American History I

Response sheet 12, for class, Thursday

1.  The end of the American War of Independence did not bring about an end to contests over social worth in American cultural politics.  Like race and gender, so was religion important, given the increasingly diverse religious environment in the young United States.  What arguments did these Philadelphia Jews make to justify their worth in American society?

2.  Why did Jefferson dislike slavery?  Why did he dislike manufacturing?  What was the connection he made between the habits of ordinary people, and the fate of the nation?  (This might remind you of an earlier document by John Adams.)

3.  Why did Rush believe that the War of American Independence was the easy part and just the starting point of what he wished to be an American revolution.  What was still left to do?  Who was supposed to do it?  (In other words, who was deemed to have worth in American society?)

Despite the long tragic history of racism in the United States, slavery was not really taught as a topic in American history until starting in the 1970s.  And despite the painfully extensive and deep-seated racism that afflicts American society today, there are still people who think slavery should be omitted from American history because it is somehow less important than other subjects, as if those other subjects can somehow be separated from the history of slavery.

In 1975 a pioneering history book was published with the pithy title American Slavery, American Freedom.  It was written in the spirit of confronting slavery as a way to end racism, instead of omitting slavery as a way to continue racism.  Ever since this book was published the intertwined relationship between freedom and slavery has been considered (by non- or anti-racist education, anyway) a central paradox of American history.  Given the centrality of slavery to American life for two hundred years, half before and half after the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, it was long impossible in America to separate the concept of freedom from the concept of slavery.  (I say “for an American” but other countries certainly have their own ugly histories and realities of racism and unfreedom.)  The so-called “Founding Fathers” formulated and articulated notions of “freedom” even as they were committed to slavery.  How does one explain that awful contradiction?  This is exactly one of many reasons why we must study the time period before 1776, because the “Founding Fathers” were unable to change central elements of colonial life — and we in the modern day have inherited the legacy of both their successes as well as their failures.  What the “Founding Fathers” were unable to do, subsequent generations still must do.  Indeed, much still remains for my generation and especially for your generation to do, toward ideals of freedom and justice.

4.  So, what did/does “freedom” mean when a significant portion of people in one’s society was unfree?  How is it possible for “freedom” to be only partial?  If some people are not free, doesn’t that mean that the principle of “freedom” is not truly safe, but can be taken away from more people simply through the exertion of power, because the principle of “freedom” is hollow?  Doesn’t that turn “freedom” into just a prettified word for inequality?  (In other words, how do we turn partial supposed “freedom” into true “freedom”?)

5.  In other words, can you fight for your own “rights” without at the same time fighting for the “rights” of others?  Otherwise, isn’t “rights” just another prettified word for privileges?  (In other words, how do we turn hollow “rights” into true “rights”?)