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History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: independence

Pursuing Happiness: Whose American Revolution?

Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words that established an independent United States. It is these values that many continue to point to as essential to the nature of the country—the promise of existence as human, the assurance of freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue wellness. They are supreme ideals, a foundation of justice and equality upon which to build a society. But, the idea that these rights should extend to all humans is relatively new to U.S. history—the founding fathers did not intend for the full extension of the Declaration of Independence to colonial women, native peoples, or enslaved or free people of African descent.

In fact, in July 1852, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and orator, called attention to the fact that people of African descent continued to be denied the rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. By continuing slavery, the U.S. government did not merely fail to deliver the basic rights to enslaved people, it actively prevented these people from being able to obtain life, liberty, or wellness.  “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” said Douglass. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

[A transcription of the speech can be found here.]

Truly, independence did not belong to all people. It certainly did not belong to all people in the former colonies in 1783. The peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and acknowledged the autonomy of the colonists also ignored land rights of native peoples (allowing them to be seen as “foreign nations” by the new U.S. government) and characterized black people as property. The new nation did not affirm the liberty of women of any race or ethnicity.

In fact, the Revolution itself, which we often view as an inevitable and logical response to the tyranny of British government, did not belong to all people in North America either. The common focus on the words of Jefferson and Paine, the idealistic commitment in action of Paul Revere and George Washington, and the engagement of crowds to fight British taxation often belies that “pursuit of happiness” in the colonies did not always take the form of allegiance to the patriots.

Some notable members of the "Sons of Liberty," a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence.

Notable members of the “Sons of Liberty,” a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

For many white colonists, objection to taxation without representation did not necessitate a desire for independence. Many, attached to their British identity and the safety of being part of a larger British empire in the face of competition from the French for land, fought as loyalists. Even some of those who fought with the patriots in Quebec, Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord did so hoping to gain better representation in Parliament or autonomy over colonial finance rather than a complete break from Britain.

For enslaved people, forms of government or taxation were largely irrelevant. Freedom from tyranny meant freedom from the bonds of slavery. Enslaved people selected their alliances based on who they believed would deliver this liberty. Some fought for the patriots, hoping that this would earn them the loyalty of a new government if independence were to occur. Others fought for the British, expecting that their service would be exchanged for freedom by a British government whose politics seemed to be drifting towards the prospect of abolition.

For native peoples, alliance-building was also a gamble. For native nations that aligned themselves with the patriots, promises of fuller autonomy after independence were key. For those aligned with the British, there was a reliance on a stronger hand from the metropole, which had typically restricted colonists’ expansion and the movement of the frontier.

Thinking beyond the patriotic language of the Sons of Liberty, we are forced to ask many more questions about American Independence. Whose Revolution was this? What was rebellion really about? What did “liberty” mean to different people in the colonies? How do we explain those who were “patriotic” to something other than the ideals of the patriots? How does this diversity of identity, political opinion, and economic interest help us understand the United States today?

These questions have profound importance for understanding the past and the future of the United States. Acknowledging that independence in the eighteenth century was incomplete helps show the reality of the United States being a continued work in progress. Freeing the country from the illusion that the pinnacle of justice and liberty was situated hundreds of years ago empowers learners to consider what the national goal should be, which of the principles of independence and revolution still need to be attained, and what we can learn from both the successes and limitations of the past. Examining how people in the revolutionary era made choices helps learners grapple with the options they face today.

 

Keep a look out for the new Choices curriculum unit, The American Revolution: Experiences of Rebellion, coming in 2016!
The unit considers how the varied populations of seventeenth and eighteenth century North America experienced and viewed colonization and revolution, encouraging students to step into the shoes of people in 1776 to debate the future of the thirteen colonies.
Watch our home page for the release of this unit.

More on Frederick Douglass’s speech.
More on black loyalists.

Scotland votes on independence

On Thursday, the population of Scotland will be voting in a referendum to decide on whether the nation will secede from the United Kingdom. “Should Scotland be an independent country?” says the ballot paper, and until recently it has seemed that the answer would be an inevitable “no”. However, the pro-independence “Yes” campaign has led an impressive grassroots effort to incite the optimism of the Scottish people, leading to a recent poll placing them ahead of the “No” or “Better Together” campaign.

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Indeed Scotland’s is a unique independence movement, relying not on traditional nationalist ideology or the heroism of overcoming an oppressor, but rather claiming that an independent Scottish government can do more for it’s people than the elected Scottish representatives in a British government. The “Yes” campaign is about not having to share oil revenue from the North Sea with the rest of Britain, being able to define policy without the involvement of those south of the Scottish border, and not having to put up with a government that is seen as not representing the interests of the Scottish people (Scotland tends to disproportionately vote for the Labour party, while the more populous England tends to vote in preference of the Conservative government in place in Westminster now).

The “No” campaign, on the other hand, hails pragmatic caution. It points to the problems with currency (while an independent Scotland may keep using the British pound, it seems that they would not have a seat at the table that decides on monetary policy and determines the value of the currency). Furthermore, should Scotland gain independence it would have to re-apply for its membership in the European Union—a membership that is very important for trade and economic development. It is not clear whether Scotland would regain this membership easily, or what agreements it would have to make to achieve this. Even the North Sea oil (what will be the pivot of an independent Scottish economy) has turned out to be less appealing, with technical experts pointing out that reserves are quickly diminishing and that the oil cannot be relied upon to prop up an entire country. With this economic insecurity, banks and businesses have threatened to move south should the referendum end in a “Yes.”

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by Guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

One of the reasons that the “Yes” campaign and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are such a unique independence movement is because Scotland is not a colony. The Scottish people are not oppressed or overpowered by an imperialist power. They have a democratic stake in the British government, and they are treated as equal citizens. We can contrast this with the colonies in Africa, who were not fighting only for independence and the right to govern themselves but also for the overthrowing of a racialized system that established Africans as lesser beings. In the Choices unit Colonization and Independence in Africa, case studies on colonies and how they gained independence highlight this racism. In one of the primary sources used in the unit, a Ghanaian journalist points out that an aim of British colonial policy was “to suppress the educated African who is too articulate to be convenient to British repression.”

Even the independence movement in the United States, which did not have the same racial elements, compares unsatisfactorily to the Scottish issue. A More Perfect Union: American Independence and the Constitution considers how the American revolution grew out of discontent over the influence of the British Parliament in the colonies. As they became increasingly frustrated by the distance between them and Parliament, “colonists began to ask if they were obligated to obey laws passed without their consent.” When the Britain tightened its control over expansion in the colonies, imposed taxes, and enforced a staunch anti-smuggling regime, this anger turned into vast resistance of British controls. It is a fun oversimplification to say that the American Revolution was caused by taxes, but it is more realistic to argue that these taxes represented an oppressive British regime that was in no way accountable to the colonists and was out of touch with the situation in the colonies. This was the source of rebellion.

Realizing the differences between the Scottish “Yes” campaign and other independence movements makes the question of Scottish secession from the Union all the more complicated. It brings up new questions about how we define a country, how we consider the rights to self-determination, how we think about the problems of proportional or representative democracy. Should we keep drawing new borders until people feel appropriately represented by their governments? Where do we stop if we start doing this? How do we understand the roles of international organizations who seem to be a form of global government, if we believe that political decisions can only be made by a tightly localized government? Is there a case for other independence movements that have (like Scotland’s) up until now been dismissed as impractical or unlikely, such as in Texas or Quebec? Do the concerns raised by the Scottish independence movement help us to understand some U.S. modes of governance, such as state government and how the union works?

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

For up-to-date happenings surrounding the Scottish independence referendum as well as in-depth analysis, visit the BBC’s Scotland Decides page or Al Jazeera’s Scotland page.

Other interesting articles include Something extraordinary is happening in Scotland (from the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog) and Fate of United Kingdom hangs in balance after new Scotland polls (from South African paper, The Mail & Guardian).

 

More Choices units that deal with the theme of self-determination:

 

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