The Puritans and The Myth of Democracy

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The history of American democracy is shrouded in fabrication and myth. In an almost Orwellian exclusion of the truth, books are written, documentaries are composed, and texts are presented to students in school, projecting an image of a country that was founded on the noble principles of justice and equal opportunity for all.

The oppression and subjugation of Africans and Native Americans is glossed over. And the exploitation and repression of women along with multitudes of the poor and the downtrodden is ignored or presented in the false light of selfsame participation and reciprocal reward.

In fact, America has a deep cancer festering in the heart of its national being. It is a sickness rooted in the twin prongs of racism and economic exploitation.

This disease that ferments in the bosom of America was brought on by the conscious implementation of a pseudo-religious doctrine that promotes the dehumanization of people of color (especially Africans) and the arbitrary rule by a privileged group of wealthy white land and property owners. In this article I will explain, in three parts, the historical connection of racism, theology, and class privilege in North America.

The Puritans and the Racialization of the Bible

Contrary to popular belief, slavery was not established in America by uneducated Southern whites who chewed tobacco and erected large plantations houses and verandas in such states as Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. The origin of American slavery sprang from the demented minds of Northeastern Puritan colonists, who through a twisted interpretation of the Bible and a corrupted practice of Europeanized Christianity, delegated black people to sub-human status, fit only to serve whites and to submit to their every whim under the threat of the most cruel reprisals and penalties. In fact, it was this corruption, fabrication, and revision of the biblical scriptures which supplied the theological means to read into it the most vile, outlandish and ridiculous philosophies, dogmas, and practices.

Unlike the Southern slavers and plantation owners, Northern Puritans prided themselves on their culture, intellectualism, religious piety and moral purity. Thus, utilizing an obscene form of doublethink, they believed themselves sophisticated while inflicting the most atrocious crimes against Native Americans and people of African descent. And they considered themselves blessed in the sight of God even while committing the most devilish actions against the dark skinned people they encountered. Paul Griffin in his informative book, ‘Seeds of Racism’ explains:

How precisely could Puritans justify this racial prejudice and still maintain their priority as an elect people? The Puritans manipulated biblical texts and these four doctrines into a theology that could show racism to be the essence of God’s will and design. (Puritan) Govenor Theophilus Eaton’s early boast that he held slaves and would continue to do so ‘forever or during his pleasure’ provides a good example.

Eaton directly applied the ancient Israelite law codes in the book of Leviticus to his own situation. According to Leviticus 25:45-46, the convenated Hebrews were under a divine mandate:

"You may… acquire (slaves) from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves."

On the strength of an otherwise literal reading of the text, Puritans claimed that they were God’s new covenanted people and that God was speaking directly to them to organize their "New Canaan" in the same manner that the ancient Hebrews had organized their Canaan across the Jordan. It was possible, therefore, to theorize that slavery was not inconsistent with the claim to be God’s favored people; as Eaton insisted, it was a divine decree "according to Leviticus." This corruption of the Levitical law codes allowed Eaton to argue that the Puritans had not only a godly right but also a duty to enslave the strange people snatched from Africa and brought to their New Canaan.[1]

Despite the analysis of many historians and social scientists who attribute the escalation of slavery to the rise of capitalism, the enslavement and incredibly brutal treatment of Africans and their descendants was (in fact) fueled by white supremacist dogmas rooted in twisted and fabricated quasi- Christian religious doctrines.

As the American elite grew in land, wealth, and property, they continued to draw from and to weave more vicious and elaborate theories of racial superiority based on crude interpretations of biblical texts. This concocted vision of inherent white racial superiority was also used as a justification for the enslavement, plunder, and genocide perpetuated against the indigenous population or Native Americans.

The wealthy white elite convinced themselves that it was their right or manifest destiny to steal the land and to dominate, subjugate and murder the dark skinned natives who had inhabited it for millenniums.

The solidification and justification of the white right to rule, fermented a germ in white consciousness that (although devised and refined in the minds of the upper crust) filtered down and infected the attitudes and the demeanor of poor whites who envied and emulated the ruling class elite. Thus poor whites regardless of how pathetic, how disenfranchised and how low on the social/economic totem pole; still believed themselves superior to the Africans and Natives that they were conditioned to look upon as Godless sub-humans, savages and heathens.

The kernel of the white religious ideology of racial superiority is firmly entrenched in the collective white American mindset, and has been so since its primary development some 400 years ago. We see the manifestations of it throughout America. Whether in the depiction of the white blond haired, blue eyed Jesus in the churches, cathedrals and in the media, or the arrogant paternalism of Euro-American missionaries, or the self righteous pronouncements and activities of white clergy; American religious sentiments sit smugly atop the white props of economic, political, ideological, and theological racism:

…racism has a powerful supranational or fideistic character and thus stands in a starkly antithetical position to authentic Christian faith.

The work of black scholars George H. Kelsey and Cornel West has helped us see this. But more than either Kelsey or West has argued, I have stressed in this study that racism is itself a religion in the United States and is practically synonymous with (white) American Christianity. From the first moment the Puritans settled in North America, Christian religionists have employed distorted Christian theological ideas to define and justify their bigotry against persons of African descent."[2]

The Myth of American Democracy

The legend of American democracy is the second element in the two pronged mythological facade which has become a part of American historical records and a bulwark of its institutions of academia and mis-education.

In Merriam Webster’s dictionary, a democracy is defined as a government by the people; especially rule by the majority, and as government in which the supreme power is held by the people.

Of course, these descriptions have never applied to the United States of America and this is true as much today as it was when the government was formulated in the 1770’s and 1780’s. In fact, the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, the advent of the Revolutionary War and the subsequent drafting of the United States Constitution, were essentially the throes and ramifications of one group of white aristocrats (the Americans) seeking independence or autonomy from another group of wealthy whites (the British). This conflict for the spoils of colonial rule was fought at the expense of African and indigenous people who were used as pawns and cannon fodder in the conflagration to control land, wealth, and resources.

It is common knowledge that blacks and natives were not included in the lofty vision for the new republic, but poor whites and women were also excluded or marginalized from the noble sounding principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence and in the United States Constitution and they were not allowed to vote or seek public office.

In the decades leading up to the Declaration of Independence there were numerous rebellions by African slaves, Native Americans and poor white laborers.

There was also a rising fear of the consequences if these oppressed groups were to join forces and attack the designers and facilitators of their oppression, exploitation, and enslavement. This dread led to a concerted effort among the wealthy elite to fabricate a national/racial identity that would become known as the United States of America and which would stand as a symbol of a codified white supremacy. The new nation would sharpen the lines of division between poor whites, Africans, and the indigenous people, while inducing empathy and racial solidarity between poor whites and wealthy white property owners. Howard Zinn gives an overview in his remarkable book, A People’s History of the United States:

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal entity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of political rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership. When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantage of combining paternalism with command.[3]

Thus the so-called revolution was not a revolution at all, for the encroachment of slavery, oppression and classism were merely refurbished and presented in different nationalistic package. It is a nationalism deeply rooted in the dementia of white superiority and the white right to rule and one that allows even the most pathetic and downtrodden whites festering in the quagmire of poverty to feel that they are, nevertheless, superior to people of color simply because they are white and therefore "inherently superior."

The "Founding Fathers"

The American founding fathers were all wealthy land and property owners and many of them, particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were also slave owners. Although it has been explained by apologists that they were merely caught up in the historical forces and traditions of the time, there is an abundance evidence to support the view that they were avid racists who theorized and implemented doctrines of white supremacy, exhibited callous disregard for the human rights of African and indigenous people, and provided ammunition for subsequent generations of American and European racists and the ideologies for institutions of racism and oppression. A stratagem so pervasive and insidious that it prompted famed scholar W.E B. Dubois to describe as a "…system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political and economic monstrosity." [4]

Dubois could have been well been describing the conduct of the founders of America and the framers of the U.S. Constitution, for although George Washington and Thomas Jefferson occasionally paid lip service to the principles of emancipation and the abolishment of slavery they, nevertheless, retained an unshakable belief in both the doctrine and the implementation of white supremacy.

Since George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are synonymous with the establishment of the United States and the mythic traditions of the founding fathers, it is important to briefly examine their lives in the light of their words, actions, and sentiments as they applied to people of color.

At age 16, George Washington became a surveyor for a wealthy Englishman, named Fairfax. From his vantage point of witnessing the scandalous means with which Fairfax acquired his five million acres, he quickly devised his own schemes to steal land from the Natives. Later when Washington fought on the side of the British against the indigenous people in the "French and Indian War" he was rewarded with thousands of acres of "Indian" land on the south bank of the Ohio River. Washington would simply venture into large stretches of "Indian’ land, scrutinize it for what he perceived as the most valuable and desirable areas, and seize it by ridding it off its Native population utilizing whatever means available, fair or foul.

In 1763, the British monarchy issued a proclamation which prohibited white settlers and land speculators from going west of the Allegheny mountains and ordered that white settlers who were already there "remove themselves." However, with the inception of the American Revolution all bets were off, which afforded Washington the opportunity to rob the Natives of their lands, their wealth, and (in some instances) their very lives.

At the time of Washington’s death in 1799, he owned 40,000 acres of land that he had plundered from the indigenous peoples, and 317 Africans that he had forced into perpetual bondage. We get an account, in Washington’s own words, of how he dealt with the Native people, simply because he looked upon them as inferior beings who stood in the way of his land acquisitions and his grandiose vision of white dominance:

"The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians with their associates and adherents. The immediate objective is their total destruction and devastation and the capture of as many persons of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now on the ground, and prevent their planting more…Parties should be detached to lay waste all (Indian) settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed."[5]

Thomas Jefferson owes his prominence, in large part, to the hundreds of Africans he enslaved who afforded him the prestige, the wealth, and the leisure to pen such documents as the Declaration of Independence and to participate in the framing of the US Constitution.

Jefferson’s professed ideals of human dignity, liberty and equality did not include Blacks for he was a life long slave holder and he often referred to Black people in his letters to his associates in Europe as lazy, slow, unable to reason, lacking in imagination, and unsightly in appearance.

These words of Jefferson indicate the most blatant disregard and ingratitude for his African slaves, for what would Jefferson had attained if it were not for his parasitical exploitation of the labor, the skill, and the ingenuity of the over 200 Black people whom he had reduced to chattel and stripped of their humanity? And whom he did not see fit to free (not even one) right up until the day he died.

Even the lauded Constitution that he helped to compose regarded Africans as only three-fifths of a person and allowed the floodgates of slavery and Euro-American greed and viciousness to remain staunchly open.[6]

Conclusion

I am certain that there are those who will read this article and seek to apologize, to justify, and to minimize the ideology and the practices of those early founders of what would became known as the United States of America. Some will claim that the Puritans, the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution, were men who were merely acting according to the climate of their times. Others will point out that men like Washington and Jefferson were reluctant slave owners who wrestled with their conscience and were contented with the belief that slavery was sick and, thus, would eventually die a slow and natural death. Yet there is an abundance of evidence, either through their own words, through the eyewitness accounts of their contemporaries, or through their recorded actions, which indicate that these men were not simply reacting to a system of incredible oppression that they inherited, but were the initiators of their own visions of whit! e dominance, white supremacy and the calculated murder and subjugation of dark skinned peoples. The fact is it cannot be creditably explained away how Washington commanded forces that systematically wiped out Native Americans and robbed them of millions of acres of their land for his own enrichment and the aggrandizement of white people. And it cannot be readily justified how Jefferson (while President of the United States) gave the green light to Andrew Jackson (the notorious Indian killer) to search out and to destroy Native Americans (men, women, and children) and to confiscate and to annex their lands. Neither should it be over looked that these men, these so-called founding fathers, were in a position to curtail or to alleviate the incredibly brutal, savage, and unjust system of chattel slavery, genocide, and wholesale thievery; both on a personal level and in their influential capacity as stalwarts of American public life and as occupiers of the highest government office. Yet, on a personal level, they did nothing or next to nothing; and on a public level they spent their energies contributing to the madness, the hypocrisy, and the cruelty of their time.

I hope that this article will influence those who are sincere and earnest to re-examine long held beliefs, and to seek out the truths behind the myths of American democracy and the struggle for human dignity, human equality, and human rights. Perhaps, if we can honestly look at where we came from, we can more clearly see in what direction we need to go.

Notes and References:

[1]. Paul R. Griffin, "Seeds of Racism in the Soul of America" Sourcebooks, Inc.
Naperville Ill.(2000) P. 17, 18

[2]. Ibin

[3]. Howard Zinn, "A People’s History of the United States" HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY (2000) p. 59

[4]. W.E.B. Dubois {24,99}, 198.

[5]. "The Writings of George Washington: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" by John C. Fitzpatrick and Charles A. Beard

[6]. "Who was Thomas Jefferson?" accessible online at:
http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/xo203_Jefferson_ _Who_was_.html

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