Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Happy 4th of July, Amexit Day

It’s that time of year again, when we congratulate our transatlantic cousins on winning their freedom from the tyranny that a government in Westminster was inflicting on them.

Why, an American friend visiting London even found a poster celebrating the connection between that event and one much more recent: 

A fine sentiment. 
A delightful parallel, though perhaps not an entirely accurate one. Back then Americans were exiting Britain, rather than Britain exiting anywhere. It was really more of an Amexit. They did it to get away from control by Westminster. Today’s Englishmen, on the other hand, voted in their wisdom for Brexit, ostensibly to strengthen Westminster’s control. With growth halted and living standards falling, they may soon realise that such control is, in practice, as uncomfortable to them as it was to those American Englishmen 241 years ago.

For Englishmen they were. Champions of English rights. None more so than Thomas Jefferson, who drafted that Declaration of Independence for which we’re celebrating the anniversary today.

Earlier he had written A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Let’s stress that British. In the document he reminded British King George III that:

...our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe 

There they enjoyed rights derived from their “their Saxon ancestors”, which by transmission they continued to uphold in America. Here he showed scant regard to the sometimes contradictory rights of the people who already lived there, but then he spared scarcely a thought for the liberties of Native Americans: no one, on either side, ever did.

The rebels were also wonderfully English in the glorious ways they found to reconcile incompatible views. You’ll understand that I’m trying to avoid the word “hypocrisy” here. The Declaration of Independence is long on inalienable rights and equality of creation, assuring us of the belief 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

The document is, however, strikingly short on the rights of black people.

To be fair, Jefferson did want to denounce slavery. Among many other charges, his first draft claimed of the King that:

...he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither

Jefferson’s colleagues thought that was perhaps too much of a good thing, as they founded a nation based on human rights including the right to own other humans. So they struck out this passage.

It’s also a tad ironic that Jefferson himself had slaves, fathering several children on one of them. And talking about people capable of bearing children, women were wholly absent from the process of declaring independence. Now that’s the kind of commitment to universal rights which would have struck a chord in England too.

Still, as far as it went, the Declaration of Independence was an extraordinary document. It lit a beacon that has stayed alight to this day. Indeed, many of its points are as topical now as they were back then. Take its charge against the King concerning judges:

...he has made our judges dependant on his will alone...

The Executive trying to impose its authority on the judiciary? That’s certainly the hallmark of tyranny. But isn’t that just what the Donald would like to do?

Sometimes I can’t help feeling that in George III the American people had a ruler as bad but no worse than the one they’ve elected now. July the fourth: is it slightly a celebration of leaping from the frying pan into the fire?

Or to put it another way, misquoting that excellent film Brassed Off, if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.

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