Saturday, October 23, 2010

Speaking Truth to Power - Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.

LAST TIME: Best of Times & Worst of Times for Liberty and Justice in America

Part of the reason this book's profiled radicals Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria Jr. are less-celebrated than icons like Franklin, Washington and Jefferson is that each was, in a sense, too principled for his or her own good. They were controversial and impolitic. They spoke truth to power in ways irritating to authorities, and all were at times harshly critical of America. They were not approval-seeking, conflict-averse people; rather, they were agitators, and they did not shrink from offending others – not only their enemies but sometimes also their own friends – as they resolutely championed the natural rights of liberty and equal justice. There were no sacred cows for these five – including, for all, the particularly combustible topic of religious orthodoxy.

Roger Williams, who moved from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 at age twenty-eight to escape religious persecution, was expelled from the Colony in 1635 for his nonconforming views on religious freedom and separation of church and state. Yet with his views favoring unconditional broad tolerance of the views and practices of all (believers and non-believers alike) - “I plead for impartiality and equal freedom, peace and safety to other consciences and assemblies, unto which the people may as freely go, and this according to each conscience, whatever conscience this conscience be” - he set the template for governmental tolerance of religion in the New World in his new state of Rhode Island, which made the guarantee of religious liberty a part of its fundamental law.

Thomas Paine, a corset staymaker’s son who moved from England to the colonies as a thirty-seven year-old in 1774, faced withering criticism from his more appeasement-minded colonial colleagues (such as John Adams) and charges of sedition in his home country of England. Yet with his flair for the written word (Ben Franklin once said, “Others can rule, many can fight, but only Paine can write for us the English tongue”; and Thomas Jefferson, who for many years sent Paine manuscripts for criticism and correction, wrote him, “You must not be too much elated … when I tell you my belief that you are the only writer in America who can write better than your obliged and obedient servant - Thomas Jefferson”), Paine was a key intellectual player in not one, but two, revolutions - penning in Common Sense the words that provided “the January heat of 1776 that balanced the July light of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” and lending crucial moral support to the revolutionary cause in its darkest hours.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, groomed in her upbringing as daughter of a prominent judge in upstate New York to a conventional life as mother and homemaker, long endured mocking disdain from countless strangers and even her own father and husband for insisting that women were morally and legally entitled to equal treatment. Yet with her lifetime of unflinching advocacy for women’s rights - including her two singular landmark creations, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the Woman’s Bible in 1896 – Stanton did more than any single person to establish the framework for eventual gender legal equality in the United States (including the “right” to vote, gained some eighteen years after her death with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920).

Controversy followed black radical historian, scholar and agitator-prophet W.E.B. Du Bois during his life and beyond, to the point where the government of his country of birth, America, effectively disowned him during the last year of his life by denying the renewal of his passport while he was abroad in Ghana; and the town of his birth, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, only grudgingly, after a bitter 1969 struggle, established a memorial park at his boyhood home. Yet Du Bois advanced a principled moral approach to race relations and society that pre-destined the end of Jim Crow and won the hearts and minds of his successors who carried on the Civil Rights Movement. Long committed to core Enlightenment principles, “Du Bois had a towering sense of the Right, of the Just,” explains Du Bois’s literary executor Herbert Apthelker, “[and] a basic faith in reason and a passionate commitment toward achieving the just through the use of reason.”

And Sioux author, scholar and activist Vine Deloria, whose views on government naturally came through his own tribal traditions, antagonized the establishment while shaking mainstream America out of its complacency with his provocative works exposing the American government’s systematic centuries-long oppression of Indian tribes. Beginning with Custer Died for Your Sins, his devastating 1969 critique of the United States Government and passionate call-to-action to a new generation of Native Americans, Deloria was a central figure in providing a unifying intellectual, political voice to Indians past, present and future in their battles for self-determination and reclaiming tribal heritage. As Indian Law scholar Charles Wilkinson comments, “If you mark down the great figures of the American West in recent times, [Deloria] belongs there because of his role in reshaping Indian country…. I think in the last 100 years, he's been the most important person in Indian affairs, period.”

NEXT TIME:  Two Common Themes of Williams's, Paine's, Stanton's, Du Bois's, and Deloria's Activism