"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
- Dr. Samuel Johnson
The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the formation of the US constitution in 1789, and the first 10 amendments to it, collectively known as the “Bill of Rights” passed in 1791, are the three most significant sets of documents that have contributed towards shaping the political history of the US. The core principles embedded in those documents form the basis of US democracy, and the functioning of the Congress (legislative), the Supreme Court (judiciary) and the President (executive).
Since the US is lecturing other nations on democracy, portraying itself as a blue-print for the rest of the world to follow; therefore, it is only right that the US is held to account against the principles laid out in the above mentioned documents. No matter how well intended and clearly worded the principles laid down are, what really matters is how those principles have been interpreted and applied. Just as the best judge of a man are the actions, along with the words spoken.
The Declaration of Independence was composed by a committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. It was Jefferson who added the famous words: "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...” The reality was all men were equal if they were settlers or colonisers from Europe; the African-Americans remained subjugated in an apartheid state until the 1960s. The Native Americans were virtually made extinct; they were liquidated when they got in the way of economic expansion. They were herded like animals onto barren reservations, and denied those “inalienable rights”. This was done by the executive arm of the US legislature, that “forked tongue” player.
It is perhaps convenient or a coincidence that Jefferson’s original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade, but it was edited out. In any case,
Jefferson along with George Washington, James Madison,
George Mason and many others who signed the declaration, continued to hold
blacks in bondage. Recent scientific evidences confirmed the rumours of Jefferson having illegitimate children through the black
slaves held in captivity. Benjamin Franklin is reputed to be the staunchest
opponent of slavery; however, this position was adopted later. In his earlier
life, he profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained
about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army
during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slave
owning rebels during the Revolution.
Patrick Henry, who was the heroic fighter for independence, did even better; not only did he continue to hold black slaves, but he removed any Native Americans that dared get in the way of his making a killing in westward real estate. The African-Americans continued to suffer, subjected to mob violence, lynching, hanging, and used as cheap labour in the plantations and factories that made America very wealthy. This is how the founding fathers applied the declaration and upheld those noble “inalienable rights”!
From history to the present day, the same double standards are seen. Take the first amendment, which is the right to exercise free speech. Not so long ago, the Arizona State Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Tucson newspaper on the basis of the First Amendment for publishing a letter that urged people to kill 5 Muslims, in retaliation for the death of a single American soldier in Iraq. Perhaps many of the African-Americans would easily identify with the above court ruling, as it is the first step towards legitimising mob violence against another minority. Note, this ruling is not seen as incitement to violence, but the right to exercise free speech! In a perverse way, the First Amendment is used to encourage those American citizens calling for the indiscriminate execution of fellow American citizens, simply because they have a different ethnicity and religion. A test of this law would be the same American court invoking the First Amendment, if someone wrote a letter calling for the execution of 5 pro-war Americans for every Iraqi killed - fat chance! Similarly, when Shabir Ahmed, an Imam, spoke out against the conduct of the United States government, there was no First Amendment to protect him; he was fired from his local Mosque in Lodi, California. He merely voiced his opposition to current US foreign policy, and did not call for the indiscriminate execution of American civilians. Perhaps, now we can see the wise words of Noam Chomsky describing free speech as: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those who we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” The implicit caveat to this is the direct incitement to violence.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration was finally adopted by the Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House. For sure, many Americans will celebrate the annual ritual of their independence day on the 4th of July; but how many will reflect on the inconsistent behaviour of the nation, both past and present, compared to the towering words of Thomas Jefferson pronounced in the Declaration of Independence. How many Americans will remember the lessons learnt from the events that culminated in forming the Declaration of Independence? Listed below are three of those significant events:
a) The unpopular Stamp Act of 1765 issued by the British government on the colonies caused immense resentment. The act levied a stamp duty on various legal documents and publications in the British colonies in
Money raised through these taxes was predominantly used to pay for the standing
army protecting the fur trade in Canada, acquired from the French after the
Seven Year’s War.
b) Following the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts passed in 1767 by the British Parliament, which placed a tax on common products, such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea added more fuel to the fire; the Americans grew increasingly hostile to British attempts to levy more taxes on the colonies.
c) Then the Boston Tea Party in 1773, this incident is perhaps the straw that broke the Camel’s back. The act allowed the British East India Company to sell the tea imported from
directly to the colonialist
market without paying the colonial tax, which allowed it to undercut the local
merchants. So, in response a Boston mob threw over 340
crates of tea into China
as a political protest. By 1775, fighting broke out; the 13 colonies sought
independence from British rule and its despotic British King George III. Boston Harbour
The average Americans ought to remember that like the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others, their forefathers fought against foreign occupation, colonisation and economic exploitation. The Americans did not like the British bases on their soil, so why do they expect any different from the Arab/Muslim nations of today. Many of those who fought the British army, formed local militias, and just like the current Iraqi resistance, fought without wearing uniforms and used similar tactics of guerrilla warfare; the American independence movement were the terrorists of that time.
This momentum for independence did not arise because of an ideological difference with its former colonial master, the British. The US merely replaced the British Empire and continued the same policy of empire building and colonisation. After all, like Britain, it was also a Capitalist state. The fundamental aim of an empire is not occupation or subjugation; those are merely the means to an end, it is primarily about economics, accessing new markets, seizing new materials, and generating mega profits. After the US takeover, it was achieving all those, more effectively, without direct occupation and direct colonisation.
In fact, direct colonisation was made a taboo, to oust or weaken the former colonial powers like Britain, France and Spain. Hence, we entered the age of decolonisation, replaced by the more subtle form of American neo-colonisation! And this process kicked off at the turn of the 20th century, with the Spanish American war, followed by the Monroe doctrine, and entering the First and Second World War. The US continued to wage wars, killing millions more than any empire before it using the most sophisticated weapons. Likewise, the “Bill of Rights” did not prevent the continuation of slavery, mob violence, hanging, lynching and other forms of brutality and exploitation. If there is anything to celebrate, it is the world seeing through the hype of these “forked tongues” writing noble constitutions, bills and declaring one thing, and then applying barbarity and subjugation to the contrary. Having said that the US has also made substantial progress, especially after the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, thanks to the dedication and sacrifice of towering figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and we see the first black President of the US. Yet, a cursory look at the world events, tells us of an uncertain future ahead.
Yamin Zakaria (email@example.com)
Published originally in 2005