Sen. Mike Lee Tells the Story of How a Massachusetts Slave Became an American Hero

(CNSNew.com) – In his new book, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, Sen. Mike Lee tells the stories of a set of American heroes who took courageous—and politically incorrect–stands in defense of liberty in the founding era and whose stories have been forgotten today.

Lee argues that history is written by the winners, and that in recent decades that means the historical narrative of our country has been crafted by progressives.

“It is well known that history is written by the winners,” Lee said in an interview with CNSNews.com.

“Those who have won a particular debate in a particular era tend to determine the narrative,” he said. “Now, it was those who believed in liberty, freedom and limited government who won at the time of the Declaration, who won at the time of the Constitution.

“But about 80 years ago, progressives won a series of battles, a series of legislative, electoral and judicial battles, that have resulted in the exponential expansion of the federal government,” he said. “This has been a problem, but it’s also created a new set of victors and a new set of people who lost the debate. Those same people have been pretty key in writing out of history those who warned against big government.”

Lee sees Mum Bett—a woman who had been held in slavery in Massachusetts during the founding era–as one great American hero whose inspirational story needs to be told.

In 1773, Bett (later known as Elizabeth Freeman) was held as a slave in the very house where the Sheffield Declaration was drafted. This declaration stated: “That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property. It also said: “That the great end of political society is to secure in a more effectual manner those rights and privileges wherewith God and nature have made us free.”

Seven years later, Massachusetts adopted a constitution, drafted by John Adams, that declared: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.”

In Written Out of History, Lee tells the story of how Mum Bett sued her slave master in a Massachusetts court, arguing that this language in the Massachusetts Constitution—and the absolute truth it represented–protected her liberty as well as his. She prevailed.

“Yet, Mum Bett is forgotten,” Lee told CNSNews.com in an interview. “She is too easy for people to neglect, to write out of history, because she doesn’t fit the narrative—even though she herself is a founder, even though she herself had a massive impact on our culture, on our system of laws. She herself has been forgotten because she doesn’t fit within the narrative.”

“The people who were willing to stand up for these rights are the ones we should remember,” said Lee. “But sadly, in many cases, they are the same people we are forgetting these days, who we are not teaching about in our schools, and I hope to change that through my book.”

Here is the transcript of Sen. Lee’s interview with CNSNews.com about Written Out of History:

Terry Jeffrey: Sen. Lee, why is it important for Americans of the 21st century to learn about the lives, thoughts and actions of Americans who lived during the founding era?

Sen. Mike Lee: Well, you know, it is often said that what we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat, and there are a lot of things that we can learn from our own stories of our own founders, and especially those who have been neglected or forgotten or written out of history—that have been neglected in recent years.

I wrote this book to reconnect the American people to certain founding principles that have served us well as a country but that have been disfavored by historians and forgotten by the public.

Jeffrey: You talk in the beginning of your book about the great rivalry and debate at the time of the founding and the drafting of the Constitution between the federalists and the anti-federalists. What was that debate all about?

Lee: It was about the advisability or lack thereof of the Constitution and whether or not it should be ratified. On a deeper level, it had also to do with the degree of trust people were willing to put in a national government and one of the things we learn by studying the founding generation and studying the process of the drafting of the Constitution and its ratification is that there were a lot of concerns, there was almost universal concern among the founders, with consolidated government power. The most frequently expressed concern, the most widely held concern, inarguably, was that the new federal government could end up taking on too much power to the detriment of states and local governments and ultimately to the detriment of the people. My book focuses on some of the people who raised those concerns.

Jeffrey: In the modern popular mind and, I think, throughout much of our history quite frankly, and for good reasons, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton have been viewed as great heroes of the founding of this nation. Yet, you open your book with a story about the man who killed Alexander Hamilton and was perhaps the greatest rival of Thomas Jefferson, namely, Aaron Burr—and the contribution he made and what it was. Why did Thomas Jefferson have a grudge against Aaron Burr?

Lee: For one, he considered him a political rival, because he was. They had both run for president, and even though Jefferson had, of course, won, he still considered him a rival. But there was also an element of this that dealt with Jefferson’s first term in office, when Aaron Burr had been his vice president. Thomas Jefferson had tried to push for the impeachment and removal of a number of government officials and those people found in Aaron Burr, serving as vice president and, therefore, president of the United States Senate, someone who would stand up for the rights of the individual, of the accused. He did this, and by so doing, won himself a name as a good, fair-handed adjudicator. But he also earned the enmity of Thomas Jefferson, who would later have him prosecuted him for treason in part because of that dispute.

Jeffrey: Was it the case that Jefferson tried to blunt the power of the judicial branch of the federal government and wanted to diminish it as much as possible to the aggrandizement of executive power?

Lee: Yes, yes, and that is why Jefferson was so upset with Burr, because Burr, in presiding over these impeachment trials of judicial and other officials, looked out for the rights of the individual. Looked out for them and said, hey, let’s at least make sure they get a fair trial in the Senate. That was taken as a sign of disloyalty by Thomas Jefferson. So, one of the reasons why I tell these stories is to point out that even a revered Founding Father, even someone as revered as is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, even someone like that can abuse government power. It is one of the reasons that we need such significant limitations.

Jeffrey: As you know, there has been a lot of debate in recent in Washington, D.C., about potential crimes or potential abuses of power and a lack of willingness of people to bring forward hard evidence. In your discussion of what happened between Burr and Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson actually pushes for a trial for treason for Aaron Burr, correct?

Lee: Yes. Yes, he does. And Aaron Burr could very well have become the victim of that, which could have carried the ultimate price because treason, being a capital offense, could have led to Aaron Burr’s execution. He had him prosecuted despite having a pretty thin evidentiary brief because he regarded him as someone, number one, who hadn’t been loyal, as unflinchingly loyal as Jefferson wanted, when he was Jefferson’s vice president and, number two, he was still seen as a political rival.

Jeffrey: And Jefferson as President of the United States flat-out accused him of treason?

Lee: Yes, accused him of treason and pulled out all the stops in seeing him prosecuted, offering up immunity to anybody who would assist in the prosecution against him. Fortunately, for Burr, that evidence just wasn’t enough. It was a sufficiently thin evidentiary foundation that they weren’t able to prosecute him. But he came very close to losing that trial and with it not just his freedom but also his life.

Jeffrey: Would Jefferson present all the evidence he had?

Lee: Yes, he did. But it wasn’t enough, and that was quite fortunate for Aaron Burr.

Jeffrey: In that case, you had a court stand up against the president of the United States in favor of the fundamental right of a citizen, albeit a prominent citizen, but one accused of a grave offense?

Lee: Yes, that’s right. And, that’s why ultimately some of the concepts I discuss in this book are federalism, the vertical separation of powers between the federal government and the power that is reserved to the states and the people on the other hand. But also between separation of powers as you are referring to, the horizontal separation that occurs between the Executive Branch, that enforces the laws, the legislative branch that makes them and the judicial branch that interprets them.

Jeffrey: You tell this as a narrative. It is not a dry text about what Jefferson did or what Burr did. It is the story of what unfolded and what happened. This is a very compelling story, senator. Why do you think that in schools today, and in our popular culture today, people are not told this story? Why has this story gone away?

Lee: I talk about this in my book, in the introduction, in the conclusion, and elsewhere. It is well known that history is written by the winners. It is written by the victors. Those who have won a particular debate in a particular era tend to determine the narrative. Now, it was those who believed in liberty and freedom and limited government who won at the time of the Declaration, at the time of the Constitution. But about 80 years ago, progressives won a series of battles, a series of legislative, electoral and judicial battles that have resulted in the exponential expansion of the federal government. This has been a problem, but it’s also created a new set of victors and a new set of people who lost the debate. Those same people have been pretty key in writing out of history those who warned against big government.

Jeffrey: In another story, you tell about a person who also won a court case and also had an interesting connection to Aaron Burr. In 1773, three years before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, people met at the house of Col. John Ashley in Sheffield, Mass., and wrote these words: ‘Resolved that mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and their property. Resolve, That the great end of political society is to secure in a more effectual manner those rights and privileges wherewith God and nature have made us free.’

Now, most people today don’t think of Massachusetts as a slave state or as a state where people once were held in slavery. But what connection to those words, and how immediate was the experience of those words, of a slave?

Lee: Those resonated with her. They were negotiated in the Sheffield Declaration at the home of her master, where she worked. And when she became aware of the fact that those same words made their way into the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, written by John Adams, she realized, hey, if that is the case, if all people are free and equal, then I shouldn’t be owned by another person. She went and sought the services of Theodore Sedgwick, who himself had been involved in the drafting of that Sheffield Declaration in the home of her master. She retained his services and he helped her fight for and ultimately win her freedom in a court of law.

One of the favorite parts of that story for me is a quote that Mum Bett provided toward the end of her life, when she said: At any given moment, prior to winning my freedom, if someone had offered me the chance to be free, I would have taken it in a heartbeat even if it meant that at the end of that minute, I would lose my life. That’s how badly I yearn for freedom. That is an inspiration to us all.

Jeffrey: And this is an African-American woman whose living in Massachusetts at a time that John Adams was there. And what was it that John Adams wrote seven years later in that constitution?

Lee: That people are free and equal. So that the same phrase that was put in the Sheffield Declaration is what enabled Mum Bett ultimately to win her freedom. We think of the issue of slavery as having been resolved during the Civil War, and it was in many respects. But the stage for that was set really in Massachusetts, and it was set in many respect by Mum Bett herself, who dared to fight for her freedom.

Jeffrey: And the Founding the Fathers—Thomas Jefferson, obviously, was from Virginia, which remained a slave state all the way until the Civil War and the 15th, the 13th Amendment. This was understood by the founders nonetheless to be a universal God-given right, this right to freedom.

Lee: Yes, it was a universal God-given right and that is an important distinction because there is a difference between something just guaranteed by a government and something that exists with or without government recognition. That’s what rights really are. They are things that government cannot do to you because they are things beyond the power even of a powerful government.

Jeffrey: These are rights that they believed lasted for all time, went to all men, and that the purpose of government was to defend liberty.

Lee: That’s right. That’s its purpose, it’s to give fulfillment to these natural rights that exist, that are given by God, and that exist in a state of nature with or without the existence of any government.

Jeffrey: Yet, at the beginning of our country, the very men who expressed that idea and believed it, hypocritically owned slaves, including in Massachusetts.

Lee: In any era, there are people who do not live according to the principles in which they believe, and there are imperfections in society. One of the things that I point out in this book is that some of the founding fathers, even some of the delegates to the constitutional convention, who owned slaves themselves, men like Luther Martin to whom I dedicated a chapter of my book. He himself was a slave owner, and yet he himself raised at the Constitutional Convention the fact that this was a barbaric institution, one that should be abolished, one that would bring the judgment of God against this young nation.

Jeffrey: And Thomas Jefferson said: I tremble for my country when I think that God is just.

Lee: Yes, these are things that are eternal truths. They were truths recognized by our founding generation. And although it would take some time for that understanding to reach its true fulfillment in abolishing slavery, there were a few bold visionaries who dared to speak out. Luther Martin was one of them. Mum Bett even more so because she herself had experienced it and she herself dared to take the step and make the challenge.

Jeffrey: She took the fight right to the power right then at the beginning of the country. John Adams’ constitution said she had that right but the people of Massachusetts did not automatically abolish slavery based on that Constitution. She had to fight for it.

Lee: She did indeed. Just as we as a country took some time before we as a country made clear that this would have to be abolished. But the important point to remember is that the boldness of individuals who stand up to fight against accumulated power and against abuses in government, abuses that run contrary to the fundamental nature of human beings and the dignity of the human soul. The people who were willing to stand up for these rights are the ones we should remember. But sadly, in many cases, they are the same people we are forgetting these days, who we are not teaching about in our schools, and I hope to change that through my book.

Jeffrey: And you write about a number of them in Written Out of History. Senator, one last thing. You talk about the struggle of the founding era, these people who aren’t as well known today as they ought to be. When you look at a case the Supreme Court decided just this week on the question of whether a preschool simply because it was operated by a church could compete equally with other non-profit organizations for a state grant. Fortunately, the court decided that case correctly, in my view, seven to two. Two justice Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented and did not think that preschool should be allowed to compete equally. But is it not true that this same basic struggle over fundamental rights, like the right to free-exercise of religion are taking place in America at this very moment.

Lee: Yes, they are, and it is one of the reasons why it is so fortunate that the Supreme Court decided that case correctly. People shouldn’t be punished, or subjected to inferior treatment by their government, based simply on their religious affiliation, their religious belief, in the case you are describing because of the affiliation of a preschool with a church. The Supreme Court reached that case correctly, and that decision reflects not only the First Amendment but also the fundamental right underlying it, rights that exist with or without government recognition.

Jeffrey: And Mum Bett should be a hero for all Americans because she had the courage to stand up and fight for her God-given rights.

Lee: Indeed, she should. Yet, Mum Bett is forgotten. She is too easy for people to neglect, to write out of history, because she doesn’t fit the narrative—even though she herself is a founder, even though she herself had a massive impact on our culture, on our system of laws, she herself has been forgotten because she doesn’t fit within the narrative.

Jeffrey: And people should get your book and read her story because they should know it. Senator Lee, thank you very much.

Lee: Thank you very much.

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