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One Man's Heritage

Howard Fast

A heritage is a peculiar thing, for there are the disinherited as well as the inheritors; there are those who break wills; and there are those who dishonor the men who build and store and set aside. And often enough, when the will is probated, there are those who sow confusion in plenty.

The American heritage is no simple thing. There is a clause which John Brown wrote, to wit: "I leave you courage and high honor. I leave you the right to hate and oppose what is unjust and evil. I leave you the injunction to speak your thoughts--to die rather than see your brother in slavery."

So do I read it in the general will, written out of the public weal and good; but there are those who read it otherwise. There are those who probate on the basis of Robert Rogers, whose "Rangers" made a record for bloodlust and infamy during the Revolution of '76. It was Rogers who said, "I have no mercy for patriots, no courts, no trials, but only a noose." Is he part of our heritage? Did he write in the general will: "Dishonor, I leave to all Americans. To them I leave tortures unspeakable, cruelty and hatred for all that is good and decent?"

They are both in our heritage, but who was the American in the best sense of the word? Which is the American heritage, the heritage of Robert Rogers, or the heritage of John Brown? And who is the American? Is John Rankin of Mississippi an American? It is true that this good American earth nurtured John Rankin; but it is the same earth that nurtured Benedict Arnold. Do we take our heritage from Benedict Arnold, who said so glibly, at the fiercest moment of the Hamiltonian reaction "...so many of my countrymen have shaken off their delusion, as I predicted they would eighteen years ago"?

How naturally the phrase "my countrymen" falls from the lips of this arch-traitor! How casually the word un-American drops from the lips of John Rankin!

Was liberty a delusion? Was freedom a chimera? Is the American heritage the heritage of Benedict Arnold? Who is an American in the best, the finest sense of the word? Is it John Rankin, or Edward K. Barsky, whom he would imprison? Can both of these men, the first so evil, so apparent, so tireless in his attacks against all that is best in our lives, the second so unselfish, so devoted to that curious quality we call freedom--can both of these men reflect the American heritage?

The answer to the last is yes; for like all things, all processes, all life and all organizations of life, America grew out of many contradictions. Born in revolution, there were those forces within the army of revolution itself that turned upon the revolution and prevented its consummation until the time of Jefferson. Hailed as the first land of liberty, America contained within itself, even at the very beginning, that cancer of all freedom, human slavery. Setting forth the ideal of individual right and liberty, America proceeded to exterminate thousands of Indians, who also believed in the rights of the individual. One could go on and on, listing and expounding these contradictions out of which America arose; once could also point out how these contradictions existed in individuals, such as Washington and Jefferson, and Lincoln too, and so many others.

But the important factor is this: until this day, howsoever long and terrible the struggle, it was the heritage of freedom and democracy that emerged dominant and triumphant. A John Brown did not die in vain; a great war was fought and human slavery in the South was smashed. An Albert Parsons did not die in vain, for in their militant might, organized labor fought for and won the eight-hour day. Sacco and Vanzetti did not die in vain; the great organizational march of the CIO and the AFL gave them to immortality. And wherever men struggle for freedom, march on the picketline, battle to organize, the mighty shadow of Gene Debs is with them.

This heritage, the heritage of freedom and democracy, is the part of the American heritage which the people chose. The Bill of Rights is a part of that heritage today because in his struggle to destroy it, Grover Cleveland was frustrated by organized labor. We still live in a democracy because the people backed Jefferson against the merchant princes of his time. We live under the American Constitution because the people supported Jackson in his struggle to save that constitution. Again and again, the American people have been faced with a choice between the heritage of Benedict Arnold and the heritage of Thomas Jefferson; again and again they have chosen the heritage of freedom.

Rankin can and does claim the American heritage. He probates a very ancient will: Cotton Mather, who burned the witches, is his direct forebear, and Arnold and Burr and Hamilton and Wilkinson left him proofs of what they considered to be American. In his heritage, no doubt, is that fine American act of John Wilkes Booth. A whole class of overseers, slave-traders and plantation owners were part of the American heritage--for those who fall so low as to emulate them, Grover Cleveland, Mark Hanna, Rutherford B. Hayes, Powderly, Pinkerton--how many more are there to add to the gallery of infamy? There is a great listing of those the "un-Americans" can claim.

But there are millions who we can claim--and whom we do claim. For it is because of those millions that we are here today; they fought the good fight; they left us a heritage of victory, honor and democracy. They are our American heritage.

I hear that a Freedom Train starts off, and that within it are many noble documents. These are the same documents that we fight to implement today; they are the same documents that our ancestors died to preserve.

Let us understand that the men behind the Freedom Train, the Trumans and the Tafts and the Hartleys and the Rankins--let us understand that these men, in hideous desperation, are paying lip service to that which they fear most--the blueprints of liberty. They act with a cunning knowledge that a document in itself is nothing; that freedom is in the hands of men and women who implement such documents. Therefore they seize upon the documents, claim them and enunciate the reaction of today in terms of the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution.

I fear they are doomed to failure. These documents are the heritage of the American people, bought with blood and paid for in like coin. The deep-rooted heritage of the Rankins and the Tafts flowered elsewhere--in the cesspool that was Nazism and fascism.


A meeting to protest the conviction and sentencing to jail of Howard Fast because he and ten other members of the executive board of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee refused to knuckle under to the House Un-American Committee will be held Thursday evening, October 16, at Manhattan Center, New York. Prominent writers and artists will address the meeting, which is being sponsored by NEWM ASSES and Mainstream.-- THE EDITORS.