By Jim Miller
On this day when we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, it’s important to remember Jefferson himself believed that each new generation needed to make the American creed their own. And everyone from slaves to women to working people did just that as we see in Frederick Douglass’s great speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”, the early feminist manifesto “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Seneca Falls,” and the much lesser known “Working Men’s Declaration of Independence.”
This last is centrally important to remember because while Americans are largely aware that the battle for inclusion involved long and heroic abolition, civil rights, and women’s movements, struggles around issues of class have all-too-frequently been relinquished to the dustbin of history. Such is the case with the early Working Men’s Party that was railing about what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” well before the time when many historians mark the beginning rustlings of the American labor movement.
Indeed, what the early Working Men’s Party history shows is class rebellion is as American as apple pie and was seen as a fulfillment of the Jeffersonian project. How so?
In 1829, the Working Men’s Party issued their own Declaration, which mimicked the Declaration of Independence but then went on to note that working people needed their own party because “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were things that “the rich enjoy exclusively.”
Written by George H. Evans and published in the Working Man’s Advocate in New York and the Mechanics Free Press of Philadelphia, the Declaration begins by extensively citing Jefferson:
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” for one class of a community to assert their natural and unalienable rights in opposition to other classes of their fellow men, “and to assume among” them a political “station of equality to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as well as the principles of their political compact “entitle them; a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” and the more paramount duty they owe to their own fellow citizens, “requires that they should declare the causes which impel them” to adopt so painful, yet so necessary, a measure.
From there, however, there is a pivot to class:
“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” against the undue influence of other classes of society, prudence, as well as the claims of self defence, dictates the necessity of the organization of a party, who shall, by their representatives, prevent dangerous combinations to subvert these indefeasible and fundamental privileges. “All experience hath shown, that mankind” in general, and we as a class in particular, “are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves,” by an opposition which the pride and self interest of unprincipled political aspirants, with more unprincipled zeal or religious bigotry, will willfully misrepresent. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations” take place, all invariably tending to the oppression and degradation of one class of society, and to the unnatural and iniquitous exaltation of another by political leaders, “it is their right it is their due” to use every constitutional means to reform the abuses of such a government and to provide new guards for their future security. The history of the political parties in this state, is a history of political iniquities, all tending to the enacting and enforcing oppressive and unequal laws. To prove this, let facts be submitted to the candid and impartial of our fellow citizens of all parties.
The Working Men’s list of grievances included a tax system “most oppressively on one of society, and being scarcely felt by the other” as well as “unequal and oppressive” laws, and “private incorporations” that functioned by “favoring one class of society to the expense of the other, who have no equal participation.”
From there they went on to critique religious societies, the credit system, and the political structure before concluding that:
Therefore, we, the working class of society, of the city of New York, “appealing to the supreme judge of the world,” and to the reason, and consciences of the impartial of all parties, “for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the spirit, and by the authority of that political liberty which has been promised to us equally with our fellow men, solemnly publish and declare, and invite all under like pecuniary circumstances, together with every liberal mind, to join us in the declaration, “that we are, & of right ought to be,” entitled to equal means to obtain equal moral happiness, and social enjoyment, and that all lawful and constitutional measures ought to be adopted to the attainment of those objects. “And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other” our faithful aid to the end of our lives.
This class-based reinterpretation of Jefferson was further explored by Working Men’s Party fellow traveler Thomas Skidmore who in The Rights of Man to Property explains why it was necessary to refine the Jeffersonian creed:
Of all these, no man, more than Mr. Jefferson, deserves to be considered, as possessing in his own mind, not only “the standard of the man,” but the standard of the age. If there was any one capable of ascending to first principles, it was he; and if it was not to be expected of him, how was it to be expected of any one else? Yet Mr. Jefferson speaks of the rights of man, in terms which when they come to be investigated closely, appear to be very defective and equivocal. I do not mean, that he thought or meant them so; for it is evident that the contrary was the fact. Let us quote him, however; let us weigh his expressions; let us arrive at his intentions in the most legitimate manner: and then see, if I am borne out, in my declaration. If I am, I shall be sustained. If I am not, I shall fail, and deserve to do so. He says: —
” 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.”
These are his words in the declaration of American Independence.
Whoever looks over the face of the world, and surveys the population of all countries; our own, as well as any and every other; will see it divided into rich and poor; into the hundred who have every thing, and the million who have nothing. If then, Mr. Jefferson, had made use of the word property, instead of “the pursuit of happiness,” I should have agreed with him. Then his language would have been clear and intelligible, and strictly conformable to natural right. For I hold, that man’s natural right to life or liberty, is not more sacred or unalienable, than his right to property. But if property is to descend only to particular individuals from the previous generation, and if the many are born, having neither parents nor any one else, to give them property, equal in amount to that which the sons of the rich, receive, from their fathers and other testators, how is it established that they are created equal? In the pursuit of happiness, is property of no consequence? Can any one be as happy without property of any kind, as with it? Is even liberty and life to be preserved without it? Do we not every day, see multitudes, in order to acquire property, in the very pursuit of that happiness which Mr. Jefferson classes among the unalienable rights of man, obliged to sacrifice both liberty and health and often ultimately life, into the bargain? If then property be so essential and indispensable in the pursuit of happiness, as it appears to be, how can it be said, that I am created with an equal right to this happiness — with another, when I must purchase property of him, with labor and suffering — and when he is under no necessity to purchase the like of me at the same costly price? If we are created equal — how has he the right to monopolize all, or even an undue share of the property of the preceding generation? If, then, even the rights of liberty and life, are so insecure and precarious, without property — how very essential to their preservation is it, that “the pursuit of happiness” — should be so construed, as to afford title to that, without which, the rights of life and liberty are but an empty name?
Today, close to 200 years later, many would argue that after a century of progress toward including working people more fully into the mainstream of American democracy, we are now quickly moving in the wrong direction. Truly, unless we do something profound to reverse the growing chasm between the rich and the rest of us, the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy will soon be nothing more than the “empty name” Skidmore accused it of being.
So this Fourth of July, make a toast to Thomas Skidmore, the Working Men’s Party, and the rebellious spirit of those American patriots of old who rejected the notion that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and property) should be things that “the rich enjoy exclusively.”
Summer is here and it’s time to take a break from my usual column and stretch the form a little with some chronicles. As I explained last year, the chronicle is a literary genre born in Brazil:
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists . . .
Editor Note: This article was originally published on July 4, 2016