Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thinking differently about history

I have said many times here that I am a Constitutionalist, and I do believe that within the US Constitution and Bill of Rights one of those rare events occurred wherein something fundamentally important about a free society was set down on paper and enshrined into law. I enjoy reading Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Paine.

But I also feel--both as a scholar and a teacher--the need to examine completely divergent viewpoints: not to debunk them, but hopefully to learn from them. One historian who always teachs me to re-frame the familiar is Francis Jennings--one of America's leading scholars on Native American studies.

About a decade ago, Dr. Jennings wrote The Creation of American: Through Revolution to Empire, and I have been reading it again as I somewhat unsuspectingly agreed to conduct several in-service trainings for History Teachers in the colonial/revolutionary period this fall [I thought I was agreeing to do the Civil War era; really do have to learn to read the fine print in those contacts].

Jennings' book is a powerful counterpoint to most historical narratives that are thrust upon our public schools, and I offer this excerpt from his summary--not because I agree with all of it, but because it is brilliantly crafted to retell the story from a different perspective, and because [if you actually have a cranial pulse] it will make you think:

As a federal republic, the United States was formed by partnership of thirteen colonies cloned from the British empire. All of them had been founded as enterprises to conquer the peoples previously occupying North American land, and all were intended to seize and repopulate the land. Part of the new population was brought in duress as slaves from Africa.

At a given point in growth, the most powerful colonials chafed against ultimate rule from Britain and decided to break free from the British empire in order to establish their own empire. The proclaimed much war propaganda about resisting slavery and demanding liberty, but the issue was power--whether ultimate power should rest in Britain or among the ruling classes in the colonies. Definitely this was not an uprising of the whole people except possibly in New England but doubtfully even there. John Adams estimated off the cuff that a third of "the people" wanted independence, a third opposed it, and a third were indifferent. Adams's remark requires more analysis than it has received.

In the first place, "the people" for Adams did not include all persons of the human species--only those recognized as legal entities. Indians and slaves were not people. Clearly they also were not among persons wanting independence. Indians took arms against the Revolution, and slaves fled from it when given the opportunity. Even among the fully legal persons, more than seventy thousand Loyalists fled to Halifax, Ontario, the West Indies, and Britain. How many stayed in place regardless of harassment cannot be estimated. In Pennsylvania, Loyalist sympathies were so strong that Adams organized suppression of them by armed force. Blow away all the rhetoric and what is left is a minority determined to establish its own power by force, not only against Britain, but also as against opponents in America.

The Continental Congress conducted the Revolutionary War with no liberty for opponents of any kind. Basic objectives included conquest of the Indians (not "conquest of the wilderness") and seizure of their lands on any pretext or none. Southerners--slave-owning Southerners--insisted on confirmation of their peculiar institution and got this at the same time that Britain was in the process of ending slavery.

The Revolutionaries wanted to reduce Indians and slaves permanently below human status. The means for this was to classify them together as nonwhite. This racist classification served all purposes of social caste as well as legal disfranchisement. It has survived in less intense but still genuine form through Civil War, Reconstruction, Indian reservations, massive immigration, industrial revolution, and urbanization....

A question arises: If membership in the British empire was so lethal to liberty, how did Canada manage to grow into the prosperous, independent country it so plainly is? Pursuing heresy further, if the American Revolution had never occurred, or had failed, would the horrors and bloodshed of the Civil War have been avoided? This is to court punishment for sacrilege, yet it seems legitimate and perhaps useful as speculation.

There are some rather strained interpretations within the foregoing, but it nonetheless begs the question that I always ask of my advanced students [and of teachers]: how do you construct an historical narrative for any period that includes everybody who was living in America and treats them all as Americans?

Just a random Wednesday night thought, dedicated primarily to townie 76, Anonone, and kavips--who all like to mull over questions like that.


townie 76 said...


I will mull this over today and provide some comments later. Great stuff.

Delaware Watch said...

I recently read The Loyalists: Revolution, Exile, Settlement by Christopher Moore. First time I read anything about their perspective. I was surprised to learn that many of the Loyalists actually opposed the policies of England that the patriots found so objectionable, but they didn't think that those objections rose to the level of a justification for a revolution.

I'm w/ you, Steve. I think it's important to read works, especially histories, that challenge the status quo interpretation, as long as the re-reading of history is itself a credible (although, perhaps, not a persuasive) interpretation.

G Rex said...

I recently read a Clive Cussler novel where the Brits gave us Canada in return for Lend-Lease supplies in WWII but the papers were lost in a locomotive buried under a lake. Just as credible as anything Dana has to say. (totally kidding, Dana!) Still, there were a large number of slave-owning Loyalist Southerners who headed north to Canada rather than submit to American democracy. I must read that Ishmael Reed book (Flight to Canada) soon.