To all of our readers, greetings, and congratulations on making it past the halfway point of 2020 and to Independence Day. As most of you have likely heard, the fireworks display and address by our President at Mount Rushmore went ahead after some early delays caused by protesters. The world stubbornly refused to catch on fire and, aside from a few arrests of people blocking roads, the proceedings went off about as well as could be expected.
But I still felt rather sad about the variety of protests taking place almost literally in the shadow of one of the most massive monuments to our nation’s history imaginable. At a moment when we should be celebrating America’s greatness, the ongoing unrest and strife continued. To be sure, many have legitimate complaints from both the past and present, all of which are currently being examined yet again. The two themes we hear the most often have to do with our country’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and our legacy of slavery from the early days of the union.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer up a less-often studied piece of American history for your consideration today. It comes to us in the form of a letter written in 1774 (two years before the revolution) by James Madison to William Bradford, the Philadelphia printer, pamphleteer, and soldier of high regard. I selected this piece of correspondence because it speaks to all of the issues I mentioned above. Madison was writing to Bradford to thank him for some pamphlets, letters and news reports from Pennsylvania, then going on to update him on recent events from Virginia.
Madison begins with an account of a battle between a group of soldiers serving under Lord Dunmore against several encampments of “the Shawnese” where there was great loss of life, but an eventual victory for the Virginia militias. As part of his description, Madison refers to the Indigenous people in the aftermath of the battle by saying, “This it seems was the last effort of the Savages for they immediately sued for peace as the only method to save themselves & their towns from destruction.”
As you can see, the author was quite free with the term “savages.”
But Madison then goes on to provide an update on preparations for a possible war of independence against the British. I will share this paragraph in full, as it speaks to where we came from and how our nation established its freedom, even if that freedom didn’t originally apply to everyone equally.
“The proceedings of the Congress are universally approved of in this Province & I am persuaded will be faithfully adheared to. A spirit of Liberty & Patriotism animates all degrees and denominations of men. Many publickly declare themselves ready to join the Bostonians as soon as violence is offered them or resistance thought expedient. In many counties independent companies are forming and voluntaraly subjecting themselves to military discipline that they may be expert & prepared against a time of Need. I hope it will be a general thing thro’ought6 this province. Such firm and provident steps will either intimidate our enemies or enable us to defy them.”
From there, however, Madison takes an immediate turn and addresses one of the other sore points we’re dealing with today in the ongoing protest, riots, and unrest: slavery. His concern is not for the welfare of the slaves, but rather a fear that they might rise up in insurrection if the British were to arrive in numbers and begin hostilities. This is that section of the letter.
“If america & Britain should come to an hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may & will be promoted. In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together & chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive—which they foolishly thought would be very soon & that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom. Their Intentions were soon discovered & proper precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed.”
As you can see, Madison wasn’t engaging any particularly “woke” form of language. The African slaves, referred to as “unhappy wretches,” were to be feared, treated as a potential source of “infection,” and suppressed. This is on par with Madison’s description of the Indigenous peoples as “savages” who needed to be removed from their ancestral homes to make way for the colonists.
So why should we care about this in the 21st century and how does it apply to the questions we’re grappling with today? Madison, as with all the founders, was a patriot and a visionary. He harbored a burning desire for freedom from the English crown and envisioned a new system of government that would wipe away many of the injustices visited upon the colonists by an oppressive monarchy. He saw a brighter future and was one of the many people who charted a path toward that goal, even while knowing that it would be a long and bloody struggle with no assurance of victory in the end.
But at the same time, we should not make the mistake of trying to examine his life through the lens of our current times. Virtually every white, male landowner in the colonies in 1774 (the only people with broadly accepted power in that society) would fail the test of 2020 sensibilities spectacularly. Looked at from modern standards, these men were not saints. If we’re being honest, they weren’t all seen as saints in their own era. (Ben Franklin was famous, or perhaps infamous for his excesses and debauchery.) But they were all, as the saying goes, a product of their times. They descended from Europeans who had expanded their reach around the globe, frequently enslaving the less developed civilizations they encountered, either explicitly or in practice. And they weren’t alone. The entire planet was populated with people who had exploited others for their own gain for all of recorded history. The battles between the Japanese and the Chinese, along with the human rights horror shows that followed, were legendary. Even in Africa, the various tribes warred with each other, taking captives and eagerly selling off their enemies to the slavers who arrived at their coasts.
In other words, as much as modern progressives rail against anyone invoking the phrase, those were different times. It’s how the world worked. I will leave it to others to contemplate what this says about us as a species, but that was the reality of living in that era. And yet, for all of their flaws as viewed in today’s woke environment, these are the people who carved out the nation that would eventually grow into the greatest superpower the world has ever seen, along with being one of the most free and fair societies on the planet, offering nearly unprecedented opportunities for all. And they did it by creating a system that could (and would) adjust and improve as it went. We’re nowhere near perfect yet. Perhaps perfection is unattainable. But we’ve come a tremendous distance from the flaws of the past. And those seeking to wipe the memories of these men from the face of the Earth are doing our society no favors.
Keep that in mind as we celebrate the nation’s birthday this weekend. There are plenty of aspects of our past that we need to continue to learn from. But that past is also the fountain that led to the vastly improved society we enjoy today. Happy Independence Day, America. You are better today than ever before and you’ll continue to improve in the future… if you’re given the chance. And that’s still not a sure thing, even today. So also keep in mind what the aforementioned hedonist Ben Franklin said when asked if we would have a monarchy or a republic. “A republic… if you can keep it.”