“White people view real history like they do their browser history; it’s reset with a click of a button”. The Dollop Podcast
If one were unfamiliar with American history, it would be easy to think that no one ever dared protest anything prior to 2017; that we have always respected our government and all that it stands for. However, those of us educated by the American school system should know better. Even if a student strongly disliked learning, the constant lessons on our Country’s foundation could not be ignored; it takes up most of our early curriculum.
Yet, here we are. We have a president who rages whenever he sees a football player taking a knee, and American citizens ironically, protesting the protesters. Silent protests are often met with vicious opposition from people who seemed to have forgotten that American was founded by those that those willing to violently protest their government.
A brief refresher on America’s early history:
The colonists protested against the British government between 1763-1775 in many ways. Some protesters violated law. The Proclamation of 1763 prevented colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. People moved anyway. After the violent “Boston Tea Party,” (not a party at all, but a destruction of property in response to a tax act) the British government enacted a set of Coercive Acts as punishment for what they saw as a wanton display of protest. Boston Harbor was to be closed to trade until the owners of the tea chests were compensated. The 12 other colonies banded together and shipped much-needed goods and supplies to Massachusetts.
Other protests included boycotting of British goods. Many colonists believed the British were violating their rights. They believed certain tax laws were illegal because they did not have representatives in Parliament who could vote for the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts. The cry, “No taxation without representation!” could be heard across the land. Colonists began making their own clothes and refused to by British goods (it is unclear if they burned English clothing or removed branding as some are doing now). By 1774 the colonists believing enough was enough, decided to take their protests further by forming the first Continental Congress, which as many of you know, was the beginning of the break from English rule. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but lately, not so much….
There is no denying that protesting is an American value; though for some it all depends on what is being protested and who is doing the protesting. Yet, if it wasn’t for protesters we would still be waving the Union Jack at our sporting events; segregation and Jim Crow laws might still be in place; women and minorities may not yet have the right vote, and the draft may still be a nightmare for our young men. Positive changes come when people are willing to protest the status quo.
American students are taught the names of effective protesters; Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis are four that come easily to mind as people I studied in school. They all, who in one way or another, protested what they saw as an unjust system and acted against it.
American history is steeped in famous protesters; some are even venerated for their contribution to society’s improvement. Think Martin Luther King Jr. There is one name however that was almost lost to time. A name that I will bet, many have never heard. We are the poorer for it. Benjamin Lay saw slavery for what it was, an abomination to humanity, and did what he could to end it even as his ideas and methods made him an outcast.
I stumbled upon Lay’s name earlier this summer while looking for something new to read. We all know I have not posted much, but I have been reading. In fact, the next few posts will be reviews of books that either captured my attention or drew my ire.
The Fearless Benjamin Lay the Quaker Dwarf who became the first revolutionary Abolitionist, by Marcus Rediker is a must read for those who understand we still have a lot to learn from history. From the book:
“On September 19, 1738, a man named Benjamin Lay strode into a Quaker meetinghouse in Burlington, New Jersey, for the biggest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He wore a great coat, which hid a military uniform and a sword. Beneath his coat Lay carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder ﬁlled with bright red pokeberry juice. Because Quakers had no formal minister or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Lay, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.
He ﬁnally rose to address this gathering of “weighty Quakers.” Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.
A murmur ﬁlled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.
The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, “like a statue,” a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point”.
Lay was born on January 26, 1682 in Copford, England to a family of Quakers. His grandparents joined the movement in 1655. Little is known about Lay’s early life but it has been suggested that he received little formal education though later in life, friends like Benjamin Franklin remarked on his intellect. Lay’s radicalism seems to have stemmed from early childhood influences. Copford had its share of radical Quakers and Lay certainly would have heard and seen protest in action. His absolute hatred of slavery came from his time living in Barbados, one of the worst places for slaves as starvation and torture was routinely used as motivation.
After moving to America Lay made it his life’s mission to end slavery. This is where the book really takes shape. We watch as Lay spends almost 30 years protesting slavery. His tactics were radical and cost him dearly but he never wavered in his conviction. He saw finally saw change in his later years thanks in part to his decision to appeal to young Quakers who were also questioning slavery.
Rediker has done his homework, and is a skilled writer. Readers are given a front row seat into the life and times of Benjamin Lay. Rediker paints Lay as a complicated man, who at once seems brilliant and ahead of his time, while also being at times beyond eccentric and self-righteous. There is a lot to admire about Lay, and by the end of the book, I was sad that this man lived so long ago. I would have jumped at the chance to meet the man who against all odds questioned many of society’s norms.
Reading about Lay is a reminder that protesting the status quo takes courage and conviction.