Life, Liberty, And The Existence Of Slavery
Every culture has its core values that define the measure of its humanity and determine the importance placed on the rights of the people. America, our nation, was built on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. These principles are essentially the lifeblood that runs through the veins of the public and the foundation on which this country was erected, but those values are contradicted by the existence of slavery. Acknowledging and accepting the suffering African-Americans endured at the hands of the same people who wholeheartedly believe in these ideals, develops a deeper insight into the true nature of America. By looking at the system that stripped humans of their unalienable rights and analyzing the texts by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northup, humanity can begin to understand why these concepts cannot coexist with slavery.
Life, the first of these ideals, is a person’s right to live and experiencing a certain quality of life. In David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, Walker addresses the idea of life and its parallel humanity by relating it to the brutality of slavery. He equates it to being “[caged]” and believes that life is not worth living when a person is trapped by the confines of society and chained due to the color of their skin. He believes that the “inhuman system of slavery” prevents people from truly living and that the total lack of humanity deprives the ‘colored citizens’ of existence with meaning. Walker also examines the liberty that he feels every citizen of the US is entitled to. In his idea of a perfect society, freedom is guaranteed for all in this “Republican Land of Liberty”. He references Christianity throughout to criticize the US for being complacent to such vile acts. Additionally, Walker exposes the hypocrisies in the distinctly American idolization of liberty by juxtaposing it with the plight of his people. The last ideal, the pursuit of happiness, is portrayed as a right to define one’s version of said happiness. It works with the principle of liberty to give people the freedom to find contentment. Throughout, he pleads with both freedmen and slaves to make their way to happiness by rebelling against the system that imprisoned them: slavery. His appeal acts as a call to action, a war cry to incite fury in African-American citizens to take back what was granted to them by their Creator.
Similarly, Douglass discusses the principle of life in his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?. He describes slavery as inhuman and reinforces this by adding in the thought that it is also wrong in the eyes of Christianity. He claims that “[inhumanity], cannot be divine” and to think otherwise is blasphemous. Liberty is at the center of his argument, bolstered by the Declaration of Independence. Douglass insists that all men deserve the “rich inheritance of… liberty” and robbing certain groups of this right diminishes the power of freedom. With this, he declares that the Fourth of July is a meaningless display of America’s freedom as an entire race of people is unable to celebrate it. He believes it mocks slaves and their hunger for liberty and shows an accurate depiction of the separation between “his people” and white Americans. Douglass approaches the ideal of happiness from his experience of critics questioning why he does not “give his voice” to celebrate the Fourth of July. He relates it to the current state of liberty of African-Americans to show that he, or any other black person, cannot “rejoice” when they do not have freedom. They cannot begin to pursue happiness unless they have the freedom to do so. Douglass’ speech berates the entirety of the white American population to communicate his frustrations at the fruitless debates surrounding slavery. Using Christian values and the Declaration of Independence he demonstrates why slavery counters the principles of life, liberty, and happiness.
12 Years a Slave is a memoir by Solomon Northup that narrates the struggles he faced as a free man who was enslaved. Throughout the book, Northup reflects on the institution of slavery and its tolerance of inhumanity. His perception of life is that it is something that is “dear to every living thing” (pg. 87). He acknowledges that he has a right to life, but expresses the terrible conditions upon which his life exists. The inhumanity he is subjected to and the quality of life he endures, makes him want to live, not survive. Liberty is a major part of Northup’s ideals mainly because it was stolen from him. As a free man, he had the right to liberty protected under the Constitution. Although he possessed it, the people responsible for his enslavement did not recognize his freedom. This illustrates how Northup is not an American citizen, no matter how free he is, in the eyes of the white man. In his pursuit of happiness Northup encounters a man he refers to as Mr. Bass. Bass has a different view of slavery than most white men in the story and he helps Northup find happiness because of his understanding of it. Bass realizes that slaves do not “have privileges” that allow them to embrace their version of contentment and he must, therefore, aid in Northup’s quest (pg. 179). Northup’s definition of happiness is seeing his family and regaining his freedom, and thanks to Bass, he can be “restored” to it (pg. 217). Even though he reclaimed his freedom, he still cannot fully maintain these ideals. They can be taken away at any moment and this is why Northup cannot have life, liberty, or happiness as long as slavery remains.
Slavery not only denies people of their identity, but it also denies the existence of the American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, and 12 Years a Slave highlight the contradictions in these principles and the system of slavery. They expose how the rights protected by the Declaration of Independence cannot endure in the absence of humanity, freedom, and happiness. Only by recognizing the inconsistencies in our ideals can we create opportunities to work in unison and grow as a nation. Until the instituiton of slavery that oppresseses, humiliates, and massacres African-Americans today disappears, there is no possibility of a just America.
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