Tag Archives: Liberty

Rumors and Rhetoric

In 1783 at the army camp located in Newburgh, New York rumors of revolt were quelled when General George Washington addressed his men. The rhetoric, which had grown from frustration with Congress over back pay, was effectively countered when Washington spoke, “…let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained…”[1] Scholars have argued over whether the crisis in Newburgh was one of rhetoric only, or if an actual conspiracy existed which threatened the stability and future of the United States.[2] Regardless, the Newburgh Affair highlights how political rhetoric can lead to crisis, and how calm leadership rather than dramatic action can be the solution.

Conspiracy theorists and politically motivated historians have inferred that orchestrated nationalist machinations were the cause of the rumors and implied threats that swirled around Newburgh in the fall and winter of 1782-83. Others argue that frustration at the lack of pay, and the worry of a post-conflict future, organically inspired the rhetoric Washington felt needed addressed on March 15, 1783. Pamphlets, newspapers, public meetings, and personal correspondence were the main vehicles for the spreading of news and the airing of grievances prior to the technological age. The years leading up to the outbreak of war proved that these were effective tools in rousing public opinion in order to force change. It stood to reason then that these same tools would be used when Congress ground to a standstill on the issue of military pay and veteran benefits.

Even in the days before technology transformed the ways in which the world communicated, rumors once started were difficult to suppress. Enflamed rhetoric was even harder to manage for often it was printed and preserved for posterity. Fortunately for the young republic, General Washington was a man who had learned that brash language and rash actions were counter-productive to stability and prosperity. While he understood the frustration[3] of his men, he also understood that a liberty so newly achieved could not withstand civil discord.[4] A nation built from the fire of revolution would have to learn how to handle and even embrace civil discord.; however, Washington was wise in objecting to discord created by “insidious design” and spread by rumor and extreme rhetoric.

 

Endnotes

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 499.

[2] Edward C. Skeen, and Richard H. Kohn, “The Newburgh Conspiracy Reconsidered,” The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1974): 273–298.

[3] Mary Stockwell, “Newburgh Address,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-address/.

[4] Washington, 500.

Liberty: A Cost of War

During war, even a war fought in far flung lands, the civilian public is not guaranteed the comforts of peacetime. Rationing of food and clothing can be expected as a nation directs its energy and material goods toward the war effort. Additionally, one can expect taxation to increase as the nation’s war debt mounts. However, when one’s liberty becomes a cost of war, the nation faces a crisis that is much more difficult to overcome with patriotic slogans. Fear, spread through propaganda campaigns and doom-inspiring rhetoric, becomes the tool that convinces a nation that the loss of constitutionally protected liberty is price worth paying for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the cost of war was hugely felt in the form of taxation. Colonial Americans were opposed to the new taxes despite the fact that they helped pay for the military support the colonists benefited from each time a frontier war erupted. Their argument, in simple terms, was that if they were to be taxed like regular English subjects, then they should have all the rights and privileges afforded to regular English subjects. Particularly, they should have the right to political representation. When their demands for equality were not heeded, the colonists decided that rebellion was the solution. War weariness and the costs of war played a large role in the final outcome. Endless war was not a good national policy, and even the powerful British Empire had a difficult time arguing against that truth.

During the American Revolution, the colonists who supported rebellion and sought independence were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their cause, but that dedication was challenged when the new nation found itself sacrificing economic prosperity due to the Embargo Act of 1807. In an ill-conceived attempt to force France and Great Britain into dealing with the United States with greater respect, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed an embargo that resulted in great hardship for the New England merchants. Fortunately, the War of 1812 concluded just as the anger in New England was reaching a boiling point, and President James Madison was not faced with the daunting task of suppressing a homeland rebellion.

When homeland rebellion did finally erupt years later as the national argument concerning the issue of slavery boiled over, President Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate suspending certain constitutionally guaranteed rights in an effort to settle the conflict more quickly. His justification was that those who were trying to separate from the union and those who were a direct threat to the union were not necessarily protected by the constitution. He was not alone in his evaluation that during war certain liberties might need to be curtailed. The remnants of Congress agreed, and passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863.

Economic hardship and the forfeiture of liberty seemed justifiable when the nation was at war; especially if the forfeiture of liberty was directed at those who seemed set on disrupting the nation’s ability to fight the war. It should not come to a surprise that when the nation went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, those who seemed too closely tied to the enemy would find themselves stripped of their constitutionally protected liberty. It mattered little that their ties were familial in nature as opposed to political. The nation had to be protected in order for the United States to prevail. In the end, the war only last a few short years. The rights and liberty of the interned were restored, everyone went on their merry way, and the nation flourished as it helped rebuild the free world. Or so the propagandists proclaimed.

Yet another enemy lurked and another war loomed. Constitutionally protected rights were no longer sacred in the face of an enemy. A nation at war, even a cold one, had to protect itself from enemy sympathizers and subversives. If this meant spying on its own citizens, then that is what the nation would do. When the truth of this violation became publicly known after the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, Congress acted to halt such a travesty, but it was questionable even at the time whether the actions of Congress would hold up during the ongoing Cold War.

War, it seemed, would always be a justification for a temporary loss of freedom and liberty, but as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, war shifted away from the traditional conflicts that often erupted between two political enemies. Instead, war became a conflict with phantoms and ideologies. First there was the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror, both eradicating the protections guaranteed in the constitution, and both without any end in sight. The cost of these wars continues to be great and it seems that rather than causing economic hardship and the sacrifice of personal comfort, these wars demand a greater price – liberty.

Change, Secession, and Liberty

When a traditional way of life is challenged, turbulent emotions run rampant. Fear and anger replaces reason. As 1860 neared its end, the southern states of the United States of America began to secede from a union which had been forged from the blood and sweat of forefathers, both northern and southern. Assured that the election of Abraham Lincoln would doom the institution of slavery, secession was viewed as the only option in what was believed to be a northern attempt to abolish, not only slavery, but a way of life. The governor of Texas opposed secession even though such a stance invited attack upon both his person and his reputation as defender of the state. Governor Sam Houston argued against secession and when his arguments failed to sway enough voters, he argued for a return to independence rather than a confederation with the other seceding states.

Society, particularly southern society, was changing. This change was not confined to the United States, in fact the United States lagged behind other nations in abolishing slavery. Regardless of the fact that the principle of liberty was spreading throughout the world, albeit slowly, certain sectors of the U.S. population cleaved to the societal norms of their predecessors, norms that were in direct opposition to the basic principle of liberty – individual freedom. The choice of secession, being preferred over such a change in society, declared a sad reality. Death of the union was preferable to change, even when that change expanded liberty, the very principle for which their forefathers had fought and died to establish during the American Revolution.

A Return to Normalcy: The Virtuous Woman

In the years following the American Revolution, the role of wife and mother became of great importance. In a new nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, the job of a virtuous woman was to ensure that the men who led the nation remained free from the corrupting influence of power and prestige. Women, virtuous women dedicated to the home and family, were believed to be vital in counteracting the temptations of the world and the dangers of political power. Women like Abigail Adams hoped for an equality that seemed inherent in the rhetoric of the Revolution, but had to settle for “inherent moral superiority” rather than equality for women.[1]

Women had been an integral part of the Revolution, and had provided support in capacities essential for success. After the Revolution came to an end, society wished to return them to their homes, a pattern that would be seen again and again in U.S. history. In some cases, the women of post-revolutionary America had fewer protections and rights than they did prior to the war. Property laws that protected and provided for a widow were not reestablished in the new nation and it would take time for new laws to replace what had been lost. [2]

The virtuous qualities of a woman were praised, but her desire for equality was not. Even women who had served valiantly during the war, found themselves pressured to return to the roles of virtuous wife and mother when the war ended. Those who did not graciously return to the parlor and leave the public life to the men, found life in the new nation a hardship not a blessing.[3] War may have disrupted the social norms, but in a post-war world, a return to normalcy was considered vital to stability and success. That meant women, although valued, were anything but equal.

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), xii.

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/us/13e.asp;  http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/legal-status-women-1776%E2%80%931830

[3] Berkin, 139.

Ideology, Revolution, and Change: A Slow Process

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the people of Philadelphia, “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…” Eleven years later, the Constitution of the United States of America was created, reaffirming the goal to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence(sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” In 1789, the congress defined twelve common rights of U.S. citizens but only 10 of these became amendments to the constitution. The Bill of Rights defined what the Declaration had not; it defined which rights could be agreed upon as the unalienable rights of man. At the heart of these rights was the belief that sanctity of thought and property were key to liberty.

Beginning in the 1760s, arguments were made that government should not impinge upon these basic rights. Property was not to be surrendered unless it was done so willingly or due to the judgement of one’s peers. It was felt that the forfeiture of property was tantamount to the loss of liberty. While the social strata of the colonies was less structured than in the Old World, property was still closely associated to one’s identity and stature. The loss of property, even from taxation, was considered highly serious in nature. Laws impinging on property rights and laws which changed the colonial judicial system led most often to non-violent protestations. In many cases the laws were repealed, but they were followed by new laws equally objectionable to the colonists. During the decade leading up to the American Revolution and throughout the years of warfare, an ideology emerged that defined political representation as a fundamental right of the citizen. This was not a new ideology, but one that became well-articulated during the numerous debates of the revolutionary period. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the notion of a government “of the people” was becoming firmly planted in the American psyche. The Preamble stated, “We the people” rather than “We the states”. The new nation was formed with the people being the highest political unit rather than the states. In 1863, during a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he reiterated that the nation was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The American Civil War tested the strength of the constitution and the union it had created. However, it also highlighted that even after more than half century, the ideology that had declared the equality of man and the right to political representation had not become a universal reality in the United States and its territories. It would not be until the twentieth century that all U.S. citizens would gain the right to vote, and the protection to vote without constraint due to the lack of property or social standing.

The American Revolution had not been fought with the intent to change the social dynamics of the people, but the ideology that was established through decades of debate both before and immediately after the Revolution would eventually lead to social change. In the United States this social change was slow, sometimes terribly slow and with human suffering the consequence, but with slow change came stability. While many revolutions would follow in the footsteps of the American Revolution, few of the political entities formed from those revolutions witnessed the longevity and stability of that the United States with its slow and never-ending process of ensuring “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its people.

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.