2. Key Themes: Race, Rights, and Power

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

2. Key Themes: Race, Rights, and Power

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty contains 366 documents accompanied by introductions and running commentary designed to illuminate the central issues in early American history. (Click on "Table of Contents" at left to see the complete list of documents.)Several key themes recur throughout the volume. One thread that cuts across the sources is the centrality of race in American history, politics, and culture. Few Americans realize that four times as many Africans as Europeans arrived in the New World before 1820. Few know that during the Revolution both the British and the Patriots viewed slaves as a potential insurrectionary force. Similarly, few are aware of the critical role that the slavery issue played in the emergence of the Federalist and Republican parties in the 1790s or in the events leading up to the War of 1812.

A second key theme involves the development of modern conceptions of rights. In The Boisterous Sea of Liberty, students can see the emergence of the notion of inalienable rights rooted in the laws of nature; of minority rights, which deserved protection against abuses of power and the majority's will; and the most radical right of all, the right to revolution.

A third overarching theme is power: its meanings, institutionalization, and uses. The book, however, does not look at power exclusively from an anti-elitist or populist perspective. American history has been marked by repeated efforts to establish protections, checks, and safeguards against excessive power. In this volume, we will trace the invention of the people as a source of sovereign power; the growing power of public opinion; and, above all, the power of moral ideals.

Other critical themes that are discussed throughout the volume include slavery--both as a social institution and, metaphorically, as the paradigm of social evil and the epitome of unlimited power and dehumanization; American exceptionalism or the degree to which America has escaped the dismal laws, cycles, and coercions of Old World history; and the Declaration of Independence as a sacred fount of democracy and a scriptural document that would inspire all kinds of reformers including early feminists, labor leaders, and abolitionists.

Finally, this book examines Americans' repeated attempts to come to terms with certain fundamental paradoxes and dilemmas, especially the enduring contradiction of slavery and liberty. Among other questions, this volume asks how an institution like slavery could be tolerated by people no less intelligent or moral than Americans today, and why it was that slavery achieved its greatest vitality in a country committed to freedom and equality of rights.