by John M. Howting
Days before the Fourth of July, Colin Kaepernick expressed his discontent with Nike’s new Betsy Ross Flag shoes because, he claimed, the flag represents the thirteen colonies which stood for slavery. A few of the Democratic presidential hopefuls voiced their agreement with Kaepernick.
Then, the Charlottesville, Va., City Council voted to cease recognizing and celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as an official holiday. Around this same time, the San Francisco school board voted to paint over an 84-year-old, 1,600-foot-long mural depicting the life of George Washington at local George Washington High School. Something has changed.
The American Founders find themselves in the summer of 2019 where Confederate generals were in the summer of 2017 — on the chopping block. And, the American struggle for independence of the late 18th century is being recast to more closely resemble the Southern struggle for independence of the mid 19th.
But was the American War for Independence fought over slavery? This warrants examination.
Shortly after “the shot heard around the world” was fired in 1775, the loyalist John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and sitting Governor of Virginia, issued an emancipation proclamation which promised freedom and protection to any of the rebel’s slaves who took up arms for Great Britain. The Continental Congress immediately urged Virginia to resist “Dunmore’s Proclamation” (as it was called). A few weeks later, Dunmore’s Proclamation was listed by Thomas Jefferson as a grievance against the crown in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Imagine that: the Declaration of Independence almost listed “the king is trying to enlist our slaves” as one reason the colonists desired independence.
In June of 1779, loyalist Sir Henry Clinton of New York issued the Philipsburg Proclamation, which expanded Dunmore’s Proclamation to include all slaves in the colonies regardless of whether they fought. Around 5,000 slaves took the British up on the offer and left their rebel “masters.” After the war’s end, Britain sent 3,000 of these “black loyalists” to Nova Scotia which angered many colonists, including George Washington who demanded Britain return the slaves.
President Lincoln used this same tactic during the Civil War when he issued his own emancipation proclamation. Britain made abolition of slavery a war aim during the revolutionary war just as Lincoln made it a war aim during the Civil War. Britain accused the colonies of seceding in order to protect slavery, just as Lincoln accused the South. However, we tend to associate only the Southern cause with slavery and oppression (even though slavery was practiced in New Jersey till 1865).
What’s more, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies in 1776 when they declared their independence and when Betsy Ross wove that 13-star flag. If the colonies had stayed with Great Britain, slavery would have been abolished, without a bloody civil war, in 1833 under the British Emancipation Act (22 years before the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in America).
Are these the reasons so many Americans are ready to toss the Founders onto the ash heap of history? Who knows?
I do not intend to attribute motives. Nor do I intend to mount a defense of Kaepernick’s shoe outrage. I only want to point out that the chronological snobbery which drove men to topple statues of Robert E. Lee will not stop at confederate monuments. Lee comes down today, but next up may be his father “Light Horse” Harry Lee who fought next to George Washington. Then, Harry’s cousin Richard Henry Lee, author of the first resolution in the Continental Congress absolving the colonies from any allegiance to the British crown, will have to come down. Even Bruce Lee will eventually have to be toppled because of his surname and the “toxic masculinity” on display in his films (besides, what did he ever do for transgender rights?).
Lee family friend, George Washington will, of course, have to come down. Thomas Jefferson (a slave owner) will surely have to come down. John Adams too, for even though he opposed slavery he dismissed the concept of human equality (a mortal sin by present standards). And even Abraham Lincoln will have to come down, as his views on race (and tariffs) are wholly unacceptable by today’s standards. Within a couple of decades, even Republicans will dismiss ole Abe. (“The Party of Dan Quayle” sounds so much more inspiring than “the Party of Lincoln” anyway.)
Before long, no man will be allowed to honor his patrimony but will be required to renounce it. Our cultural vanguards, like Colin Kaepernick, embrace presentism over piety. And, they will always have a past which they can decry for not living up to present standards. The 13-star flag is on the chopping block today, but the 50-star flag will be there tomorrow. Bottom line: this will never end.