Shakespeare & Independence Day

Believe my words, For they are certain and unfallible. An Image representing Independence Day“…Believe my words,
For they are certain and unfallible.”

(King Henry VI part 1, act 1, sc. 2)

So says the Duke of Orleans after explaining to the King of France that Joan of Arc is really endowed with supernatural powers.

In a somewhat similar vein, the opening words of the American Declaration of Independence have the ring of an infallible truth, produced by the self-evidence of evidence, the presence of God in the script and the trinity of rights that rhythmically conclude the first sentence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“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.”

Words that have the beauty of simplicity and the excitement of emotion.

Overwhelmed by so much power of meaning and resonance in the soul, the reader, listener or reciter, assumes that to “hold these truths to be self-evident” implies abiding by them. Otherwise, to say that “all men are created equal” was (is) almost the same as saying that all planets are planets and all stars stars.

Considering that the Declaration of Independence represents the basis on which the superstructure of US nationhood was built, some always and many recently, have carefully examined those words. Even though he who questions government-approved history is in odor of heresy, and can be easily accused of raising idle questions, of opening wounds already healed and of throwing the arrows of calumny to deserving praise.

Given that all across the nation, tens of thousands of tents are already erected for the sale of fireworks in celebration of Independence Day on the next 4th of July, the following considerations may not be amiss.

As for “all men are created equal”, this was true but for women because they were not men, native Americans because they were not white, Blacks because they were not human, and the poor because they were not rich and therefore could not vote.

The Declaration of Independence is linked to what became called the “American Revolution.” But there are other impartial and zealous inquirers after truth who belong to a different school of thought. For them the applicable name is “American Counterrevolution.”

Their reasons seem logical. To Native Americans the colonization of the United States, and even more so the American Revolution, brought fatal diseases, cultural hegemony and genocide.

Hollywood movies of Cowboys and Indians are now obsolete, but in more than one John Wayne movie, or similar, one recurrent character of the plots is the “Indian Hunter”. This was not mere poetic license. The genocide was willed, purposed and associated with the profession of the ‘bounty hunter’. Contrary to legend, it was the bounty hunters who needed only to produce the scalp of a killed Indian to receive the bounty.

In standard text-books the prime cause for the (counter) Revolution was ‘taxation without representation’. Unmentioned in the canonical history is the perception, amongst European settlers on the North American mainland, that London was moving rapidly towards the abolition of slavery.

The perception was singularly prompted by the Somerset’s judicial case, decided in London in June 1772. A ruling betokening that abolition, essentially ratified in London, would cross the Atlantic and sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing many fortunes, based both on slavery and the slave trade. According to extant records, the profit on the sale of a slave could reach 1700 %.

One other common belief about American history, is that the North was against while the South was pro-slavery. This was certainly not the case in 1776. In fact even 40 years later, during the War of 1812, launched by America to conquer and annex Canada, there was widespread documented concern that the slaves would join the English. And during the short occupation of Washington by the English in 1814, 5000 slaves escaped to the British fleet. They were given the option to join the British Army or to be left in a Caribbean Island where to live and work as free men.

In fact, London had followed Spain in the initiative of enrolling blacks in their respective armies and of giving them freedom and a stipend. One of the reasons why Andrew Jackson (the US president famous for saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”), fought against the Spaniards and removed them from Florida, was that many slaves risked their lives to escape to the Spanish colonial cities where they would be free.

Let’s  briefly review the Somerset’s case, decided in 1772, which helped launch the movements to abolish slavery in England and the United States, and became a significant part of the common law regarding slavery.

James Somerset was born in Africa, sold into the slave trade, taken to Virginia and purchased by Charles Stewart. The rich Stewart took Somerset to England where he escaped. Stewart recaptured and imprisoned him on a boat headed to Jamaica where he planned to sell him.

Three British abolitionists decided to help Somerset and submitted affidavits to the court, which agreed to hear the plea. Thomas Knowles, the owner of the ship, was ordered to bring himself and Somerset to court on December 9, 1771.

Knowles testified that Somerset belonged to Charles Stewart, that he had never been “manumitted, enfranchised, set free or discharged,” and that Somerset had “departed and absented himself” from service without permission from Stewart. The judge believed the case had merit and arranged court dates in 1772 to hear arguments from both sides.

The lawyers for Somerset made the case that slavery was contrary to English common law. Yes, colonial slavery was legal, but they argued that English common law had steadily progressed in favor of liberty. If England accepted American racial slavery, it would be forcing the law to regress rather than progress. Furthermore, English law required consent in all service relationships, therefore no man could by compact enslave himself. These arguments were published in the United States and England and were widely used by American abolitionists 80 years later at the time of the Civil War.

On the other side, the plaintiff’s lawyer argued that the emancipation of Somerset would undermine the respect that the court should hold for the laws of Virginia where Somerset was purchased, and where slavery was legal.

The judge recognized that his decision could disrupt the property rights of thousands of slave owners, but slavery, he argued, was “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.”

The case, as the judge made clear, did not end slavery in any of the British colonies, nor, for that matter, in England. However, it prevented owners from forcibly detaining slaves and deporting them for sale.

This decision achieved two apparently contradictory objectives. It preserved the service of the slaves to their masters, but it established the important precedent that labor is voluntary, which is an important legal foundation for a capitalist society, of which, 70 years later Marx had so much to say.

The case had a very wide influence.  In America, some slaves and abolitionists used it to support the end of slavery across the Nation. Other milder opponents of slavery used it to support limiting abolition to certain parts of the United States –  while positive law allowed to maintain slavery in one state but not another.

Slave law, based on the pre-Orwellian concept of “positive law”, became the common law in the United States and is reflected in the Constitution’s support of slavery without mentioning it by name. Slavery became a local (state) issue, not a national, federal issue.

For the record, “positive law” describes statutes that have been laid down by a legislature, court, or government and which can take whatever form the authors want. It is another case of misleading use of language. The first thing that comes to mind when using the term “positive” is good, as in “positive results”. But in the instance “positive” is a derivation from the Latin “posit” or “set in place” by whoever decides the setting.

Somerset was almost immediately cited in court cases and petitions in Massachusetts and elsewhere by abolitionists. And it became the foundation of opposition to slavery in America.

All of which, in the early 1770s further explains why the 1% of the times were so eager to sever ties with England. Add to this the limitations that England had set on further western expansion, and the recognition that she had given to a modicum of Native American rights. Therein are the reasons and the formulas of the (counter)Revolution.

Today, the ‘consensus’ view on the American Revolution is expressed by Obama as follows,

“On July 4th, 1776, a small band of patriots declared that we were a people created equal, free to think and worship and live as we please, that our destiny would not be determined for us, it would be determined by us. And it was bold, and it was brave. And it was unprecedented. It was unthinkable. At that time in human history, it was kings and princes and emperors who made decisions. But those patriots knew there was a better way of doing things, that freedom was possible, and that to achieve their freedom, they’d be willing to lay down their lives, their fortune and their honor. And so they fought a revolution. And few would have bet on their side. But for the first time of many times to come, America proved the doubters wrong. And now, 237 years later, this improbable experiment in democracy, the United States of America, stands as the greatest nation on Earth.”

Words that are not on par with Jefferson’s marching incipit of the Declaration of Independence. But they are clear not so much for what they say, but for what they don’t.

That is, on one hand, the revolution abolished monarchy. But in practice, in 1776, the emancipated colonies established the first apartheid state. There are strong similarities with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in November 1965. And, unspoken by official history, 1776 marks the successful attempt to protect slavery and effective colonization from any outside influence.

80 years later, as we know, abolition became one of the official reasons for the Civil War. It was ‘official’ in that it was useful enough to explain away a colossal contradiction. The Constitution clearly allowed the states to withdraw from the Union if they so desired. But now exercising their right of withdrawal suddenly became unconstitutional, at first because Lincoln said so and, in the middle of the war, because abolition was proclaimed and the Southern States did not want to abide by it.

That abolition was but a varnish (or an excuse), is easily proven by what happened after the Civil War, ended in 1865 – when conditions for the ex-slaves became even worse than before. And it took 100 years of massive and horrible slaughter and lynching before something like equality of rights was recognized. Those interested may read D. Blackmon, “Slavery by Another Name.”

As the historian Gerald Horne noted recently, there are US scholars and intellectuals who make a good living by critiquing the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the French Revolution of the 18th century. And yet we get the impression that what happened in 1776 was an unsullied piece of historical excellence.  Given the effective establishment of an apartheid state, accompanied by the genocide of independent Native Americans, a more objective analysis of 1776 and Independence Day would be advisable and perhaps even beneficial.

Considering that, from the historical excellence of 1776, follows in logical sequence the idea of “American exceptionalism” (see article on this site, “Shakespeare, Patriotism and Exceptionalism — ), and the right to “intervene (militarily) anywhere in the world where our interests are at risk”.

That is “shock and awe”, “search and destroy”, “desert storm” and sundry other similar operations to kill and bend the will of independent people to the will of the notorious American 1%.

One final note. As it can be expected, the text of the Declaration of Independence was very carefully drafted and edited before its final rendition. In the original version, all men were created equal and they were also endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. But the inalienable Rights, instead of  “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were “Life, Liberty and the protection of Property.” The latter prerogative – the august Fathers realized – was of little relevance to the 99% who had little or no property to protect. Hence the prudent modification, attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

In the Play. The Duke of Orleans wants to convince the King of France that Joan of Arc is indeed endowed with supernatural powers.

Image Location.

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