Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ron Paul, George Washington, and why not to distort history....

I have a rule of thumb that I teach my students about the concepts of a useable past. I ask them, "How do you know that a politician of either party is distorting 'the lessons of history' to support his or her current political agenda?"

The answer: "Look to see if their lips are moving."

Politicians and other ideologues are not interested in history for the sake of finding out what happened; they are interested in a useable past wherein they cherry pick individual facts and stories to build a case, ignoring all data and arguments to the contrary.

Sometimes this process becomes really troubling, especially when you mix in some of your own folk heroes.

Here, try this:

This sounds like a standard if mundane rendition of the early years of the Revolutionary War, doesn't it?

Military operations continued into 1782. With the occupation of the rebel capital of Philadelphia the colonial troops were forced to go into winter capital of Philadelphia the colonial troops were forced to go into winter quarters in the open, where they suffered greatly from the pitiless cold, lack of food and clothing, and a shortage of arms and ammunition as well as money. Blood-stained stretches of snow and ice marked the march of Washington's barefoot soldiers. They were brave men, but they were untrained farmers and artisans, and it was only with great difficulty that Washington was able to establish discipline in his army.

You might get suspicious when we add the following paragraphs:

Several thousand Negro slaves fought against the English side by side with the colonists. They proved to be courageous fighters. A Negro detachment fought to the last man in a losing battle in the state of New York. A Negro woman named Deborah Gannett, from Massachusetts, joined one of the regular regiments, put on a soldiers uniform and fought valiantly for 17 months. Wealthy landowners, on the other hand, as well as some of the slave-holders and the king's officials, sided with the British against the colonists.

Farmers and artisans were the backbone of the colonial forces, but leadership in their fight against the royal troops and the aristocrats was in the hands of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

To increase his army, King George III hired some 30,000 serf-soldiers from the German princes and sent them to America. He wanted to hire another 20,000 in Russia, but Catherine II refused to send any troops to America in view of the strained relations between Russia and England and the recent peasant movement led by Pugachov.

Getting any ideas of my source material? If not, check here, really quickly, and then come back.

Now try this one:

In June of 1775, George Washington was appointed Major General and elected by Congress to be commander in chief of the American revolutionary forces. Although he took up his tasks energetically, Washington accomplished nothing militarily for the remainder of the year and more, nor did he try. His only campaign in 1775 was internal rather than external; it was directed against the American army as he found it, and was designed to extirpate the spirit of liberty pervading this unusually individualistic and democratic army of militiamen. In short, Washington set out to transform a people's army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model.

His primary aim was to crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces. For one thing, the officers of the militia were elected by their own men, and the discipline of repeated elections kept the officers from forming an aristocratic ruling caste typical of European armies of the period. The officers often drew little more pay than their men, and there were no hierarchical distinctions of rank imposed between officers and men. As a consequence, officers could not enforce their wills coercively on the soldiery. This New England equality horrified Washington's conservative and highly aristocratic soul.

Boy, that George Washington was one awful dude, huh?

Unfortunately (at least from my perspective) this was written by Libertarian Murray Rothbard (thanks to my friends at A Secondhand Conjecture for the heads up), and published by one of Ron Paul's favorite organizations, the Mises Institute.

This interpretation of George Washington is filled with ideological skewing of evidence, counterfactual arguments, and selective presentation. Did Washington have aristocratic leanings and belong to the nascent colonial elite? Of course he did.

Did George Washington set out to create a statist, anti-democratic military system, and then a national government consciously designed to oppress liberty in America? The idea is utter horseshit.

Washington was no teeming intellectual, but a practical man attempting to forge first a successful military force, and then a practical governing coalition for a new nation.

Twice--once at the end of the Revolution and again at the end of his second Presidential term--Washington's personal refusal to accept dictatorial powers saved the American experiment in Republican government at its very beginning.

On the other hand, Washington struggled with an authoritarian streak throughout his life, and his heavy-handed response to the Whiskey Rebellion is a cautionary lesson in the abuse of presidential power.

If Libertarians want to be taken seriously (and the same could be said of Progressives), then we have to be scrupulous in our treatment of history.

Otherwise, we're headed in the same direction as the Soviet Union.

1 comment:

Lance said...

Thanks for the link, and really makes my point better than I did.