The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “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. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “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.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

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[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

Exploring Sub-Saharan African History

 I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.

The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.

I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.

Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.

I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.

I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)

While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.

Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.

All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations”

840The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic devotes 20 black-bordered pages to “The Case for Reparations” as the lead and cover article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its national correspondent.

This is a serious subject by an author who has been obtaining some prominence or notoriety this year occasioned by his best-selling book, “Between the World and Me,” which was discussed in a previous post.

Moreover, on September 28, 2015, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious Fellows or “genius” grants to Coates and asserted that he “brings personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues . . . without shallow polemic and in a measured style.” In “The Case for Reparations,” according to the Foundation, “Coates grapples with the rationalizations for slavery and their persistence in twentieth-century policies like Jim Crow and redlining . . . [and] compellingly argues for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations. [The article is] deeply felt and intensely researched.”

I, therefore, was expecting a serious discussion of this important issue.

Instead, I was profoundly disappointed in the analysis as well as the quality of the research and writing of this article and strongly disagree with MacArthur’s glowing commentary on the article.

Coates’ Discussion of Reparations

Coates mentions that certain scholars have discussed how reparations might be implemented. One, he says, suggested multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference between white and black per capita income and then presumably paying that difference to each African American each year for a decade or two. Another, Coates reports, proposed a program of job training and public works for all poor people. (P. 69) But Coates does not endorse either one.

Instead Coates hides in generalizations. He says reparations means “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” and “a revolution of American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (p.70).

On the last page of the article (p. 71) Coates becomes more specific by advocating congressional adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations that has been offered by Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI) for the last 25 years. Without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by Conyers, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a [study and] debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of back people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

This is not, as MacArthur suggests, a compelling argument “for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations.”

The Conyers’ Bill

An examination of the Conyers bill itself does not buttress the claimed genius of the Coates article. In the current session of Congress this bill is H.R.40: The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. A quick examination of the Library of Congress THOMAS website reveals that the bill (in sections 4, 5 and 7) would establish a commission of seven members (three to be appointed by the U.S. President, three by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and one by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate) to hold hearings and issue a report of its findings and recommendations.

The key to the bill is section 2(a), which would make the following factual findings that Coates takes most of 20 pages to elucidate:

“(1) approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865;

(2) the institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the Government of the United States from 1789 through 1865;

(3) the slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans’ life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor; and

(4) sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans and society in the United States.”

Section 2(b) of the bill  then states the commission would examine and report on these factual predicates plus the “de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, and social discrimination.” With such factual determinations the commission would be charged to “recommend appropriate ways to educate the American public of the Commission’s findings” and “appropriate remedies.”

Representative Conyers’ website  contains a discussion of the bill that at least alludes to the following challenging sub-issues that would face such a commission and that are not examined by Coates: “whether an apology is owed, whether compensation is warranted and, if so, in what form and who should be eligible.”

Resolution for Rectification of Misdeeds Against African-Americans

More importantly, Coates’ article does not mention a resolution (H.Res.194) adopted in 2008 by the U.S. House of Representatives that has lengthy factual preambles about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. [1] The House in H.Res.194 more importantly also:

  1. “acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;”
  2. “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;”
  3. “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and  their ancestors who suffered under slavery and  Jim Crow; and”
  4. “expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.”

Yes, this is only a resolution by only one chamber of the Congress, but it is closer to the result apparently being advocated by Coates than the Conyers’ bill.

U.S. Presidential Statements About Slavery

H.Res.194 in a preamble asserts that “on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.”[2]

In another preamble H.Res.194 asserts, “President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race.”

Neither of these presidential statements is mentioned by Coates, both of which support his opinion favoring reparations.

Caribbean States’ Reparations Claims

Apparently at least 14 states in the Caribbean are preparing claims for reparations for slavery against their former colonial rulers: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron recently rejected that reparations idea.[3]

Again there is no mention of these claims by Coates even though they lend credence to his advocacy of similar reparations in the U.S.[4]

Litigation Over Contracts for Deed

Coates leads the article with a lengthy discussion of problems faced by blacks on the west side of Chicago in the 1960’s in financing purchases of homes and as a result being forced to do so on contracts for deed with unscrupulous sellers (pp. 56-59). Coates then enthusiastically endorses these black purchasers’ bringing a federal lawsuit against the sellers for reparations (or money damages). On the next page (p.60), however, Coates tells the reader, without any citation of source, that in 1976 the black plaintiffs lost a jury trial supposedly due to anti-black prejudice of the jury and even later in the article (p.67) he says that as a result of the lawsuit some of the plaintiffs were allowed to own their homes outright while others obtained regular mortgages.

Coates, however, fails to mention that according to a secondary source from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the west-side case went to trial in the Spring of 1976, and in November 1979, the jury decided that the sellers had taken advantage of the buyers for higher profits, but that the sellers were so ruthless they would have cheated anyone, not only blacks, and, therefore, the jury rejected the racial discrimination claim, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers decided not to appeal this decision.

That same secondary source reports that a related case from the south side of Chicago went to trial in 1972 before a federal district judge with a jury. At the close of the evidence, the court directed a verdict against the plaintiffs saying that they had not proved a prima facie case of discrimination. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. That new trial occurred in 1979, without a jury, before a district judge who decided in favor of the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Clyde Ross was prominently mentioned at the start of the Coates’ article about the housing discrimination that led to the above litigation, and after the publishing of the Coates article, Ross said in an interview, “I don’t know why we would even discuss [reparations] . . .when that would never happen. It involves taking money, property, from other people, from the people with power and wealth. How could that ever come to be? In theory, yes it is a good idea, but it’s better to be practical. I support equality under the law. I just want to be able to pay off a mortgage knowing that I am getting the same deal as the white guy. That’s all I ask.”

Coates also did not uncover in his research the successful Minnesota lawsuit in the 1920’s by a black couple against white landlords who after accepting contract-for-deed payments for 25 years denied the couple possession of the Minneapolis house on the false assertion that their payments were only rent. The couple’s attorney, by the way, was Lena Olive Smith, the state’s first black female lawyer who became the leader of the city’s NAACP branch in the 1930s.

Conclusion

I am not a scholar of race relations in the U.S. or of reparations generally or in the U.S. specifically. The above discussion of facts that apparently were not discovered by Coates was based upon this blogger’s perfunctory Internet searching.

The Coates article also is difficult to read because of the lack of an introduction and conclusion and of any headings or subdivisions amidst the parade of often densely packed paragraphs that do not follow in a logical order.[5]

This blogger as a retired lawyer might be seen as engaging in an inappropriate  lawyerly criticism of the Coates’ article. But Coates presumably is advocating for others to embrace the conclusion that reparations are a necessary response to a major societal problem. As an advocate, he should write to be more persuasive.

This blogger as a white American is supportive of civil and human rights generally and is willing to consider a well-written and documented case for U.S. reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. Unfortunately the Coates article does not do that. It needs additional research and a major rewrite. (As always, I invite others’ comments of agreement or disagreement.)

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[1] U.S. House of Reps., 110th Cong., 2nd Sess.,  H.Res.194 (July 29, 2008)..As February 23, 2007, was the bicentennial of the British Parliament’s abolition of slave trading, the 110th U.S. Congress (2007-2009) had 150 bills and resolutions that mentioned the word “slavery,” but this blog has not “drilled down” to determine their details.

[2] President Bush Speaks at Goree Island in Sengal (July 8, 2003)

[3] E.g., Search for “slavery,” Guardian; Bilefsky, David Cameron Grapples with Issue of Slavery Reparations in Jamaica, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cameron Provides Caribbean Aid, Rejects Slavery Reparations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Room for Debate: Are Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Reparations Due?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2015).

[4] Coates does mention Massachusetts’ granting a 1783 petition for reparations by a black freewoman; 17th and 18th century Quakers’ granting reparations; the 1987 formation of a National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America; the 1993 NAACP’s endorsement of reparations; a lawsuit for reparations brought by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. (without mentioning its details or outcome); and Germany’s reparations to Israel for the Holocaust (pp. 61, 70-71).

[5] The online version of the article added headings I through X, but most of them are quotations from sources in the sections, requiring the reader to dive into the sections to discover their significance. Another post discusses Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (Oct. 2015), which also has chapter headings, most of which do not help the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Coates:

 

Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

Ltrs re column: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/17/david_brooks_scolds_ta_nehisi_coates_i_think_you_distort_history/

 

http://crooksandliars.com/2015/07/dont-be-fooled-all-forelock-tugging-david

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-brooks-nyt-ta-nehisi-coates

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-american-dream

 

http://jezebel.com/listening-to-ta-nehisi-coates-whilst-snuggled-deep-with-1718506352

 

http://www.alternet.org/media/david-brooks-relies-ignorant-white-privilege-attack-ta-nehisi-coates-new-book

 

http://townhall.com/columnists/marknuckols/2015/07/17/tanehisi-coates-cheers-deaths-of-911-rescuers-david-brooks-apologizes-for-being-white-n2026881

 

http://aaihs.org/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-and-the-master-narrative-of-american-history/

 

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/books/bcp-072915-books-coates-gunnery-20150724-story.html

 

https://www.thewrap.com/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-blasted-for-white-privilege-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates/

 

http://flavorwire.com/528823/the-american-dream-david-brooks-loves-so-much-is-rich-white-americas-greatest-tool-of-social-control

 

Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel

A prior post summarized Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes while another post provided a brief look at the relevant historical background of the novel–the fate of the Black British Loyalists in the American colonies during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

Now we examine Hill’s own reflections about his novel and how his biography has influenced this novel and his other books. [1]

He first heard about the historical Book of Negroes in 1980 when he read The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, a scholarly book by Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker.

Hill immediately knew from reading the Walker book that one day he would write the fictional story of a woman who had to have her name entered into the Book of Negroes.  But it took at least 15 years before he felt he was ready to tackle such a large project. In 2002 when he began to research and write the novel, he examined for the first time reproductions of the actual Book of Negroes. Another topic of his research was the activities of the British abolitionists. The size of this project is indicated by the five years it took to research and write the novel.

His greatest surprise from his research was discovering that among the Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792 were some who had been born in Africa and thus were returning home. This back-to-Africa exodus took place 30 years before American slaves went to Africa to found Liberia and more than a century before Jamaican Marcus Garvey urged blacks in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

From the moment of his conception of the novel, Hill said, it was a woman’s story. As a writer, he locates stories in the lives of the people who have the most to lose, and Aminata as a mother had the most to lose.

A constant question for him in all of his writing, he said, was how does someone survive horrible events in life. Every book or story requires an overarching theme, which for him is what does the main protagonist want. For Aminata in The Book of Negroes it is “I want to go home to Africa.”

Lawrence Hill’s parents — a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated  to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C.in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

Born in Canada in 1957, Hill was raised in a predominantly white Toronto suburb. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.S. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Hill always wanted to be a creative writer, he immediately recognized that he needed to have some kind of gainful employment to support himself financially as he was starting his writing career. These sidelines, he acknowledges, helped his creative writing.

He spent three years as a journalist with Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press and learned how to write quickly on short deadlines and to recognize that his words could be changed by editors. He then spent a year in Spain writing short stories, but realized that his quickly written letters from Spain to friends were more lively and better written. For the next 15 years he was a free-lance speech writer for Canadian politicians and in the process learned how to write for different voices.

Hill’s international travels have also influenced his writing, especially his volunteer trips to West Africa. While in Mali, for example, he met a midwife by the name of “Aminata,” which he used as the name of the main character in The Book of Negroes.

Now Hill is an accomplished and recognized author. In addition to The Book of Negroes, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three other non-fiction books and the script for a film.

He is a member of the Council of Patrons of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Hill has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Medal of Distinction from Huron University College, the Freedom To Read Award from the Writers Union of Canada, the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Rev. John C. Holland Award of Merit from the Hamilton Black History Committee. Hill also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

This coming fall Hill will be Canada’s Massey Lecturer and has said the lecture’s theme will be “how beliefs, traditions, rituals, phobias, and obsessions about blood influence how we see ourselves individually and societally.”

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[1] This post is based primarily upon materials on Hill’s own website and his recent remarks at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

As mentioned in a prior post, the amazing saga of the Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War is not widely known. Helping to make it better known is the novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist, Lawrence Hill.

the-book-of-negroes1

The novel takes the form of a memoir written in the early 19th century by a West African woman, Aminata Diallo.

She starts with her mid-18th century abduction as an 11-year-old girl from her West African village and being forced to walk for months to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There she is put on a slave ship that takes her to South Carolina, where she begins a new life as a slave.

Aminata is intelligent and as a slave learns midwifery skills and how to read and write. Nevertheless, her life as a slave is not easy.

Book of Negroes (page)
Book of Negroes (page)

Her story begins to intersect with that of the Black Loyalists near the end of the American Revolutionary War when she goes to New York City. Because she is literate, she is hired by the British to prepare the Book of Negroes, which provides identifying information for Black Loyalists to be evacuated from the City to go to Nova Scotia for a new and promised better life as free people. In Hill’s words, it was like a group passport or visa. Aminata is one of those so evacuated.

Life in Nova Scotia, however, is not as easy or as great as the British had promised, as demonstrated in the historical record and in the novel, for Aminata and the other Black Loyalists.

Eventually some of the Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia to go to Sierra Leone in western Africa, as documented in the historical record. In the novel, Aminata is one of those Black Loyalists returning to Africa.

Aminata’s fictional life, however, also includes a trip to London, where she is used in the early 19th century by the British abolitionists to support their arguments for ending the slave trade. To her consternation, abolition of slavery itself is not part of the abolitionists’ agenda.

Guides for the novel for teachers and readers are available on Hill’s website.The novel is now being made into a TV series.

The novel won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The book was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award and long-listed for both the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award.

When my best friend from college who lives in Toronto gave me a copy of this novel several years ago, I had never heard of it and was startled by the title, “The Book of Negroes.” Was this some racist tract? I wondered, but my friend quickly disabused me of that notion.

I found it hard to believe that any male writer, much less an assumed white man, could write so beautifully and convincingly in the first person of an African woman. It was only much later that I discovered that Hill is biracial and that his personal history coupled with his writing skills clearly helped him to write this wonderful book.

A subsequent post will explore Hill’s comments about the novel and his biography.

 

 

 

The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War

At the start of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775, the population of the American colonies was approximately 1.5 million. Of these at least 300,000 were black slaves, mainly in the south. [1]

Lord Dunmore
Lord Dunmore

On November 14, 1775, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. That proclamation declared, in part, “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be.” [2]

Sir Henry Clinton
Sir Henry Clinton

By 1776 the Dunmore Proclamation became general British policy throughout the colonies, and in 1779 Sir Henry Clinton, who was a top British General, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation expanding Dunmore’s Proclamation to include any rebel slave who could escape, ready to serve for the British or not, anywhere in the colonies.

Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of the Dunmore Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.

General Charles Cornwallis
General Charles Cornwallis

In the final battle of the War, the Battle of Yorktown, in October 1781, the British were defeated, and British General Cornwallis surrendered and thereby abandoned hundreds of black soldiers to the Americans for a return to slavery.

By the winter of the next year (1782), it had  become clear that the British would soon have to evacuate the American colonies. At the time thousands of Loyalists were in the British-held strongholds of New York, Charleston, and Savannah. All Loyalists knew that staying in the new country invited retaliation against them by the victorious Americans, and as a result many left the colonies.

The Black Loyalists were at the even greater risk of being returned to slavery and subjected to cruel punishment for having escaped. Indeed, the terms of the Treaty of Paris ending the War required the British to return the former slaves to their owners.

When those treaty terms became widely known in the colonies, many white slave-owners and their agents from the southern states went to New York City to kidnap and seize their former slaves in anticipation of the signing of the treaty. In addition, the British abandoned some of the Black Loyalists to the Americans or sold them in the West Indies or traded them for White Loyalist prisoners.

When the War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, the British were nearing the end of their seven-year occupation of New York City (then only the southern end of Manhattan). Thereafter, over the next three months, the British evacuated more than 29,000 military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves from the City although the Treaty of Paris required the British to return the slaves to their owners.

Among those evacuees were 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.” [3]

Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia

The Black Loyalists on the List of Negroes were taken to British-controlled Nova Scotia where they formed the first free settlements of free Africans outside Africa.  Despite British promises of freedom and land, they soon were subjected to racial discrimination and even slavery and to very difficult conditions.

By the 1790’s the Black Loyalists had given up hope of fair treatment in Nova Scotia. They were ready to leave for a new promised land, and soon their opportunity arrived in the form of the Sierra Leone Company, eager to recruit Black Christians for their new colony on the west coast of Africa. Many of the Black Loyalists decided that an uncertain future in Africa was better than certain misery in Nova Scotia.

In January 1792,15 ships with over 1,100 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia. When they arrived in what is now Sierra Leone in March of that year, they met conditions that were not better than what they had left.

Today the descendants of the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia are an important ethnic group in Sierra Leone and still meet and dominate certain churches.

Conclusion

As a white U.S. citizen in 2013, I confess that I did not know any of this history until I had read the Lawrence Hill novel about The Book of Negroes and did research for this and the earlier post referencing the novel.

For the African slaves in the colonies in 1775, the Dunmore Proclamation must have seemed like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape the horrors of slavery. Yet it required great courage for anyone in those circumstances to attempt to, and actually, escape slavery in the hope that they would be free people. I give thanks for their courage and for their descendants’ creation of a Canadian society to honor their ancestors’ courage and history.

At the same time, once must also acknowledge that the estimated 30,000 Black Loyalists were only roughly 10% of the black slaves in the colonies at the time. The other 270,000 black slaves did not have the courage to try to escape or for whatever reasons had decided to cast their lot with the rebelling colonists. Some even fought for the colonists in the War. It would be interesting to know more about them.

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1 This post is based upon secondary sources, primarily upon the superb “Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People.” I encourage comments correcting any errors in this post or amplifying on the history of the Black Loyalists.

2 In response the next month (December 1775) the Virginia legislature passed a law that prescribed death for “all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection” against their owners while offering pardon to those who ”return in safety to their duty.”

3 “The Book of Negroes”  was mentioned in a prior post along with the novel of the same name by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill. A subsequent post will discuss recent comments about the novel by Hill along with some of his biographical information.

Report for dwkcommentaries —2012

This blog, which started on April 4, 2011, reports the following activity through December 31, 2012:

2011 2012 Total
Posts    190      179      369
Comments      26      170      196
Views 9,190 51,161 60,351

The busiest day so far was December 13, 2012, with 361 views. For 2012 as a whole the viewers came from 170 countries with most from the U.S.A. followed by the United Kingdom and Canada. This blog has 304 followers (Facebook, 235; direct, 59; and commentators, 10).

The following were the most popular posts in 2012:

As indicated in detail on Page: List of Posts and Comments to dwkcommentaries–Topical, the posts and comments for 2011-2012 fell into the following categories:

  • Personal
  • Higher Education
  • Religion/Christianity
  • Lawyering (practice of law)
  • U.S. History
  • U.S. Politics
  • El Salvador
  • Cuba
  • Human Rights Treaties & U.N. Human Rights Council
  • Refugee and Asylum Law
  • Alien Tort Statute & Torture Victims Protection Act
  • International Criminal Justice
  • International Criminal Court
  • Miscellaneous

The blogger would appreciate receiving substantive comments on his posts, including corrections and disagreements.

Effective January 1, 2013, this blog has its own domain: “dwkcommentaries.com.”

The American Revolutionary War’s End in New York City,1783

The American Revolutionary War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. At that time the British were nearing the end of their seven-year occupation of New York City after their victory over the colonists in York Island (Manhattan) in September 1776.[1]

Several weeks before the signing of the Treaty, Sir John Carleton, who was in charge of the British forces in the City, advised the President of the Continental Congress that the British were proceeding as fast as possible with the withdrawal of military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves, but that he could not then provide an estimated date for the completion of that process.

Thereafter the British evacuated more than 29,000 military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves although the Treaty of Paris required them to return the slaves to their owners. The process was completed on November 25th.

Washington & Clinton Entry into New York City

After the evacuation was complete that day, General Washington, New York Governor George Clinton and men in the Continental Army marched down Broadway to the Battery to formally take possession of the City.

Fraunces Tavern

Approximately a week later (on December 4th), General Washington invited the officers of the Continental Army to join him for a farewell dinner at noon at the City’s Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street.[3]

Washington’s Farewell, Fraunces Tavern

When all were assembled in the Tavern’s dining room, Washington filled his glass with wine and said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After each of the officers had taken a glass of wine, General Washington said, “I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”‘ As the officers did so, Washington was in tears.

The British evacuation of the City plays a prominent role in a fascinating novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill.[2] The novel follows Aminata Diallo, a girl who is abducted at age 11 from her West African village in the mid- 18th century and sold into slavery in the U.S. She is intelligent and learns how to read and write. She is in New York City at the end of the American Revolutionary War, and because she is literate is hired by the British to facilitate their evacuation of the city.

Book of Negroes (page)

Her task is to create the Book of Negroes, an actual historical document that lists 3,000 freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the U.S. in order to resettle in Nova Scotia.[4] There are many other intriguing facets of her life that are covered in this amazing novel.

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[1] Various aspects of the American Revolutionary War have been discussed in prior posts.

[2]  The Fraunces Tavern had opened for business in 1762 in a former mansion that was built in 1719. It is still in business today along with its Fraunces Museum. When I was an associate attorney with a nearby Wall Street law firm, 1966-1970, colleagues and I had dinner there several times.

Current NYC map with marker for                  Fraunces Tavern

[3]  In the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, the novel was published under the title Someone Knows My Name.

[4] The actual Book of Negroes is now online.

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of White Plains (New York), October 1776

Immediately after General George Washington’s victory at Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, he and the Continental Army remained at the northern end of York Island (Manhattan).[1]

Twenty-six days later (October 12th) General William Howe made his next move. He had 90 British flat-boats with 4,000 troops row up the East River to Throggs Neck, a narrow peninsula that demarcates the passage between that River and Long Island Sound. There the troops disembarked with the objective of establishing a line across the island to the Hudson River and thereby encircling the Continental Army and preventing their escaping from York Island. The British inland advance, however, was blocked by swamps and some Continental troops.

Howe responded by having his troops return to the boats and go three miles north to Pell’s Point (or Pelham). There on October 18th, the British troops again disembarked with the same objective.  Inland were 750 Continental Army men under the command of Col. John Glover, who positioned his troops behind a series of stone walls and attacked the British advance units. As the British overran each position, the American troops fell back and reorganized behind the next wall. After several such attacks, the British broke off, and the Americans retreated.

This battle or skirmish delayed British movements long enough for Washington to move the main Continental army 18 miles north to White Plains, thereby avoiding being surrounded on Manhattan.

In White Plains by October 22nd Washington established a defensive line near the village anchored by Purdy Hill on one end and Hatfield Hill at the other end. Across the line and the Bronx River was Chatterton’s Hill, which was left undefended.

White Plains Battle map
Battle of White Plains
British soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)
Continental Army soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)

When General Howe and the British troops arrived in White Plains on October 28th, Howe immediately recognized the importance of Chatterton’s Hill and made it the focus of their attack.

Washington’s attempt to mount a defense of that Hill failed, and the British won the battle with 300 Americans killed, wounded and captured. One of those killed on the battlefield was my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown.[2]

The two sides remained in their positions for the next two days. On October 31st General Howe planned to attack the Americans, but heavy rain prevented this move. That night, under the protection of t he rain, Washington withdrew his troops to the north. The next day, November 1st, Howe again found that Washington had eluded his grasp.

Washington continued his retreat to the north and then west over the Hudson River into New Jersey for their further retreat to Pennsylvania in late December. The British returned to Manhattan.


[1] In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from Arthur Merrill, The Battle of White Plains (Analysis Press; Chappaqua, NY, 1975); David McCullough, 1776 at 229-34(New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).  From 1969 through early 1970, I was a lawyer for a Wall Street law firm working for IBM on the IBM antitrust cases and spent a lot of time at a special office for the cases in White Plains. Unfortunately I did not scout out the sites of this battle.

[2]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights (New York), September 1776

On the morning of August 30, 1776, it was apparent that the British had totally routed the colonists in the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). But the British commander, General Howe, did not press their advantage and immediately attack the American forces on the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General Washington at his New York City headquarters obviously knew that the British would be attacking the City and the Island, but did not know where or when.

The Battle of Brooklyn was mentioned in a September 3rd letter from my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, to his wife from New York City. He also said that British ships were now “within ear shot” of the City and that he and the others “expect the [British] Regulars will try to take the City.” Another such letter from him on September 9th said “the Enemy have got a Brestwork [sic] about seven miles above the City [in Brooklyn Heights] on long island and they fire actrost [sic] to a foart [sic] of ours [sic] and our men at them.” He added, “they have wounded two men and kild [sic] one.”[1]

On September 12th (the day after the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference), Washington decided to abandon New York City and ordered the main part of the Continental Army to move north on the island as soon as possible to King’s Bridge connecting the island with what is now the Bronx.[2]

Harlem Heights map

By September 14th most of this American force had reached the Harlem Heights[3] on the west side of the island and King’s Bridge at the northern end of the island. The balance of the forces remained at the southern end of the island.

British ships at Kips Bay

On the morning of the 15th five British frigates sailed up the East River and near Kips Bay (on the east side of Manhattan and just south of the present-day U.N. Headquarters) started a cannon bombardment of the island. Thereafter 13,000 British troops left the ships and invaded the island from the east in flat-boats. Some of the British soldiers immediately marched south to occupy New York City.

Simultaneously the last of the American troops marched north from New York City on the west side of the island to reach their colleagues at Harlem Heights. Perley Brown was in this contingent, and in an October 4th letter to his wife said, “on the 15 of September we left new York and Before we could get out the [British] Regulars Landed on the island and intended to stop our retreat.” Perley continued, “they fired their cannon from there [sic] ships [on the Hudson River] which came very [near] to us.”

Harlem Heights Battle
Harlem Heights Battle

On September 16th 5,000 British troops reached the 1,800 American soldiers on Harlem Heights. The British attacked, and their bunglers sounded a fox-hunting call know as “gone away,” meaning that the fox is in full flight from the hounds. The Continentals, who had been in orderly retreat, were infuriated by this insult. They halted and counter-attacked. The British retreated and withdrew.

 

This battle was mentioned in Perley Brown’s October 4th letter to his wife from “Harlom [sic] Camp.” He reported, “on the 16 they came up to our lines at the upper end of the island at harlom [sic] where our Camp is now.” He added, “we had a sharp ingagement [sic] which lasted about two [h]ours” and had “about 20 kild [sic] and about 70 wounded.”

The British suffered 14 to 90 killed and 78 to 300 wounded. The Americans had 30 killed and 100 wounded.

Troop movements for Battle of Harlem HeightsThe map of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the troop movements leading up to this Battle.

The map to the right of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the movement of troops leading up to the Battle of Harlem Heights.

This victory, minor though it was, was the first victory of the War for General Washington and bolstered American morale.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-25 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2]   In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 208-219 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[3]  This area is now known as Morningside Heights, 110th to 125th Streets from Riverside Drive on the west to Morningside Drive on the east. It is the home today of such institutions as Columbia University, Barnard College, Grant’s Tomb, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Today’s Morningside Heights