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GEORGE EMERSON: American insurrections interwoven with racism since 1775

Trumpers today believe they are above the law. Same for the traitors of 160 years ago, writes George Emerson.
Trumpers today believe they are above the law. Same for the traitors of 160 years ago, writes George Emerson. - Bruce MacKinnon

GEORGE EMERSON • Guest Opinion

For those of us with DNA in America’s earliest days, Jan. 6, 2021 is not, as Nancy Pelosi says, “an epiphany.” Instead, we see an old pattern woven through American history.

About 250 years ago, many people like John Emerson of Concord, Massachusetts, my grandfather’s great grandfather, feared what happens when people are encouraged to take the law into their own hands. Loyalists believed the Sons of Liberty were hypocrites propagating paranoia and inciting mob violence upon legal institutions.

 But the so-called Patriots believed, like Trumpers today, that they are above the law. Same for the traitors of 160 years ago.

 That 1861 treason pitted region against region, but the insurrectionists of 1775 set brother on brother, father against son. In that first American civil war, self-appointed militias terrorized not just government officials but tortured their own neighbours. 

 Historians concur only a minority of colonists expressly supported the Patriots. But the traitors were masters of propaganda. America’s historiographical narrative is still angelic Patriots vs. the Loyalist lackeys.

 Enlightenment principles aside, prominent Founding Fathers also had a profit motive. Ben Franklin and George Washington each led real estate schemes seeking vast land grants beyond the Appalachians, denied by Parliament.

 But Washington’s fellow Southerners were also vexed by another British institution, the Court of King’s Bench, ruling against slavery in the 1772 Somerset case, galvanizing the abolition movement in Britain and the colonies.

 Fears of abolition helped provoke rebellion. Washington, whose day job was running a forced labour camp, was put in charge of the insurrection by the Continental Congress, whose president, Henry Laurens, was a prolific seller of human beings.

 Thomas Jefferson, commandant of his Virginia concentration camp, claimed in his draft “Declaration of Independence” that his slaves were forced upon him by the King of England (before Franklin gave it an editing).

 The colonists had legitimate grievances against the Crown’s regressive tax policies; they had supporters in Parliament. But impatient Patriots took arms against a legislature, as deeply flawed as such are, that had been evolving for five centuries.  

Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, in 1775 issued an emancipation proclamation for Blacks to fight the rebels. Washington denounced Murray as “that arch-traitor to the rights of humanity.”  But at least 30,000 Blacks exercised their human rights, including Harry Washington of Mt. Vernon who fought with the British when they routed the rebels in Charleston in 1780.

It was the military might of the King of France in 1781 that finally gave the anti-royalist rebels some negotiating power. In Britain, many in Parliament saw an opportunity for profitable trade as America paid for its defence, and a majority voted to recognize independence.

Many Loyalists assimilated into the new regime, but my ancestor, John Emerson, left Massachusetts for Nova Scotia in an armada of exiles including Harry Washington, the true freedom fighter, not George — who delayed peace negotiations with obdurate demands for the return of his human property. 

The just rebellion of the Black Loyalists built the roadbed for the Underground Railroad, the locomotive force of the abolition movement in the 1800s. The traitors of 1861 were provoked by the 1860 election of anti-slavery activists. Yet even when Southern traitors surrendered, it was Abraham Lincoln’s proposal to grant Blacks the vote that provoked his murder. The following decades saw mob vigilantism crush Black enfranchisement throughout the U.S.A. 

A fear of Black citizenship infects too many Americans of any rank. In 1941, my great-uncle, Sir Edward Emerson, John Emerson’s great-great grandson, was negotiating with Franklin Roosevelt’s government to allow Americans to build massive bases on the island of Newfoundland to defend the Atlantic against Hitler.

Uncle Edward objected to the Americans’ insistence that U.S. troops could not be tried by Newfoundland juries if they committed crimes against Newfoundlanders. The State Department told Emerson an American could not be exposed to the risk of being tried by a jury that might include a Black person.

The real estate schemer Donald Trump ran on a promise to “take back” the country from those who elected a Black president. Trump’s traitors of 2021 launched their attack on Congress the day it made a Black woman vice president; the day after Georgia elected its first Black senator.

The Speaker of the House hopes Jan. 6, 2021 is an epiphany, but in my family, it’s old news. Trump and his lackeys are just the latest in a long line of racist traitors making war on their own legislatures.

Halifax native George Emerson is a former award-winning journalist turned real estate developer, currently in Toronto.

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