Saturday, February 9, 2019

Slave-turned-Poet, Phillis Wheatley

On Virtue 
By: Phillis Wheatley 

O' Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive 
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare 
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach. 
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt 
Thine height t' explore, or fathom thy profound. 
But, O my soul, sink not into despair, 
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand 
Would now embrace thee, hovers o'er thine head. 
Fain would the heav'n-born soul with her converse, 
Then seek, then court her for her promis'd bliss. 

Auspicious queen, thine heav'nly pinions spread, 
And lead celestial Chastity along; 
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends, 
Array'd in glory from the orbs above. 
Attend me, Virtue, thro' my youthful years! 
O leave me not to the false joys of time! 
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss. 
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee, 
To give me an higher appellation still, 
 Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay, 
 O thou, enthron'd with Cherubs in the realms of day. 

"Slave-turned-poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) was enslaved and sold when she was 7 or 8 (her exact birth year is unknown). [She was] named after “The Phillis,” the ship that took her to Boston in 1761. Her owner, John Wheatley, a progressive for the time, saw that Wheatley was bright and encouraged her education. By age 14, Wheatley had written her first poem. In 1770, Wheatley wrote an elegy for the deceased Reverend George Whitefield, which became published throughout New England. Her young age, her sex, her heritage, and the short amount of time she had lived in the English-speaking world all contributed to her renown in her readers’ eyes.

Without any formal education, she not only learned English but excelled at the art of the language in a remarkably short amount of time. Wheatley’s growing fame, in combination with her poor health, led the Wheatley family to send her to London, where, at age 20, she published her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Shortly after being published, Wheatley was emancipated from her slave owners. She married John Peters a few years after.

But neither her literary success nor her marriage were able to bring her out of poverty. Her frailty due to continued illness, combined with the financial challenges of the Revolutionary War, prevented her from ever publishing her second book of poems. In 1784, Wheatley lost her husband to debtors’ prison, and all three of her children died infancy. Phillis Wheatley herself died on December 9, 1784."

University of Massachusetts Boston's Wheatley Hall was named after her in 1985. Image above is of a painting that hangs in the hall.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Iron Glove of Tyranny

       The primary justification for the American Revolution was that it was a rebellion against tyranny.  The American colonists believed that it was not only their right, but also their duty, to overthrow the British monarchy, which they felt had engaged in both civil and religious tyranny, or despotism. As Thomas Jefferson penned in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. In the writings of Locke and Sidney, among others, the signers of the Declaration, and the Patriots of 1776, found their political principles and “self-evident” truths, confirming that the fight for the cause of liberty and self-government was not only justified, but worth their blood.

       John Locke (1632-1704) was an Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, political operative, economist and ideologue for a revolutionary movement, as well as being one of the great philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Recognized as a primary source for the political theory of natural rights behind the Declaration, Locke defined tyranny in his “Essay Concerning the True, Original, Extent and End of Civil-Government”[1]:

"Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to." (Chapter 18, sec. 199).

"[Tyranny is] ... when the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion." (Chapter 18, sec. 199)

"Whenever the power that is put in any hands for the government of the people, and the protection of our properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it; there it presently becomes tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many." (Chapter 18, sec. 201)

"The legislature acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties or fortunes of the people." (Chapter 19, sec. 221)

     When such conditions exist, wrote Locke, the people are justified in exercising their power to resume their original God-given liberty, and establish a new government. He said, “…whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience … [Power then] devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society.  (Chapter 19, sec. 222). However, as Jefferson and his fellow signers agreed, Locke states that “such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected . . . (Ch. 19, sec. 225))(italics show comparative phraseology used in the Declaration).

     Alongside Locke, in the Revolutionary War period, Algernon Sidney was a popular hero and was regarded as the “true martyr of liberty.” His writings were well-known to all of the Founding Fathers, were found with Locke’s two Treatises on Government in colonial libraries, and were generally known to the American public at the time of the revolution.[2]  Published in England over twenty-five years before the revolution, Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government [3] became the Colonists’ second testator or witness to Locke’s line of reasoning regarding tyranny. Sidney wrote:

“Those multitudes that enter into such contracts, and thereupon form civil societies, act according to their own will: Those that are engaged in none, take their authority from the law of nature; their rights cannot be limited or diminished by any one man, or number of men; and consequently whoever does it, or attempts the doing of it, violates the most sacred laws of God and nature.” II:5:81.

“For if the liberty of one man cannot be limited or diminished by one, or any number of men [unless by common justice for crimes], and none can give away the right of another, 'tis plain that the ambition of one man, or of any faction of citizens, or the mutiny of an army, cannot give a right to any over the liberties of a whole nation.” II:5:82.

“They who admit of no participants in power, and acknowledge no rule but their own will, set up an interest in themselves against that of their own people, lose their affections, which is their most important treasure, and incur their hatred, from whence results their greatest danger.” II:30:242.

     However, unlike Locke, Sidney adds an important dimension to the argument, stating that that religion and virtue are the springs of good government, and those leaders who are the “enemy to virtue and religion” are also “an enemy of mankind.”  Sidney writes, "Virtue is the dictate of reason, or the remains of divine light, by which men are made beneficent and beneficial to each other. Religion proceeds from the same spring; and tends to the same end; and the good of mankind so entirely depends upon the two, that no people ever enjoyed anything worth desiring that was not the product of them; and whatsoever any have suffered that [which] deserves to be abhorred and feared, has proceeded either from the defect of these, or the wrath of God against them. If any [leader] therefore has been an enemy to virtue and religion, he must also have been an enemy to mankind, and most especially to the people under him." II:27:212.  

     In this regard, the revolutionary war may be viewed as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society,”[4] as it was a rebellion against financial oppression and excessive taxes.  While the Founders and American colonists were very concerned with their civil liberty and economic freedom, demanding “no taxation without representation,” they were equally (or even more) concerned with their religious liberty, particularly in preserving their rights of individual conscience and public morality.[5]  Historian Edmund Morgan suggests that “the [revolutionary] movement in all its phases, from the resistance against Parliamentary taxation in the 1760’s to the establishment of a national government in the 1790’s … was affected, not to say guided, by a set of values inherited from the age of Puritanism,” which he calls collectively the “Puritan Ethic.”[6] A careful reading of the grievances of the thirteen colonies in the Declaration evidences both economic and political, as well as moral causes for declaring their independence from Great Britain, including including “works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy.”

     Even after the war was concluded, and the Constitution was signed September 17, 1787, the citizens of the several states were still wary of tyranny and of giving the new federal government too much power. One delegate to the Constitutional Debates for Ratification in North Carolina warned about the concession of excessive power to rulers and the risk of tyranny:

“Mr. Chairman, I wonder that these gentlemen, learned in the law, should quibble upon words. I care not whether it be called a compact, agreement, covenant, bargain, or what. Its intent is a concession of power, on the part of the people, to their rulers. We know that private interest governs mankind generally. Power belongs originally to the people; but if rulers be not well guarded, that power may be usurped from themPeople ought to be cautious in giving away power. These gentlemen say there is no occasion for general rules: every one has one for himself. Every one has an unalienable right of thinking for himself. There can be no inconvenience from laying down general rules. If we give away more power than we ought, we put ourselves in the situation of a man who puts on an iron glove, which he can never take off till he breaks his arm. Let us beware of the iron glove of tyranny. Power is generally taken from the people by imposing on their understanding, or by fetters [shackles].” --William Goudy, July 21, 1788.[7] 

May we learn from the lessons of history, the writings of Locke and Sidney, and the Declaration of Independence itself, and “beware of the iron glove of tyranny.”

[1] John Locke, “Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government,” Two Treatises of Government (Awnsham & John Churchill, London, 1698).
[2] Alan Craig Houston, Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 223-278.
[3] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (A. Millar, London, 1751).
[4] Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, Washinton D.C., 1996) p. 142.
[5] See, e.g., Id., Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue; Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner, In Search of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government (Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey, 1987).
[6] Edmund S. Morgan, The Challenge of the American Revolution (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1976), pp. 88-138.
[7] “The Debates in the Several State Conventions, (North Carolina), on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,” Elliot's Debates, Volume 4 (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1891), p. 10.