Redefine Ideals to Meet Your Democratic Aspirations

National unity is seen as the solution to the divisiveness of our post-Trump era. This is what we heard from Republican leaders immediately after a deadly riot inside the Capitol building by pro-Trump white nationalists, contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election, on January 6, 2021. The stampede into the Capitol left numerous people dead and congressmembers running for cover to their offices, as a joint session was officially certifying the electoral votes to affirm Biden’s presidential victory. House Democrats swiftly pressed to impeach Trump again for inciting the insurrection because he told rioters minutes before they stormed the White House: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”1 House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), however, wanted reconciliation, not accountability. He wrote to his Republican caucus, “Personally, I continue to believe that an impeachment at this time would have the opposite effect of bringing our country together when we need to get America back on a path towards unity and civility.”2 McCarthy’s plea implies that crises require unity, not finger-pointing. What this means is that there’s some perceived magical universal “we” who can be bound together, even when the opposite is true. There’s no reason to perpetuate this myth. Don’t reinforce some fictional “we” that doesn’t exist, but instead interrogate who “we” are. Show how prevailing stories of American identity exclude people of color. Raise troubling questions about the national narrative. Don’t gloss over pandemics of violence that erase marginalized citizens or incorporate them into an American dream they never fully enjoyed. If anything, redefine who “we” are to meet your democratic aspirations.

This is what the revolutionary Pequot Indian William Apess did when, in his capacity as a Protestant preacher, he arrived in Mashpee, Massachusetts, in 1831. Mashpee was a major Indigenous town of several hundred, but it was controlled by three white overseers who held an iron grip on lucrative access to grazing rights and determined who could enter and leave town. Even more, the overseers appointed a non-Indigenous white preacher, Rev. Phineas Fish, to the community’s Old Indian Meeting House, funded and instituted by Harvard College, to preach only to white people. Not surprisingly, Fish demeaned the Mashpee and enriched himself with aid intended for them.

Immediately after Apess arrived, the Mashpee gave him a home and granted him fishing rights. They felt solidarity with his story of resistance amidst dispossession. Born on January 31, 1798, in Colrain, Massachusetts, to a shoemaker and domestic worker, Apess lived with his grandparents after his parents divorced, but he suffered from hunger, and the family couldn’t afford decent clothes to keep him warm. In a formative moment when Apess was only four, his grandmother beat him. An uncle saved him, though, and petitioned to have the boy live as an indentured servant with a neighbor. It took Apess one year for what he described as his “mangled” body to recover. He was eventually sold to a Massachusetts judge and then to an aristocrat from Connecticut, before he ran away and enlisted as a drummer boy at the age of fourteen to fight in the War of 1812.

Subjugation formed the contours of Apess’s early life. So, his mission became to abolish it everywhere. After arriving in Massachusetts and being taken in by the Mashpee, Apess repaid the Mashpee’s kindness by collaborating with them to devise a twelve-person governing council. The council wrote a petition, the Indian Declaration of Independence, of July 1, 1833, which says: “That we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country. Resolved, That we will not permit any white man to come upon our plantation, to cut or carry off wood or hay, or any other article, without our permission, . . . That we will put said resolutions in force after that date . . . the penalty of binding and throwing them from the plantation, if they will not stay away.”3

The Indian Declaration of Independence threatened the white ruling class when one of its national leaders, Democratic president Andrew Jackson, was busy enacting a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing against more than one hundred thousand Indigenous people in the 1830s across Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. The US Congress gave Jackson its blessing by passing the Indian Removal Act (1830). Unlike Jackson, with his strategy of violent plunder, Apess was nonviolent, though his defiant rhetoric inspired direct confrontation with power. Apess turned the US Declaration of Independence on its head. The Declaration, shameless in its racism against Indigenous people and describing them as “merciless Indian savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction,” is used to justify the opposite of what the framers intended: Indigenous self-determination. Apess didn’t traffic in themes of brotherhood and reconciliation. He questioned whether America is a free country, while applying its universal aspiration for freedom in ways to serve his community’s aspirations.

Soon, he led a group of six Mashpee men to remove timber from the wagon of a white man, who, along with an accomplice, was stealing from their land. This became known in the Boston newspapers as the Mashpee Revolt. For this, Apess was charged with rioting, fined a hefty sum, and jailed for thirty days. But Apess caught the attention of the Boston antislavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison after the Mashpee addressed a special session of the Massachusetts state legislature on January 21, 1834. Three days later, Garrison wrote an editorial in his newspaper, The Liberator, reprinting parts of the Indian Declaration of Independence and condemning how whites held the Mashpee in the “chains of a servile dependence.”4

Apess’s example lived on after him in the feminist suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” which, in 1848, asserted before a crowd of three hundred in Seneca Falls, New York, that “all men and women are created equal” and that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”5 Or recall the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s speech in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” four years after Stanton’s, in 1852. Not long after the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which granted slave catchers the power to capture formerly enslaved fugitives in the North and return them to bondage, Douglass reminded his country, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”6

Imagine if this approach is what our leaders had taken up on the Senate and House floors, as they returned to their chambers to certify Joe Biden’s presidential victory hours after the insurrection at the Capitol? What if they had highlighted the insidious connection between whiteness and America, which made the predominately white rioters feel entitled to storm the citadel of American democracy? As if any violence they enacted was justified simply because the nation belonged to them, and to them alone? What if our leaders had said that Trump was a symptom of a legacy of a decadent empire, and that it was time not simply for an impeachment—as if excising one person from public consciousness is the only thing we need—but for a re-founding? What if they had used the Declaration of Independence’s democratic ideals to argue for a living wage and Medicare for All? What if rather than fortifying the US Capitol with a metal fence—which is what they did—they demanded that representative democracy, composed of institutions like the filibuster, the Electoral College, and federalism, all of which are steeped in racist origins, be broken down and started anew? If you ask these questions after the next crisis, you can help ensure that January 6 never happens again.

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