The Irony of the American Revolution

As I was reviewing Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech I couldn’t help but be amused by the blatant ironic and hypocritical ideology of the American Revolutionists.     Discrediting the British parliament’s authority over the American colonies, Patrick Henry  famously, yet also melodramatically exclaims, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”  These are powerful words and represent the ideology and foundation of the American Revolution.  Why then, were these words ignored for a large part, especially in the South, once the United States became its own autonomous nation?  Why was slavery deemed acceptable when subjection to the British Parliament was not?  By allowing the institution of slavery to grow unchecked for large parts of the 19th century, Americans were disregarding the very foundation and essence upon which their nation was founded.  Obviously, my comments are made in hindsight and I have a somewhat omniscient view of this hypocrisy.  Nonetheless, this blatant disregard for the very essence of the United States really irks me.  Now, I don’t like to point readers in a specific direction nor is there ever an absolute answer to a problem, thus, I hope my post fosters a lot of curiosity, and I am very eager to hear what others have to say about this hypocrisy.

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10 Responses to The Irony of the American Revolution

  1. Sarah W says:

    Will, I think that you have raised a very interesting point. I definitely agree that slavery in the colonies was hypocritical and completely contradicted the basic beliefs of the revolutionaries. I myself am struggling to understand why slavery was so popular in a country that fought against its mother country for freedom. I do not have an answer or explanation to this injustice other other than to consider the worldview of the revolution. The worldview of the 1770s was centered around Enlightenment thinking- basing one’s thoughts upon proof and empirical evidence. As discussed in the previous unit, this worldview led to the creation of the unfortunate idea of racial segregation and superiority. Perhaps the colonists did not know any better, as they originated from a country where slavery was prominent. From a modern standpoint, however, one say that modern society is an ironic outcome of American history. Although American society has been the unfortunate victim of harsh racial segregation and slavery, today, American society is a country based on equality for all man, despite one’s ethnicity, race, or religion. I find it extraordinary how a country that was so racially segregated that had little tolerance for racial differences now has an African-American president. I think that modern American society has fulfilled the ideology of colonial revolutionaries.

  2. Benjamin says:

    Will,

    I agree with both you and Sarah that creating a nation based on the ideals of liberty while effectively turning a blind eye towards the practice of slavery is extremely hypocritical. I’ve been grappling with explaining this and, in addition to Sarah’s (convincing) hypothesis above, I think it may have something to do with the status quo before the Revolution. Since Columbus’ “discovery of the New World,” slavery was long imbedded in the economy of the Continent, including Colonial America. We see evidence of slavey in British colonies from at least the mid 17th century, which rapidly sped up as the demand for labor was being fulfilled less and less by indentured servants. Looking at government on the other hand, prior to the French and Indian War the colonists were long accustomed to a tradition of salutary neglect and minimalist government. Thus, as many historians argue, the British Empire’s desire to reassert itself in North America led to an ideological crisis in the 1770s. In reacting to this crisis and establishing the groundwork for the United States, I believe early Americans were more conscious of the Crown’s recent and aggressive policies than the long-established tradition of slavery. All of this, of course, is not to justify the abomination of slavery, but rather to give a trace of reason to the “blatant ironic and hypocritical ideology of the American Revolutionists.”

  3. ageyelin2015 says:

    I agree with Will’s point on the hypocrisy of this system. However, in this era, they believed that their slaves were fundamentally inferior to the white man. Therefore, their aggressive push for freedom applied to them, and not to those inferior to them. They believed that they were naturally superior, and they were the ones that deserved freedom.

  4. Sarah W says:

    Ben, your argument is very interesting and I definitely agree with it. I think early American society was highly influenced by Britain, the ver country the colonists declared their independence from. I am currently taking a course on the 2012 presidential election. Yesterday, we discussed the Electoral college and I automatically thought of this blog post, as the Electoral college is another American hypocrisy. The Electoral college completely contradicts the American democratic ideology. When an voters cast their ballot, they are actually casting their vote for an “elector” to travel to Washington and vote for the candidate that won the electoral votes of that state. However, these representatives can vote disregarding their state’s votes. We also discussed that the reasoning behind this establishment was that the founding fathers were elitist who did not have faith in the people to vote responsibly. How is this establishment considered part of a democracy, if our government is “for the people, by the people?” This is yet another hypocrisy of American society. America was founded on the basis of freedom and rights- how is the establishment of the electoral college considered democratic, if a single representative casts the actual vote for the presidential candidate?

    • Dr. K says:

      But you’re assuming the democracy is the same as liberty, and that the Founding Fathers were aiming to establish both. I’m not sure that’s true. Liberty, yes–at least, as Will notes, for white men–but not necessarily democracy.

      • Benjamin says:

        Dr. K,

        I agree that liberty and democracy are not necessarily synonymous, but it seems to me that, excluding some form of anarchism, democracy is the most logical political philosophy that stems from the concept of personal liberty. While I agree that the Founding Fathers did not explicitly establish a democracy, I believe that to any rational, “enlightened” thinker of the era some version of democracy would seem the best political system to achieve the ultimate goal; the preservation of personal liberties. Of course, as discussed above, the early Americans’ conception of liberty, and to whom it applied, is significantly different from the one we have today. Yet, I feel that the basic premise is still the same, franchised members of society are endowed with certain basic rights which are almost entirely inalienable. It seems logical that the best way the people insure these intrinsic rights is by safeguarding them themselves, ergo some version of popular involvement, which of course is the very definition of democracy. Additionally, I believe that among the core civic liberties the colonists fought a war to achieve is the right to only be subject to a government in which one has some part in. If liberty is of such moral importance, surely we can extrapolate the fact that the mode in which is reduced (i.e. government) ought to reflect this sacrosanctity and therefore strive to “return” as much autonomy as possible to the constituents who are originally forfeiting their liberty.

        • Dr. K says:

          Benjamin,

          I see your point–who better to defend one’s liberty than oneself–but it seems to presume that all members of a society have the same view of the rights that need protecting. You say, “the best way the people insure these intrinsic rights is by safeguarding them themselves,” but it seems to me that presumes that all members of society agree on the rights that should be protected. But if I am, say, a Communist, and the rest of society disapproves of Communism, then my rights will be endangered by democracy. That is why the US is usually described as a liberal democracy, as we combine democracy with protection of fundamental rights.

          As a historical matter, by the way, rational, enlightened thinkers of the era, not necessarily endorse democracy. Voltaire, for example, was skeptical, writing, “Men are rarely worthy of governing themselves.” (See also his entry on democracy in the Philosophical Dictionary). Other thinkers endorsed representative government, but not necessarily democracy.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Dr. K,

    I have a slightly different look on the matter and openly admit that I am in fact optimistic that the vast majority of population will tend to believe in the same basic rights for franchised members of society. To return to American history, I believe we can look to the eventually unanimous ratification of the constitution by the states as evidence that even in a period of deeply different ideological positions, a reasonable “middle ground” can often be reached.
    Similarly, I believe the framers were aware of the issues that an entirely malleable government structure could have and therefore sought to insure that basic civic liberties could only be amended through a laborious process which requires the vast majority of citizens (or more accurately their representatives) to consent. To be honest, I do not entirely understand the example you provide above. It seems to me that a communist member of a society which disapproves of communism doesn’t necessarily lose any of right, he just has an extremely small chance of living in a communist country. And, of course, the idea of popular involvement doesn’t let each franchised person chose the exact type of government they’d like to live in, but it does grant them some say in the process.

    In regards to your second point, I think we should remember that Voltaire’s skeptical opinion of democracy is likely a skepticism about its practical implications and efficiency during his own day, not necessarily the abstract concept of self-rule. Additionally, I am still struggling to find a fundamental difference between “representative government” and democracy. Obviously, during the period of American history we are discussing only a fraction of the population could vote, but that’s because only a fraction of the population had true civic liberties. As I understand the mindset, if one was a “member” of society then hypothetically one was subject to a government in which one had some representation in. It seems to me that trying to distinguish representative government from democracy stems from the lack of franchise for all people, while often nothing short of an abomination, isn’t truly a philosophical difference.

    • Sam W says:

      Benjamin,
      From your statements about our government system, it seems that you are of the belief that an official elected democratically guarantees that the ideals of the people will be upheld in the government. Moving away from the topic of liberty and towards the topic of whether or not our system of choosing officials is a fair way to reflect the desires of the majority, I propose a question to you. Is our election system flawed at its core? Take these examples. The first being that under the electoral votes system a candidate can win the election while getting less votes cast for him than another candidate, in fact this occurred in 1876, 1888, and in 2000. The second being that any “First Past the Post” system is inherently flawed for a long list of reasons that are best explained here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7tWHJfhiyo . For an example of the “Spoiler Effect” take the election of Democrat nominee Woodrow Wilson in 1912, incumbent Teddy Roosevelt, formerly running on the Republican ticket, runs as a third party candidate, and William Taft running as the Republican candidate. Though more voters agreed with the similar candidates Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson won because the former two split their larger voting base. Thus we see that the minority rules. Our system allows for minority rule and for certain votes to be worth more than others, and thus does not protect the ideas of liberty and equality you mention. Isn’t it possible that the dangers to liberty exist not in the government system itself, but instead how leaders are picked? And therefore that our democracy is a danger to our liberty?

      • Benjamin says:

        Sam,

        I spent a while drafting a somewhat lengthy response, but I think it’s all better summed up in a fairly well known quote by Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I admit that there may be some serious flaws in using the electoral college, but it seems to me that a) the vast majority of our voting (e.g. town level) is far more direct and b) the flaws of the electoral college are not only capable of being remedied but also, and more importantly, flaws with that specific method, not the general practice of democracy. Going off the Churchill quote and looking at democracy in its more abstract form, if it’s truly a danger to our liberty, then I’d challenge you to formulate an alternative political system which does the job better. While I’m a little skeptical such a system truly exists, I wish you the best of luck if you attempt the feat.

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