Image via: Icons of Liberty: Emancipation Proclamation. Alexander and Moritz Kann, Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Chromolithograph, 23 x 28 1/2. Library of Congress, Washington. This chromolithograph shows a classical allegory presided over by America with an American eagle by her side, witnessing George Washington crowning Abraham Lincoln with a halo as the Founding Fathers look on.
Like the crack in the Liberty Bell, or the shackles that bind the feet of Lady Liberty, the story of our quest for liberty in America is full of paradox, contradiction and complexity.
Stories unearthed in recent decades at the President’s House site in Historic Philadelphia, and at Cliveden of the National Trust in Historic Germantown reveal complex issues that present excellent opportunities to discuss what’s being called difficult knowledge. The slave quarters unearthed at the President’s House site lie near the foot of the pavilion which houses the Liberty Bell. Documents discovered at Cliveden, residence of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew and site of the Battle of Germantown, disclose that the Chew family owned at least 400 enslaved Africans.
In my performance of Liberty Bound, I tell the stories of founding fathers and patriots who sought to constrain the liberty of others; even as they cried out for their own. There are stories, as well, of men and women who, deprived of liberty, nevertheless, remained determined to exercise some degree of agency in their lives.
Newly exposed artifacts, documents and anecdotes challenge historical misconceptions about the abolitionist north, the apotheosis of the founding fathers, and the image of the lowly Negro, and loyal slave. There are stories coming to light all over the country which provide opportunities for truth and reconciliation about America’s past. And, more resources have become available to help us re-examine and discuss the ideals of liberty and freedom in terms of race, class and gender inequities, and other injustices that persist today.
Liberty may not be the perfect vessel depicted in the allegory above. Nor, need it be. For it is in continually striving for its ideal that liberty is won. In other words, Freedom’s in da’ tryin.’
Reflections on liberty
In the following sections, I offer a glimpse into my own thoughts on some of the ideas that seem relevant to the discussion, a collection of resources for research, education, and community conversations, and links to further explore these topics at your leisure.
“Understanding what really happened to [America’s First Peoples] in 1492 is key to understanding why people suffer the same injustices today.” (Rethinking Columbus)
Here’s an excellent resource: Judith Nies, Native American History. A chronology of a culture’s vast achievements and their links to world events (NY: Ballantine, 1996).
We pledge allegiance
All our lives
To the magic colors
Red, blue and white
But we all must be given
The liberty that we defend
For with justice not for all men
History will repeat again
It’s time we learned
This World Was Made For All Men [and Women]
~ Stevie Wonder. “Black Man.’ Songs In the Key of Life: Vol. 1 & 2. Los Angeles: Motown Record Company, 1976.
When I look at allegorical representations of America (such as the illustration above), I can almost hear a chorus of angels singing “God Bless America,” complete with rolling thunder. Nell Shaw Cohen was so inspired by Thomas Coles’ series of allegorical paintings depicting the rise and fall of civilizations that he composed a string quartet. Beyond the Notes has created an interesting multimedia resource exploring the artistic, historical, intellectual and ideological contexts behind The Course of Empire by great American Landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848).
Musings on Lady Liberty
In the completed statue the shackle, which Liberty symbolically has broken, lies in front of her right foot. The shackle chain disappears beneath the draperies and reappears in front of her left foot. (nps.gov)
- Origins: The Female Form as Allegory
- The Statue of Liberty and Abolition
- The Missing Link: The Statue of Liberty and African Americans
- The Black Statue of Liberty Rumor – Summary Report
- Snopes: Statue of Liberty Fact Check
The Liberty Bell
Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.
~Lev. XXV X. Inscription on the Liberty Bell
History of the Liberty Bell – How the Old State House bell came to be known as the “Liberty Bell”
English writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” a moving but tragic love story, was published in the 1848 volume of The Liberty Bell by Friends of Freedom as an attack against a slave-owning society.
Land of the Free, Home of the Slave
Not all of the founding fathers actually lived by the lofty ideals they espoused. For all their talk of liberty, many owned enslaved Africans, including William Penn, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Over half of the signers of the Declaration of independence owned slaves.
In defense of the Tea Party; they weren’t all bad.
Freedom by Degrees
Slavery was the buzzard pecking at the liver of the Constitution, and its shadow, like a dark virus, infected everything it touched.
It is, therefore, a metaphor for every question of unfairnessand every question of servitude.
~ Stanley Crouch (Liner Notes WHOSE BLOOD, WHOSE FIELDS?)
Emancipation Proclamation/Gradual Abolition Act/Fugitive Laws/ Peonage/Black Codes/Lynch Laws/Prison-industrial Complex
George Washington Williams, author of History of the Negro in American from 1619 to 1880, understood the centrality of the government and used its published records to condemn it for maintaining slavery. (Walter B. Hill, Jr., 2000)
The Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, proclaiming that “all men are created equal” and endowed with “certain unalienable Rights.” It was drafted largely by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner. The Declaration, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of 1787 all essentially ignored slavery, Native Americans and women.
The Emancipation Proclamation was conditional…
Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves” were to be “forever free,” provided that they were held “in regions under Confederate control.”
Apparently, Lincoln wasn’t exactly thrilled to be known as “the Great Emancipator.”
- Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, by Steve Coates (New York Times. October 29, 2010)
Let’s understand, the institution of slavery was a “Necessary Evil”.
The United States government’s support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million. (Howard Zinn)
Millions of pounds of cotton, largely produced by slave labor in the American South, were used every year to manufacture cloth in Northern textile mills.
On Feb. 1, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, freeing all slaves in the nation and in any area subject to its jurisdiction. Lincoln did not live to see the amendment formally ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865. (Scheel)
From: Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, b. 1816, Documenting the American South (DocSouth) © This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
Today, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate and total prison population in the world.
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon
The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Liberty for All?
The Reconstruction Amendments, by no means, meant the end of discrimination, exclusion or exploitation of various groups in America. Just think of the Chinese exclusion Act (1882), the Indian Assimilation and Civilization policy (1876), the Japanese-American internment camps (1942), current immigration policies, and the movement to ban same-sex marriage; the list goes on. Women did not obtain the right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1920 and all Native Americans did not become citizens until 1924.
All nations have been complicit in the slave trade, and a multitude of other atrocities, up to the present time. But because America is founded on such lofty ideals, we are held to the highest standard of responsibility to ensure these freedoms for all her citizens. Furthermore, our freedom has been won, and must be maintained, by individual citizens, public servants or not, taking responsibility for the actions and conditions of our nation.
One way we can do this is to acknowledge and honor the spirit of resistance and rebellion of the freedom fighters against slavery. By acts large and small, enslaved peoples, free people of color, and many whites agitated, escaped, resisted, and rebelled to break the back of the “necessary” institution of slavery.
So, celebrate your independence, but guard it diligently, and wrest it for those who have it not.
This series, Liberty Bound, commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 2013. Future installments will cover:
Freedom’s in ‘da Tryin’: The Spirit of Resistance
Lowly Negro, Loyal Slave
Uncle Tom vs. Dred
The plantation in allegory
Germantown: Freedom’s backyard/Slavery’s backdoor
New Images of Freedom
Work to Do – Resources:
Oration, Conversation, Education
- The Meaning of July Fourth for a Negro: 6/11/2009 Frederick Douglass’ 1852, 5th of July speech: What to the slave is the 4th of July? delivered by actor Fred Morsell.
- MP3: Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America Listen to Christian Parenti (2001) , author of Lockdown America: Police And Prisons in the Age of Crisis, speak about the thirty year explosion in prisons in the United States. Rough transcript.
- Confronting the Contradictions of America’s Past June 29, 2012
Bill Moyer and Khalil Gibran Muhammad discuss what we should learn from our racial past to better understand the present. (Thanks to Ken Derstein for recommending this on The Notebook.)
- The Apotheosis of Washington. The story of history can be heard and seen in the fine arts.
- Quakers & Reparations (Friends Journal)
- Harriet Beecher Stowe. Dred. A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Full Text, 1st edition, 1856: Volume I; Volume II; at the Documenting the American South web site of the University Library, UNC at Chapel Hill.
- Eugene Scheel, For Some Slaves, Path to Freedom Was Far From Clear-Cut
- The price of freedom – Haitian revolution
- Robert Morris: America’s Founding Capitalist
- More Judith Nies: The Girl I Left Behind: A Narrative History of the Sixties. A Must Read Political History For Our Times
- The Birth of Sedition (informationliberation.com)