Monday, November 15, 2010

Williams, Paine, Stanton, Du Bois, and Deloria Stood on Principle, Regardless of Consequences to Themselves

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Part of what makes Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria, Jr. such compelling figures is that they were ready to pay the price for liberty and equal justice - regardless of the consequences. For them, principle prevailed. As Stanton’s collaborator Susan B. Anthony mused in 1873, “cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and advocates, and bear the consequences.” One should never follow the path, Du Bois suggested, of Galileo Galilei, who renounced his life’s work seeking scientific truth when threatened by the Catholic Church. “By that lie, civilization was halted, science was checked, and bigotry was more strongly enthroned on its crimson glory.”

As oft-criticized, ridiculed, and even shunned by government and society as they were, Stanton, Du Bois and the others still lobbied, agitated, and generally made nuisances of themselves in their efforts to correct the injustices they encountered. They knew that behind the self-inflating posturing, “government” is no more than a collection of mere men and women cloaked in special clothing to serve a defined narrow purpose; and they demanded change to the existing order so that they – and we all – might one day see liberty and equal justice served.

It is no stretch to say that without their efforts we would not enjoy the scope of freedoms we have today. They knew, along with the nation’s founders, that the natural tendency of government is “threatening, pushing and grasping; … too often in the end … destroy[ing] its benign victim.” Alexis de Tocqueville presciently recognized this threat in America as early as 1835, commenting: “The [democratic] sovereign … spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd…. Rather than tyrannize,” this subtle government power-grab “inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.” And the fact is, the flock rarely acts against the shepherd’s subtle abridgments, as the Declaration of Independence expressly recognizes. “All experience hath shown,” the Declaration observes, “that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

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