For me, history, the study of it and the making of it, has been an essential part of life.
Growing up in the underground of the poor black community, reading became my salvation, and reading about great historical developments, as well as hearing the soul stirring voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, was my inspiration.
I remember the first black history class I took in college and the professor asking the students why they had chosen the course, I said I wanted to understand why my relatives lived in the projects and how it was that the black community came to be in its current condition.
In History Guides for Today’s Reformers, I intend to explore history as a useful tool for the American people and political reformers in our efforts to free the country from the partisan dysfunction and division which is killing the promise of American democracy.
The question before us is: Can we revitalize the real historical movement of our country, to put us back on the path of democracy, a democracy of, by and for the people.
I begin at the beginning with the founding of America.
POLITICAL REFORMERS AT THE FOUNDING OF AMERICA
In the early years of the American Republic there were reformers whose vision united the American Revolution with the fight to abolish slavery. In March of 1775 an essay, African Slavery in America appeared in the newspaper The Pennsylvania Journal, in which the anonymous author, who some historians thought was Thomas Paine, condemned slavery and called out the indecency and moral inconsistency of the colonists seeking their own liberty while enslaving Africans.
In the years leading up to 1776 African Americans delivered numerous petitions to Colonial legislatures in which they argued for the abolition of slavery to be a central goal of the War for Independence, as noted by the historian Paul Ortiz in his book, An African American and Latinx History of the United States.
Lemuel Haynes, a free Black man and Revolutionary War soldier who was among the Patriots defending Lexington from the British, challenged the Continental Congress to extend liberty to include African Americans and to make the American Revolution a war against slavery.
In the fall of 1776 Haynes wrote “Liberty Further Extended…” a document in which after quoting the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence he states, “ .. I query whether Liberty is so contracted a principle as to be confined to any nation under Heaven; nay, I think it not hyperbolical to affirm, that Even an African, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen.”
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS
The American Revolution occurred during the same historical period as revolutions in other countries such as Haiti and France. A regiment of soldiers of African descent from Haiti who voluntarily joined the French colonial forces fought alongside the Continental army at Savannah, Georgia in 1799 and at other battles. African American slaves attempted rebellions against slavery that were inspired by the American, French and Haitian revolutions.
In 1800 a planned slave rebellion in Virginia led by Gabriel Prosser was discovered and the conspirators hung, one such rebel on trial prior to his execution proudly declared “I have nothing more to say in my defense than what George Washington would have had to offer had he been taken and put to trial. I have ventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and I am a willing sacrifice in their cause.”
A CONSTITUTION BREAKTHROUGH and CRITICAL CASE
Though the anti-slavery petition of African Americans in Boston was turned down in 1773, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts completed its state Constitution in 1780 it stated, echoing the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.”
John Ashley, a prominent supporter of the American Revolution and owner of slaves, was one of whom was known as Mum Bett, she later became Elizabeth Freeman. She overheard conversations in the Ashley household about liberty, independence and the new Constitution giving equal rights to all. After sustaining an injury while protecting her sister from a fiery, hot kitchen shovel wielded by Mrs. Ashley, Mum Bett decided to fight for freedom. With the assistance of an abolitionist attorney, Theodore Sedgwick, who argued her case and that of another slave before the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas, she won her freedom in 1781 and helped to end slavery in the state.
Due to this case and similar cases the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that laws and customs that sanctioned slavery were incompatible with the new state Constitution, effectively abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. The profound monumental tragedy of American history is that no similar ruling occurred at the federal level.
Despite the ominous compromises that accommodated slavery in the United States Constitution, anti-slavery organizers continued to petition Congress to “take such measures .. for promoting the abolition of slavery, and discouraging every aspect of traffic in slaves.” This petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was signed by Benjamin Franklin and argued that “…both slavery and the slave trade were incompatible with the values for which the American Revolution had been fought,..” (from Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis).
SLAVERY WAS KEY IN THE FORMATION OF TWO POLITICAL PARTIES
These early American reformers were challenging the formidable structures of party control which had already come to define and circumscribe American politics.
Even though George Washington argued against the formation of political party factions in the early American Republic, political parties began to dominate. The two party split at the time was between the Federalists of Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and the Anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson. James Madison, whose strategic compromises always protected slavery; in the formation of the Constitution argued as a strong Federalist but soon after joined Jefferson in leading the Anti-Federalists. As Madison noted slavery was the underlying issue that divided the states, “…the states were divided into different interests not by their ..size..but principally from their having or not having slaves.”
During the following decades the Anti-Federalists became the Democratic Party, which was pro-slavery and the Federalists morphed into the American Whig Party which during the years before the Civil War was supplanted by the Republican Party.
REFORM MUST COME OUTSIDE THE POLITICAL PARTIES
The expansion of representative democracy largely came about through persistent organizing by those the parties excluded: women, the poor, Indians, African Americans, Latino Americans and others. While the story of American democracy is full of lofty examples of progress, such forward movement has always been accompanied by the various movements from anti-slavery to the movements for civil and voting rights, becoming institutionalized within the political party framework. Learning from the past, today’s reformers must seek to create new capabilities for innovative reforms outside the political parties and new forms of political expression, participation and power. In other words as the great freedom fighter Harriet Tubman might say, we must look to escape to the light of full emancipation for all.
We face a similar challenge today as those reformers at the founding of the country, that is how to unite the freedom struggle for civil and voting rights with today’s movement for systemic political reform, building such a fusion is contingent on reaching out to every community including standing with the disenfranchised and disinherited of America, the poor, communities of color and independents. Together we can truly make history, my appeal is for you to join me in this work. You can reach me at [email protected].
Dr. Jessie Fields is a community organizer and political independent, Board member and National Spokesperson for Open Primaries, a national election reform organization.