Henry Vane and Gene Sharp Welcome You to Boston–Revisted

I originally wrote the basis of this article last February during the uprising in Egypt when I was in Boston visiting my son who is attending Berklee College of Music. With the further events coming out of the Middle East, and particularly Libya, I decided to revisit the subject now that we have some further perspective.

On a cold February afternoon, my son and I decided to go to the Boston Public Library to do some study and research. The Boston Public Library opened its doors in 1848 and was the first large library opened to the public in the United States, and the first to allow people to borrow books and other materials and take them home to read and use. With over 30 million different books and A/V materials, that is a great deal of trust put into the public. As I think about that trust, it reminds me what democracy truly is: inherent rights along with responsibility.

When you pass through the giant doors of the library off of Copley Square you first walk into a smaller corridor. To the left is a fairly large bronze statue of a Puritan looking man. I have visited this library a few times before but never had I stopped to read the name on the inscription of the bronze statue. This time as I walked in, I was stopped by a young middle-eastern man with a small digital camera who wanted his picture taken standing next to the impressive bronze statue. After a brief moment, the picture was taken and he was on his way. Curious, I walked over to the statue and read that it was Sir Henry Vane (Harry Vane) (born 1613– beheaded in 1662), an English statesman, who was also briefly present in North America, serving as a one term Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I then went upstairs to the great hall where all of the oak desks and green lamps are found and began to research Henry Vane. I learned, among other things, that he helped create Roger Williams’ Rhode Island Colony and Harvard College. But, more importantly, he was a tremendous proponent of religious tolerance, and the inherent rights of man. After a prolific career as a statesman who spoke without hesitation regarding freedom, he was ultimately beheaded by Charles II for treason. The King didn’t like his politics as it undermined his power.

Here are some of the words of Henry Vane:

“The power which is directive, and states and ascertains the morality of the rule of obedience, is in the hand of God; but the original, from whence all just power arises, which is magistratical and co-ercitive, is from the will or free gift of the people, who may either keep the power in themselves or give up their subjection and will in the hand of another.” King and people were bound by “the fundamental constitution or compact”, which if the king violated, the people might return to their original right and freedom.

Sean Gabb, a British libertarian, notes that Vane was in the vanguard on issues of religious freedom. Although he was “among a small and easily defeated minority”, his successors 150 years later “were responsible for the clearest and most solid safeguards of civil and religious freedom ever adopted into a constitution.”

James Kendall Hosmer, editing Winthrop’s Journal in 1908, wrote of Vane that “…his heroic life and death, his services to Anglo-Saxon freedom, which make him a significant figure even to the present moment, may well be regarded as the most illustrious character who touches early New England history. While his personal contact with America was only for a brief space, his life became a strenuous upholding of American ideas: if government of, by, and for the people is the principle which English-speaking men feel especially bound to maintain, the life and death of Vane contributed powerfully to cause this idea to prevail.”

The last several years have brought much change to the world. Many of those changes have been dramatic, quick and volatile. Technology has provided tools that can connect me instantaneously to someone thousands of miles away. Information is powerful. A power that even a King or a dictator cannot always fully control, try as they may. This mass of information in the hands of the many creates not only a leveling effect but also establishes new connections, connections that take some time to be discerned, tested and trusted.

I received an email from Dorit Cypis while I was studying Henry Vane at the Boston Public Library. A great woman who at the time she sent the email was chairperson of the Middle East Initiative for Mediators Beyond Borders to which I belong. At the very moment I was immersing myself in Henry Vane at the library, she had sent me an email concerning Gene Sharp and a 90 page booklet he wrote entitled “From Dictatorship to Democracy–A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”. I had recently heard of a Gene Sharp from reading an article written in the New York Times. It described him as being a shy, thoughtful, elderly man who was one of the primary information providers to the recent populist uprisings, not only in Egypt, but in other countries as well. He has been writing his thoughts for several decades. Amazingly, he is not a big user of the internet nor social media, but when thoughts are as powerful as his, they have a way of finding and flowing into the river of change. His contribution, like that of Vane, has too been a strenuous upholding of democratic ideas: that government of, by, and for the people is the principle which men feel especially bound to maintain. His life has contributed powerfully to cause this idea to prevail all over the world. He lives and writes in Boston.

With recent events now known as “Arab Spring” transpiring in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, it is clear that we are not in a situation where we simply move onto the next world event as if a box has been checked. Revolutions are not clean. They are messy events. But within that mess are the seeds of all that will be good and life sustaining. You have to nurture those seeds and you have to nurture it immediately from birth. And from that nurturing you hope to come out on the other side with good government, a civil society and a model for economic growth.

Gene Sharp, in his pamphlet that Dorit emailed me, is quick to warn that, “Nor should this analysis be interpreted to mean that when a specific dictatorship is ended, all other problems will also disappear. The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia. Rather, it opens the way for hard work and long efforts to build more just social, economic, and political relationships and the eradication of other forms of injustices and oppression. It is my hope that this brief examination of how a dictatorship can be disintegrated may be found useful wherever people live under domination and desire to be free.”

As expressed by Middle East analyst, Edward Djerejian today on CNN, if these new societies that emerge from these revolutions are not quickly engaged and nurtured into civil society, these revolutions can even more “easily be hijacked by new brands of autocrats, either secular or religious” that have the potential to be worse than the dictators that preceded. Hopefully, the Libyan people, and all those in the Middle East and Northern Africa that are going through this massive awakening, will be able to craft their political and economic future in a positive and long term fashion.

After I  wrote the original article in February, 2011, I received a comment from Dorit Cypis who originally sent me the email regarding Gene Sharp. Her email comment stated:

“Your comments remind me of growing up in Tel Aviv, Israel, early 1950’s, and welcoming my father home once a year from his travels in Central and South America. It seemed to me, at my very young age, that he was always chased home either by a natural disaster such as an erupting volcano, or an earthquake…or a revolution. These “chaos” became conflated for me. The second time he returned with tales of revolution (in the same country), I exclaimed,”but they just had a revolution!” I came to recognize that, just as you share, revolution is just the beginning of change not the end. Consciousness is like a very slowly crawling insect…takes a long time to cross the road.”

So now comes the hard work and long efforts. Revolution is not an event but a process, a process that if done correctly continues on and on in the hearts and minds of those who see a better way. May Henry Vane and Gene Sharp welcome you to Boston and to the idea that all people are inherently free and that government exists of, by, and for the people.


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