Samuel Johnson said, “How is it that we hear the largest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negroes?” In this statement a British man remarks on the tendencies of a nation three thousand miles to the west, and this nations thirst for independence from the very land that Johnson himself called home. Spoken in 1775, these remarks came at a time in history when tensions were high and every opportunity was taken to put down, or bring to light inconsistencies or hypocrisies in the practices of other side of the argument. Much like a political campaign, these comments had effects that went beyond merely stating the truth about those who were shouting for revolution. These comments also served to undermine the revolution as a whole, and break down foundations it had been built upon. Given the historical context of this quote, it can be said that there is a fairly decent amount of symbolism behind these words, and much that serves to be considered in the deconstruction of Johnson’s statement.
Examining what Johnson meant by these words in a literal sense alone is to leave out an entire facet of the statement. With this in mind, it is also important to examine closely what is being said on the surface, then to dive deeper. Samuel Johnson is commenting on the fact that those who are calling the loudest for liberty, the leaders of the American revolution, the architects of our nations, the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are men who themselves hold great power over others, robbing these individuals on the American shores of liberties. By and large, the main voices for liberty in Colonial America were white and wealthy landowning men. These men were striving for liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, but for whom? It was certainly not for the nation as a whole, as women and African-Americans were not afforded the basic rights of citizenship that these men were after. In addition to not speaking for these other members of society, the wealthy white male landowners were often slaveholders themselves. This includes numerous individuals who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, such Thomas Jefferson. This is the same document that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”1 How hypocritical of Jefferson to author this document while himself withholding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from his slaves. This is precisely what Johnson was referring to when he uttered the words, “How is it that we hear the largest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negroes?”
Some have speculated that the reason the Founding Fathers got past this hypocritical attitude was because there was no attitude at all. That is, the men who signed the Declaration did not think of women, or African-Americans as truly able to operate in the capacity needed to enjoy these unalienable rights. While there was in fact a sense at this time in history that there was no need to include these people because they were not actually people in the true sense of the word, this thought process is rather irresponsible. It is easy to say looking back on history that these men should have known better, and many would argue so. It should be kept in mind, however, that looking back on history and contemplating how men should have thought is awfully easy, knowing the full span of history and events that have taken place. Given the circumstances and the institutionalization of slavery, it is easier to understand why the men who founded our nation overlooked their own personal situations. That is not to say that they were correct in doing so, by any means, but when thinking of the greater good that they were likely focused on, it becomes clearer why these men ignored their own shortcomings in favor of creating a more advanced nation. In ignoring their own faults, the founders of the United States left themselves open to harsh criticism, such as that of Samuel Johnson.
What Johnson meant, and what he meant to accomplish are strikingly different. Slavery was outlawed in the majority of the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.2 This means that Johnson was speaking from a nation that had been slavery free for nearly a generation, about a nation starving for liberty. Bringing this fact to the forefront of conversation served to expose the irony and hypocrisy in place at the upper levels of the blooming American governmental system. In exposing the hypocrisy present, Johnson undermines Colonial America’s desire for revolution and for all intents and purposes brands it a fruitless effort by overeager hypocrites. Swaying the courts of public opinion in favor of British rule, from British soil, was an important task that Johnson took up readily. Through a single statement alone he was able to expose inherent flaws in the thought process of those clamoring revolution, and unite a nation against the hypocrites to the west. It is easy to imagine the attitudes that British citizens held towards their former colony when in 1881, the United States ratified a constitution that began with, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”3 We the people, the authors state. Johnson brings to our attention the fact that “the people” spoken of here are not the slaves of the United States, nor are they the poor, Native American, or female. These men were speaking amongst themselves, serving their own specific caste and serving their own needs and goals.
There is a strong connection between slavery and American liberty. The wealth that slave holding states amassed served to finance the revolution, and slaves kept working while landowners went to war. Had Thomas Jefferson not had many slaves on his lands in Virginia, it is doubtful that he would have even been able to afford the time and effort that he devoted to the American Revolution. For this reason alone the connection between slavery and the quest for American liberty is strongly established. Additionally, the British, who enticed slaves to rebel against their American holders with the opportunity for freedom, used the enslaved population as a tool against the colonies. Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775 served as a tool to encourage slave revolts in the colonies. The text of the document encourages all indentured servants and slaves who are able to bear to arms, to join the fight against the colonial forces in order to preserve the colonies in their current state, which was under British rule.4 Panic ensued, as citizens feared that they would lose their working population and thus their form of income, that the slaves would turn against their former owners first, and that the rise in British troops would be a tipping point in the quest for liberty. This affect of Dunmore’s Proclamation alone was a fantastic example of psychological warfare, even if this was only realized at a later date in history. The colonies were fearful of a mass uprising of slaves, as many in the past the slaves had rebelled to varying levels of success. A British sponsored rebellion could prove to be more devastating than all previous rebellions combined, as the slaves would have capital and weapons, the two ingredients needed for a successful revolution.
The connections between slavery in the United States and the platform of liberty that America has always placed at the forefront of her international correspondence are numerous and plain to see. During the early stages of the United States, the American Colonies gained wealth and international power through the slave trade and the fruits of slave labor. The very men who gained the most from this practice rose to domestic leadership positions and eventually founded the United States of America. The Founding Fathers of our nation, namely Thomas Jefferson for the sake of argument, made a considerable impact on American history. This is an impact made possible because of slave labor. Jefferson articulated the connection between American liberty and slavery through his actions, the manner he made his riches, and the ease he ignored his ties to slavery in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Slavery has always been a topic of discussion in the United States, as it is odd how a country can strive for equality, yet not practice what she preaches at the most basic of levels. This hypocrisy has been highlighted by Samuel Johnson, and repeatedly brought up in conversation for the past 200 and some odd years. Little is likely to change, even with the election of an African-American president, because there will always be, at the heart of American politics, a certain degree of hypocrisy.
The idea of sub-ordinance is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of the nation, that from the very beginning there were those at the bottom and those at the top. This was not a terribly uncommon occurrence, but rarely have those at the top claimed to fight for those on the bottom so fervently as to stage a revolution for independence based on ideals that were claimed to be far reaching, while reaching few. The dramatic and often overlooked aspect of American history is that men with flaws founded our nation, and our nation started just so – flawed. Over time Americans have risen above their shortcomings to become a more complete and fair nation where citizens and politicians try and overlook each other’s shortcomings, but at the heart of our nation will always be the tendency to look past personal shortcomings in an effort to form a nation that will be fairer for the next generation. America a nation of liberty, she always has been, and she always will be. It is up to the average citizen and professional politician alike to keep these ideals in mind while trying to overcome their own shortcomings along with those of the nation they call home.
1 United States Declaration of Independence
2 http://www.pdavis.nl/Legis_07.htm – An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves. [28th August 1833.]
3 Constitution of the United States of America – Preamble