Liberty, the Eternal Demand of Reactionary Privilege

The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in the declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

“British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of A Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—“these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.”14 John Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this very paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

Notes:

  • 14. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 89-90; Samuel Johnson, Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 454; last quote from David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 212.
  • 15. John Lind, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (London, 1776), 107, quoted in Wills, Inventing America, 73.

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