Wednesday, 8 June 2011
I hate Liberty
In discussion recently my attention was drawn to Thomas Jefferson’s Adam and Eve Letter, in which he extols the virtues of republicanism and liberty, specifically in relation to the events of the day in France, the unfolding Revolution. A particular passage was quoted, which proceeds as follows;
The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.
The contest being referred to here is the constitutional struggles which saw the Jacobins emerge as the dominant political force. As I said in the original discussion, I am about to commit a cardinal sin, namely I am about to penetrate the semi-religious veneer which surrounds the American Founding Fathers, all the more outrageous because I am an Englishwoman, a Loyalist and a Royalist. So, if you find this shocking, please read no further!
To begin with I have to make it clear that Jefferson’s letter was written in January 1793, before the onset of the Reign of Terror, before the Jacobins had revealed themselves in all their horror as some of the worst political thugs in history, by far the most murderous exponents of ‘liberty’ that France or any other nation has ever experienced. Still, January 1793 was the month that Louis XVI was done to death, a sign of things to come. Putting that to one side, there are other issues, broader issues specifically concerned with Jefferson and ‘liberty’ that deserve closer examination.
Jefferson was obviously a craftsman, a craftsman in words, in grand and noble words, sentiments robbed of practical meaning. Rather than see ‘liberty’ fail he would have seen half the earth desolated. Did he have the first clue, I have to ask, over the precise meaning of this word? What a pity it s he did not stay in Europe to see half of France and then half of Europe desolated in the cause of ‘liberty.’
Take one example. When the people of the Vendée in the west of France, a peasant community wedded to their traditional Catholic faith, rose against the excesses of ‘liberty’ in early 1794 they were treated with such inhuman savagery that there have been moves to have the repression – which embraced the wholesale massacre of men, women and children – declared an act of genocide. This is hardly surprising when one reads the report that General Francois Joseph Westermann sent to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris;
There is no more Vendée... According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated all.
Clearly Jefferson can’t be blamed for this. I have not the least doubt that he would have been horrified by this ‘desolation’, by this particular definition of ‘liberty.’ So, yes, it’s possible to excuse him. What is not possible to excuse is his personal hypocrisy, hypocrisy that allowed him to laud grand abstractions like ‘liberty’ while keeping black people in servitude.
Oh, I’m fully aware of his sentiments on the evils of slavery but that only seems to compound his offence. I know all of the additional platitudes he mouthed; but it did nothing to stop him relying on servitude, freeing only two of the hundreds of human beings who were his personal property. Dr Samuel Johnson in Taxation no Tyranny, his 1775 answer to the addresses and resolutions of the American Congress, posed one central and uncomfortable question: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" There is really no answer to that.
I can only take so much hypocrisy, so many empty platitudes advancing 'liberty' where there is no liberty. But I shall withdraw, a Tory, a Royalist and a Loyalist, a hater of 'Liberty' and leave the last word to an American;
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except Negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Posted by Anastasia F-B at 15:44
Labels: american presidents, french revolution
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Oh Ana, if we could only forget our embarrassing youthful enthusiasms, our naive passions, and the many mistakes they lead us to make! You are cruel to hold Thomas to task for a future he could not predict. Most of the Romantic poets and artists made exactly the same error in their enthusiasm for the French version of 'liberty.' But cynicism is earned by experience and Lincoln earned a whopping load more than TJ ever did - though has long escaped censure because he had the good fortune to die a martyr.ReplyDelete
Much has been said and written about the evils of negro slavery. Much less has been said about indentured service or the vast differences between property owners and those without. As late as the 1930s orphans and 'unwanted' children from Eastern US cities were loaded on trains and transported to the West to be 'adopted' as farm labour. Poor children from Britain were still being transported to Australia in the 1960s! Mail-order brides from Eastern Europe became the foundation of many Canadian families. There has been no civil rights movement to compensate the descendants of these victims of inequity.
The issue of slavery in America was intractable not because negroes were considered worthless sub-humans, but because they were incredibly valuable as property and made up a great proportion of the wealth of their owners. It wasn't the mere loss of 'free' labour that made Abolition controversial, but the devastating loss of capital it represented.
A more interesting issue, for me, is the status of the native population under the new Republic. They already had their 'liberty' by birthright, but it was the liberty of wild animals. When Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Bonaparte - whose title was, let's face it, rather dubious - he bought the land plus its contents for the United States. Millions of sentient inhabitants became Property of the U.S., as opposed to Property of France, all unknowing - along with all the minerals, vegetation, animals, and other real components of the territory. Setting aside the legality of a purchase unapproved by Congress . . . where the hell does the validity of this claim to ownership lie? The indians did not actually achieve full recognition as human beings under U.S. law until 1930 - much to their cost.
In truth, there was no hypocrisy involved - the men of those times lived by immemorial precedent and such changes as they made were real improvements on the past, within the limits of their time. They are not to be blamed for failing to impose a new order that meets the prejudices of their descendants two centuries later. We should be looking at our own failings, instead.
Here is a link to something I'm sure you will work to eradicate in our time:
BTW - Sam Johnson certainly saw no irony in the fact that the coffee houses he frequented served the products of slave labour - coffee, tobacco, sugar, etc.ReplyDelete
There is no real liberty for politicians who interpret everything based on their own interests.
I can forgive you for your loyalty to the crown :-) Jefferson was a complicated guy - and my least favorite founder. The man could write and did some great things for the United States - and I dare say, we (Americans) owe him a debt of gratitude for many of these accomplishments. However, he wasn't perfect and I think (blasphemy here, by your definition of the holy reverence with which we yanks hold our founders) his character left quite a lot to be desired.
However, that being said, I think you may be oversimplifying the situation in which the founders were at the time of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. It was, after all, the British who controlled the waves and got the slave trade started. They persisted in it for quite some time after the Revolution as well. Many of the southern founders were born into a situation where their personal well-being. Slavery, while reprehensible, existed for thousands of years prior to its introduction into the colonies and for the most part was not associated with race until the Brits decided it would be a good idea to trade in Africans. It then became a useful dodge to justify it. For instance, Jefferson believed negroes to be sub-human in some ways.
The founders at the Constitutional Convention were faced with a bitter choice, form a unified nation and defer the issue of slavery, hoping that future generations would resolve it (and they did with great pain), or let the states fracture into separate republics and confederacies (wherein, slavery might not have been abolished for much longer).
I would venture to say, that the world would have been much worse off without a strong United States. The men of the Constitutional Convention did the best they could with the situation in which the British left them! They took the very best of British culture and civilization and made it into something better (sorry, my nationalism squeaking through), a country with a written Constitution that became the model for the world.
The original source of communism.ReplyDelete
Calvin, a truly superb response in the best Jeffersonian style. I apologise if you think I'm too hard on the man. This is me in my best polemical style. :-)ReplyDelete
With regard to Johnson do you know about Frank?ReplyDelete
Harry, a truth that crosses the boundaries of nation and time. :-)ReplyDelete
Martin, thank you for that detailed response and a very warm welcome to my blog.ReplyDelete
Yes, I freely confess that this is all black and white, if I can put it like that, with no shades of grey whatsoever. I suppose I was more than a little shocked by Jefferson's statement about the desolation of the earth, which clearly he did not mean to be taken literally. The literal truth, as I have indicated, is completely shocking. The thing is I have a limited tolerance of any kind of philosophical or political abstraction, where no account is taken of the precise meaning of words. Words, after all, are sparks which end in the flames of reality.
Yes, I suppose slavery would have died much sooner but for the advent of Eli Whitney.
On your final point, that about a strong United States, I have no disagreement whatsoever. America, for me, is a second home.
Anthony, the Jacobins were progenitors of communism. Robespierre was much admired by Mao Zedong.ReplyDelete
"When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."ReplyDelete
---eh, despotism without hypocrisy or liberty with savagery, I cannot tell which is better.
---It was astonishing of what you described about "Vendee". I always try to see the positive side of French Revolution, because comparing with Chinese history - where many same type of massacres (only worse) repeatedly happened but never any fundamental changes followed, French Revolution at least brought some positive changes to Europe (but I guess it was not "positive" to you:-)). Liberty takes time. I believe today's Europe and US have much more individual freedom than they did before 1793 (I could never forgot this year because I have read Hugo's "93" when I was in high school. I remembered I cried but forgot for which occasion).
"Robespierre was much admired by Mao Zedong"
---lol... It is true! the French Revolution was "extolled" in Communist China. Even in high school text books I remember all those studies about it. However, this is not how I picture this bloody event. I am yet to reach my objective understanding of it.
Thanks for sharing!
You are welcome. :-) Oh, look for a novel by Anatole France caled The Gods Will Have Blood, which will give you a different perspective on the events of '93 and 94.ReplyDelete
thanks ana! will be my reading list.:-)ReplyDelete