Saturday, August 2, 2008

It Should Be About the Children:Defining & Practicing Civic Authority in the United States

image courtesy of Charles Schwartz, originally in the Jackie Napoleon Wilson Collection

What follows are four quotes from the Era of the American Revolution, three relatively brief, and one extensive, that participants in a teachers' workshop I gave were asked to identify as to author and source. The quotes were intended to stimulate discussion during a presentation about using the Maryland State Archives Documents for the Classroom. All the quotes have a local (Maryland) connection to major themes in teaching American History. The prize for identifying the author and source of the quotes was a useful book of essays and documents relating to the Declaration of Independence published by the University of Virginia Library as a tribute to a major donor, Albert H. Small whose collection the book features.

The teachers were asked to identify by whom, when and where they were written, explaining their context and their relevance to both Maryland's and the Nation's past, present, and future.

They were told that clues to the answers would be found in the lecture and in the document packet Writing It All Down on the Maryland State Archives web site, which they had been assigned in advance of the workshop.

The quotes provoked a lively discussion, not only with regard to sources and meaning, but also with respect to how important it is to preserve and make accessible local documents for the teaching of American History and Civic Responsibility.

The initial version of this blog entry was intended for the exclusive use of the teachers as a means of engaging them on line for the purposes of the workshop, but on reflection, I thought that a wider audience might be interested in their origins and reflecting on their significance.


1. "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power."

2. "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself,violating it's most sacred rights of life & 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 transporation thither. This piratical warfare, the approbation 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 excrable commerce. And this assemblage of horrors want no fact of distinguished dye 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 also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit agains the LIVES of another."

3. "the doctrine of non-resistence against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind." quoted by Saul Cornell in A Well Regulated Militia," (2006), p. 131.

4) "Vox Africanorum"

Charge to the teachers' workshop: determine when the following was published and why. Is it significant? Should it be used in teaching about American History with Maryland sources? Why?

To a people whose characteristic virtues are justice and fortitude, in the exercise of which they have become the wonder and astonishment of the universe,
we, the black inhabitants of these United States, humbly submit the following address.

When Great-Britain essayed to make her first unjust and wicked attempts to forge chains to enslave America, the noble spirit of liberty and freedom uttered her voice.

America, with the meekness of a lamb, remonstrated against the wickedness of the attempt; but Britain, lost to every sentiment of justice and virtue, and sunk in every vice, obstinately persisted in the rash attempt.

America then, nobly animated with the love of liberty, assuming the fortitude of a lion, stepped forth, and proclaimed, "We Will be Free."

The world beheld with admiration mingled with applause, and heaven smiled approbation.

Determined in her resolutions, America has borne the storms and complicated pressures of an eight years war, purchased at the price of her blood and treasure,and even at the risque of her existence, she has at length obtained her liberty, the darling object of her soul; universal joy has diffused itself through all her borders; acclamations of gratitude on this occasion, from the lips of her every free-born son have ascended to the throne on high; the glorious deeds of America are recorded in the court of heaven.

When an address is made to men, who have been born free-- to Americans, who have been alarmed, and nobly roused into virtuous activity at the first dawnings of slavery-- to men whose hearts are warm --whose minds are expanded with the recent acquisition of their own liberty and freedom-- to men whose actions and whose sufferings have been unparalleled in the annals of mankind during a conduct of many years, to retain, and to transmit,without diminution, the rights of humanity and blessings of liberty to their posterity---

When an address I say, is made to such men, by fellow creatures groaning under the chains of slavery and oppression, can we doubt of their becoming he friends and advocates of the enslaved and oppressed?

Can we doubt of touching their feelings and exciting their attention?

-- No --

to doubt would be wickedness in the abstract -- it would be sinning against the solemn declarations of a brave and virtuous people.

We have lately beheld, with anxious concern, your infant struggles in the glorious cause of liberty--We attend to your solemn declaration of the rights of mankind-- to your appeals, for the rectitude of your principles, to the Almighty, who regards men of every condition[?]and admits them to a participation of his benefices

--We admired your wisdom, justice, piety, and fortitude.
To that wisdom, justice, piety, and fortitude, which has led you to freedom and true greatness, we now appeal.

Freedom is the object of our humble address.

Our abject state of slavery, a state of all others the most degrading to human nature, is known to every American; We shall not, therefore, descend to the disagreeable task of wounding the feelings of any by a description.

In the language of your humble addresses to the inexhorable throne of Britain, permit us humbly to address you.

Liberty is our claim.

Reverence for our Great Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, all convince us that we have an indubitable right to liberty. Has not the wisdom of America solemnly declared it?

Attend to your own declarations--

"These truths are self-evident---all men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

We shall offer no arguments--nay, it would be insulting to the understanding of America at this enlightened period, to suppose they stood in need of arguments to prove our right to liberty. It would be to suppose she has already forgot those exalted principles she has so lately asserted with her blood.

Though our bodies differ in colour from yours; yet our souls are similar in a desire for freedom. Dispairty in colour, we conceive, can never constitute a disparity in rights. Reason is shocked at the absurdity. Humanity revolts at the idea!

Let America cease to exult --she has yet obtained but partial freedom. Thousands are yet groaning under their chains; slavery and oppression are not yet banished this land; the appellation of master and slave, an appellation of all others the most depressing to humanity, have still an existence.

We are slaves! To whom?
Is it to abandoned Britons?
Permit us to refer you to facts;
let them make the reply. A people who have fought--
who have bled-- who have purchased their own freedom by a sacrifice of their choicest heroes -- will never continue the advocacy for slavery.

Pride, insolence, interest, avarice, and maxims of false policy, have marked the conduct of Britain -- but shall pride, insolence, considerations of interest, avarice or maxims of false policy, lead America to a conduct inconsistent with ther principles?

Forbid it Justice--forbid it wisdom-- forbid it sound policy?---
Every principle which has led America to freedom and greatness forbid it.
Has the laws of Nature doomed us to this abject state --- shut out as it were, from the benign influences of religion, knowledge, arts and science --excluded from every refinement which renders human nature happy!

Why then are we held in slavery? Is it by any municipal law?
If so, YE fathers of your country; friends of liberty and of mankind,
behold our chains!

Lend an ear to the voice of oppression-- commiserate the affections of a helpless and abused part of the human species.

To you we look for justice --deny it not--it is our right.


Post Script:

If you would like to listen to the Vox Africanorum text, download the wma file (for Windows users only)

You might also like to read the reflections of "Common Sense," published on May 1, 1783, when approval of the Treaty of Paris and the official end of the Revolution appeared to be close at hand.

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