“The Triumph of Despotism …”

When I wrote my award-winning play The Shackles of Liberty, Donald Trump had not yet risen to power. Even so, I can’t help thinking my play has some relevance to our situation today. What does it mean that America’s cherished ideals of democracy and liberty are under threat by people who profess those very ideals?

Liberty_Tree

Colonists gathered around the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote of a “tree of liberty” that “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” In The Shackles of Liberty, my fictional Jefferson elaborates on this image …

But the branches—how like a multi-headed monster, a vicious hydra with all of its faces at war, one against the other, the terrible faces of Liberty.

These words may sound incongruous coming from the lips of America’s most eloquent advocate of liberty. But my Jefferson is reflecting on the central contradiction of his own life—that his own liberty was built upon the enslavement of others. He’s also contemplating a lurking contradiction in the very idea of freedom …

“Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”

Isaiah Berlin (Rob C. Croes).

Isaiah Berlin (Rob C. Croes).

This old saying was a favorite of the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In his 1958 essay Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin explores the distinction between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is essentially liberty from, the freedom to live one’s life without interference. Positive liberty is liberty to, the freedom of self-determination. As Berlin puts it …

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master.

When Jefferson wrote of our “inalienable” right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it seems to me that he was arguing for liberty in the positive sense. So was Patrick Henry when he demanded in 1775, “give me liberty or give me death!” I think that positive liberty lies at the very core of American aspiration and purpose. It has been a key to progress in America’s great moral struggles, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and LGBTQ rights.

But like all noble ideals, positive liberty can be dangerous. In a society based on the assumption “that all men are created equal,” every individual expects to share an equal right to “the pursuit of Happiness,” and an equal participatory role in the political process that guarantees this right. And as Queen Elizabeth tells William Shakespeare in my short play The Throne and the Mirror

The tyranny of the one is not worth fearing; the tyranny of the many, of the allnow that’s a tyranny to terrify any sane soul.

Philip_Dawe_(attributed),_The_Bostonians_Paying_the_Excise-man,_or_Tarring_and_Feathering_(1774)_-_02

A customs commissioner is tarred and feathered by the Sons of Liberty under the Liberty Tree in Boston. Tea is being poured into his mouth; the Boston Tea Party is seen taking place in the background.

Our founders, including James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton warned against this very danger—“the tyranny of the majority.” Majority rule is hardly a guarantee against injustice, especially when the majority chooses to serve its own pettiest interests and fails to consider what is just for all. American slavery and European fascism were both consequences of majority will turned to evil.

Such a perversion of democracy has given us Donald Trump, a manifestly narcissistic and incompetent would-be dictator. The majority of Americans are still not sufficiently horrified by the threat he poses to our republic to remove him from office by constitutional means. We are in a true crisis of democracy, in the grip of a doctrine that Trump and his followers regard as heroic and unassailable.

This doctrine holds that traditions surrounding the American flag and the national anthem should be enforced as mandatory expressions of patriotism; that most immigrants come to this country with malicious purpose; that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news,” an “enemy of the people” that ought to be muzzled; and many other specious and ugly ideas, all of them touted in the names of America’s highest ideals, including democracy and liberty.

Trump_Rally_in_Cincinnati

Trump rally in Cincinnati, Ohio; October 2016 (Bill Huber).

Tragically, Trump’s followers fail to perceive the ruin this doctrine is bringing upon themselves. As Berlin puts it …

The triumph of despotism is to force the slaves to declare themselves free. It may need no force; the slaves may proclaim their freedom quite sincerely: but they are none the less slaves.

But what can be done to defeat Trumpism? The upcoming midterm elections are, of course, vitally important; but the problem won’t be solved even if Trump’s congressional sycophants are thrown out of office, or if Trump himself is deposed in 2020 or even before. The spirit of Trumpism will endure, at least for a time, impervious to truth, the rule of law, and the tears of frightened children locked in cages.

800px-Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_Restored

Henry David Thoreau, 1856.

Indeed, Henry David Thoreau argues in “Civil Disobedience” that voting is but a feeble weapon against injustice …

I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.

So what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I’m fairly sure that the abusers of positive liberty now in power can only be defeated by conscientious and decent people exercising their own positive liberty—and doing so with the fullest possible energy and goodwill.

In my play, Thomas Jefferson asks about those “terrible faces of liberty” …

Why can’t they see that the sky is filled with sunlight, that there is Freedom in infinite abundance, and Happiness bountiful enough for every creature that lives or ever shall—not merely to share but to give, one unto another, until the sun exhausts its perpetual light?

It’s an impossible ideal, of course—and Isaiah Berlin warns against the potential evil of impossible ideals. But if we keep striving toward greater and greater heights of acceptance, generosity, equality, and love, I can’t help thinking our current evils will recede; our wounded republic may even begin its long healing.

Women's_March_on_Washington_(32593123745)

Women’s march in Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration (Mobilis in Mobili).

 

Advertisements

From “The Shackles of Liberty” … Four Ideas about God

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a famous letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. So how did this unorthodox Christian react when his daughter Patsy decided that she wanted to become a nun? Nobody really knows, except that he quickly snatched Patsy and her sister Polly out of Pentemont Abbey, the Parisian convent school where they’d been studying.

250px-Abbaye_de_Penthemont_-_2

Pentemont Abbey, 1898

I play with this episode in my in my award-winning new play The Shackles of Liberty. When Patsy first broaches the subject with her father, he quizzes her about the nature of God …

THOMAS: Tell me—where is God? Where does he live?
PATSY: He is everywhere.
THOMAS: So I can reach out and touch him?
PATSY: No.
THOMAS: Why not? Of what stuff is he made?
PATSY: No stuff at all, Father.
THOMAS: So he is everywhere and yet comprised of nothing. He has infinite height, width, and depth, and yet none at all—a dimensionless geometrical point.

It’s an absurd proposition as far as Thomas is concerned. And yet he is no atheist. He agrees with the teaching of Jesus, that God is a spirit

He knew that spirit is material and real. Thin and light, an ethereal gas perhaps, subtler than our gross bodies, but material nonetheless. I don’t know where to look for such spirit, but that’s of small concern. God’s existence is manifest in the infinite beauty of natural design—from the growth of the flower to the precession of the equinoxes. He is Cause Perpetual, Cause Everlasting.

As Patsy confides to Sally Hemings later in the play, she pretty much agrees with her father. In the convent, Patsy can feel God’s palpable presence …

Father’s right, God is made out of matter, and there you can feel him. You can touch him. You can touch his face. And his face is so gentle. And he’s so full of love. Everybody there feels it. And everybody wants to do his will. They want to love him back. It’s all they ever do. I’ve never been any place like it.

Brooklyn_Museum_82.154.2_Housepost_One_of_Pair

Yoruba Veranda Post, Brooklyn Museum

What does God mean to Sally, a third-generation slave? Much of the profound theology of Sally’s Yoruba ancestors has been lost to her. But she’s still deeply aware of ashe, the life force underlying all of creation, the spiritual power to make things happen …

I was really little when my nephew Andy was born. Still I had to take care of him best I could whenever my sister was working somewhere else, which was lots of the time, sometimes far away, stitching, cooking, stirring the lye pot boiling, but whenever little Andy began to whimpering, not even really crying, she’d be back on the spot, ready to feed him. Now how’d she always know he was hungry? She said it was ’cause she’d feel ashe moving inside of her, and ashe was what he was hungering for.… Ashe—it’s something everybody’s got moving inside, but you’ve got to keep giving it everywhere to everybody, sharing it always.

As a devout Catholic, Thomas’s European lover Maria Cosway fully accepts the message of John the Evangelist that God is love. But her belief is not as comfortable (or comforting) as one might expect. When Thomas begins to raise an age-old question, she fiercely interrupts him …

El_Greco_034

John the Evangelist, El Greco

THOMAS: How can a loving God—?

MARIA: Oh, the old, old question always, and so foolish! Permit of evil? Allow there should be pain, and cruelty, and sickness, the death of your Martha? Listen to what I say, Thomas. He is not a loving God. He is Love. And if you do not understand God, it is for that you do not understand Love. There is nothing—nothing—in the world, or the heaven, or the hell—more—implacabile, more—more terrible or—cruel than Love. There is not justice, there is nothing kind or gentle in Love, none. Love kills all dream of perfection, every hope we have. It is the hardest, coldest thing of all there is.

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competitionsponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

Sally, Maria, Patsy, and Tom …

Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?

It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.

I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.

When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:

… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.

I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …

To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.

I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:

SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
THOMAS: No.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
THOMAS: Impossible.

As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later,  Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,

some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …

How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”

Martha_Jefferson_Randolph_portrait

Martha Jefferson Randolph

Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:

I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.

Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.

Maria_Cosway

Self-portrait of Maria Cosway

For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!

Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …

It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.

So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflict and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.

 

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition, sponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

NOT Signed on July 4, 1776 …

230px-Us_declaration_independenceWay back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. It was fascinating to explore the Story of that great document. Here is the epilogue I wrote for the book:

What really happened during those first four fateful days of July, 1776? As the previous pages of this book suggest, the truth is somewhat at odds with popular legend. American independence was actually approved by Congress on July 2, not on July 4; the vote was twelve to zero, with New York abstaining. New York voted in favor of independence on July 7, finally making the decision unanimous. The adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 was regarded by the delegates as little more than a legal formality—with important public relations implications, of course.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there is no evidence that a signing of the document took place on July 4. The only signatures put onto the document on that day seem to have been those of Congress’s president, John Hancock, and its secretary, Charles Thomson. The iconic engrossed copy of the Declaration didn’t become available for signing until August 2. Many of its famous signatures were not added until weeks or even months after that. Some of the signers had not been present in Congress on July 4, 1776, to vote on the Declaration’s adoption, while some delegates who had been present on that day never became signers (Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, New York: Doubleday, 1978, p. 339).

But the myth of a July 4 signing has proven very powerful—so powerful that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both mistakenly came to believe that it had actually happened! Through good intentions and faulty memories, the two most important instigators of American independence generated their share of misinformation about the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was correct, however, when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, “It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull.” The Revolutionary War would continue its destructive course until the United States defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781 with the help of the French Fleet. Even after peace was declared in 1783, the new nation still faced the question of how to govern itself. The Federal Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, created a strong union but left the problem of slavery unsolved. It would take the tragic and terrible Civil War (1861-1865) to bring an end to slavery, but race relations in America remain deeply troubled to this day. With such a turbulent history, perhaps we should be grateful for the benign mythology surrounding our Declaration of Independence and its ennobling language.

The most magical story told about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams happens to be true. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their Declaration’s adoption, both men were on their deathbeds. That morning, Jefferson awoke from a coma to ask his bedside companions, “Is it the Fourth?” He died shortly after noon. Adams passed away later the same day after murmuring these haunting last words:

“Thomas Jefferson survives.”