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Many otherwise well-educated Americans know remarkably little about the actual circumstances of their country’s birth. Assumptions about that early period, frequently offered as counterexamples to the current dangerous and dreary American government, too often contain little more than boyish daydreams of nobler times.
America’s central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.
Since they were men concerned with rights and abuses and the tyranny of absolute monarchy, they gave Americans a set of basic rights that is the envy of the world.
Some Americans, blissfully unaware of European history and the long-term development of democratic and enlightened government in all advanced societies–a process that has proceeded as inexorably as the growth of modern science since the Renaissance, albeit in fits and starts over some periods–add that the events of those early days were almost a set of miracles, providing the world with a new concept of government, “made from whole cloth,” as one enthusiastic Fourth of July editorialist put it.
These notions manage to get thoroughly muddled with Puritan religious ones that have been around since America’s colonial days, producing a story with strong overtones of a biblical legend.
Belief in the sudden, unprecedented appearance of a new form of government reminds one of the sun being halted in the sky or the virgin birth. Attitudes about the Founding Fathers uncomfortably mimic those for the Twelve Apostles. There’s even a Judas character in Benedict Arnold. The documents associated with these events, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, are regarded with much the same awe as books of the Bible, even though, as is the case certainly for the Declaration of Independence, there is a good deal of silly, outdated nonsense.
This set of myths and attitudes has been called America’s Civic Religion, and it is an apt name.
It follows that the thoughts and actions of someone like Mr. Bush–a narrow politician, a man of few ideas and less learning–can only suffer by comparison. One sometimes sees letters in The New York Times from people with lengthy titles, people you might think should know better, making what are silly comparisons of real people to myths. Clearly, even the most robust flesh-and-blood politician would suffer by such comparisons.
But contemporary America is not a case of a saint who’s fallen into sin. The historical fact is that America was born out of some pretty unpleasant circumstances, and better understanding of this fact would provide Americans with perspective in the way they understand the world, especially concerning the arrogant habit of expecting everyone to see how clearly America “has got it right.” and to instantly copy the pattern. America, in fact, did not “have it right” at the beginning, and it has taken more than two centuries to make a great many corrections, with many still to be made.
Along the way, since its founding, some moments of genuine human progress have occurred and the concepts of democracy and human decency for all have begun to take hold, but no more so than is the case for all other advanced countries of the world whose history did not start in revolution and the myths of Sacred Writ.
The myths about America’s origins serve several purposes, apart from the obvious one of tidying up a not-so-pretty historical record. As I wrote in “Flirting with Fascism,” America has a long history of doing just that, flirting with fascism. The birth-myths help solidify the hold on the American imagination of democratic and human-rights principles and, to that extent at least, serve a worthy purpose.
America was founded by a small coterie of privileged men who were mainly interested in maintaining their privileges and indeed in expanding them at the expense of a foreign-born aristocracy.
The first truly important cause for American independence was Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (more generally called the Seven Year’s War). The French in the 1750s were setting about constructing a series of forts both along the Canadian border and in places like the Ohio river valley. Their intention was to prevent the westward expansion of the British colonies and to lock up much of the valuable fur trade.
British colonists did not look favorably on this development. Their intense desire was to become rich through land speculation and endless westward expansion, the kind of activity, apart from marrying a rich widow, that made George Washington one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, one with rather a reputation for sharp business practices. It has been said that the shooting of a French officer (the French flatly called it murder) by an ambitious young George Washington, serving in the Virginia militia, marked the opening of the Seven Years War, sometimes called the first world war.
Britain did win the war, but at considerable cost. The colonies’ first reaction to British victory was joy and celebration. It was later that a series of what can only be regarded as reasonable tax measures to have the colonists help pay the costs of the war aroused such great antipathy in the colonies. The view was simply this: The war was over, the benefits to the colonists could not be re-claimed by Britain, so the colonists felt no obligation to help pay beyond what they had contributed during the war. Hatred of taxes–unavoidably associated with crippling good, sound government–has remained to this day a feature of the American cultural landscape.
Besides, the colonists were used to a rather privileged position that none of them wanted disturbed. They lived a healthy and relatively happy life, as all the statistics and observations of the time attest. Foreign observers frequently commented on how healthy Americans under the Crown were. As well, it was widely observed, and commented on in Europe, that these colonies–well before the Revolution–were amongst the freest places in the world to live.
Ben Franklin at one point made the forecast that America’s population and wealth, given the conditions under which they prospered, would one day far outdistance those of the Mother Country. He was not alone in understanding this.
So, after the French and Indian War, things at first looked favorable for the desires of settlers to build limitless land empires, but then several developments considerably darkened the view.
A key one was the Quebec Act which vastly extended the territory of Quebec to include what today is Illinois as part of a vast Quebec Territory. Most Americans will not know what a huge storm this caused in the colonies because it is not an attractive subject for elementary texts.
First, it appeared to make the possibility of endless western expansion impossible. England, quite fairly and reasonably, wanted to discourage expansion over the Appalachians into Indian territory like the Ohio valley as a way of maintaining peace. The Mother Country had a conscientious policy of avoiding further conflicts with native Americans. This policy American colonists had tended to ignore, but the creation of a new Western jurisdiction under a Catholic province like Quebec, was an entirely different matter.
There was a paranoid fear of “papism” in the colonies, peopled as they were by many Puritan extremists who had run away from the dislike they often aroused in the old country. Anti-Catholic feeling ran very high in the American colonies. Indeed, it was an old custom, and remained the custom for decades after the Revolution, to burn effigies of the pope each year on Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day. America’s nasty-tempered Puritan settlers wanted nothing to do with “papists.” Yes, the very same nasty, hateful words we heard during the Northern Ireland conflict over the last thirty years were constantly on the tongues and in the newspapers of American colonists.
Britain’s final reaction to the colonists’ refusal to pay taxes, after a long period of adjustments in the taxes and talks with colonial representatives, and to their contempt for Imperial regulations over boundaries and trade–many of the colonies’ richest men such as John Hancock were simply smugglers–triggered an authentic “grass-roots” revolt in Massachusetts.
When the unthinkable actually happened in Massachusetts–violent revolt being originally unthinkable for most well-known and established colonial figures like Franklin or Washington or John Adams–there was no going back. The central issue became one of how things were to be managed by the colonies’ ambitious little Establishment.
Washington’s appointment as commander-in-chief represented an important turning point. What had been an almost spontaneous revolt organized by militia groups who elected their leaders became an organized opposition with an organized army under an appointed commander who suddenly started lashing and hanging volunteers who didn’t obey orders or show proper respect. Washington, the cold Virginia aristocrat, expressed contempt in his letters for the New England militiamen who had taken all the chances and started the whole business. He wanted to command a real army with smart uniforms and traditional discipline just like the British army he so admired. He had been frustrated for years about getting a permanent commission in the British army, something that was then rarely awarded to colonials.
Washington actually proved one of the worst generals of all time, losing battle after battle, although he offered a strong and stubborn figure as symbol and rallying point. Had the battle-hardened British commanders been ruthlessly determined instead of complacent and actually more than a little indulgent towards their American cousins, there is little doubt the Revolution would have died quickly (of course, the same local grievances and ambitions would years later have flared up again in some other form). In the end, it was French assistance, as I’ve detailed in “France’s Great Folly,” that made the Revolution a success, although this was rarely acknowledged later by Washington, an attitude still widely displayed today.
The real lessons of the American Revolution include the fact that early Americans were not motivated by quite the high ideals that contemporary Americans generally attribute to them. Anti-Catholicism and greed for Western expansion were basic causes. So, too, antipathy to taxes. Still, given enough time, America outgrew some of these early narrow prejudices.
One narrowness that has not disappeared with time is found in the Declaration of Independence. Few Americans ever actually read it, but after a few stirring, handsome words, this document is a long, whining list of grievances, almost amusing to read now. Jefferson’s first draft, which included even blaming the slave trade on Britain–Jefferson was very poor at economics, not recognizing the need for demand as well as supply in any market–was heavily excised by the Continental Congress, making the petulant Jefferson so irritated he disowned the document until in his later years it had become an American icon. Then he wanted credit for it engraved on his tombstone. Whining, unthinking demands and petulant attitudes remain readily-identified with America even as a world power.
The great lesson of Yorktown in 1781, the final, decisive battle, was that even a great power like Imperial Britain really could not suppress the naturally-grown ambitions and desires of a people thousands of miles away, not without investing at a cost out of all proportion to the benefits, and not without becoming intensely disliked. This is a lesson that America, now grown strong and very arrogant in its strength, has utterly failed to learn.