This past weekend was July 4, and it is worthwhile to ponder both the Declaration of Independence and the cries of Black Lives Matter in the present day.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“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.”
We should not forget that, of the 47 signatories of the Declaration, only 13 did not own slaves. The “people” these signers were speaking of were essentially white men, not men of any other race, and not women.
Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, honored these words as follows:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
He named our government to be one of, by, and for the people—not for a group of wealthy white men. The new birth of freedom was to be the end of slavery. Or did he mean more?
It is worthwhile to trace the roots of slavery and the impact it has had on an America which proclaimed that all men are created equal, but has not always supported its own declaration.
The precise beginning of slavery is difficult to track because its origins predate historical recording and the written word. We know that slavery wasn’t a part of hunter-gatherer societies, so the first identifiable evidence of slavery comes from the Code of Hammurabi out of Mesopotamia. Slavery in ancient times typically came about as a result of debt, birth into a slave family, child abandonment, war, or as a punishment for crime.
The slaves in Africa that were transported to the New World were gathered in Africa by other Africans and then sold to white slave traders. The journey from Africa to the Americas was a horror that many did not survive. The ships were tightly packed, low on food, and without proper sanitation. This led to a rapid spread in fatal diseases such as dysentery, fever, and smallpox, killing both the Africans and the ship’s crew. Death was commonplace on the slave trade, and when a man or woman passed away, their bodies were simply tossed into the ocean. This was an additional point of shock for the Africans, as they believed that death and burial should be handled with care and honor.
When slaves were finally freed a bit less than 250 years after the first ones arrived on our shores in 1619, they were given “freedom” but nothing else. Freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death. About a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. This history explains in large measure why blacks continue to have much lesser wealth, income, and longevity that whites, even today.
Americans have traditionally treated the ideas of equality and freedom as meaning simply that the individual is not prevented from following his own life, but that the society has no obligation towards the individual. This view is consistent with the country’s capitalistic history, and has resulted in the wealth and income inequality from which the society suffers. In effect, although there is no legal slavery in the United States, easily 75% of the population is locked into a system in which its lack of education, wealth, and income makes it enslaved to the economic system.
In other words, America can be viewed as exceptionally hypocritical—celebrating its words of equality, liberty and the right to pursue happiness in a land of, by, and for the people, but practicing a government that allows a great percentage of its people to lead unhappy lives because the economy is owned by the 1%.
The black population suffers the most, and this explains the explosion of protests and rioting in recent days. But more and more members of other races within the country realize that they, too, are suppressed by an economic system that prevents genuine political and social freedom.
The way that history is taught in America attempts to hide the hypocrisy. No one is told of the horrors blacks had to face after the Civil War. No one is taught that 12 American presidents owned slaves at some time in their lives. There were attempts in the 1960’s to improve the lives of black citizens, with some success, but as time has gone on, these attempts have eroded. Meanwhile, the lives of middle-class whites stopped improving economically in the 1970’s.
Because the black population suffers most, it has become the leader of the fight to bring the reality of our society into line with the economic, social and political expectations of the people. There are certainly whites, Latinos, Asian and Native citizen who have joined them, but as yet not with overwhelming numbers. It is only when that happens that we shall have true liberty and the ability to pursue the happiness that the Founders promised us.