Archive for the ‘Historical perspective’ Category

The Declaration of Sentiments

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

This sounds quite familiar, and yet, something in that sentence is not quite “right”.

Just one word. One word is enough to makes this quote not the famous quote from the Declaration of Independence, but a different one. That extra word is the word “women”.

On 20 May 1848, a group of women - and men- approved a Declaration at a convention convened at Seneca Falls, New York on 19 and 20 May 1848 to discuss the rights of women.

Over 300 women and men met and debated the text of a Declaration, which is known as the Declaration of Sentiments.

Two women were the driving force behind this declaration, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who drafted the text and Lucrecia Mott. The two had met eight years earlier, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

Lucrecia Mott had traveled to England with her husband, a Quaker minister, and a staunch abolitionist. They had been chosen to serve as delegates to the Convention because of their abolitionist activities. Such activities included refusing to use the product of slave labour, cotton and cane sugar in particular, as did other Hicksite Quakers. But the Motts also traveled to advocate for abolition, and they sheltered runaway slaves.

At the London convention, no seats were made available to women delegates. It is then that Lucrecia met Elizabeth, who was attending with her husband Henry. Both decided the time had come for a convention to discuss the rights of women.

Born in a wealthy New York family, Elizabeth had managed to convince her father that she needed to go to college, where she studied philosophy and logic.

It is thanks to that education that she was able to draft the Declaration of Sentiments. But it took eight years before the convention could be held.

And it took over eighty years for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution - granting the right to vote to women - to be proposed in 1919, and ratified on 18 August 1920.

Freedom of conscience and the City of Brotherly Love

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

William Penn, Newcastle, Delaware

William Penn, Newcastle, Delaware

As the World Day for Cultural Diversity is being celebrated today on 21 May, it seems fitting to remember the vision of William Penn for an inclusive society, a place where various religious groups would live together in peace and harmony.

William Penn was born in England on 14 October 1644, the son of William Penn, an English captain in the Navy and Margaret Jasper, herself the daughter of a rich Dutch merchant from Rotterdam. When William was born, his twenty-three year old father was blockading Irish ports as part of the effort to quell Irish Catholic unrest. The captain was rewarded for his role in the English Civil War with lands in Ireland that had been confiscated from Irish Catholics following the massacre of Protestants. Those were turbulous times: Oliver Cromwell had led a successful Puritan revolution against Charles I, resulting in the King being beheaded in 1649.

Penn spent his youth between England and Ireland where his father was exiled for a while after a failed mission to the Caribbean. It is there that, at fifteen, young William first heard Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary. The talk Loe gave made a lasting impression on the young man who had become interested in religious issues. Quakers belonged in a Protestant sect founded in 1647 by George Fox, and believed in a direct relationship with God. Morals for them were guided by an individual’s conscience, and not by the Bible.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death, the Puritan Revolution came to an end and William Penn’s father, who since had been promoted to the rank of Admiral, was instrumental in bringing Charles II back to the throne. As a result, Admiral Penn was knighted and became Commissioner of the Navy.

Meanwhile, William Penn was sent to study at Oxford, where students came from various religious background, including aristocratic Protestants, austere Puritans and non-conformist Quakers. Among the faculty were free-thinkers: one of them, a dean was eventually fired. Young William, along with a number of students decided to stand by the dean, resulting in their being fined and reprimanded. Following this incident, stricter religious practices were imposed by the administration: Penn rebelled against imposed chapel attendance worship and was expelled. His parents then decided to expose him to a different culture and sent him to France where he studied in Saumur for one year with Moise Amyrault at l’Academie Protestante, the most respected Protestant university in the country. There Penn learned about religious toleration.

William Penn

William Penn

Upon his return to England, Penn studied law and then served as his father’s personal assistant, a position which allowed him to gain access to king Charles II and his brother the Duke of York. In the gloomy aftermath of the Great Plague, and the Great Fire in London, Penn elected to settle for a while in the Irish family estate. At a time when restrictions against all religious groups other than Anglican were being severely tightened, Penn started to attend Quaker meetings.

In 1667, Penn was arrested at one of these meetings. Upon his insisting that he was a Quaker, and demanding to be treated as such, he was sent to jail. It is in prison that he first wrote about freedom of conscience. Because of his father’s position, he was eventually released and returned to England. Admiral Penn tried to reason with his son to no avail; giving up, he decided to disown his son who eventually found shelter with Quaker families. It is during that period, that he met his first wife, Gulielma Springett, whom he finally married in 1672, and that he became friends with Georges Fox, with whom he traveled around Europe. Fox had founded the Quaker movement during the more tolerant years of the Puritan revolution. The movement had no written doctrine, Penn became its first theorist.

His writings led him to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned for eight months. While in prison, he wrote one of his most famous pamphlets: No Cross, No Crown. Remorseless, once free, Penn continued his religious activities. In 1670, in an attempt to test the new law against assembly, Penn convoked a public meeting during which he started preaching. He was arrested. At the trial, contrary to the law in effect at the time, he was denied the right to hear the charges against him, and the jury was asked to give their verdict without hearing the defence. In spite of this, jurors found him not guilty and refused to change their verdict. Although the judge sentenced them to jail, they still refused to change their verdict. The jurors spent more than two months in prison, and fought for their right from jail. They won, an outcome that led thereon to the recognition of the right for English juries to not be coerced or punished for their verdict.

Following his release from prison, Penn traveled to Germany and the Netherlands to study the living conditions of Quakers in these countries. What impressed him the most what the freedom he observed in the Netherlands, which had become a land of asylum for persecuted Jews and Protestants from various parts of Europe. The peaceful coexistence of various religious there inspired him to develop a vision of a community based on liberty.

Back in England, Penn tried to introduce the concept of religious toleration, with the support of the King, but failed with the Parliament. At this point, he realized that such a project could only be achieved outside of England. A mass immigration of Quakers was planned, and a group of them, including Penn, purchased a land in North America: West Jersey.

Trying to expand the Quaker region, Penn decided to go to the King and ask for a charter that would establish an American colony. The King and his brother were indebted to Admiral Penn, who, before his death had asked for their protection of young Penn. The charter was granted and Penn was given a territory located South of West Jersey and North of Maryland, making him the largest land owner after the King. Penn suggested it be called Sylvania, it was the King who suggested Pennsylvania, adding Penn’s name in honour of the deceased Admiral. In return, one fifth of the gold and silver that would be mined in the province, along with two beaver skins would have to go to the King at the beginning of each year.

Penn and the Charter of Liberties

Penn and the Charter of Liberties

The charter was signed on March 4, 1681. While still in England, in early 1682, Penn started working on his charter of liberties for the territory, the First Frame of Government for the Province of Pennsylvania. Most importantly, the document guaranteed freedom of worship to all inhabitants. Religious toleration was foremost, but another set of rights was also granted which reflected Penn’s early experiences. Freedom of the press, as well as the right to a fair trial by jury, and free elections along with more generally the rights of Englishmen were recognized by the Frame of Government for “all the freemen, planters and adventurers of, in and to the province” of Pennsylvania.

Penn sailed to America and landed in Newcastle on 27 October 1682.

Penn landed in Newcastle, Delaware

Penn landed in Newcastle, Delaware

In spite of having been given the territory through a royal charter, Penn decided that he would purchase the land from the Lenape Indians, and after some negotiations, a price of 1,200 pounds was agreed upon.

Penn's Treaty with the Lenape Indians

Penn's Treaty

With friends, he set to establish a city between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, naming it Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Penn also chose the names of the major streets, such as Spruce, Chestnut, Broad and Pine. Meanwhile, he had invited Quakers to join his community: some 250 settlers responded. He later advertised his land of religious freedom all over Europe, and representatives from persecuted minorities arrived: Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews coming from England, France, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and Wales.

The First Frame of Government was revised, and twenty drafts were issued. One of the great innovative ideas Penn came up with was the introduction of amendments that would allow to respond to changing times and circumstances and enable social changes without violent uprisings or revolutions.

In 1684, Penn returned to England to see his family. Conditions had changed there with a new absolutism modeled after the French monarchy. Books were being burnt, quakers were being sent to jail. Penn was able to help save a number of them, including George Fox himself. Meanwhile, in the colonies, his business manager, Philip Ford, was proving unworthy of the confidence entrusted in him. Ford cheated his employer by having Penn sign a deed transferring Pennsylvania to his business manager.

Much of Penn’s later years were marked by his fight to recover from this deed transfer. He returned to America in 1699 where he stayed until 1701 with his new wife, whom he had married in 1696 two years after Gulielma’s death. Back in England, having lost most of his money, he was sued by Ford’s widow who, in 1702, had Penn imprisoned for debt. Fellow Quakers collected money to get him released, and in 1708, a ruling allowed Penn to regain Pennsylvania, for himself and his heirs. Four years later, he suffered a stroke and died penniless soon thereafter.

William Penn, Philadelphia

William Penn, Philadelphia

In spite of his later years troubles, Penn’s legacy is one of a man who fought for his convictions, defended freedom of religion and developed a model for a free society where people of different ethnic background and religion could live in peace. His Frame of Government inspired Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence.

“Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.”

A night to remember

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The night of 4 August 1789 in Paris was a night of uncontrolled passion. And the morning after, quite a few of the partakers had second thoughts.

That night, in the course of a few hours, members of the nobility and of the clergy renounced many of the centuries old privileges that came with their social position.

In 1789, France was a nation of about 28 million people, in which society was divided into three classes, the Estates. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate, nobility, and the Third Estate included everyone else: from rich and educated bourgeois to poor illiterate peasants.

While the first two Estates were the richest and paid hardly any taxes, the Third Estate was heavily taxed not only by the King but also by the other two Estates, through the system of privileges. In early 1789, when invited by Louis XVI to express their concerns, the French had bitterly complained about the unfair tax system in the more than 50,000 Cahiers de Doléances that were to register such concern.

So widely spread was the complaint that it is reflected in the imagery of the time, including caricatures and ceramics. Famous are the images that show the Third Estate bent over from carrying the weight of the clergy and nobility, with such taglines as: Hopefully, this game will be over soon, or I am weary of carrying them…

Less than a month after the storming of the Bastille, the night of August 4, 1789, officially marked the end of feudalism in France. The event was initiated by the need to respond to unrest that accompanied the 14 July event throughout the country. As food had become scarce nation-wide, local militias formed in the provinces, searching for hoarded grain. Violence against the hoarders grew, peasants refused to pay taxes, and rumours spread about nobles that were enacting revenge disguised as brigands. A number of castles were attacked, and feudal records destroyed.

In an attempt to calm the countryside, a night session of the National Assembly, which was working on the drafting of a constitution for France, was called at 8pm, on 4 August, 1789.

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

The day before, in a small gathering of liberal nobles who were trying to find a response to the crisis, the Duke d’Aiguillon, the second richest man in France after the King, had proposed to renounce feudal rights. Giving up on such rights meant that the Duke would become a lot poorer.

During the August 4 night session, the Viscount de Noailles, who in terms of wealth had much less to lose, pre-empted the Duke and spoke first. He delivered an impassioned speech in which he proposed to give up feudal rights. D’Aiguillon followed him and supported the proposal.

One-by-one, the many privileges that benefited the Second Estate were mentioned and renounced by delegates of the nobility who responded enthusiastically to the generous proposals that were being made. Goaded by the nobility delegates, the clergy had no other option than to respond to the challenge and agree to also renounce their tithes. It became a competition between the two Estates as to which would give up the most of their privileges.

The meeting went on late into the night, and collective rights, those of regions, towns, and civic corporations, were also gradually relinquished.

So many rights had been abolished during that one selfless night, that it took one week to complete the Decrees, and more than six months before they would start being implemented.

The privileges that members of the nobility and the clergy gave up covered a wide range of rights, from feudal, including serfdom, to hunting rights; even the right to maintain pigeon houses was abandoned…

French Revolutionary plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

ARTICLE I. The National Assembly hereby completely abolishes the feudal system. It decrees that, among the existing rights and dues, both feudal and censuel, all those originating in or representing real or personal serfdom shall be abolished without indemnification…

II. The exclusive right to maintain pigeon houses and dovecotes is abolished…

III. The exclusive right to hunt and to maintain uninclosed warrens is likewise abolished, and every landowner shall have the right to kill, or to have destroyed on his own land, all kinds of game…

This passionate abolition of rights - the rights of a few at the expense of a majority of others - marked a step in the adoption, at the end of August, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

10 days and 13 years

Saturday, July 17th, 2010
10 days and 13 years separate two 18th Century July events that have become national holidays commemorating the American and the French Revolutions. Both resulted in major legal texts recognizing human rights.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia adopts the American Declaration of Independence, which rejected British rule and layed out the principles of basic rights for the American people. A Committee of Five, which included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, had tasked Jefferson with producing the first draft.

Storming of the Bastille

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the medieval fortress which, as a jail, had become a symbol of the royal arbitrary power. It was used by the French Kings to emprison a number of free thinkers, who would be sent there for having printed, expressed or advocated liberal ideas. If the King so decided, anyone could be sent to prison on the basis of a lettre de cachet, the executive order that did not need the validation of a court. Although on July 14 only seven people were still held prisoners, the storming of the Bastille is considered as one of the critical events that marked the beginninng of the French Revolution.

Much has been written about the links between the American and the French July events. On both sides of the Atlantic, a number of individuals have played a role in, or been eye-witness to, two of the most determining episodes in the history of human rights. As it happens, the same individuals have been involved to some degree in the two events.

One year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and elected George Washington to be its Commander-in-chief. Washington had been nominated by John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts.

Developments in America were closely followed in France. Beaumarchais is allowed to found a commercial enterprise which provided the American rebels with weapons, and necessary supplies. The Marquis de La Fayette chooses to serve in the Continental Army, and although he has received strict orders from the French King not to leave France, he sails for America and lands in Georgetown, South Carolina, in June 1777. He offers to serve without pay and two month later becomes an aide to George Washington, is wounded at the battle of Brandywine, and continues fighting in the Revolutionary War for two years.

John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Paris

From left, John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Paris

Having made a number of friends in America, back in France, La Fayette settles at the Hôtel de La Fayette, rue de Bourbon, which becomes the headquarters of Americans in Paris. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and his wife Sarah, and John and Abigail Adams, became frequent guests, visiting once a week. John Jay, who had served for one year as President of the Continental Congress until 1779 just before taking an assignment to Spain, in 1782, is sent to Paris along with Franklin and Adams. As ministers plenipotentiary, the three men were to negotiate to end the American Revolutionary War. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris is signed, which formally brought peace between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America. When Thomas Jefferson replaced John Jay in Paris, he worked with La Fayette to facilitate trade agreements between the two countries.

In 1788, La Fayette is appointed to the Assembly of Notables that was to advise Louis XVI on the financial crisis which had been partially initiated by the cost of the intervention in the American Revolution. La Fayette protests against proposals to raise taxes, and recommends calling for a meeting of the Estates General, which will bring together the three French social classes: the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.

Just as George Washington becomes the first United States President under the Constitution, and takes the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in France, the Estates General are getting ready to meet. They first meet at the beginning of May 1789, with the Third Estate (Tiers Etat) having been awarded double representation. Voting however will be by Estate, and not by head. The Third Estate refuses and starts meeting separately. On 17 June, they declare themselves as the National Assembly; gradually members of the clergy and the nobility - among which La Fayette - join them. Work then starts on a constitution and a declaration of the rights of man, and on 11 July, La Fayette presents his own draft of the Declaration. The draft borrows heavily from the American Declaration of Independence. It is not retained.

On 15 July, following the storming of the Bastille, La Fayette is appointed Commander in Chief of the National Guard of France and orders the Bastille demolition.

Model of the Bastille

Model of the Bastille

Symbolically, La Fayette sends to George Washington the key to the west portal of the Bastille on March 17, 1790, and writes: Give me leave, my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition,- with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide - de - Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch. The key is still on display at Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.

In letters to friends, Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France, has provided his analysis of the events that led to the French Revolution. In a January 8, 1789 letter addressed to a Dr. Price, he writes: The court was well disposed towards the people, not from principles of justice or love to them; but they want money. No more can be had from the people. They are squeezed to the last drop. The clergy and nobles, by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure untaxed hitherto. They then remain to be squeezed, and no agent is powerful enough for this but the people. The court therefore must ally itself with the people.

Marquis de La Fayette

Marquis de La Fayette

On May 10, 1789, Jefferson shares the following concern with George Washington: I am in great pain for the Marquis de La Fayette. His principles, you know, are clearly with the people; but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne, they have laid him under express instructions, to vote for the decisions by orders, and not persons… I have not hesitated to press on him to burn his instructions, and follow his conscience as the only sure clue, which will eternally guide a man clear of all doubts and inconsistencies. If he cannot effect a conciliatory plan, he will surely take his stand manfully at once, with the Tiers Etat.

To John Jay - who preceded him as Minister to France and as American Secretary of Foreign Affairs - Jefferson writes in June: This day ([June] the 25th) forty-eight of the Nobles have joined the Tiers. Among these, is the Duke d’Orleans. The Marquis de La Fayette could not be of the number, being restrained by his instructions. He is writing to his constituents, to change his instructions or to accept his resignation.

On July 11, the future American President writes to the author of Common Sense and The Rights of man, Thomas Paine: The National Assembly then (for this is the name they take), having shown through every stage of these transactions a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves, rather than to relinquish an iota from their plan of a total change of government, are now in complete and undisputed possession of the sovereignty. The executive and aristocracy are at their feet; the mass of the nation, the mass of the clergy, and the army are with them; they have prostrated the old government, and are now beginning to build one from the foundation. A committee, charged with the arrangement of their business, gave in, two days ago, the following order of proceedings.

1. Every government should have for its only end, the preservation of the rights of man; whence it follows, that to recall constantly the government to the end proposed, the constitution should begin by a declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man…

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

His account for July 14 is again addressed to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay. Jefferson recalls the events of the preceding days, including Finance Minister Necker’s dismissal which, together with the gathering of foreign troops, led to the insurrection of the people of Paris. He describes the efforts of the Paris Bourgeoisie to arm itself for the preservation of order in the city… On the 14th, they sent one of their members (Monsieur de Corny, whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides, to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalides came out, and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms… Monsieur de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed four people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired; the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of the fortification, defended by one hundred men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges, and had never been taken. How they got in, has, as yet, been impossible to discover. Those who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories, as to destroy the credit of them all. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of ther garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Greve (the place of public execution), cut off their heads, and sent them through the city in triumph to the Palais Royal…

Jefferson later describes the reaction of the aristocracy and of the King who the next day went about eleven o’clock, accompanied only by his brothers, to the States General, and there read to them a speech, in which he asked for their interposition to re-establish order… He returned to the chateau a foot, accompanied by the States. They sent off a deputation, the Marquis de La Fayette at their head, to quiet Paris. He had the same morning, been named Commandant-in-Chief of the Milice Bourgeoise…

The National Assembly becomes the National Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a constitution. On August 4, 1789 the new Assembly officially abolishes feudalism, and in the course of a few hours, in a meeting that runs into the early morning hours, members of the nobility and the clergy surrender many of their special privileges. The Viscount de Noailles, who has served under La Fayette in the American Revolutionary War is the first to speak.

Work continued throughout the month of August on the drafting of the proposed declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man… A number of drafts, including La Fayette’s, were considered and reviewed. Finally, on 26 August 1789, that the Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Another Harriet

Monday, June 28th, 2010

As Ghana is the only African country left in the World Cup competition, now seems like a good time to honour the other 19th Century Harriet who, like Harriet Beecher-Stowe, fought for the freedom of slaves in the United States.

Harriet Tubman, Peekskill

Harriet Tubman remembered, Peekskill, NY

Although little is known of Harriet Tubman’s origins, including the actual year of her birth, it is said that her maternal grandmother Modesty - who arrived in America on a slave ship - was of Ashanti origin, and was probably captured in what is now Ghana.

Born a slave in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to eventually become one of the main conductors of the Underground Railroad, a nurse and a spy during the Civil War, and a suffragist.

In 1849, as was frequently the case following the death of a slave’s master, Harriet was going to be sold and separated from her family. A fighter who had learned from her mother the power of action, rather than passively waiting for that fate to become hers, Harriet chose to escape. A runaway notice published two weeks following her escape describes her as being about 27 year old, of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5.2 feet high.

The same notice also described her two brothers, Harry and Ben who escaped with her. A $100 reward was promised to whoever would help capture any one of the fugitives. Shortly following the issue of that notice, Ben had a change of heart, having left behind a young wife and a new-born. But he could not return alone, so the three siblings went back to Maryland.

It did not take long before Harriet escaped again, setting out on foot. This time she was alone and entrusted her fate to the various agents, conductors and other activists who all played a role in supporting the Underground Railway. The Maryland Quaker community was quite involved in helping runaway slaves. Harriet would walk by night, and rest during the day, and eventually arrived in Philadelphia where she could live as a free person.

There, Harriet started working and saved every penny she could. That money was to help accomplish her goal: go back to Maryland and help her family escape.

And back to Maryland she did go, not just once, but a few times. Each trip made her braver and more determined. Each trip, she escorted family members on the road that would lead them to freedom. Brothers Ben, Harry and their families were among those she helped. When family members decided not to go, she found volunteers to take their place.

Harriet had become one of the Underground Railroad conductors - the conductors were the ones who would escort runaway slaves - and as such was known as Moses. For eleven years, Harriet led slaves to freedom, encouraging and directing them, showing them the way, and when necessary using the threat of a convincing pistol to dissuade any slave who wanted to turn around and go back. There was no going back. She is said to have made the trip up to 13 times, and helped more than 60 slaves to escape, including her family members.

They would prefer the winter months as chances of meeting people walking around at night were much less likely. They would also usually escape over the weekend, as it gave the fugitives two days before their escape could be reported in the newspapers.

As more and more slaves escaped, Harriet’s fame grew and the possibility of her being recognized became a real concern. But she knew how to respond to emergencies. Once, when sitting next to someone who could have recognized her, she just picked up a newspaper, and pretended to read. She was publically known as illiterate. Her reading made her a different person.

10 years following her escape, Harriet had not only guided over 60 slaves to freedom, she had also managed to put away enough money to buy a piece of land in Auburn, New York. The land became a refuge for the family and runaway slaves.

The Civil War brought Tubman back south, where she became a nurse in Port Royal, South Carolina. She also led a group of scouts and help map the terrain around Port Royal, and in June 1863 led an armed assault on a group of plantations along the Combahee River Raid. As a result of that raid, more than seven hundred slaves were rescued.

In the 1890’s, Harriet joined the cause of women’s suffrage, and became a regular speaker during meetings advocating the right to vote for women.

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Peekskill, NY

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Peekskill, NY

A banner in Peekskill, NY, serves as a reminder that the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many a fugitive who reached Peekskill would look for McGregory Brook, which they knew they would need to follow upstream to arrive at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. A network of AME Zion Churches quickly had developed following the establishment of the first Church in Philadelphia in 1816 by former slave Richard Allen. Church members made it their mission to assist runaway slaves.

The Peekskill AME Zion Church, established in 1852, still stands on Park Street, but the original building is now occupied by the Church of the Comforter, while the AME Zion Church congregation moved to the building next door, the former St. Peter and Paul’s Church. According to the Peekskill banner remembering Tubman, Harriet is said to have been a member of the congregation, although she settled with her family further North, in Auburn, NY.

Bringing the President to the people

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

An enclosed yard in the vicinity of the Peekskill train station protects the historical spot where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a whistle-stop on February 19, 1861.

A statue represents Lincoln as he addressed the crowd that came to meet him that day, when he stopped in Peekskill, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.

Contemporary accounts of the event describe a very tall, neatly dressed and tired man as Lincoln stepped from the rear car onto the platform prepared to receive him.

He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.

More than 1,500 people greeted him, representing half of the town’s population. The welcoming address was delivered by Peekskill attorney William Nelson, who had invited the President-elect to stop in the Westchester town. Nelson had served in the House of Representatives and had become friends with the Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. They shared political views, in particular anti-slavery convictions.

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, Westchester

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, NY

In response to Nelson’s address, which mentioned the difficulties ahead for the President-elect, Lincoln gave a short speech, no longer than 140 words, and stated:

I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.

The train conductor concluded Lincoln’s brief statementt with a Time’s up! shout. And off the train moved with a bowing President-elect, hat in hand.

The whole event cannot have lasted more than 30 minutes, the time it took to refill the water tanks and load up on wood.

Stops had to be short: an abolitionist President was not welcome by the secessionists and a number of Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union. Assassination attempts were a distinct possibility and all necessary security measures had been taken. Lincoln is said to have had to sneak through Baltimore at night, while his wife who was following in a separate train was met there by an outright hostile crowd.

It was just over eleven years before the event that the Hudson River Railroad had arrived in Peekskill, in September 1849. By using this new mode of transportation while at the same time meeting his constituency, Lincoln inaugurated what for years has been a staple of any American electoral campaign. To honour a predecessor he admired, President-elect Obama followed in Lincoln’s track by taking a pre-inaugural whistle-stop train trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. in January 2009.

For centuries, trying to bring leaders closer to their constituency has been a concern. There was a time when once a year - if not once in a decade - elaborate ceremonies during which a country leader would make an appearance in full regalia would suffice to keep the people satisfied. His very presence attested to the physical reality of his existence, however distant the leader may have been from the crowds.

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, Rome

Formal processions, from Cleopatra’s slave-pulled floats to Queen Elizabeth’s annual progresses would ensure the people would get a glimpse of their sovereign, thereby contributing to ensure continued devotion to their ruler. There seemed to have been no fear for that leader’s security.

The tangibility of the ruler’s physical presence was reassuring and the security risk limited. On a more regular basis, minted coins bearing the leader’s head - such as the gold English sovereign, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII of England - would popularize the image of the sovereign, and help in asserting his power. Imposing, larger than life, representations of the leader, such as equestrian statues, would also be placed on cities main squares as a  reminder of the might of this leader. Marcus Aurelius, Louis XIV or Peter the Great’s equestrian statues are famous examples of these monumental images.

It is said that, during the famous flight to Varennes when Louis XVI of France tried to escape from Paris with his family, disguised as servants, he was recognized because his face appeared on money. Some stories mention the revolutionary banknotes, assignats, while others evoke gold coins.

The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have resorted to similar oversize representations of their leaders, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, to communist Russia and China. Equally important was the actual participation of the leader in elaborate ceremonies where he could be recognized as a small spot in the distance. Trust played an important part in these ceremonies as the leader’s presence was an essential element of the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Charles Chaplin has played with this in the movie The Dictator where a Jewish barber, a look alike of the totalitarian leader of the country, takes the dictator’s place and sends his own, and different, message of hope to a cheering crowd. The mesmerized crowd is no longer able to think and will cheer any speech, regardless of the message.

Beyond trying to limit the time during which a leader would be exposed, as was the case for Lincoln’s train trip, ensuring security of the leader in public appearances has become a major issue in a world now only too accustomed to political assassinations. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a number of world leaders falling victims of assassins as their views or programmes were controversial.

Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated, only four years following his Peekskill visit. In April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy, jumped into the state box at the Ford Theater and killed the President.

Other American historical leaders have perished victims of their political opponents. Two Kennedy brothers were assassinated in the 1960’s. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed first, and died in his third year in office, in November 1963, while being driven in an open car procession, in Dallas, Texas. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while running for President, in June 1968, as he took a short-cut through a hotel kitchen. Following his death, all US Presidential candidates have been assigned Secret Service protection.

A little bit earlier that year, in March 1968, Civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King was also assassinated. During a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his motel room.

Other famous 20th century leaders were assassinated by political opponents during public appearances. On 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist as he was walking to address a prayer meeting.

In an ever increasing escalation of violence, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in 2007. After she was shot, a suicide bomb detonated, killing Bhutto and an estimated 23 other people.

Before the 19th century, rarer have been historical assassinations that targeted country rulers. Two famous ones however took place during the religious wars at a time when the Reformation was dividing Europe.

Willem of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, a defender of religious freedom, perished a victim of a French Roman Catholic fanatic. Born a Lutheran, and educated as a Roman Catholic, in July 1584, Willem was assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in his Delft home, in the Prinsenhof.

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Gerard had gained access to the house under false pretense, and killed Willem with two bullets at close range.

A contemporary of Willem, Henry IV of France, the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism, had signed the Edict of Nantes that recognized freedom of religion in the kingdom of France, and the co-existence of two religions. The Edict brought an end to decades of religious wars. On May 14, 1610, he too was assassinated by French Roman Catholic fanatic Ravaillac as he was passing in his carriage through Rue de la Ferronerie.

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th were also marked by a number of political assassinations. Reformer Russian Czar Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot, on March 13, 1881, marking the end of civil liberties and the reform effort.

On September 10, 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was stabbed and killed by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a royal. Elisabeth was walking on the promenade next to Lake Geneva, and was about to board a steamship to Montreux.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, were shot dead as they were riding side by side in an open car. The double assassination led to World War I, one month later.

The right to kvetch

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Going through the rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one may not immediately find the right to kvetch.

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild, 2001

It is there, though not maybe quite in those terms: but one can definitely identify it as an expansion of freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. As I was discussing my previous post on the right to privacy (Article 12 of the UDHR) with a friend, we joked about the right to kvetch.

Well, granted kvetching’s definition (complaining persistently and whiningly) may fall a bit short of the concept of freedom of expression, but the right to freely express one’s opinion is one of the civil and political rights recognized by Article 19 of the UDHR.

Expressing one’s opinion is actually a fundamental right, and one that was exercised quite early on. Its recognition has maybe taken some more time, but people have persistently fought to ensure that this right be recognized.

If one ignores the whiningly part of the definition of kvetching, it could be argued that complaining persistently when one’s condition is unfair is a true exercise of freedom of expression.

Historically, a number of human rights activists, before human rights were even known, have defended their right to expressing the opinion that their condition was unfair. Repeatedly, brave slaves have stood up, and at the risk of losing their lives, protested their loss of freedom. Spartacus is famous for having led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, which the 1960 Stanley Kubrik movie has immortalized with the I am Spartacus affirmation repeated one by one by all of the slaves, in an act of disobedience and freedom of expression.

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Lesser known is Zumbi dos Palmares, who spoke up and led a slave rebellion against the Portuguese in Brazil. Born a free man but captured at the age of six, at 15, he escaped to the Quilombo dos Palmares, a fugitive slave settlement. When the Portuguese offered freedom to the Palmares leader, Zumbi argued to not accept freedom when others remained slaves and became Palmares’ new leader. After 15 years, the Portuguese used artillery to attack the Quilombo, and Palmares fell. Zumbi escaped again but was eventually betrayed and captured in 1695, and beheaded there and then.

At the end of the 18th century, freed slave Toussaint Louverture led Haiti to independence from France, making it the second nation in the Americas to become a Republic. His fight started when he traveled from plantation to plantation and addressed slaves, advocating that freedom could be achieved.

It is through impassioned speeches that these leaders were able to rally their fellow slaves and convince them to act, but the circulation of revolutionary ideas was also advanced through the writings of various thinkers.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century accelerated the dissemination of the work of theologians and philosophers. Fairly quickly, governments reacted and established controls over printers throughout Europe. Punishment for propagating heretic ideas was severe: French scholar and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546, charged as an atheist.

In England, John Milton argued for the right to freedom of expression, publishing in 1644 Areopagitica, a protest against the re-introduction by the British Parliament of government licensing of printers.

With the Pennsylvania Gazette, started in 1729, Benjamin Franklin established a reputation for using his right to freedom of expression and openly speaking his mind. The Gazette was followed in 1733 by the Poor Richard’s Almanach. Proud of the impact his ideas were beginning to have, Franklin took to signing his written production as B. Franklin, Printer, even as he became one of the leaders of American Independence.

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

In France, Voltaire is famous for having been victim of his free speech: to avoid being sent to the Bastille, several times he had to chose exile, first to England, and later to Geneva and Ferney. Many other French philosophers suffered similar treatment, and the Bastille has come down in history as having been home to a number of free thinkers.

Then, if it was not the Bastille, it was another prison. The Vincennes fortress hosted Diderot for a few months, where he had been sent after having published his Lettre sur les aveugles, just as he was about to embark on what was to become his life’s project: l’Encyclopedie. An example of freedom of expression, more than twenty years in the making, the various instalments of the Encyclopedia were met with censorship and numerous police raids.

Rousseau, who visited Diderot daily when he was imprisoned in Vincennes, contributed a number of articles to the Encyclopedia. But it was for Emile, his essay on education in which he gave his views on religion, that Rousseau was banned and his books were banned and burned. Rousseau escaped to Neuchatel, and then to England. The protectors who helped him flee also ensured that his banned books would continue being circulated under cover.

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

La faute à Voltaire, la faute à Rousseau: the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and the Encyclopedists have been credited for having helped spark the French Revolution. They certainly contributed to raising awareness about social justice and paved the way to the revendication of human rights.

In the midst of a deep financial crisis accompanied by a famine, protest movements started all over France in the late 1780’s. In early 1789, the people of France were invited to draft their lists of grievances in the Cahiers de Doléances, an open invitation to kvetch as much as the French would care to. And kvetch they did in the more than 50,000 Cahiers that were presented to King Louis XVI during meetings of the Etats Generaux. The Cahiers authors complained repeatedly about the unfairness of the tax system, which was hitting more heavily the underprivileged in the nation. Most impopular among all of the taxes was probably the infamous gabelle, the iniquitous tax on salt that made it mandatory to purchase a given amount of salt which was sold as a State monopoly at a fixed price.

The end of the 18th Century saw the beginning of a number of rights being granted in the United States and in France. Finally, in spite of censorship, police raids, imprisonments or losing their lives, the kvetchers prevailed and the right to freedom of expresssion is now a recognized right.

Slowly giving in on the right to privacy

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Facebook, the social networking company

Facebook, the social networking company

So, what is the password on your Blackberry?
Silence.
What is it? I know my mom’s. You want to know it, it is…
No, I don’t want to know your mom’s cellphone access code.
The eight-year old is a bit upset that I will only let her play with the Blackberry, but won’t share the password, a concept of which she obviously does not understand the meaning.

This episode brought back the memory of yet another little girl in Cambodia, the daughter of new acquaintances. Based on an afternoon spent together for the first time ever the day before, she was willing to share all of her family secrets during a chance encounter the following Monday at the Phnom Penh market. When her mother returned from whatever errand she was running, she half-joked that the only thing her daughter had not shared with us was the safe combination. It is likely that on the way home the little girl was reminded that some things are private and not to be shared with what boiled down to almost perfect strangers.

Then it is the next seat neighbour who, on the flight back from my last week’s mission, is keeping tabs on the number of drinks I order (and drink). He also is noticeably unimpressed at the fact that I am keeping away from salad and raw fish, in acknowledgement of the more than six colleagues who suffered from food poisoning during our stay at the fancy establishment we stayed at during the trip. The thought crosses my mind that maybe I should explain I normally love my greens, but… Of course not, no need to explain anything. He can think whatever he wants, he is just a temporary witness of my semi-private semi-public behaviour, and I will never see him again. And I have a right to keep to myself, even on a flight.

The magazine I am reading on the flight reminds me that Facebook is soon about to welcome its 500 millionth user. The May 31, 2010 issue of Time is marking the event with a cover story on Facebook and the issue of privacy. In a connected world that has become smaller, a Nairobi newspaper was expressing similar privacy concerns about Facebook just a week earlier, as were a number of media around the globe. Unfortunately, the article I had saved and placed on my bedside table for later reading was trashed by the hotel maid before I was able to get around to it. There is no real privacy in an hotel room: a friend of mine always leaves the Do not disturb sign on the door knob for the duration of her stay as she (maybe rightfully) views hotel staff re-arranging the room as an intrusion. 

Very recently, I gave in to convenience and reluctantly started using Fandango to reserve tickets in advance for just opening movies that were sure to be sold out by the time we would get to the theater. Having been the victim of identity theft, I tend to err on the side of caution. But using the service twice in the same week convinced me that registering was the way to go. I gave in and signed up to save time on each of my upcoming movie ticket purchase. As I reluctantly entered my personal information, I was concerned that nothing is truly private in the online world. And sure enough, I started getting my fair share of unwelcome Fandango emails.

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Fandango and other new media are slowly redefining the way we look at the right to privacy. While early adopters quickly embraced new media, a number of people looked at the phenomenon quite cautiously. Gradually, however, people around me who, for the longest time resisted signing on to Facebook for fear of exposing their privacy, started giving in, as I am sure hundreds of others have.  

What are the new boundaries between the private and the public arenas?

This blog is both public and private. Public in the sense that it can be accessed publically over the internet by anyone who chances upon it. Private because, I will only tell that I am the author to people with whom I feel comfortable sharing this information. Recently, someone I had told about this site mentioned my blog during a luncheon. This person not only mentioned it but, without even checking with me, sent the address to our lunch companions. I felt my permission should have been asked first, not that it is a secret, but whether or not to share should be my decision. Did this oversharing constitute an intrusion on my right to privacy, however?

Protecting my password in a one on one exchange with a pressing little girl seems OK, although I am not sure what risk I would seriously have incurred by giving her my password. The conversation with the little girl at the Phnom Penh market seemed pretty innocuous, until her mother took exception at her oversharing with people who after all were mostly strangers.

Being aware of my next seat neighbour’s silent judgement on my choice of meal is OK. What do I really care? I usually prefer to keep to myself on a flight and not speak to the next seat neighbour, apart from the polite Hello, as we sit down.

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

In a companion piece to the Time cover article, a commentary introduced the concept of intimate strangers. Friends once or twice removed will check Facebook or Twitter status updates for people they actually don’t know. At a time when oversharing is becoming the norm, we are all becoming voyeurs to others’ supposed exhibitionism. If we only want to share with people we trust, it becomes our responsibility to carefully understand how to use the privacy settings that Facebook provides.   

In our new interconnected age, we need to redefine what we see as our right to privacy and set up the guidelines – at the individual, family, or community level - that will ensure proper respect for a private life.

Abigail, Lydia, Amanda, Elizabeth and Sara

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Abigail, daughter of Hazard and Mary Field.

Lydia, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Lydia, wife of David Knapp.

Amanda  M., wife of Hiram Williams and daughter of the late Jordan McCord.

Our mother, Elizabeth Hart, daughter of Samuel Hart, wife of Martin Brown.

Abigail died in 1874, aged 66 years, 5 mo. & 10 d.s. Lydia also died at 66 in 1853, and Amanda at 28 in 1832. Elizabeth was 52 when she died in 1849. 

Sara Fochee Huisvrouw, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

 

Earlier tombstones sometimes have been engraved in Dutch, such as the one of Sara in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery: Sara Fochee Huisvrouw Van John Enters Geboren Den 20 October 1717 Gestorven Den 26 December 1769… Sara, John Enters’ wife, was therefore 52 year old when she died in 1769. 

Tombstones in American cemeteries reflect the extent to which women of the 18th and 19th centuries were subject to the rules of a patriarchal society.

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetary, Yorktown, NY

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Their identity is always defined in relation to a man: a husband, a father, or their children. Elizabeth Hart’s tombstone is sacred to the memory of our mother, daughter and wife, but is fortunate enough to have her maiden name mentioned. 

Lydia’s tomb stands just next to her husband’s. David Knapp however is remembered as himself, with no mention of his wife deemed required.

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetary, NY

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

Dudley and Mother, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Maybe even more striking is an ensemble of tombstones in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery erected to the memory of the Stone family. Next to Lawrence, Frederick, Sydney and Dudley is a nameless Mother, who will forever rest in anonymous peace next to her identified male relatives.

Women then did not have the right to vote, did not have the right to own property, had no reproductive rights, nor legal rights over their children, but could be taxed. As evidenced by the social testimony borne by their tombstones, they did not have a right to be remembered as individuals either.

If the comparison can be made, one century later, an Eleanor, who did not have to chose to retain her maiden name and is remembered as one of the staunchest advocates of human rights, is honoured on an equal basis to her husband.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Abolishing the transatlantic slave trade

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Portraits of Amistad former captives

Portraits of Amistad former captives

It took all of twenty indefatiguable years for William Wilberforce to succeed in his battle to convince the British Parliament to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While Wilberforce, the best known of the British anti-slavery campaigners, offered his first motion in May 1787, it is only on 23 March 1807 that the Parliament finally passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Act entered the statute books on 25 March, and it is the bicentennial of that later date which was commemorated three years ago. The 2006 movie Amazing Grace tells the story of the long fight to abolition.

The Act made the capture, transport, and trade of slaves illegal, but slavery remained legal. It would be another 15 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Other countries however were participating in the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, then a colony of Portugal, was the first to bring slaves from Africa to the New World, around 1550. The Spanish colonies followed suit. Relying heavily on slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, and then in the gold, diamond and silver mines of Minas Gerais, Brazil was also the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade, in 1831.

Amistad, 1839
Amistad, 1839

In spite of the ban, slaves continued being trafficked as illustrated by the famous Amistad mutiny. In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora left West Africa for Havana, Cuba. Onboard were 500 kidnapped Africans. Some of these men were then transported from Cuba to Puerto Rico, on the Amistad, a ship on which were no slave quarters. The captives managed to free themselves, killed the captain and seized the ship. The Amistad was later captured off the coast of Long Island by the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Ensued a long court case, the court having to decide to either return the captured men as slaves to Cuba or to Africa as free men. The case was finally referred on appeal to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of a return to Africa.

Abolition of slavery in the United States came as the result of a long civil war: it was enacted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. In Portugal, the Marques de Pombal abolished slavery on the mainland in 1761, but it is in 1888, more than sixty years after Brazil became independent, that slavery was finally abolished by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil.