To Be Born on the Fourth of July

Why America needed a second revolution
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There's a lot to think about today. There is the revolutionary birth of our country. There is the apex of a a second revolution which birthed us anew. And in the world around us, there are still more revolutions in the offing. At such a time, it really is a pleasure for me to bring you this short essay by historian W. Caleb McDaniel, derived from his book -- The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery. I think we are all familiar with Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. But McDaniel reminds us that there was a time in America when the possibility that democracy would "perish from the earth" was very real. This is the strength of the McDaniel piece -- the Confederate rebellion was not incidentally pro-slavery and anti-democratic (it was both), but anti-democratic because it was pro-slavery.

On July 4, 1854, at a grove in Framingham, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison held up a copy of the Constitution, labeled it a compromise with tyranny, and burned it to ash. He then invited the abolitionist audience to join him by shouting "Amen."

Ever since that Fourth of July, Garrison has been remembered primarily for his rejection of the Constitution, a document he once said was dripping with human blood. Look more closely however, and you'll find more complicated, even patriotic, Garrison.

In fact, before he started setting paper on fire, Garrison delivered a less well-known speech that praised the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution as models for the world. He even began the day by declaring that the first Fourth of July was "the greatest political event in the annals of time." It had created a charter of inalienable rights that, if enforced, would mean the "eternal dethronement" of all tyrants everywhere and the "redemption of the world."

In an 1824 speech he described the American Revolution as "the splendid, immaculate guide,---to all other nations, in their career after freedom." Around the same time, Garrison advised recent revolutionaries in South America to use the United States as their "model."

Garrison never really stopped believing that the United States should be a "guide" to other nations--but a proslavery Constitution compromised such guidance. As Garrison said at Framingham in 1854, "we have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands." The result was that "instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom" abroad, Americans had hindered the spread of their democratic ideals.

Abraham Lincoln would not have applauded Garrison's actions, but he often echoed him. Because of slavery, Lincoln said, "our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust," leaving the world without an untarnished example of "spirit of '76." To prove the danger, Lincoln quoted from a recent London newspaper which expressed "apprehension" that slavery was "fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw" and thus undermining "the liberal party throughout the world."

The idea that American slavery was a threat to American democracy, and thus democracy the world-over, was not an exaggeration in 1854. The future of political liberalism was far from clear, and many in the "liberal party throughout the world" looked to the United States, flawed though it was, as one of the only bastions of democratic politics.

Nothing made democratization in the early America inevitable. It proceeded slowly, with great struggle, at different paces in different states. But by 1855, most states had either minimized or eliminated the property qualifications that previously kept even white adult men from voting. Universal white manhood suffrage had become the reality.

Pure democracy, this was not. Women, slaves, and most free blacks remained disfranchised. Immigrants and industrial wage-workers faced renewed challenges to their voting rights even as universal white manhood suffrage took hold. In particular locales and states, even legally enfranchised voters grew accustomed to serious attacks on their rights. But the extent of voting rights in the United States made the nation seem like a radical democratic experiment, especially in comparison to the political arrangements that prevailed elsewhere in the nineteenth century.

In South America and Haiti, for example, early nineteenth-century revolutions had created undemocratic governments that managed to beat back any calls for the radical expansion of the right to vote. Parts of Europe had inched towards more popular rule, but a few telling numbers show how little progress had been made. In the United Kingdom, which reformed its Parliament in 1832, only around twenty percent of the adult male population could vote. In 1830, the French elevated a new monarch to the throne who promised to be the "People's King." But even then, as historian Mike Rapport notes, "the electorate swelled to include only 170,000 of France's richest men: this was a mere 0.5 per cent of the French population, a sixth of those who enjoyed the vote in Britain after 1832." And even such small electorates did not yet exist to check the rule of monarchs in Europe's other great powers---Prussia, Austria, and Russia.

The most serious challenge to Europe's crowned heads and landed classes came in a series of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848. Democratic European revolutionaries like Mazzini in Italy and Lamartine in France capitalized on the unrest of that year by establishing new republics in Rome and Paris. The tide seemed, for a moment, to be turning towards popular government. But by 1854 Europe's conservative forces had regained their balance, and republican experiments in Italy and France had ended. By the time Garrison rose at Framingham and Lincoln stood at Peoria, the fate of democracy worldwide seemed more fragile than ever, and even more dependent on the survival of the "spirit of '76."

But after 1848 American slavery also seemed---more than ever---like a hindrance to the further spread of that spirit. Revolution and reform in Europe had not brought radical democracy to the continent, but they had, by 1848, abolished colonial slavery in the British and French Caribbean empires. Meanwhile, as the electorate grew in the United States, the American slave population had surged to nearly 4 million. These facts were a source of embarrassment for American abolitionists, of course, but increasingly they were embarrassments for overseas democrats as well, who often heard conservative aristocrats cite American racism and slavery as reasons enough to doubt that majority rule was a good idea.

Many transatlantic liberals expressed their apprehensions about this directly to American abolitionists. As I show in my new book, the "liberal party throughout the world" was not just an abstraction for Garrison; it was a network of antislavery sympathizers and democrats who communicated directly with abolitionists in the United States. In Illinois, Lincoln gathered his perceptions of overseas liberals from the newspapers; Garrison and his allies got theirs directly, and sometimes in person, from Europeans like Mazzini, Victor Hugo, and leading British Chartists who fought for universal manhood suffrage. By the time he burned the Constitution, many of these allies had warned Garrison explicitly that slavery in the United States was materially damaging their causes overseas.

In 1852, for example, the French abolitionist and republican Victor Schoelcher wrote in a Garrisonian publication that it was "an incalculable danger to the democratic idea, both now and hereafter, that the most democratic people existing should be holders of Slaves!" And in 1853, Garrison had shared with another abolitionist audience an address from "the Democrats of England to the Democrats of America" which declared that the abolition of slavery would give the United States "double moral power to reanimate the swooning liberties of Europe." Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary whom Garrison had met personally in 1847, also wrote to his friend that same summer that abolitionism in America and the struggle for the People in Europe were "one single cause."

A long history of such statements set the stage for Garrison's address at Framingham the following year, and before setting the Constitution ablaze, Garrison made sure his audience remembered the situation confronting their faraway friends. Garrison's speech first carefully reviewed the current, depressing state of "the freedom of continental Europe" since 1848. He noted "the perfidious and high-handed usurpation" of Louis Napoleon, who had by then dissolved the Second Republic and declared himself Emperor. And in Austria and Russia, Garrison continued, the people still suffered under "bloody despotism" and "iron autocracy." In the Europe of 1854, it seemed once again that "the reign of tyranny is as absolute as fate, and the extinction of the people complete."

Then, drawing on what he had heard from the "liberal party throughout the world," Garrison declared that Americans had contributed to this sorry situation by trumpeting their own example while brutalizing millions of human beings. The Declaration of Independence should have inspired the overthrow of tyrannies everywhere, Garrison affirmed. But "our flag is red with the blood of our slaves, and marked by their stripes," and those stains had prevented the nation's signature document from doing its work. After surveying European politics, he concluded that "this tells the story of American influence upon the liberties of the world." If Americans' democratic ideals suffered abroad, it was because of imperfections at home.

Here Garrison underlined that being a radical critic of the United States, even one who reproached the Constitution and the flag, did not require giving up on the hope of positive American influence on the world. Garrison did disavow the sort of exceptionalism which led many Americans to believe that the United States could never fall from grace. As early as 1829, he ridiculed the idea that "the republic is immortal; that its flight, like a strong angel's, has been perpetually upward, till it has soared above the impurities of earth ... and, having attained perfection, is forever out of the reach of circumstance and change." But Garrison did believe, like Lincoln, that this corruptible and imperfect republic could be improved and could, eventually, fulfill its high calling as an example to other nations of government of, by, and for the people.

To borrow a term used in slightly different ways by historians Timothy Mason Roberts and H. W. Brands, the views of Lincoln and Garrison represented variations on the idea of "American exemplarism," instead of the idea of "American exceptionalism." And while subtle, the difference between "exemplarism" and "exceptionalism" had significant implications. For one thing, it meant that Lincoln and Garrison refused to immunize their countrymen from critique. On the contrary, the nation's flaws as a model required thoughtful Americans to begin their improvement of the world at home, to prefer humility to hubris, to balance patriotism with cosmopolitan concern, and to focus less on making the world safe for democracy and more on making democracy safe for the world.

This was not, then or now, an easy position to maintain. Burning the Constitution without spurning the Declaration was a difficult balancing act, and it often left abolitionists struggling to make the same, complex assessments of the American experiment familiar to readers of this blog. If, as an earlier post here put it, "the challenge for someone trying to assess America, at this moment, is properly calibrating how far we've gone with how far we have to go," this was the challenge for Garrison and Lincoln in their moment, too. Peer past the fire and smoke of Garrison's most iconic gesture and it's possible to glimpse a figure whose dilemmas are still relevant today, on another sweltering and polarized Fourth of July.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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