He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and 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. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Clause deleted from the Declaration of Independence
Fans of Broadway shows may recognize those opening words–he has waged cruel war– and hear a lush breeze of violins rise in a syncopated “beautiful waltz” in a song about molasses, rum, and slaves. Slavery was nearly abolished as an American practice–at least, it was proposed to be abolished by Thomas Jefferson before the country became these united states.
But Jefferson also owned slaves and fathered children with one of them, who was 15 when the relationship began. The statesman who argued so passionately for the morality of individual liberty did not entirely practice what he preached. There are nuances worth examining in this paradox, little-known facts that should be included in the conversation. To either stick him on a pedestal just because he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” or join the ubiquitous bands of protesters pulling down statues just because he was a slave owner seems overly simplistic. If we are going to judge historical figures, we should include as much of the picture as we know.
This past week has embraced us with the feeling of a watershed moment. Peaceful protests are still the central focus across the country, while incidents of mayhem seem to have died down. History shows that something good often comes out of it, impossible as it may seem at the time.
When Gallup conducted polls in the early 1960s, both before and after the 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have a Dream” speech), respondents said that such massed protests hurt the cause of civil rights. Not by a bare majority either; in May 1964, 74% of those polled by Gallup said that non-violent protests “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality. ” It’s hard to see the watershed when the waterfall is still falling on our heads.
Protests, historically, have followed a particular pattern. Oppression. Uprising, partly peaceful/partly violent. Masses come together. Law enforcement cracks down. More mass protests, more crackdowns. Trials with verdicts, rarely with justice satisifed. But later, some change. Society inches forward over the rubble.
Here are a few examples from the last seven centuries or so.
Negotiations Go Better when You Don’t Spit on the King
The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 is an early example of mass protests which led to positive change, though it took a squirrely path to get there. Let me set the scene. The Black Death had ravaged Eurasia and North Africa, where by the 1350s, somewhere between 30-60% of the population had succumbed. Peasants died by the millions, but the landowners and wealthy were also not spared, leading to a labor shortage and inflation. Laborers demanded higher wages and more autonomy, and some got it from the barons who depended on the peasants to work their farms for income. At the same time, England was engaging in continuous skirmishes with France on their own soil and across the Channel, and constant war was expensive. All of it sounds rather familiar.