João José Reis
Although slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, slave revolts were frequent and remarkable for their ambitions, success, and diversity of participating elements. Two urban revolts of the nineteenth century were especially significant. First, the Tailor’s Rebellion of 1798, in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, drew on the assistance of freedmen, people of mixed race, and even craftspeople of Spanish descent. The second was a Muslim-inspired and Muslim-directed uprising of slaves in Bahia in 1835, organized by African-born freedmen and slaves who had attained an Islamic education in West Africa before enslavement. This Muslim revolt is particularly fascinating because of the role of written documents, here deployed as protective amulets, among the members of the slave resistance. This excerpt from a book by a Brazilian scholar attempts to demonstrate the role of the written word in this rebellion, illustrating another, and less frequently recognized, “power” within historical documents.
João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 99–103.
Like the American Declaration, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a stirring statement of Enlightenment principles concerning both the individual’s role in the state and the ultimate source of all government. When the Third Estate reconstituted itself as the National Assembly in June 1789, among the first measures it considered was a universal declaration of the rights and duties of individual French citizens. A proposal was made by the Marquis de Lafayette to this effect in July, but swift-moving events in Paris, such as the fall of the Bastille on July 14, moved the Revolution in new directions. Undaunted, a subcommittee continued to debate the document, editing a draft proposal of 24 articles down to 17. Like the Declaration of Independence in the American colonies (1776), this document was a compromise statement, drawn up and edited by committee.
Lynn Hunt, ed. and trans., The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1996), 77–79.
Bernardino de Sahagún
The document included here contains descriptions of the monumental and agonizing events of the Spanish conquest of Mexico from the Aztec perspective. It was compiled at the behest and under the supervision of a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún (149—1590). Sahagún had arrived in New Spain, as the territory had been designated by Cortés, in 1529 at the age of thirty. He soon acquired a sophisticated mastery of Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and over the years he collected an invaluable mass of material relating to preconquest life of the native peoples. Beginning in 1547, the material was acquired by native Americans who were taught to write and who recorded the memories of elderly nobles who had witnessed the events. Later, Sahagún put the material together and edited it, finishing his General History of New Spain in 1577. Although the text was compiled under Spanish auspices and given final form by a Spanish Franciscan priest, it nonetheless imparts a sense of how the events of the conquest were perceived by the Aztecs themselves.
Excerpted from The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, edited and with an introduction by Miguel Leon-Portilla (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 22–31, 33–35, 40–41, 51–52, 63–68.
Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) struggled to build a political career in Georgian England. Having established a reputation for brilliant thinking and speaking, he entered Parliament in 1766. One of his principal causes in the 1760s and 1770s was the defense of the American colonists in their conflict with the mother country. Burke opposed the English government’s position that England was sovereign over the colonies and could tax the colonists as she saw fit. By contrast, Burke insisted that a “right” was not an abstract principle and that policy should be guided by actual circumstances. When the French Revolution began in 1789, Burke surprised some of his political allies by speaking against it, mainly because he believed that “reason” and “rights” were not absolute principles that justified violent change. His statement against the extremes of revolution, published in November 1790, became the basis for a form of political ideology known as conservatism.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Thomas H. D. Mahoney (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts, 1955), 66, 68–69, 70–71, 73–74.
As a young man in England, Thomas Paine worked a series of low-paying, menial jobs, from most of which he was quickly fired, being perceived as an uncooperative “troublemaker.” In 1774, at the age of 37, seeming to be a total failure in every profession he had attempted, he hired passage on a ship to the American colonies. Fortunately, Paine had a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met after a scientific lecture in London. On the strength of this letter, Paine found employment as a printer and writer in Philadelphia, and soon became the editor of a journal called the Pennsylvania Magazine. Incensed by the abuses to which the colonists were subject, he encouraged his fellow Americans to make a formal break with Britain. He also wrote and published a series of editorials protesting the American institution of slavery, castigating those who were agitating for their own “liberty” while denying it so cruelly to others.
Paine published his thoughts on independence in pamphlet form in January 1776 under the title Common Sense. So popular was the document that General Washington ordered that it be read aloud to his troops as they froze along the Delaware River on Christmas Eve 1776. Declaring, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine continued to offer encouragement to the soldiers in pamphlets later published as The American Crisis, and his efforts on behalf of the American cause were recognized by many of the founding fathers of the country during the Revolution.
When he heard about the storming of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789, Paine rushed to France to be a part of this new revolution. Soon afterward, he had the honor of delivering the key to the Bastille’ from the Marquis de Lafayette to Washington, at which time, he declared, his heart “leaped with joy.” When Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution were published in 1790, Paine felt he had been betrayed by his former friend, with whom he had had many conversations and a meeting of minds in the American cause. As a result, he published The Rights of Man, a strong rebuke of Burke’s philosophy and commentary, in February 1791. The work was dedicated to the first president of the United States, George Washington.
The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel, 1945), 316–317, 340–341.
Voltaire (the pen name of François-Marie Arouet) epitomized the Enlightenment. His Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary), the first edition of which appeared in 1764, distilled his thought on philosophical matters in what he self-deprecatingly called an “alphabetical abomination.” Voltaire invariably found ways to deploy humor in the pursuit of serious moral, religious, and ethical truths, as the continued popularity of his “contes philosophiques” (philosophical tales), including Candide, Zadig, and Micromégas, attests.
In this “dictionary,” arranged alphabetically according to the entry’s title (in French), Voltaire tackled matters like atheism, fanatacism, the soul, superstition, and tolerance. His tone is always light and witty, despite the weightiness of (and the violence associated with) the subject matter. Inspired by ongoing court cases and interrogation methods, Voltaire added the following essay on the use (and, in some countries, disuse) of torture as a legal instrument to the 1769 version of the Dictionary. His satirical approach resonates today, as issues of what constitutes torture and how it ought to be applied continue to dominate our political discourse.
Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, ed. and trans. Theodore Besterman (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1972), 394–396.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
The journalist and eventual Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811–1888) is most famous today for his novel Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), a sharp and daring satire of the caudillo Juán Manuel de Rosas. His indictment of Rosas, thinly disguised as the biography of another brutal dictator (called Juán Facundo Quiroga), was written while Sarmiento was an exile from the regime. Representing the government of Chile, Sarmiento traveled throughout Europe, North Africa, and North America, observing local political and social conditions closely and comparing them with what he knew of Argentine society. The result is a fascinating travelogue of his impressions of and reactions to the people of the United States, with vivid descriptions of many of its manmade and natural wonders. Nevertheless, his hopes for his native Argentina were never very far from the foreground, as this excerpt reveals.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’, Travels in the United States in 1847, trans. Michael Aaron Rockland (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1970), 164–166.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo
The best Spanish source on the Aztec–Spanish encounter was written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an old campaigner from Cortés’s army. Born and raised in a poor family in Spain, Díaz began his military career as a common soldier. In 1514, he went to America to serve with the Spanish forces opening up the “New World,” and he made two previous expeditions to the Yucatan prior to the one led by Hernando Cortés in 1519. According to his own accounts, he took part in over one hundred battles and was present at the surrender of Tenochtitlan in 1521. After having read a published account of the conquest that he considered a distortion, Díaz set about writing his own account during the 1560s, when he was already an old man. He finished it when he was seventy-six years old. Though he had sent a copy to Spain, the work was not published until the next century, well after his long and eventful life had ended in 1581. The drama of the events and the intimacy and novelty of his observations make this a remarkable historical source.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, vol. 1, Hakluyt Society, Second Series, XXIII (London, 1908), 132–35; vol. 2, Hakluyt Society, Second Series, XXIV (London, 1910), 4–18, 37–38, 39–40, 44, 55–58, 59–60, 69–79, 84–88.