Support C4SS with Voltairine de Cleyre’s “Anarchism and American Traditions”

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One of de Cleyre’s key later essays, “Anarchism and American Traditions” (1909) offers a critical reflection on freedom, equality, government, and the American Revolution.

To the average American of today, the Revolution means the battles fought by the patriot army with the armies of England. The school children who attend our public schools are taught to draw maps, to know the general plan of several campaigns; required to remember the date when Wash­ing­ton crossed the Delaware on the ice; told to call General Wayne ‘Mad Anthony Wayne,’ and to execrate Benedict Arnold; and then they think they have learned the Revolution – blessed be George Washington! They have no idea why it should have been called a ‘revolution’ instead of the ‘English War:’ the name ‘American Revolution’ is held sacred, though it means to them nothing more than successful force, while the name ‘Revol­ution’ applied to a further possibility, is a spectre detested and abhorred. . . .

To the men of that time, the battles that they fought were the least of the Revolution; the stake they had in view, the real Revolution, was a change in political institutions which should make of government not a thing apart, a superior power to stand over the people with a whip; equal liberty is the political ideal. And yet even in the very days of the prophets, even with their own consent, the first concession to this later tyranny was made. . . .

What has Anarchism to say to the bankruptcy of Republicanism, this modern empire that has grown up on the ruins of our early freedom? That the sin our fathers sinned was that they did not trust liberty wholly. They thought it possible to compromise between liberty and govern­ment, and the moment the compromise was made, the whole misbegotten monster of our present tyranny began to grow. Anarchism says, Make no laws whatever concerning speech, and speech will be free. Let the guarantee of free speech be in every man’s determination to use it, and we shall have no need of paper declarations. On the other hand, so long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so. As to the American tradition of non-meddling, Anarchism asks that it be carried down to the individual himself. It demands no jealous barrier of isolation; but it teaches that by all men’s strictly minding their own business, a fluid society, freely adapting to mutual needs, wherein all the world shall belong to all men, as much as each has need or desire, will result. . . .

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