Unigh Stays I – The Smell of the DoI

fireworksI had some business in London, and decided I might as well fly home via New York and then Houston.

My own past experience of New York is that it is a hard place to like. For my money, it is too noisy, too ugly, the people (or at least some of them) are too graceless and I do not cope well with the smell of urine and vomit in the streets being never far away.  But this time, surprisingly, I enjoyed myself.

Partly, of course, this was because it was such a pleasure to spend some time with my son Charlie, and to see how happy he is with his beloved. And partly it was because the Penn Club, where I stayed, was very civilised, with a decent library.

But there are things I do not understand about New York. For example, why do the immigration officials need to be so gratuitously unpleasant. Unlike Heathrow, where one is met with a smile and a, “Good morning. May I see you passport, sir?” the reception at JFK is as though one is a felon being processed for a period of incarceration. Not all New Yorkers are like this, of course. The servers in restaurants are typically helpful and charming. Then again, the servers in NY restaurants rely on tips. Perhaps they should stop paying the US immigration officials, and make them rely on tips?

It was 4th July, so we planned to go to Charlie’s girlfriend’s roof terrace to watch the fireworks. But it was raining. So we didn’t. Being 4th July – Independence Day – the New York Times back page reproduced the whole of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Including a facsimile.

If I were American, I would be tempted to avoid any recitation of this text, which takes cant and hypocrisy to heights rarely matched inhuman history, but to gloss over it. It contains these famous words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

But the signatories were in large measure slave owners, who had no intention of giving their slaves their liberty, or of treating them equally.  This not just a reflection of different standards prevailing at the time – it was just 4 years after Somersett’s Case in England, in which Lord Mansfield held slavery was contrary to the law:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.[1]

It is hard to dispel the notion that one of the main objectives of the rebels in seeking independence in 1776 was to enable them to keep their slaves – which they did for another 70 years.

The Declaration goes on to a turgid list of complaints against the King. Including:

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

Which was very rich, bearing in mind that the only reason the rebels won the war was French intervention on a massive scale, providing the rebel with materiel and money. On such a scale, indeed, as to bankrupt the French nation and lead to the French Revolution just a dozen years later.

The complaints go on:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…

Well, the King and the loyalists were not exactly trying to “bring on” the native American Indians, but unlike the rebels, had no taste for their genocide. Unlike the rebels, the loyalists understood that, by and large, it is better to leave in peace with one’s neighbours than to try to exterminate them.

Hey ho. I suppose that there is something admirable about the American pride in its own history, even if that history has, shall we say, a less than pleasant odour.

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