The Irony Inherent in “Equality” Born from the American Revolution

“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.” (Declaration of Independence, US 1776). These words are perhaps some of the most recognized and referenced in the world due to the Declaration of Independence’s universal statement that all people, by birth, have the inherent right to freedom and equality, which no person or governing system can take away. However, both the Declaration of Independence and America’s early republic were completely hypocritical with regards to the concept of “equality”. The Declaration of Independence was written as a declaration of revolution to overthrow the tyrannical chains of America’s mother country, Great Britain, so that America could separate itself and create its own, “enlightened” republic. Yet, even though America separated itself from Britain’s tyrannical rule, America’s government and society were still very much like that of Great Britain’s, given that America still promoted a strict social and racial hierarchy, despite being a “republic”. John C. Calhoun, a southern American politician and political theorist during the early-nineteenth century, argued that the Declaration of Independence’s statement on human equality was a “hypothetical truism” that was, in fact, wrong. He argued that the success of government and civilization relied on the fact that some people had authority, and others were required to obey, and that is man’s natural state of equality (Maier, 15). Indeed, the “equality” born from the American Revolution matched Calhoun’s definition in that it was ironically unequal in terms of gender, race, and social standing for the greater majority of the new American republic’s populace, including all American women, all African slaves, and even all white, non-landowning American men.

During the first few decades after the American Revolution, American citizens were not interested in the founding of America and its history. However, starting about 1815, Americans began to look back at the founding years of our nation due to the fact that the American republican experiment had not only succeeded, but it also had inspired many other countries to embrace revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thus, after America’s government and legitimacy were somewhat secured in the early nineteenth century, people began to preserve and write about the Founding era of the United States (Maier, 1). The history recorded during this time period glorified America’s revolutionary history and Founding Fathers to a point of reverence, which is the history of that era we still celebrate today. The true history of the Revolutionary and Founding era is much more complicated than it seems, as many Founding Fathers are now renowned as saints of liberty and freedom, despite the fact that they, who argued against British tyranny, were a small group of affluent American elites. Ironically, the early American republic rested in the hands of the privileged few, and the government’s definition of equality did not include women, slaves, and the greater majority of the white male population in the United States. America’s new governing system and society were, in actuality, based on tyranny much like Great Britain, with the submission of the many under the domination of the few wealthy, white elite men.

“Equality” and the Continued Submission of Women

“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson (“Quotations on Education”, Monticello.org)

The fight for American independence and the resultant American government were founded on the central tenets of freedom, liberty, and equality, perhaps best described in the Declaration of Independence’s infamous statement: “all men are created equal”. Yet, the Declaration thereby excluded women from this statement entirely, regardless of race or affluence.

The newly formed American republic, though, needed an educated citizenry to participate in government and society for the survival of the new republic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the education of children fell to the mothers of American households; however, the education of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries only stressed subjects such as embroidery, music, sewing, and dance (Kerrison, 29). Women were taught by feminine instruction books to be submissive to male authority, to be obedient, meek, and innocent. Indeed, such education taught women to be submissive to authority and to accept inferiority as matter-of-fact. In turn, women educated their children, specifically their female children — the new generation of American republicans — to accept their inferior position and to submit to the new American “republican” government run by the privileged American elites, once again replicating and perpetuating tyranny.

“Equality” and Slaves as Inferior by Race

Similarly, the American Revolution made slavery a moral debate due to the Enlightenment values of liberty and equality, as well as the Enlightenment-inspired Evangelical Great Awakening that preached equality of all people regardless of sex, race, or status in the eyes of God. Yet American colonists’ beliefs that Great Britain was enslaving them during the late eighteenth century made true slavery impossible to ignore.

A popular and widely accepted belief in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century was a hierarchy of the races — namely, that Caucasians were superior to Africans, Native Americans, and, in actuality, all other races. People thus justified the slavery of Africans by saying that the African race was inferior and was inherently not equal to the Caucasian race. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote “all men are created equal”, owned over 600 African slaves in his lifetime. Although he called slavery a “moral depravity”, Jefferson thought enslaved Africans were “as incapable as children” (“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery”, Monticello.org). Moreover, Stephen Douglas, an American politician, said that Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence were only applicable to “‘men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men.’” (Maier, 17).

Therefore, African slaves were not granted equality in the new American republic due to their skin color and their supposed inferiority. However, the racial argument left out the fact that the majority of white American males also were not able to participate in government.

“Equality” and the Irony of Paternalism

Paternal relationships in slavery began in the late eighteenth century and mushroomed in the nineteenth century in America. Slave-masters believed that if they treated their slaves like their own children, their slaves would be more willing to work and be less likely to run away or commit any other crimes against the masters. Paternalistic master-slave relationships defended the institution of slavery against abolitionists’ critiques because, as the masters argued, if masters treated their slaves better, then there would be no need to abolish slavery.

The master-slave relationship was based on complete co-dependence. Each master needed his slaves to take care of his household, errands, crops, and, perhaps most importantly, the master himself and his own family. Furthermore, just the ownership of slaves helped the master boost his role and significance in American society. In turn, slaves relied on their masters for food, shelter, and stability. The paternal master-slave relationship relied on the domination of one (namely, the master) and the submission and obedience of the others (the slaves). Ironically, the so-called better treatment of slaves, known as paternalism, was used to defend masters against the question of the morality of slavery, not to actually help the slaves themselves.

Bacon’s Castle Slave House

Bacon's Castle Slave House Front View

Bacon’s Castle Slave House
Photo by Author

Upper Side of Bacon's Castle Slave House

One of the Two Chimneys
Photo by Author

 

Wide Fireplace at Bacon's Castle Slave House

One of the Two Fireplaces
Photo by Author

NUMBER ONE Window Bacon's Castle Slave House

One of the Two Windows
Photo by Author

Slave houses were an example of paternalism. Masters believed providing their slaves with their own houses would help their “slave children” be more efficient in work and be better for their health than the barrack-style housing usually used for enslaved peoples. The Bacon’s Castle slave house shown above housed about three to four enslaved families in a quaint, 12 by 16-foot building with two front glass windows and two chimneys. The building was located near Bacon’s Castle so that the master could watch through the windows to keep an eye on his slaves. The fear of slave rebellion was powered by the guilt of slave-masters who knew slavery was morally wrong and that enslaved people did not want to be enslaved, but could not admit it, not to mention the fact that many rebellions and uprisings of slaves did, indeed, occur in the late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century. The outwardly nice-appearing slave house was also a part of the master’s pride, since he could say he was wealthy enough to not only own slaves but also provide good housing for them. In fact, this slave house was obviously positioned to be visible by visitors of Bacon’s Castle.

Ironically enough, only a few slave families lived in the slave house, whereas most of the slaves on the Bacon plantation lived out near the fields in plain, poorly constructed housing that was not visible to the visitors of Bacon’s Castle. Furthermore, the slaves did not have anywhere to keep their personal belongings without the master seeing, as there were no places to put possessions away out of sight from the master in the Bacon slave house. However, the barrack-style slave housing provided a place for slaves to store their own possessions under their mattresses, or in holes dug into the ground. Such paternalistic slave houses actually deprived any privacy or individualism that the slaves had and reinforced the fact that their masters viewed them simply as property, not as true people. Ironically, then, paternalism was powered by self-interest on the masters’ part to look better in the eyes of society, to get better work from their slaves, and, most importantly, to defend and justify the institution of slavery, not actually to treat slaves better, whatsoever.

“Hot Water” Freed Black Settlement

Slavery went directly against the tenets laid out in the Declaration of Independence and became an issue of morality and a contention that threatened the very survival of the new American republic. In fact, some slave owners came to disagree so much with the institution of slavery, buying and exploiting people, that they freed their slaves. One would think that men who espoused and advocated equality and freedom like Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, would have freed his over 600 slaves, as slavery went against his own words; however, he did not (“Thomas Jefferson: Liberty and Slavery”, Monticello.org). Ironically, a man named Robert Carter, who descended from the Virginian elite and was described as “inconceivable illiterate and also corrupted and vicious”, freed his over 500 slaves in the late eighteenth century. It is ironic that an enlightened man like Jefferson could not match his words with his actions, as he admitted slavery was a “hideous blot” yet did not free his slaves, and that he defended the institution of slavery by practicing paternalism at his own plantation, Monticello (“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery”, Monticello.org). However, an arrogant, aristocratic character, Robert Carter, was big enough to admit slavery was completely immoral and to act on it by freeing all of his slaves, without excuses. Yet, history forgot about Robert Carter’s “Deed of Gift” perhaps because he was a little too ahead of his time (Levy, 33).

Front View of Jackson Home at Hot Water Freed Settlement

Jackson Home at “Hot Water” Freed Settlement
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Interior of Jackson Home at Hot Water Freed Settlement

Interior of Jackson Home
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Interior of Brown House at Hot Water Freed Settlement

Interior of Brown House at Hot Water Freed Settlement
Photo by Author

It must be noted, though, that the act of freeing slaves frightened many people both in the north and the south. The American government also did not know how to treat slaves once they were freed. Therefore, settlements like “Hot Water”, shown in the pictures above, were created for freed African Americans to live. In his will, William Ludwell Lee, founder of “Hot Water”, freed his slaves and gave them the lot of land with houses for the freed slaves to live in. The state of Virginia’s manumission law during this time required all freed blacks to leave the state of Virginia within one year of their freeing. However, the freed slaves at “Hot Water” continued to live there for many more years because, if they moved from Virginia, their families and friends still in bondage would be left behind. The act of abolition and the large presence of freed slaves in southern states made people question if freed Africans were equal human beings once they entered into American society and were no longer merely pieces of property, or whether Africans were still inherently inferior due to their race regardless of their status.

“Equality” and Status

A republic relies on the participation of all peoples to govern truly and justly; however, the majority of white men in America were also treated and viewed as inferior by the new, “enlightened” American government that was dominated by the American elite. To vote in the early American republic, one had to be a land-owning white male. Thus, only a small, very privileged percentage of white American men actually had a say in the government and how it was run.

This brings up the question of what is “equality” when the most celebrated American government document states that “all men are created equal”. Is equality measured by race? Slavery was defended by racial superiority of the Caucasian race over the African race. If so, the fact that the majority of white men also did not participate in government was wrong. John Pettit, an American senator, once said: “‘self-evident truth’ that ‘all men are created equal’ was in fact a ‘self evident lie’ with ‘no truth in it… the negro in Africa and the free-born American are not created equal,’ and ‘the serf of Russia, under the Autocrat, is not equal of his master…’” (Maier, 15). Pettit’s point argues against race as a fact of superiority, seeing as Russian serfs were whites enslaved by other whites. Hence, the fact that the majority of white men in America were not viewed by law as equal brings up the question of equality measured by status, as well.

The irony born from the American Revolution’s concept of “equality” made the perpetuation of an American brand of tyranny possible, and true equality and freedom impossible in the early American republic. However, it did make people think: what is equality, and how do we measure it? By gender, race, or status? Or is equality a truly universal term that is inherent to all peoples? Obviously, the fight for true American freedom was not over after the end of the Revolutionary War; American women, African slaves, and even white American men of lesser status still needed to fight for equality and overthrow tyranny and oppression in the new American republic. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence was therefore a goal to be reached, not merely an end in itself — that one day all human beings in America would be treated as equals, such that it was and still is our job as Americans to progress our nation in the continuing fight for true equality and independence for all.

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