the modern American mind, the concepts of liberty and democracy are essentially indistinguishable. This modern paradigm is in stark contrast to the views held by many of the fathers. The authors of the constitution held a Hobbesian philosophical position, maintaining that men were essentially carnal and, in General Knox’s words in a letter to Washington, “possessing all the turbulent passions belonging to that animal”.
Far from the sacred ideal it would later become, democracy was seen as a dangerous but necessary condition which must be appeased to form a legitimate government. Richard Hofstadter notes the distain with which many of the fathers viewed democracy:
Edmund Randolpf, saying to the convention that the evils from which the country suffered originated in the ‘turbulence and follies of democracy,’ and that the great danger lay in ‘the democratic parts of our constitutions’ … Rodger Sherman, hoping that ‘the people … have as little to do as may be about the government’; William Livingston, saying that ‘the people have ever been and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands’; George Washington, the presiding officer, urging the delegates not to produce a document of which they themselves could not approve simply in order to ‘please the people’.
Hamilton, in particular, “candidly disdained the people”. It cannot be rationally argued that the fathers sought to create a nation founded on liberty and democracy. Ironically, it seems that the opponents of the constitution did more to increase democracy in America than the founding fathers.
It was not the fathers but the anti-federalists who fought to create a bill of rights to enshrine and protect the notion of democracy. After the publication of Hon. Mr. Gerry’s Objections to the constitution in 1787 the anti-federalist movement consolidated behind a common set of grievances. Elbridge Gerry’s essay encapsulates these concerns:
My principal objections to the plan, are, that there is no adequate provisions for a representation of the people – that they have no security for the right of election – that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous … and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights.
So it may be argued that the driving force behind establishing and protecting the rights of the common American lay not with the founding fathers at the Philadelphia convention but with the opponents and critics outside.
Similar to the myth surrounding the founding fathers is the myth surrounding Thomas Jefferson. Hofstadter notes that:
Jefferson has been pictured as a militant, crusading democrat, a Physiocrat who repudiated acquisitive capitalistic economics, a revolutionist who tore up the social fabric of Virginia in 1776, and the sponsor of a “Revolution of 1800” which destroyed Federalism root and branch. Although there is fact enough to give the color of truth to these notions, they have been torn down by shrewd Jefferson scholars.
Although Jefferson’s achievements are indeed significant, there remains several peculiarities in regards to how he is often portrayed by historians. Traditional historiography regards Jefferson as the pedagogue of liberty who penned the most famous words in the declaration of independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It appears, therefore, as something of an anomaly that Jefferson owned somewhere between one and two hundred Negro slaves. There is a tragic irony to the fact that “the leisure time that made possible his great writings on human liberty was supported by the labors of three generations of slaves.”
Thomas Jefferson’s life work produced many advancements for the cause of liberty, however, it was not the same kind of liberty which Americans associate with today. Perhaps the greatest of Jefferson’s achievements was to realise that the elite could not simply rule and ignore the masses. By the time Jefferson came to office in 1800, all white males were seen, at least theoretically, as equal. To credit Jefferson, however, as a democratic crusader, in the modern sense of the word is to ignore the vast inequalities of the time which he never addressed nor sought to address. Some forty per cent of the population of his native Virginia were slaves. Women were confined to be second-class, non-citizens and Indians were viewed as a contemptible dying breed. It is important, therefore, not to allow social reverence to overshadow the historical reality concerning Jefferson.
Part three, the final part in this series, will examine the popular mythology surrounding the American civil war.